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It's A Woman's World: Six Jazz Trailblazers

The Kennedy Center honors Mary Lou Williams every year with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which showcases today's brightest female jazz artists.
William P. Gottlieb
Library of Congress via
The Kennedy Center honors Mary Lou Williams every year with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which showcases today's brightest female jazz artists.

Because March 8 is International Women's Day, this week's Take Five celebrates six important women in jazz. Three exemplify classic artists who paved the way for women's work in a jazz world once dominated by men, while three are modern innovators.

When you ask someone to name a few women in jazz, the first names that often come to mind are singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe singers are just easier to spot than those mastering non-vocal instruments.

These six women are accomplished composers and players who deserve just as much recognition as better-known jazz singers.

For more entries in the Take Five series, click here. And don't forget to subscribe to the Jazz Notes newsletter.

It's A Woman's World: Six Jazz Trailblazers

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams is probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz. She taught herself to play piano as a child and began touring as a teenager. Her contemporaries include everyone from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra to Thelonious Monk. Whether composing and arranging for big bands, bebop groups or even sacred music and Catholic masses, Williams was always original.

Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott was the queen of the Hammond B-3 organ. As a youth, she played piano and trumpet, but her career as a musician blossomed when she started playing the B-3. Scott was powerful, especially for her size, but her style also employed control and subtlety, even when working with a large ensemble. "Roll 'Em" was composed by Mary Lou Williams.

Marian McPartland

Much like Mary Lou Williams, pianist Marian McPartland began playing at a young age. She was classically trained. During WWII, she was touring Europe to entertain troops when she met her future husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. She played with his band for a while, then moved on to her own jazz performance career. She's been leading her own groups ever since. This version of "Tangerine" was recorded at a celebration of her 85th birthday. Now in her 90s, McPartland is still hosting NPR's Piano Jazz, which has been on the air since 1979.

Geri Allen

Pianist Geri Allen is one of the most accomplished women in jazz today. Not only is she a noted composer and performer, but she's also an educator, teaching at the University of Michigan. She shares her deep knowledge and passion for exploring African-American culture within her work. She also led the Mary Lou Williams Collective, celebrating the music of the legendary jazz artist. "The Gathering" is so full of life, it's liable to lift the spirit of anyone who listens to it.

Regina Carter

Violinist Regina Carter was classically trained, but developed an interest in jazz while in school in her native Detroit. In the late 1980s, she was part of the groundbreaking all-female contemporary jazz group Straight Ahead. Carter can swing hard. For this song, though, she paid special attention to the voice of the antique instrument on which she played, Paganini's Guarneri del Gesu violin. She was the first jazz artist to be permitted to play the instrument. In her hands, "Pavane" sings without words.

Maria Schneider

After completing college, masterful composer and arranger Maria Schneider moved to New York in the mid-1980s. There, she became an assistant to the legendary Gil Evans, and also worked with Bob Brookmeyer. In the '90s, Schneider began leading her own jazz orchestra, and her talent has flourished exponentially since then. Schneider has received many awards and commissions over the years, including Grammy Awards for her 2005 and 2007 recordings. Schneider's compositions are as complex as they are clear in vision and feeling. "Lately" was written in 1987.

Copyright 2009 90.5 WESA

Shaunna Morrison Machosky