Women In Jazz

The development of Jazz has heavily been adopted by the African American community. Allowing to express one’s feelings and emotions vocally or thorough various brass instruments. The genre of Jazz is mainly recognized by its male-dominated figures such as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. However, women have heavily contributed to the creation and different styles on the styles of Jazz. Women such as Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams and Ella Fitzgerald have all paved a way in the different Jazz era’s using their talents to heal, sooth and protect the black community

Nina Simone

“The High Priestess of Soul,” known for her hypnotizing voice and ability to make the listner become enthralled by her music. Nina Simone was a singer, pianist, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Mainly known as a jazz singer, her music blended gospel, blues, folk, pop, and classical styles. No other popular singer in that era was more closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement than Ms. Nina Simone. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon her mother started her playing piano at a church while also receiving classical lessons. As she got older, looking for employment for schooling she found herself playing at a bar in Atlantic City. To keep her identity she created the name “Nina Simone” and that’s when her musical career officially began. Simone intermingled her classical background and her ability to naturally enhance a song create her style. Having to sing and play due to her job she learned how to accompany herself on the piano this created her creative which assisted assisted innovative style. Her natural ability to play by ear enhanced her improvisations skills, this allowed her to become more creative when she worked. As her career grew Simone’s music was categorized as Jazz, however she music was versatile and did not being categorized in only Jazz saying that it limited black people into only one genre of music. Although her sound was jazz she also incorporated other genres. She could interlude many different styles and had a wide vocal range. Her untrained timbre and unusually low range are an abnormal among other Jazz female singers, and she exhibites the vocal acrobatics, riffs, and runs expected of the African-American voice. However, that’s what also attracted her fans because her voice was raw, deep, a whiskey. Struggling with self identity her voices showed the pain she and the black community were facing at that time. Throughout her career Simone experienced many racial encounterments that caused her to experience which lead her to start using her music as a voice towards change. She created “Mississippi Goddam” after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, AL. She continued to release “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” in 1969 aimed to make African American children feel good about themselves and “Four Women” made in 1966 showed the suffering and resilience of African American women.  Simone continued to express herself through music and continued to become an important role in the Jazz genre.

Jazz musician Mary Lou Williams, music in front of her, listening to playback of recording she has just made. (Photo by W. Eugene Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Mary Lou Williams

“The Lady Who Swings the Band”, Mary Lou Williams was one of the greatest jazz pianists, composers, and arrangers in the swing and bebop era. Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, she started studying and playing music at young age. Jelly Roll Morton and Earl Hines were the inspiration to her distinctive sound. Williams started playing in Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy a temporary position for a pianist. As the band advanced she soon was ale to play ragtime bass, boogie-woogie, or swing with one hand, while incorporating melodies, harmonies, and counter rhythms that she played with her other hand. She became the group’s star soloist. With Williams unmatched talent she started to arrange the pieces of the band. Williams’s arrangements helped the band achieve national renown in the 1930s, with hit songs like “Mary’s Idea,” and “Froggy Bottom.” Williams was known for creative harmonies achieved by contrasting orchestra sections and combining instruments in unique groupings. Top bandleaders of the day, such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, asked Williams to prepare new revised versions of popular songs for them, as well as her adding her own original songs. As both an arranger and pianist, Williams helped form the distinctive Kansas City swing sound of the 1930s. Williams later stopped performing and began to devote her time to her religious beliefs and start giving back to the community. She wanted to teach and spread her love for Jazz to younger generations. Mary Lou Williams has broken many barrier through her intricate music arrangements. She amoung other women of Jazz will continue to inspire and remain highly respected in the Jazz.

Ella Fitzgerald

“The First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald was a well renowned Jazz artist. Known for her improvised scatting depicting from the style of BeBop Jazz. Born Ella Jane Fitzgerald, coming from humble beginnings, she always enjoyed singing so she decided to enter an amateur show competition at the Apollo Theater. The outcome of her performance led her to get hired as a singer for the Chick Webb and His Orchestra. Eventually leading her to record her first song “Love and Kisses” which ultimately started her musical career. Fitzgerald was know for her clear tone and wide vocal range were complemented by her mastered skills of rhythm, harmony, intonation, and diction. She was an excellent ballad singer, conveying a winsome, ingenuous quality. Fitzgerald silky tone submerged the lister in with each note. She also could play big band songs and bebop. Her vocal range allowed her to glide across three octaves. Some saying that her voice was meek and soft but it could advance to match the swing era. Fitzgerald timing and perfect pitch was able to mimic every instrument, band members would tune to her voice. As her career grew She collaborated with all the jazz greats, including Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole.  Eventually produced her most famous pieces “A Tisket A Tasket” a revised nursery rhyme. She performed at prestigious venues around the world, filling them to capacity making sure that her audience consisted of all types of people. Dealing with many racial actions against Fitzgerald she was adamant about who she performed for. Her audiences represented all races, all religions, and all nationalities, and they were both wealthy and poor. Ella Fitzgerald sold more than 40 million albums over her lifetime and received 13 Grammy Awards. Her voice was adaptable, versatile, precise, and timeless and she continues to be the “Queen of Jazz”.

Similarities and Differences

  • All Women Have heavily impacted a genre of Jazz
  • All woman cared and contributed to Civil Rights
  • Nina Simone and Mary Lou Williams all both composed music by playing the piano
  • Nina Simone used both her voice and and instrument
  • Mary Lou Williams only used piano
  • Ella Fitzgerald used only her voice

Final Statements

Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, and Ella Fitzgerald all have heavily contributed to the development od Jazz and the Movement of Civil Rights.

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