Women’s History Month: Geniuses of Jazz

Though jazz of the 1950s and 60s was traditionally a male-dominated world, the women who permeated the genre sang, played, and wrote their way into the history books. In our final tribute to Women’s History Month, here’s Rock On Philly’s list of the dazzling geniuses of jazz:

Billie Holiday

No list of jazz geniuses (female or otherwise) is complete without Lady Day. The elegance, mystery, and supreme skill Holiday brought to jazz will never be forgotten. Her musical prowess and emotional gravitas are so nuanced that the word genius is inescapable, though unfortunately often overshadowed by her personal life. But on the stage, Lady Day took the world by storm, conveying America’s deepest emotions with conviction and grace.

Nina Simone

Though Simone never considered herself a jazz singer (she never considered herself as belonging to any genre in particular) she brought the sentiments of jazz to the stage throughout her career. Her volatility, passion, and unique timbre always made her a standout performer. Her voice is unmistakable and her vision is nothing short of genius, bringing us such civil rights anthems as “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women.”

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams outstripped jazz pianists across the genre, perhaps finding her match in Thelonious Monk. Beyond that, Williams could play with the best of them, her innovative approach to piano bringing her much notoriety. She was widely accepted as “one of the guys” throughout her career because of her unique skill, which both enabled her to grow and separated her from her fellow female jazz artists. Despite the tension, she’s still a legend.

Hazel Scott

No woman could play quite like Hazel Scott. She could stop a room in its tracks. Classically trained, like Nina Simone, Scott performed her own renditions of the classics, TIME magazine noting, “where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson.” Her playing was imbued with the jazz spirit of the age, the innovation that filled the air. The above video from her appearance in The Heat’s On is indicative of her flabbergasting skill.

Lena Horne

Lena Horne’s silky, feather-light voice is a timeless classic in its own right. Throughout her career, Horne was a relentless civil rights activist, refusing film roles that sought to type-cast African-American women. Beyond this, her voice propelled her career to heights unknown, her hit “Stormy Weather” from her appearance in the film of the same name bringing her much notoriety. Her classic “I Got Rhythm” is just as fresh as it was upon its release.

Abbey Lincoln

Abbey Lincoln is perhaps best known for her work with then-husband Max Roach, specifically her features on his Freedom Now! suite (1960). The unyielding courage Lincoln adds to Roach’s quintet shocks audiences to this day. Lincoln could hold her own, of course, with her music, but nothing shook listeners to their core quite like her screaming on “Triptych” from the same album. Lincoln was a critical member of the new-new generation of jazz women.

Feature image via Wikimedia commons.

1 Comment

  1. Breanna Perry

    March 28, 2015 at 5:22 am

    If you stretch back even further in jazz history, you’ll find some more great additions to this list. Like Bessie Smith, who was well-known for demanding equal treatment for her black band members (unheard of in her day). Or Lil Hardin Armstrong, one-time wife of Louis Armstrong, who was a killer pianist in her own right and who helped Pops find his stride in the world of early jazz.

    Let’s hear it for the girls!

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