Black Music Month: The Great Ladies of Jazz

June 10, 2021

You can’t celebrate Black Music Month without mentioning the ‘Great Ladies of Jazz.’ They are the pioneers and inspiration for many of today’s artists like Beyoncé and Chaka Khan. And their phenomenal voices have given us some of our most classic American songs, that are still sung by artists today. So let’s learn more about our ‘Great Ladies of Jazz.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Jane Fitzgerald (April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996) was an American jazz singer, sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, and Lady Ella.

In 1993, after a career of nearly 60 years, she gave her last public performance. Three years later, she died at the age of 79. Her accolades included fourteen Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Billie Holiday

Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), known professionally as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by producer John Hammond, who liked her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959 at age 44. She won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. Several films about her life have been released.

Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Lois Vaughan (March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990) was an American jazz singer.

Nicknamed “Sassy” and “The Divine One”, she won four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. She was given an NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1989. Critic Scott Yanow wrote that she had “one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century”.

Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), known professionally as Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music spanned a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.

The sixth of eight children born to a poor family in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone initially aspired to be a concert pianist. With the help of a few supporters in her hometown, she enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. To make a living, Simone started playing piano at a nightclub in Atlantic City. She changed her name to “Nina Simone” to disguise herself from family members, having chosen to play “the devil’s music” or so-called “cocktail piano”. She was told in the nightclub that she would have to sing to her own accompaniment, which effectively launched her career as a jazz vocalist. She went on to record more than 40 albums between 1958 and 1974, making her debut with Little Girl Blue. She had a hit single in the United States in 1958 with “I Loves You, Porgy“. Her musical style fused gospel and pop with classical music, in particular Johann Sebastian Bach, and accompanied expressive, jazz-like singing in her contralto voice.

In 1993, she settled near Aix-en-Provence in southern France (Bouches-du-Rhône). In the same year, her final album, A Single Woman, was released. During a 1998 performance in Newark, she announced, “If you’re going to come see me again, you’ve got to come to France, because I am not coming back.”She suffered from breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet (Bouches- du-Rhône), on April 21, 2003.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington (born Ruth Lee Jones; August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963) was an American singer and pianist, who has been cited as “the most popular black female recording artist of the ’50s”. Primarily a jazz vocalist, she performed and recorded in a wide variety of styles including blues, R&B, and traditional pop music, and gave herself the title of “Queen of the Blues”.

Early in the morning of December 14, 1963, Washington’s sixth husband, football great Dick “Night Train” Lane, went to sleep with Washington and awoke later to find her slumped over and not responsive. Dr. B. C. Ross pronounced her dead at the scene at age 39 due to a lethal combination of prescription drugs. She is buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

She was a 1986 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues”, she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith was young when her parents died, and she and her siblings survived by performing on street corners. She began touring and performed in a group that included Ma Rainey, and then went out on her own. Her successful recording career with Columbia Records began in the 1920s, but her performing career was cut short by a car crash that killed her at the age of 43.

Carmen McRae

Carmen Mercedes McRae (April 8, 1920 – November 10, 1994) was an American jazz singer. She is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century and is remembered for her behind-the-beat phrasing and ironic interpretation of lyrics.

Eight years younger than her idol, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae was a contemporary of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Ella and Sarah were already well established by the time Carmen came onto the scene, but it wasn’t long before Carmen was considered their artistic equal, although she never achieved their wide popularity. She never had a huge hit nor did she ever receive a Grammy. But, on the other hand, she never made a bad record nor compromised her high standards.

On November 10, 1994, McRae died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 74.[1] She had fallen into a semi-coma four days earlier, a month after being hospitalized for a stroke.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Carmen McRae among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.

Betty Carter

Betty Carter (born Lillie Mae Jones; May 16, 1929 – September 26, 1998) was an American jazz singer known for her improvisational technique, scatting and other complex musical abilities that demonstrated her vocal talent and imaginative interpretation of lyrics and melodies. Vocalist Carmen McRae once remarked: “There’s really only one jazz singer—only one: Betty Carter.” Carter continued to perform, tour, and record, as well as search for new talent until she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 1998. She died on September 26, 1998, at the age of 69, and was later cremated.

Abbey Lincoln

Anna Marie Wooldridge (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010), known professionally as Abbey Lincoln, was an American jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress. She was a civil rights activist beginning in the 1960s.[1][2] Lincoln made a career not only out of delivering deeply felt presentations of standards but writing and singing her own material. Lincoln died on August 14, 2010, in Manhattan, eight days after her 80th birthday.

Dianne Reeves

Dianne Reeves was born in Detroit, Michigan, into a musical family. Her father sang, her mother played trumpet, her uncle is bassist Charles Burrell, and her cousin is George Duke. Her father died when she was two years old, and she was raised in Denver, Colorado, by her mother, Vada Swanson, and maternal family. In 1971 she started singing and playing piano. She was a member of her high school band, and while performing at a convention in Chicago was noticed by trumpeter Clark Terry, who invited her to sing with him. She studied classical voice at the University of Colorado.

Reeves moved to Los Angeles, where she sang and recorded with a number of well known artists. Later, she would move to New York City and from 1983 to 1986 toured with Harry Belafonte.

She signed with Blue Note in 1987 and that year her eponymous album, featuring Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Tony Williams, was nominated for a Grammy Award. She went on to win five Grammy Awards.

Reeves performed at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In 2005, she appeared in the film Good Night, And Good Luck singing 1950s standards (including “How High the Moon“, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You“, “Too Close for Comfort“, “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “One for My Baby“). In 2006 the soundtrack won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Dee Dee Bridgewater (née Denise Garrett, May 27, 1950) is an American jazz singer. She is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, as well as a Tony Award-winning stage actress. For 23 years, she was the host of National Public Radio’s syndicated radio show JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater. She is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Shirley Horn

Shirley Valerie Horn (May 1, 1934 – October 20, 2005) was an American jazz singer and pianist. She collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others. She was most noted for her ability to accompany herself with nearly incomparable independence and ability on the piano while singing, something described by arranger Johnny Mandel as “like having two heads”. A breast cancer survivor, she had been battling diabetes when she died of complications from the condition, at age 71.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Shirley Horn among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.

Etta James

Jamesetta Hawkins (January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012), known professionally as Etta James, was an American singer who performed in various genres, including blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, jazz and gospel. Starting her career in 1954, she gained fame with hits such as “The Wallflower“, “At Last“, “Tell Mama“, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me“, and “I’d Rather Go Blind“. She faced a number of personal problems, including heroin addiction, severe physical abuse, and incarceration, before making a musical comeback in the late 1980s with the album Seven Year Itch.

James’s powerful, deep, earthy voice bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. She won six Grammy Awards and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. Rolling Stone magazine ranked James number 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time; she was also ranked number 62 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Billboard‘s 2015 list of The 35 Greatest R&B Artists Of All Time includes James, whose “gutsy, take-no-prisoner vocals colorfully interpreted everything from blues and R&B/soul to rock n’roll, jazz and gospel”. James was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2011. The illness became terminal, she died on January 20, 2012.