Women in Jazz have historically been seen principally as singers. However, there were many great women instrumentalists and band leaders in the jazz lexicon. I am going to talk about just three of them who are largely unsung and unremembered. All three of these ladies were successful and well respected in what was largely a man’s world. Their stories have served to inspire me throughout the years. Here are,

Valaida Snow

Valaida was a multi-instrumentalist, having mastered cello, bass, mandolin, clarinet, violin, harp, accordion, bass and saxophone by the age of 15. However, she was principally known as a trumpet player, touring the world from the 1920’s, through the 1940’s. As many black jazz musicians experienced, acceptance abroad was far easier to attain than in the United States. She was highly successful as an entertainer and band leader in the Far East, as well as London and Paris. Unfortunately, Ms Snow was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in Denmark, in 1941, and never recovered from that experience. Adding insult to injury, many Americans refused to believe that Ms Snow was imprisoned by the Nazis at all, and tried to minimize her experience. She never came back to her former glory.

Melba Liston

Melba was a trombone player, having begun playing the instrument at the tender age of 7. She was largely self-taught, and by her teen years began playing with many of the greats, beginning with the Gerald Wilson band in 1943, and Dizzy Gillespi’s epic orchestra, in 1948. Throughout her career, she collaborated with so many prominent musicians they are almost too numerous to name, but among them were Dexter Gordon, Randy Weston, Ray Charles, Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, Betty Carter, and many, many others. Melba was known as a pre-eminent arranger and band leader, and her lifetime accomplishments were recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1987.

Vi Redd

Vi Redd was an alto saxophonist and vocalist, playing in the bebop and hard bop styles, a real novelty for a woman. A prominent member of the Central Avenue jazz scene in Los Angeles, she played as a member of many of the great bands including Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespi, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, to name a few. Recognized for her beautiful round tone on the saxophone, and sultry phrasings as a vocalist, she was a true phenomenon.

Expand your vision and listening experience, by checking out the work of these ladies. You will not be disappointed.

My favorite instrument in the jazz idiom is the saxophone. I love the vocal quality of its sound, and in my opinion, it is the instrument that best expresses emotion and feeling. While I have a lot of favorites who play this instrument, including but not limited to John Coltrane, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, George Coleman, Cannonball Adderly, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt and many more, I have a special love for the sound of Jackie McLean and Gene Ammons. Their playing really sends me. I discovered them both in my teen years and have continued my love affair with their music until now. For an exciting taste of these two greats, check out “The Happy Blues”, recorded in 1956, on which these jazz masters are playing together. You want some feeling, there it is.

Both of these men struggled with a heroin addiction, as many in their generation did. This did nothing to detract from their music. Both players were steeped in the blues, which deeply informed their playing. In my opinion, this is what made their music absolutely transcendent.

Alto saxophonist, Jackie McLean transcended various genres of jazz, but was a master extraordinaire of the bebop and hard bop forms. What I really like about his playing is the blue feeling and the ultimate expression of deep melancholy in every note and line. His tone cuts right to the heart and literally transports you. When I hear a tune on the radio, I can always identify Jackie’s playing. His tone stands out like a blue-white beacon of light. Two of my favorite Jackie-Mac albums are “Swing, Swang, Swingin” and “Destination…Out!” Check them out along with anything else he might have played. He recorded with almost everybody over the years.

Tenor saxophonist, Gene Ammons is an absolute solid sender. There was a period when I played his music every night to fall asleep to. He has more feeling in just one note than anyone can conjur up in an entire line. He was facile with the bebop form, but was also a progenitor of the soul jazz movement. His playing of a ballad will simply take you away. I think he is unsung and under-appreciated. To check him out at his best, listen to the compilation collection, “The Gene Ammons Story: Gentle Jug”, all three volumes. Put on volume 3, and listen to the opening track, “Didn’t We”, and you will see what I am talking about. Put this on in the middle of the night and you won’t be sorry.

I was fortunate enough to see and hear some of the biggest names in jazz in my hometown, Washington, DC, when I was still very young. The Howard Theatre (somewhat like the Apollo, in Harlem), booked several artists in a stage show, that today would have to be accommodated in a festival setting. This was when bands were constantly touring the “chitlin circuit”, and doing exhausting one-nighters in city after city. For approximately $3.00, I could see a show presenting the Quincy Jones Orchestra, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Herbie Mann, for instance, which would include an interlude between acts with legendary comedians such as Pigmeat Markham, Slappy White, and Moms Mabley. Plus, a movie! After which, you could “buck” the show and see the same acts and the movie all over again. My ability to go to these shows began when I was approximately 12 years old, when my mother allowed me to go across town to the theatre with friends. It was fantastic and a fabulous way to spend a Saturday or Sunday.

When I was about 15 years old I was fortunate enough to see John Coltrane, up close and personal in a very small club called, “Abart’s”. My high school boyfriend, who was somewhat a prodigy, was a drummer, who used to sneak out at night to sit in with various musicians. He had met some members of Trane’s rhythm section, and was hanging out with them when they were performing in DC. My boyfriend told me I simply had to see Trane, because there was nothing like him. This was the period when he went off on his own, after leaving the Miles Davis Quintet. I went to Abart’s on a Sunday afternoon, and there was the now legendary quartet, consisting of Trane, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. (I did not get carded; in fact, I went into various clubs in DC to hear music and was never carded even though I was nowhere near 21 years old. I also was able to order beer without question. This absolutely could not happen, today.)

Abart’s was a very small room, and so, the sound was “BIG”. Not only that, the sound was phenomenal. I could not believe what I was hearing. The stuff Trane was playing was unheard of and so powerful, I had to resist an overwhelming urge to simply jump up on my table and scream ecstatically. This is no exaggeration. I became a solid fan from that moment on, and was fortunate enough to see Trane in various venues including the Village Gate, in New York (where I also was not carded, although I was only 17 years old at the time). I loved Trane’s music through every phase. Some did not like his more abstract and spiritually directed music, but I found it absolutely transcendent. Trane was an incomparable, phenomenal, and insatiable innovator and jazzmusic was never the same after he came on the scene.

Betty Carter is the jazz aficiando’s jazz singer.  She is really the jazz singer’s jazz singer.  Starting her career at the tender age of 16, she used a fake birth certificate in order to gain admission to bars and clubs in order to perform.  Living in Detroit, she was able to perform with many famous jazz artists who came through on tour, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others.  Her big break, however, was when Lionel Hampton asked her to join his band in 1948.  It was Hampton’s wife who gave her the nickname, “Betty Bebop” (a name of which she was not particularly fond), as she exhibited a facility with this music and had a hard time with the swing style of Hampton’s band, preferring the bebop style.  A naturally improvisational genius, she had conflicts with Hampton, as she insisted on scatting and singing “outside the box” whenever she performed.

Leaving the Hampton band in 1951, Betty struck out on her own.  The rest is really history, and if you have not made yourself familiar with Betty’s extensive catalog, get crackin’!  (Check her out with another great, Ray Charles, on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.)

My first introduction to Betty was when I was 15, and was introduced to her seminal album, “Out There, With Betty Carter”. I fell in love with the tone of her voice.  She did not sound like anyone else.  She had a breathy sound, but also sounded just like an instrument, a horn really.  The tone was clear and breathtakingly beautiful.  I have been a fan ever since.

After a hiatus of quite a few years, brought on by family demands, and the advent of rock and pop music, Betty struck out again in a different way, and ventured to establish her own independent record label.  Not wanting to depend on the whims of a record company to promote her music during a declining period for jazz, she became maybe the first artist to create her own label.  This was really unheard of, at the time.  

Betty never lost her innovative and improvisational core.  Her later recordings are masterpieces of music deconstruction, literally turning the melody on its head.  A great example of this latter period is her recording, “It’s Not About the Melody”.  But really, it was, as the melody was the basis of her brilliant improvisations.

Later, Betty became a master teacher of the music at university, and later at the Lincoln Center.  She was responsible for the mentorship of many a young and developing music student, who went on to become great names in their own right.  I saw her once at the original Yoshi’sin the 1980’s, and every musician with her was wet behind the ears. She was aggressively driving the band to give her what she wanted in that performance, in a fantastic demonstration of give-and-take between Betty and the instrumentalists.  It was a great night of music and a wonderful example of the conversations that happen between musicians in a jazz performance.   

I was fortunate to meet Betty face-to-face, in her dressing room at the new Yoshi’s, just a few months before she passed away.  She was fabulous on stage as always, and although exhausted from her performance, she was very welcoming and gracious to me. I was thrilled to meet one of my great idols.  I told her how I discovered her as a teenager through “Out There”, and that it was still one of my favorites.  She was amused to hear that I remembered the album cover clearly.  Betty’s face was in a “Sputnik” on the front cover as she looked up, and as I recall she had on a fantastic, curve hugging butterfly gown on the back cover.  I told her I was a singer, and asked her how she kept singing in the very high ranges even as she was getting older.  Her voice had not changed at all in over 40 years.  She told me, “just keep singing up there”.  I continue to treasure that advice. 


Gloria Lynne was one of the most accomplished and prolific jazz vocalists on the music scene from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  Her resonant contralto was heard on more than 25 albums.  I first heard her when I was 14 years old, and she has been one of my very favorite singers ever since.  Her years recording on the Everest label, produced the crème of her repertoire.  She was hugely popular during that time, but bad business management left her virtually poverty stricken, as she never got royalties from those fabulous recordings.  She survived through performance bookings, but there was a time when she was virtually homeless.

Gloria’s voice and command of the music was superlative.  She had a clarity of tone and could interpret a song with great feeling.  Few can paint a picture with a song the way that Gloria could.  As a child, she sang in church choirs, and as a teen and young woman sang on rhythm and blues recordings.  She also briefly trained for the opera.   Despite the opera influence, Ms Lynne could swing, and was a true jazz singer.  I invite you to listen to her recording of, “I Wish You Love”, which made the Billboard top 100 , and became her most enduring hit.  She was said to have only learned the song the evening before recording it.  Amazing.  

There are so many tunes that I love by Gloria, like “He Needs Me”, “I Thought About You”, “And This Is My Beloved”.  I could go on.  I have every Everest recording Ms Lynne produced, and she has an indelible place in my music library and in my heart. 

Billie Holiday is regarded as the penultimate jazz singer, not because she did clever things with the music, and not because of any technical proficiency (although she certainly demonstrated that; the form of the music was in her bones), but because she could tear the heart and soul out of the listener, simply by honestly revealing her innermost self in a song.  Some people do not prefer Billie, because they do not understand her voice.  But it is her voice which gives the deeper meaning to her interpretations of the music.  She is at once vulnerable, worldly, sometimes saucy, often humorous, swinging, and soulful, always soulful.  She conveys the blues so completely in every note, it’s impossible to deny the feeling.  Many try to imitate Billie, but her music comes from her own life’s experience, and this is inimitable, really.  None can possibly duplicate the genius and magic that was Billie Holiday.  Many people remark on the fact that she sang behind the beat, as if that were the secret of her style, but that is really missing the point.

One of my great idols, Betty Carter, completed an album entitled, “It’s Not About the Melody”.  This was later in her career, and indeed, Betty became a master at turning the melody inside out, deconstructing it into its purest elements.  However, I learned a lot about melody from Betty’s earlier recordings.  In fact, Betty was a master of the melody, and when she sang, the melody was clear and pure.  I have always been a fool for the melody, and even in an abstract tune, one searches for the melody to tie the whole thing together while listening.  The melody is actually the architecture of a song, the coat rack on which the notes are hung.  Compare realistic painting to abstract painting.  If a painter has no grasp of the elements of composition, his abstract painting will have no real meaning.  Picasso was a great abstract painter because he understood composition and was a master at deconstructing its elements. The same is true when making music.

Negative space in any art form should never be under-estimated.  Leaving breathing room between expressions enhances the impact and meaning of that expression.  When things get too busy, the mind gets confused and the spirit becomes restless.  Miles Davis was famously in support of a certain minimalism in music and was known to have shouted at fellow musicians, “you’re playing too many notes!”  His favorite vocalist was Shirley Horne, who left a lot of space between notes.  I believe she was the only vocalist with whom the great horn player recorded.  If you want to hear an example of other vocalists using negative space to great effect, listen to Ray Charles singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, or Fats Domino singing “Blueberry Hill”.  Notice how there is no rushing, or filing the space up with unnecessary elements.  If you contemplate a painting, the image(s) in that painting are far more appreciated if they reside in a plane that allows that image to be seen, rather than buried in a flurry of images and color.  The heart should have leave to contemplate what is happening in the positive space, by its juxtaposition to a clear and pure field.

Many instrumentalists play standard jazz tunes without knowing the lyrics.  Lyrics actually inform the music in a really important way.  A lot of the time, instrumental versions of these tunes are played in a tempo that does not give full meaning to the actual sentiment of the song.  Noted pianist, Dena DeRose, has said that for many years, she was oblivious to the lyrics of the music she was playing.  However, once she familiarized herself with those lyrics, they gave her music much more depth and meaning.  As a result, she began to also sing, and her interpretations of the music are quite wonderful.  This is why people love to hear a singer who can vividly paint a picture with words, producing reverie in the listener.

In any art form, authenticity is extremely important.  Art is the expression of soul and emotion, and it succeeds when it moves the beholder into a deeper level of feeling and self-reflection.  Music is said to be the universal language, as it needs no translator to express its meaning; it can be directly felt without explanation.  If a singer is not in love with the song she sings, it will just be a technical exercise.  A singer should sing only those songs with which she is in love, otherwise the delivery will just be perfunctory.  Further, the voice is an instrument; each one of us has our own sonic vibration.  If a singer is not a “belter”, when she tries to belt a tune, it will come off as inauthentic.  Similarly, if a singer loves barrel house tunes, singing a sensitive ballad will be a challenge, and will no doubt make the listener uncomfortable.  

A ballad commands something from the singer that no other type of song does.  It represents an exquisite vulnerability, and will not be truly felt by the listener if it does not come straight from the heart and soul.  I used to be afraid to perform a ballad and had to work my way through a few swing tunes before I felt ready to sing it.  I still prefer not opening a set with a ballad, as I need to be warmed up before I am able to open myself up to the exposure a ballad represents.  Not everyone can deliver a ballad.  The sensitivity absolutely must be there.  John Coltrane recorded the exquisite “Ballads” album in late 1961.  After doing that he wanted to record a ballads album with a singer, and he insisted that the only singer he wanted to work with was Johnny Hartman, relatively unknown in the jazz field.  Hartman, himself, did not regard himself as a jazz singer at the time, but his mellifluous baritone lent itself easily to the genre, and the album, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”, is one of the superlative legendary recordings of all time.  In my opinion, no one can surpass Mr. Hartman as an interpreter of the ballad form.

Torch songs are not so prevalent today, but they are one of my favorite types of songs to perform. A torch song is best described as a sentimental love song of lost or unrequited love.  Love songs are my forte, and I love the melancholy feeling of a torch song.  One of my idols, Billie Holiday, was a master of the torch song, as was Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra.  Torch songs really have a deep connection to the blues.  Listen to the lyrics of “Round Midnight”, also known as “Round About Midnight” a classic instrumental penned by Thelonious Monk with lyrics later written by Benny Hanighen, and you’ll see what I mean.  This is one of the finest examples of a superlative torch song, with a deeply rooted feeling of the blues.

The label, “Jazz” was affixed to the music as the result of its origin in the pleasure houses of New Orleans.  Jasmine was used as a fragrance in these establishments, and the name, “Jazz” became the word by which the music became known until the present day.  However, many people do not know what “Jazz” is, and when asked for a definition, Louis Armstrong was famously known to have said, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”.  In fact, the label, “Jazz” is controversial among its own practitioners.  Eminent musicians such as Miles Davis and Gary Bartz, to name a couple, said they did not want the music labeled with that name any more.  When asked what it should be called, the answer was, “music”.  The term itself has increasingly become a marketing ploy.  Music must be labeled to sell. There is a lot of music now placed into the category of “Jazz”, which is really not Jazz at all.  Music festivals worldwide proclaim to be “Jazz Festivals”, but include wide ranging music styles from R&B to Pop and God knows what all.  Then there is so called, “Smooth Jazz”, a genre of which many true Jazz musicians are not fond, and think of it as Pop music with a jazzy feeling.

The root of jazz is blues.   Some don’t get this; however, inarguably, there would be no jazz without the blues.  The origination of this music from the fields of the antebellum South is well documented.  It is the only original art form to come out of the United States of America, and is our great contribution to the world. The music itself has always been reflective of the time in which it was expressed, just like all indigenous art forms, and is an expression of the life experiences of the innovators of the form.  In the last couple of decades, the music is being learned almost exclusively in the classroom.  There are some excellent musicians with this upbringing but not coming from the experience that created the music can often present a handicap with respect to the feeling of it.  You can read a chart perfectly, but if you don’t have the ears, and the music is not coming from the heart, there is something very vital that is missing.  Frankly, the feeling of the blues is missing.  Miles Davis once said something like, “If it ain’t comin’ from your life, it ain’t coming out your horn”. 

Jazz music is inclusive of many styles of singing. Some singers are rhythmic and endeavor to take the place of soloing instruments by scatting. There is a mistaken belief among many relative newcomers to the music that one must scat in order to be a true jazz singer. This is patently not the case. Several innovators of the form never scatted: Billie Holiday, Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Abbey Lincoln, Ruth Brown, Nat King Cole, Johnny Hartman, Jimmie Scott, Dinah Washington, Dakota Staton, Al Hibbler, Ray Charles, just to name a very, very few. I really could go on. Some scatted rarely, such as the great jazz singers, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. Of course there were masters of scatting. Ella Fitzgerald had no peer, Betty Carter, put the “bop” in bebop, and was a master at deconstructing the melody. And then there was the incomparable Louis Armstrong who may have actually invented scatting. I heard the venerable bass player, Rufus Reid, once say that people really appreciated it when a singer simply sang the melody, in a beautiful and unforgettable way, instead of showing off how clever they think they are with inappropriate scatting. A singer who scats masterfully can knock your socks off; one who scats poorly leaves you disappointed.

When I sing, I want to tell a story. Although rhythmic concepts, melodic techniques, and chord changes are important, when people listen to a singer, they want to be moved. They want to be touched. They want to journey to those places within themselves that are not easy to reach, on an ordinary day. My goal is to reach those places, and to bond with the listener in a mutual acknowledgement of the commonality of human feeling. Jazz music, which finds its ultimate roots in the blues, is a music which grabs the emotion, stirs the intellect, causes intense reflection, makes your foot tap, and more often than not, just makes you feel real happy. My fervent wish is that when you hear my music, you remember yourself.

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