Forgotten Female Jazz Artists
Updated: Aug 7, 2020
I thought that I would shed some light where history textbooks tend to fall short, on the women in the jazz industry. The following are some of women who I would name some of the jazz musicians who have shaped who I am as a musician and how I approach music in general.
Billie Holiday is one of the more well known jazz vocalists. She was nicknamed "Lady Day" by her dear friend and fellow musician, Lester Young. Her career spanned a total of 26 years, from 1915 to 1959. She had a very turbulent childhood, which in many ways shaped the way she sang her songs. Through the 1930's and 40's she faced major mainstream success. Billie was signed to both Columbia and Decca records and released various albums through them. But by the late 1940's, she was facing legal issues and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, Billie returned to performing and even had a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems. She continued to be a successful concert performer throughout the 50's. Due to her personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reviews but still had a mild commercial success. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Billie died shortly after in 1959 from cirrhosis (liver failure).
Valaida Snow was a virtuoso American jazz musician and entertainer, known mainly for her talent on the trumpet. Valaida was raised on the road in a show-business family, where she started performing with her father's group at age 5. By age 15, she knew how to play cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, and saxophone. She also sang and danced. She was given the nickname "Little Louis" after Louis Armstrong called her the world's second best jazz trumpet player besides himself. W.C. Handy, who is known as the Father of the Blues, gave her the nickname "Queen of the Trumpet". She found it difficult to hold any form of residency as a bandleader in the clubs of new York or Chicago. So she mainly toured, playing concerts throughout the US, Europe, and China. She was most successful in the 1930's, this was around the time when she released her hit song "High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm". After playing the Apollo Theater in New York City, she revisited Europe and the Far East for more opportunities for shows and films. In World War II, she was imprisoned in a Copenhagen jail when Nazi soldiers took over Denmark, where she was touring. Valaida was released on a prisoner exchange in May 1942. It was rumored that her friendship with a Belgium police official helped her board a ship carrying foreign diplomats. She never emotionally recovered from that experience. In the 1950's, she was unable to regain her former success. In May 1956, Valaida died of a brain hemorrhage in New York City. She was backstage during a performance at the Palace Theater.
Melba Liston was an American jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer. She was also the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 40's and 60's but as her career progressed was encouraged by her grandfather, who played guitar. Melba spent a significant amount of time with her grandfather, this is where she learned to play spirituals and folk songs. By the time she was 8, she was good enough to be a solo act on a local radio station. When she was 10, Melba relocated to Los Angeles. This is where she was classmates with Dexter Gordon and became friends with Eric Dolphy. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower, she joined a big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1944. She went on to work with Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, John Lewis, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. While she was touring, Melba was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up on playing and turned to education. She taught for about 3 years. She also worked as an extra in Hollywood for a short period of time before returning to the touring life and forming her own all-women quintet. In the 60's she began collaborating with pianist Randy Weston, she would arrange compositions (primarily his) for mid-size to large ensembles. During this time Melba also worked with Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, and Ray Charles. In 1973, she moved to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for 6 years before returning to the US to lead her own bands. She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed. Melba Liston died in 1999 after suffering repeated strokes.
Hazel Scott was a Trinidadian-born jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor. She was a critically acclaimed performing artist and an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and segregation. She used her influence to improve the representation of black Americans in film. Born in Port of Spain, Hazel moved to New York City with her mother at age 4. She was a musical prodigy, receiving scholarships to study at the Juilliard School when she was 8. In her teens, she performed in a jazz band and also on the radio. She was a prominent jazz singer throughout the 30's and 40's. She performed with the Count Basie Orchestra and Lena Horne. She also performed at some of the more notable jazz clubs, such as, the Cotton Club and at Cafe Society. In 1950, she became the first black American to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show. Unfortunately Hazel's career in America faltered after she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 50's, during the McCarthy era. As a result, she moved to Paris in 1957 where she continued performing throughout Europe and not returning to the US until 1967. By the time she returned to the US, the Civil Rights Movement had led to federal legislation ending racial segregation and enforcing the protection of voting rights of all citizens in addition to other social advances. Hazel continued to occasionally play in nightclubs while also appearing in daytime television until the year of her death. Hazel Scott died of cancer in Manhattan in 1981.