10 Women Instrumentalists Who Redefine Jazz

Music Lists Alice Coltrane
10 Women Instrumentalists Who Redefine Jazz

While jazz has a long history of racial integration, its inclusion of woman musicians is limited—focused almost exclusively on women vocalists and the novelty of all-female big bands. Born out of the sort of liquor-soaked nightclubs deemed unfit for a “respectable lady,” it’s no wonder the world of jazz, including jazz criticism, has always been a boy’s club. A few women have managed to squeeze their way in through the years, but often only to perform a couple “cute” songs and be written off as eye candy. Consequentially, it is rare for a woman to become a professional instrumentalist like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, who leads her own band and has the most freedom for creative expression and conversation. These women exist, though, and here are 10 of the most talented who rival their male counterparts and redefine what a woman in jazz can be.

1. Lil Hardin Armstrong
Everyone’s heard of Louis Armstrong, but few have heard of his second wife—the pianist, composer, and arranger Lillian “Lil” Hardin Armstrong. Hardin Armstrong was the main person to persuade Louis to pursue a solo career, and the composer and pianist behind many of his early Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. But aside from her role in Louis’s fame, Hardin Armstrong herself had a career all her own. Growing up, she lived only blocks from Beale St., the center of African American nightlife in Memphis in the early 20th century. It was there that Hardin Armstrong heard the earliest jazz and set out to participate, despite her mother’s disapproval. Having grown up playing piano and organ in church, she sought out to find a band willing to include a female pianist. When the New Orleans Creole Band (later to become the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band) came to town, she got a job playing with them for $22.50 a week. From then on, she was known as “Hot Miss Lil.” An attraction all to herself, James L. Dickerson wrote in his book Just for a Thrill, “She played like a man, but dressed like a Sunday school teacher.” Sexist back-handed compliments aside, Armstrong is considered to be one of the first prominent women in jazz.

2. Alice Coltrane
Similar to Lil Hardin Armstrong, harpist and pianist Alice Coltrane’s legacy has been somewhat occluded by the legacy of her husband, John Coltrane. In fact, few know that she replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist in John Coltrane’s quartet until Coltrane’s death in 1967. Not to mention, Coltrane is also one of the only musicians, let alone women, to use harp in a jazz setting—an artistic choice that is rarely imitated and became her signature. An incredibly gifted avant-garde musician, composer, and arranger, Alice Coltrane was also deeply moved by two spiritual experiences that subsequently became integral to her body of work. Left alone to raise her four children, Alice Coltrane sought truth through meditation and prayer, which led her to meet guru Swami Satchidananda and travel to India. There she said she was called into God’s service, and from that moment forward known as Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. As a result, her work incorporates many of the aspects of India’s Hindustani musical traditions like drones, ragas, Tabla drum, and sitar. Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s innovative work, especially her collaborations with saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, are as sublime as they are indelibly important to the tradition.

3. Mary Lou Williams
In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, 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. She is like soul on soul.” There isn’t an endorsement in jazz that holds more water than one from Duke Ellington, and Mary Lou Williams was one of Ellington’s favorites. A virtuosic composer, arranger, and pianist, Williams is one of the most significant musicians of the first three decades of jazz. Williams got her start as a young teen with Andy Kirk’s swing band, Twelve Clouds of Joy, in which she was their preeminent soloist and arranger. For many years she was the only woman in major big band, as well. After she left Kirk’s band, Williams became acquainted with Duke Ellington through her husband, trumpeter Shorty Baker. Williams stretched herself as a composer and arranger for Ellington, working on pieces that are classic to this day, like her arrangement of “Blue Skies” from Ellington’s 1944 Carnegie Hall recordings. What’s more, William’s house was a creative salon where she helped foster future jazz royalty, including Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.

4. Mary Osborne
When Mary Osborne was first breaking onto the scene, jazz violinist Joe Venuti and the other men who’d heard about a “guitar gal” set out to play a practical joke. Assuming she wouldn’t be able to keep up during her audition for his band, Venuti chose an obscure song from the 1920s and played it at unrelentingly fast tempo. Then, he kicked it up a notch and began changing keys every four measures. She was, disappointingly to the jokesters, completely unfazed by every challenge they threw at her. An incredible player with a deep love of Charlie Christian, Mary Osborne was more than just a girl with a guitar, but a deep, proficient guitarist with something to prove. Throughout her career, Osborne fronted her own trio and worked tirelessly as a session musician recording with artists like Mel Torme, Clark Terry, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and the aforementioned Mary Lou Williams. She also shared the stage with Billie Holiday. Very few women up to that point had even laid hands on a guitar, let alone a jazz archtop, but Osborne brought a spunk and virtuosity that put her down in history as a luminary.

5. Emily Remler
Emily Remler picked back up right where Mary Osborne left off. Like Osborne, Remler showed the world once again guitar isn’t just a man’s axe. A New Jersey girl, Remler was a creative kid, playing piano and drawing for hours on end. She played some rock and folk guitar as a girl, but it wasn’t until she got to Berkelee College of Music, where she was exposed to the works of Charlie Christiansen and Wes Montgomery, that she set out to learn about jazz. She quickly built a reputation for herself gigging in New York City with singers and fronting her own bands. Sadly, her life and career were cut incredibly short—she died from a heroin overdose at age 32. Dynamic and nuanced, her Remler is a largely forgotten hero of bebop guitar.

6. Melba Liston
A recent documentary, The Girls in the Band recounts the story of the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-women’s big band. Melba Liston was one of the main attractions in that band—a deft soloist with a force-of-nature sound and a sought-after talent for composing and arranging. As a girl, Liston was instantly drawn to the trombone but struggled reach the sixth and seventh positions with the trombone slide. She stuck with it, though, and at the age of sixteen decided she would become a professional musician. She went on to get a gig in the Los Angeles Lincoln Theater band, and then in the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the latter of which toured internationally. She attracted notice of Dizzy Gillespie and was asked to join his big band. A year later, his group was forced to disband and Liston was invited to join Billie Holiday on tour, but that gig also dissolved from financial issues. Liston became disillusioned with the constant struggle and quit music right around 1949. She moved back to L.A. and became an administrator on the Board of Education. Though technically retired, she would later come back to music in the late fifties to play with Dizzy Gillespie, score the music for artists like Milt Jackson and her mentor Randy Weston, and even do arrangements for pop artists like Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. In 1958, Liston recorded her only album as a bandleader, Melba Liston and her Bones, which is a gem of jazz history.

7. Vi Redd
Saxophonist first and singer second, Vi Redd is another tour-de-force to from the Sweethearts of Rhythm of the 1930s. Redd had a gritty tone that rivaled Coltrane’s, and a unique ability to find the groove. Her keen awareness of swing undoubtedly was passed down from her father, New Orleans drummer Alton Redd, known for his work with Kid Ory and Dexter Gordon. Vi Redd started playing alto at the age of 12, after her aunt gave her a sax and taught her the basics. She began performing professionally in 1948 alongside her first husband, trumpeter Nathaniel Meeks, but later moved on to pursue her own projects. Her acclaim peaked in the 1960s, after she played the Las Vegas Jazz Festival and, as the Los Angeles Sentinel reported, “[became] the first femme to be one of the instrumental headliners at a jazz festival. As a matter of fact, Miss Redd, may well be the first gal horn player in jazz history to establish herself as a major soloist.” A multi-talented 88-year old with three albums to her name, Vi Redd should be right beside Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in the history books.

8. Marjorie “Marjie” Hyams
Marjie Hyams is the vibraphonist on the classic early recordings from the George Shearing quintet. Much of what made the quintet’s sound unique was the interplay between Shearing’s piano playing and Hyam’s tasteful, melodic response on vibes. Hyams started playing music on piano after watching her elder brother tackle the instrument, and jazz came into the picture when she first heard pianist Art Tatum and the classical composer Stravinsky. Her introduction to vibraphone, though, was happenstance—she picked up mallets for the first time while she was on-air with a quintet of young musicians on a radio program. They already had a good pianist, so Hyams was asked to play vibes. With a more pianistic approach than other vibraphonists of the day had, Hyams played more like a soloist than a percussionist. This broadened the scope of accepted uses and interpretations on the vibes, which went on to inspire other significant jazz vibraphonists to follow. But even still, Hyams spent her career dealing with sexism, especially during her stint with the Woody Herman orchestra. In a 2011 interview with JazzWax, Hyams said, “It wasn’t all terrific with Woody…Guys would do mean things, petty things, that would impinge upon my ability to perform. For example, they’d move my vibes to a place on the stage that wasn’t easily accessible or where I wouldn’t be seen.” Well, she will be seen now.

9. Kasey Knudsen
Virtuosic women instrumentalists in jazz are not a thing of the past, either. Kasey Knudsen is a modern San Francisco-based jazz saxophonist and educator. She graduated from Berkelee College of Music in 2001, and since has performed with dozens of ensembles and played a vital role in fostering young talent through her work with the Jazzschool in Berkeley, Calif., the program for Young Musicians at UC Berkeley, and her staff position at Stanford Jazz Camp. She is known for her adventurous take on the saxophone, especially in her projects like The Holly Martins and The Schimscheimer Family Trio, which push deliciously towards jazz-rock fusion. Along with playing cascading, virtuosic solos, Knudsen experiments with sound design and effects, transforming the “jazz” listening experience. Knudsen toured the world with pop artist tUnE-yArDs, and has collaborated with Evan Francis and Spaceheater, Lisa Mezzacappa, Ted-Brinkley’s Horn Blower Cruise Ship, Graham Connah, Nathan Clevenger, Aaron Novik’s Thorny Brocky, pianist Jarrett Cherner, and many others. Though largely unknown to the masses, she is one of the foremost modern innovators on the tenor saxophone.

10. Carmen Rothwell
Carmen Rothwell, too, is an astounding contemporary young bassist living in New York City. She’s a beloved progeny of the Pacific Northwest’s creative music scene and a graduate of the University of Washington’s well-regarded jazz studies program. Rothwell began playing bass at the age of 10 in school orchestras and jazz bands, and had the good luck of attending one of, if not the best high school for jazz in the country, Garfield High. Her tenure at Garfield and then University of Washington gave her the opportunity to tour nationally and internationally, and early on she received attention for her solid sense of swing, improvisational abilities, and versatility as a bassist. In 2014, Earshot Jazz Festival named Rothwell “Emerging Artist of the Year” and her tasteful, listen-first style has caught the attention of modern jazz greats like Bill Frisell, Cuong Vu, and Ted Poor. Currently, Rothwell plays straight-ahead jazz, the more avant-garde, and even pop music. In current projects like Tyrant Lizard, she plays with other up-and-coming talent in the creative music world, like guitarist, Gregg Belisle-chi and trumpeter Ray Larson. What’s more, music of Rothwell’s compositional and improvisation work pushes the envelope, especially focusing on timbral improvisation, extended techniques, and other unorthodox, undiscovered ways of looking at sound and the acoustic bass.

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