The fact that women have been and sometime still are underrepresented in quite a few spheres of life due to prevailing social structures at certain time periods is evident. However, nowadays more and more extremely talented women, from artists to scientists, who created and worked back in the day are gaining their spotlight, and righteously so. Jazz music has also been a field that has been largely dominated by males over the years. Women, although equally capable, talented and creative, might not have received the attention they deserved, but it is certainly changing now. It is thus interesting to explore who were the female jazz musicians who managed to break the glass ceiling and emerged as leading performers of jazz back in times when it was a lot more difficult due to social circumstances.
Mary Lou Williams
Duke Ellington famously said that Mary Lou Williams was a little ahead of the time when it came to her performances and music. She started her musical path as early as eight and worked with names like McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and the previously mentioned Ellington all before her 20th birthday. Over her career that lasted almost over six decades she managed to record more than 100 albums, write hundreds of musical pieces and compositions. She was also a friend and a mentor of famous jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, whom she helped discover their unique styles and grow both as people and as musicians. She managed to become a leading figure in bop and up until today remains one of the most impressive jazz musicians.
When she was a child, Fitzgerald wanted to be a dancer. She panicked on stage in New York City’s Apollo Theater, sang instead of dancing and won first price and only then realized that she was meant to be a singer. Widely known for the rare smoothness and sweetness of her voice and her incredibly wide vocal range, nearly perfect diction, phrasing and most definitely her talent for improvisation, Fitzgerald managed to become a monumental figure in the world of jazz throughout her six-decade career. Over the years she was awarded fourteen Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, but everyone knows her as the one and only Nina Simone. On top of being an astounding singer, a creative songwriter and a magnificent performer, she was also a devoted civil right activist. She started her career playing piano in Atlantic City just so she could make a living; she had to adopt a stage name just to protect herself from her family’s judgement for having chosen to play “the devil’s music”; she was forced to sing her own accompaniment at her work. All of these seemingly unfortunate circumstances put together launched her impressive career as a jazz musician during which she managed to record over 40 albums. She has received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, several honorary and other major awards.