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How women have influenced jazz music through the decades
By Michelle Liew
The smooth sounds of jazz resonate with many of us. Many of us have fond memories of sitting in a cocktail lounge, sipping a cool drink and letting the soothing waves of these eclectic sounds wash over us the way shampoo slides over a little baby.
Indeed, jazz has been an irremovable part of our lives since the dawn of the 20th century. Widely enjoyed by many, this musical form is also responsible for other genres that developed as its offshoots. Rap and hip hop of this modern day and age owe their inception to their big sister, the jazz form.
When we think of jazz, we think of greats like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or Art Tatum. Move down the decades and we have talents like Eric Clapton.
But many of us forget the contributions of many great female jazz artists and singers, some of whose records are not often played. This article will touch on the history of jazz and the contributions of these great women.
The history of jazz music
By general definition, jazz music is a musical form that developed in the early 20th century among the members of the black community of the southern United States. It greatly involved the musical improvisation of European forms, with musicians blending them with African American elements. The used of “worried” or transitional blues notes lowered in pitch and multiple, offbeat rhythms give jazz its unique musical flavor.
The influence of regional cultures has also given the jazz forms of different parts of the United States its unique flavor. Hence, the birth of Kansas City Jazz, Latin Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, New Orleans Jazz and the Big Band Swing in the 1930s and 40s.
Other forms like modal jazz, chamber jazz, ethno jazz, smooth jazz, and in recent years, jazz rap and jazz fusion, have developed over the course of recent decades.
The development of jazz music in the 20th century
1900 - 1910
Jazz was in its infancy in the first decade of the 20th century.Jazz icons like Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke were born in the first decade of the 20th century and began playing music that had more subversive, expressive forms.
The jazz form began to flower, or as it were, to trumpet. Black musicians living in the poorer area of Harlem began to find innovative ways of generating income. They developed the rent party. Hosts would charge a small fee to those who wished to come for a party accompanied by jazz influenced music.
This decade marked many important developments in jazz. WIth the prohibition of alcohol,rent parties became even more popular and jazz moved to private residences.Jazz musicians like Armstrong became popular.
Despite the Great Depression of the 1930s. Jazz Music became resilient. The Big Band sound took root and rose greatly in popularity.
With the onset of World War 2, Big Band Swing declined and Beblop developed. Musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Armstrong soon developed the technique of Scat Singing, singing in nonsensical syllables, to a fast tempo.
1950 - today
Becoming more diverse, from this decade on the dfferent forms of Latin jazz, Gypsy Jazz and Smooth Jazz began to develop. Tjazz is improvized and fused with other forms of music.
The nature of jazz music
Jazz, by nature, is considered difficult to define. There are many different forms of jazz music, each with its own improvisation. The best way to do this is by highlighting features that strike the “Aha! That’s Jazz! chord in the listener.
Jazz contains influences from different forms of music, but at least half of it has been created spontaneously. When a good jazz player plays the saxophone or the trumpet, he adds to it passing (transitional) notes of his own or his own little rhythms. Jazz singers are noted for bringing to the table a different version of a song each time they perform, with slight changes in notation or rhythm to give it character.
The Swing/Syncopated beat
The best way to define this is by saying that is a beat that gets your fingers snapping and the toes tapping.
What gives jazz its swing is the technique of syncopation. Syncopation, simply put, is the creation of surprising accents or the use of surprising rhythms at different points of the music. The effect of it is that the beat really hits the senses and gets you moving!
Use of bent notes/blues notes
These notes are notes that are, to put it simply, halfway between one note of the scale and the other.
Jazz players create unique combinations of notes, often moving from one note to the other by playing
passing notes in between.
Use of modes
Instead of employing many different scales in a piece of music, jazz makes use of just one or two scales. The music uses his creativity to vary around them. Hence, the development of modal jazz by greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Women in jazz
Women have made significant contributions to jazz throughout the 20th century, many of them quite overlooked. Besides facing the same problems of racial stereotyping as their male counterparts. they had to deal with gender stereotyping, which sometimes precluded them from playing certain instruments. The cornet, for example, was an instrument thought not suitable for women. They were sometimes not allowed, because of societal norms, to pursue their careers. Jazz, in the early years, was considered inappropriate for women. With many not having much formal education at the time, they were deemed incapable of playing instruments.
Indeed, in the early decades of the 20th century, the Great Depression, the World Wars and many other historical events presented challenges for female musicians to overcome. Yet overcome them they did.
An example of a lady who transcended the boundaries find success in jazz was Mary Lou Williams. Not being able to read musical notation, she learned by listening to others play and adapting sounds by ear. Others like Billie Holliday overcame societal norms to become the rare female jazz greats of the day.
Ella FItzgerald Dream A LIttle Dream of Me
Great women who influenced jazz music through the decades
Through the decades, women have made significant contributions to jazz and influenced the form that it has taken in its present day. Here are some noteworthy women who have shaped it through the decades and left lasting legacies.
Fitzgerald grew up in poverty and was homeless before getting a big break in Harlem’s Apollo theatre.
She was famed for the technique of ‘scat singing”, vocal improvisation that meant singing with syllables and not lyrics. A vocalist for the Chick Webb band as a teenager, she sang hits like a Tisket, A Tasket and was known as the First Lady of Song.
Billie Holiday Summertime
Mentioned earlier, Holiday overcame societal norms and stereotyping to become one of the most outstanding artists of her time. She developed a very dramatic style and worked with greats such as Lester Young, who gave her the name “Lady Day.” Known for inviting controversy with some of her songs, Lady Day gave the world music that was to influence musicians in decades to come.
Sarah Vaughan Misty
Vaughan played the piano and sang for the church choir as a little child. She was hired by Earl Hines for his Big Band as a teen. She came under the spell of greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, using her wide vocal range to sing a variety of styles. Her ability,equalled by few other singers left its mark on the jazz scene.
Dinah Washington Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Washington, then Ruth Lee Jones, began performing in nightclubs in her teens. Singing with Lionel Hampton, she took the name which made her a star. Her many blues hits gave her the name Queen of the Blues, but she made albums with many jazz bands.
Carmen McCrae Besame
A protégé of Holiday, Mcrae got her break with Benny Carter’s Big Band. She learned the language of Bebop and in 1954 was named by Downbeat as being the best new female singer. She remained a legend of jazz for the next four decades.
Nancy Wilson When Sunny Gets Blue
Influenced by Dinah Washington and Little Jimmy Scott, Wilson pursued her forte in jazz while working days as a secretary. She soon recorded albums with the likes of George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley. She has acted in shows like the Cosby Show and hosted the Jazz Profiles series heard on many radio stations.The many accomplishments have made the blues singer a prominent and vital addition to the world of jazz.
At Last Etta James
James started her career in 1954 with great hits like Roll with me Henry, At Last and Something’s Got A Hold On Me. Facing a number of personal problems, she made are resurgence in the 1980s with the album the Seven Year Itch.
The winner of Six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards is credited with bridging the gap between Rhythm and blues and Rock and Roll. She was ranked No 22 on the list of Rolling Stones Greatest Singers of all time.
Shirley Horn So You Won't Forget Me
Hailing from Washington D.C., horn began playing the piano as a child. Famed for her sultry voice and minimalist style, she worked as a singer-pianist while paying for her studies. Her recordings gained fame outside her hometown in the 1980s.
Cassandra Wilson Time after Time
An eclectic musician, Wilson has taken country, folk and blues influences and incorporated them into jazz tunes. She began working with the likes of Abbey Lincoln, Dave Holland and the MBase collective led by Steve Coleman after moving to New York. Influenced by the pop, folk and country music of her youth, Wilson has won 2 grammy awards.The ability to improvise has given her music a unique flavor and made her an influential addition to the jazz scene.
The Look of Love by Diana Krall
The Canadian pianist and singer is famed for her contra alto vocals. Named the second Jazz artist of the 2000-2009 decade by Billboard, she had 8 of her albums debuting at the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums. She has won, to date, 2 Grammy Awards and 8 Juno Awards presented to Canadian musical artists. Her intimate singing style has made the Berklee Graduate one of the best selling and influential jazz artists of her generation.
Jazz is indeed an eclectic art form which many women have greatly influenced throughout the decades and still continue to, to this day.
Copyright by MIchelle Liew Tsui-Lin All Rights Reserved
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