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March 2017 Artists of the Month: WOMEN IN JAZZ

March is Women’s History Month!

The best-known women in the world of jazz are nearly all vocalists. We know them by their first names: Ella, Billie, Sarah, and so forth. There is no substitute for the female voice, after all. For instrumentalists, though, the path to equality, let alone prominence, has been pretty steep. Throughout the month, WICN will highlight and recognize women who have made a mark on the music and on the culture: both pioneers and, in growing numbers, artists of today.

Here are some women artists that WICN will feature during March:

MARY LOU WILLIAMS (1910 – 1981), pianist and composer whose long and very successful career spanned stride and boogie to contemporary sounds;

Pianist Mary Lou Williams was perhaps the first woman to attain a high rank in the jazz world on an instrument – and a remarkable woman in her own right. She was born Mary Alfreda Burley in 1910 and began playing spirituals and ragtime on her mother’s knee in their Pittsburgh home from age 3. By her teens, she was touring in vaudeville, and caught the attention of Fats Waller and other jazz giants. She married saxophonist John Williams, and settled in the fertile jazz ground of Kansas City. Her husband joined Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy in 1929, and Mary Lou soon became the pianist and a frequent composer and arranger. She also wrote for the likes of Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Duke Ellington, including the Goodman classic “Roll ‘Em”. In the 1940s she remarried trumpeter Harold “Shorty” Baker. Her Sugar Hill apartment in Harlem was a gathering place for the burgeoning bebop scene.

In the early 1950s, Mary Lou had a religious conversion. Distressed at “greed, selfishness, and envy”, she got up from the piano, walked out of a Paris club, left the music scene, and later converted to Catholicism. Two priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return, triumphantly, with Diz’s great band at the 1957 New port Jazz Festival. Until her passing in 1981, Mary Lou Williams had a prolific and distinguished career as a performer, bandleader, and composer. Her pianistic style covered a wide scope, from stride to contemporary. But she always could swing. As fellow piano giant Dr. Billy Taylor said, it didn’t matter who she played with: “She’s one of the very few people I know who can do this – consistently swing in any context.” Her takes on the jazz songbook are must-hears. But she also developed concepts into some remarkable compositions: The Zodiac Suite, a series of tone-poems for the twelve signs; three full Masses, performed at top concert halls, St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and with the great Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Her genius is perhaps best captured in the powerful 1964 project Black Christ of the Andes, with brilliant piano work on standards and blues, plus moving religious pieces – fully spiritual and swinging!

Mary Lou Williams passed away May 8, 1981, in Durham, NC, while in her fourth year as artist-in-residence at Duke University. In her short time there, she was awarded the first Trinity Award for service by a faculty member to Duke. Especially for a woman whose own education was in reality (not the academy), it was a fitting capstone to a distinguished, pioneering life.

A great source on Mary Lou Williams’ life is John S. Wilson’s obituary in the New York Times from May 30, 1981.

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TERRI LYNNE CARRINGTON (1965 ), Boston born and bred drummer, bandleader, and teacher supreme;

Prodigious percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington is a featured Woman in Jazz. In addition to an in-demand percussionist, she has served as bandleader and composer for a number of award-winning projects over the years. She has performed with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Al Jarreau and many more.

Carrington’s musical journey began in 1965, born into a family with a significant musical pedigree. Her father Sonny Carrington was a tenor saxophonist and president of the Boston Jazz Society, her mother was an amateur pianist, and her grandfather,  a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry. Terri initially began on alto sax, but ultimately found her grandfather’s drum kit more appealing, and proved herself a natural.

Her talent was quickly noticed - to the point where she sat in with famous jazz veterans such as Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Joe Williams. At age eleven, she received a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Eventually, she would gain an honorary doctorate from her alma mater in 2003.

At the age of sixteen, she graduated from high school and moved to New York City, and from 1984 through 1985 she toured Europe with Clark Terry. In the late 1980’s, she secured the drummer’s chair in the house band for the Arsenio Hall Show and released her first album, Real Life Story. The album, co-produced by Carrington and Robert Irving, features an array of styles and guest artists, including guitarist/vocalist Carlos Santana, jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, blues guitarist John Scofield, and frequent collaborator Wayne Shorter. In an interview with Down Beat magazine, Carrington highlighted that she did not want to be restricted in terms of music styles and instruments. "Some people like to use stereotypes. They might want to label me as a jazz drummer because I had been associated with more traditional kinds of jazz for so long," she said. "So they hear my album and they're surprised that there's no traditional, swinging jazz on it. Well, all I got to say is, pigeonholes are for pigeons." The album received a Grammy nomination in 1990 for best Jazz Fusion Performance.

In 2002, Carrington released her second solo effort, Jazz Is a Spirit. "Its pacing of ethereal ballads, moody mid-tempo ruminations and bristling up-tempo compositions reveal Carrington as a masterful producer who knows how to maximize an engaging listening experience," noted Down Beat in 2002. The High Note label released her third solo album, Structure, in the spring of 2004.

Carrington eventually would win her first Grammy in 2012, as The Mosaic Project was named Best Vocal Jazz Album. She again won in 2014 for her reimagining of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach’s collaboration Money Jungle. Carrington’s interpretation features the original tracks along with original compositions. In comparison to the 1963 original, which fits into a Post-Bop sound, Carrington’s interpretation possesses finesse and electicness. Her drumming and serves as the focal point.

Much of Carrington’s music is noted for her funky drumming style, which has been applied primarily to Jazz and R&B genres, she has experimented with other genres from Rock and Soul, even to a classical setting. Her output as a leader is extensive, along with her collaborations with an immense number of musicians. She continues to be featured in clubs, concerts, festivals, and profiled in both drumming publications and Jazz magazines.She is also Artistic Director for the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival, which regularly draws over 50,000 to Boston’s South End.

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REGINA CARTER (1966), the finest jazz violinist of her generation;

Regina Carter possesses a unique and striking musical identity. As a violinist, one would expect  basically classical approach. However, Carter does the unexpected; much of her music is based around jazz and related musical categories. Her music aligns with her eclectic tastes.

Regina Carter was born in Detroit on August 6th, 1966 to Dan and Grace Carter. At the age of two, she began piano lessons and then switched over to violin. Her training was primarily in classical, but as a teenager, she became interested in both jazz and funk. She  was a violin prodigy and performed with the Detroit Civic Symphony at age 12. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory. However, the conservatory at the time lacked the jazz program that she wanted to enroll in. She transferred to Oakland University in Michigan, where she received her BA.

In 1987, Carter joined a group called Straight Ahead. The group played primarily in the jazz idiom, specifically bop and post-bop, pluds ventured into fusion and R&B territory. The group was prominent in the early 1990’s, even securing a spot opening for Nina Simone at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Carter eventually left the group  to pursue session work for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Billy Joel, Max Roach and Dolly Parton.

Carter released her self-titled debut album in 1995. She continues to produce successful, well-received recordings. Her most recent album, 2014’s Southern Comfort, is a collection of pieces in homage to her African-American family’s background.

In 2003, Carter released an album more in touch with her classical training: The release was Paganini: After a Dream, a record designed for a wider audience than strictly classical or jazz., It has tinges of post-bop fused with classical a la Paganini, with dashes of Latin influences. Touring for the album, Carter managed to play on a violin once owned by Niccolo Paganini himself called Il Cannone (The Cannon), on stage in Genoa, Italy, the instrument’s home.

Carter’s prodigious talent and genre shifting abilities grant her prowess rarely seen in the music community. While it has been a couple of years since her last release, Carter performs onstage across the country, currently featuring a program called “Simply Ella” in honor of Ella Fitzgerald’s centenary. One does not know what to expect from Regina Carter next, but whatever it may be, it will certainly be exciting and compelling.

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MELBA LISTON (1926 – 1999), trombonist and “force of nature” who broke the gender barrier in prominent bands, and was a great soloist;

Melba Liston was more than simply a trombonist; she was an arranger, educator and icon for other women in the jazz community. Her legacy lies as a trailblazer for women who wanted to participate in jazz.

Liston was born into a musically inclined family in Kansas City, MO in 1926. At the age of seven, she picked up the trombone. “They decided to form a music class at my elementary school and a traveling music store came with a variety of instruments, when I saw the trombone I thought how beautiful it looked and knew I just had to have one. No one told me that it was difficult to master.”

After a bit of difficulty with the instrument, Liston progressed quickly on the instrument and even managed to appear on local radio station. In 1937, her family moved to Los Angles where she continued to develop her talents on the trombone. She performed and recorded with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie. Liston would eventually find herself as one of the members of the touring band behind singer Billie Holiday in 1949.

After three years working for the Board of Education, she gave up on playing the trombone and music. She briefly dived into Hollywood films, appearing in The Prodigal and The Ten Commandments. After this, she rejoined Dizzy Gillespie to tour the Middle East and Asia in 1956. This tour would extend into South America the following year.

In addition to her prowess on the trombone, she had a talent for arranging. During her time with Gillespie, she did tunes such as The Gypsy, Stella by Starlight and My Reverie. She arranged for artists the likes of Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. Her most enduring partnership was with pianist and composer Randy Weston, as the two collaborated on ten albums together, beginning with Little Niles 1958. Weston had this to say: "Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it. She will create a melody that sounds like I created it. She's just a great, great arranger.”

Liston’s later moved to Jamaica in 1973, where she would teach until 1979. In 1985, she suffered a stroke, which left her partially paralyzed. This would not stop her from continuing to arrange music. She received the prestigious “Jazz Masters Fellowship” from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987. She experienced a number of strokes until she passed away in 1999.

Liston was a rare figure in the jazz community over the duration of her career. In a genre dominated by men, there were few women in jazz, especially musicians and arrangers. She was a trailblazer, paving the path for future women in jazz and breaking barriers to those who wanted to become involved with jazz.

 

 

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