Jazz Owes Women

In a 2014 Interview with the Mail & Guardian, Nomfundo Xaluva, one of the best jazz instrumentalists and vocalists (not to mention composer and arranger) currently making music in Africa, brought up the stereotype jazz audiences and the ecosystem of jazz culture has backed women into. Said Xaluva, “People revere jazz singers but in terms of them taking jazz vocalists seriously, we still have a long way to go before that perception is completely transformed.”

“A lot of the time, women in jazz are expected to be vocalists who have to look pretty and have to be the eye candy of the band and I think we are trying to change that. Our artistry and skill goes beyond how we look,” she added. Indeed, jazz owes women respect and recognition for their artistry and contribution to the genre.

One of the most innovative and dynamic jazz musicians was Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981). She was a pianist, vocalist and composer. Of her music that didn’t only survive new eras, but contributed immensely to them, Duke Ellington wrote: “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless.”

Ellington would know about her talent because she wrote and arranged music for his band. Ellington and many other great male jazz artists have been mentioned as innovators that propelled jazz forward, but Williams’ name should also be there. She was one of the first few jazz artists to release extended works. Zodiac Suite, on which she performed solo and was sometimes accompanied by drummer Jack Parker and bassist Al Lucas, was her first. Williams also mentored younger jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Another icon was jazz pianist, composer and spiritual teacher Alice Coltrane (1937 – 2007). A classical piano prodigy by her mid-teens (she had been playing since she was seven years old), Coltrane studied jazz in Paris with Bud Powell in 1962. Her jazz legacy has, however, been obscured by the fact that she was married to a fellow jazz musician. Not just any jazz musician, the legendary John Coltrane. But when they met in 1963, she was well on her way to fame.

She joined his band, The Coltrane Quartet, as the pianist when McCoy Tyner left and this is where her legacy got intermingled with her husband’s. He used to erase many of her contributions. Jazz lovers also tend to forget that she was instrumental to his experimental, spiritual jazz, even as avant-garde as he was.

In her obituary in The Guardian John Fordham wrote, “She developed an undulating, trancelike (and harplike) manner of keyboard playing to accompany his haunting soliloquies, exploring ambient and slow-moving textural ideas that would later seem like pioneering steps in New Age music.”

As a final mention, Dianne Reeves (1956 – present) has done much to preserve jazz traditions in her illustrious, Grammy award-winning career of 41 years. She is considered the last true jazz diva, keeping kept the tradition of jazz vocals alive. Look to her for scatting skills and improvisation.Reeves has been compared to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and was the artist chosen to pay homage to Billie Holiday on the occasion of her 100th birthday celebrations. Only her name doesn’t often show up next to jazz greats as a legend in her own right. Why? There is enough room in jazz history and memory for all these women. There are countless others whose names we do not know.

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