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Jazz Corner: The Ladies Of Jazz: International (Jazz) Women’s Day

As we celebrate Women’s Day, let’s take a closer look at some of the genres great female artists

Sunil Sampat Mar 08, 2019

American vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

From the contemporary jazz scene, I wonder if you have heard music from Esperenza Spalding, Cecile McLorin Salvant or perhaps Regina Carter. Or from Renee Rosnes and Helen Sung play jazz piano.

These are just a few examples of brilliant exponents of their trade playing jazz today — and they are all women. Just for the record, Spalding is an exciting bass player and vocalist, Salvant an electrifying singer and Carter a subliminal jazz violinist. Each of these three ladies has the potential to be among the best ever in their chosen specialty in jazz history. The music of Rosnes, Sung and Carter may be familiar to some — they have all performed in India in recent years at jazz festivals in Mumbai.

Let us take a look at what have women brought to the world of jazz music. For the most part, the women of jazz have been vocalists. In fact, women vocalists have far outnumbered their men counterparts in this field. The big bands have always had a lady vocalist, and from this tradition we have the emergence of some great singers — Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to name just two.

There have also been prominent women instrumentalists and arrangers in jazz.  Mary Lou Williams is one of the all time jazz piano greats; Melba Liston played the trombone and Terri Lyne Carrington is a brilliant drummer. Maria Schneider and Toshiko Akiyoshi have led and arranged for their big bands while Alice Coltrane and Sue Mingus have both left their footprints in jazz.

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As we celebrate Women’s Day on March 8th, let’s take a closer look at this aspect of this great music — Women in Jazz.

There have been a string of divas who have etched their images in public memory forever with their singing. These larger than life ladies include Holliday, Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen MacRae, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie, Annie Ross, Etta Jones, Etta James, Shirley Horn, Nancy Wilson and more. They are probably the most familiar amongst all jazz performers for most jazz listeners.

The jazz scene in India has also several notable women jazz artists. The most eminent of these has to be vocalist Pam Crain,”The Maharani of Indian Jazz.” She was a world class artist whose career stretched from the Fifties until fairly recently when she passed away. Other notable singers have been Lorna and Asha Puthli, Radha Thomas and some others. On the contemporary scene, Merlin D’Souza is a superb pianist. Several vocalists, notably Sonia Sehgal, Samantha Noella, Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, Isheeta Chakravarty, Shreya Bhattacharya, Vivienne Pocha, Tipriti (from the band Soulmate) and some others are fine examples of Indian jazz and blues vocalists, while Mohini Dey is a superb bassist. Jazz is fast gaining popularity in India and the number of women jazz artists will surely increase.

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Why not spin some music from some leading Ladies in jazz? Here’s a suggested playlist of fine jazz performances that might help.


Billie Holiday: “Fine and Nellow”
Betty Carter: “Tight”
Carmen MacRae: “Round Midnight”
Ella Fitzgerald: “Mack The Knife”
Ernestine Anderson: “You Made Your Move Too Soon!
Esperenza Spalding: “Sunny Side of the Street (vocal & bass)”
Cecile McLorin Salvant: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”
Sarah Vaughan: “Broken Hearted Melody”
Diane Reeves: “I Remember”
Dee Dee Bridgewater: “Yes I’m Ready!”


Regina Carter (violin): “I’ll Be Seeing You”
Helen Sung (piano): “Armando’s Rhumba”
Renee Rosnes (piano): “Milestones”
Shirley Scott (Hammond organ): “Secret Love”
Melba Liston (trombone): “Blues Melba”
Terri Lynette Carrington (drums) with Geri Allen (piano): “Unconditional Love”
Mary Lou Williams (piano): “Scratchin’ in the Gravel”
Gloria Coleman (organ) with Pola Roberts (drums): “Que Baby!”
Marian McPartland (piano): “There Will Never Be Another You”
Shirley Horn (piano & vocal): “Here’s To Life”

Listen to these even beyond Women’s Day. These are evergreens; you will enjoy them any time.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]


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