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Though all too often confined to the role of chanteuse, over the past 100 years many female jazz instrumentalists have made noteworthy contributions to the genre through their commitment to musicianship. We line up 10 of the best, from early pioneers like American pianist Mary Lou Williams, to contemporary talents like Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana.
Born in Manchuria in 1929, legendary Japanese bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi began playing the piano at the age of six. However, it wasn’t until her teens that she first heard jazz – a record by American pianist Teddy Wilson – and fell in love with the sound. After coming to the U.S. to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Akiyoshi’s career took off. In the 1970s she began incorporating Japanese elements into her sound – a unique contribution to jazz that she is still recognized for today. Akiyoshi was the first woman to be named both “Best Composer” and “Best Arranger” in the DownBeat Magazine Readers’ Poll and was honored with the prestigious NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2007.
Widely hailed in jazz circles as one of the best contemporary jazz drummers around today, Terri Lyne Carrington has had an illustrious music career spanning some 30 years. She began learning the drums at the age of seven and was eventually awarded a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, where she would later be appointed professor. Her touring career has included working with such legends as Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau, while her recording career includes two Grammy Award-winning works – The Mosaic Project, a collaboration with a myriad of female jazz artists that scooped “Best Jazz Vocal Album,” and her most recent release Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, which won the “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” in 2013.
American pianist, composer, and bandleader Carla Bley’s immersion into jazz began in her adolescence after hearing the likes of Lionel Hampton and Gerry Mulligan inspired her to leave her native California for New York City. There she took a job as a cigarette girl at the legendary Birdland club to expose herself to more jazz. Before long, Bley was composing her own music. Alongside future husband Michael Mantler, she founded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, the group behind what is considered Bley’s best known work. The Escalator Over the Hill, a genre-crossing exploration of free jazz, was listed among The Guardian’s “50 Great Moments In Jazz.”
The late, great jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was truly a pioneering female figure in jazz. Born in 1910, by the age of eight Williams was already a working musician, and before reaching her 20’s she could add working with jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers to her resume. Deftly adapting to the evolution of jazz over her six-decade career, Williams later became a leading figure in bop and a champion of then upcoming musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Before her death in 1981, Duke Ellington described Williams as, “perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career.”
Hailed by the music press as a virtuoso, Detroit-born Regina Carter is the leading jazz violinist of her generation. Trained as a classical violinist from age four, Carter played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as a youth. Yet it wasn’t until friend and jazz singer Carla Cook introduced her to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Jean-Luc Ponty that Carter fell for jazz. In 2006, Carter was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship with the MacArthur Foundation, describing her as “a master of improvisational jazz violin.” The Foundation praised her diverse repertoire of genres, ranging from Motown and bebop to folk and world music – evident in her 2014 release Southern Comfort, an exploration of Southern folk music.
Trailblazing trombonist and arranger Melba Liston is known as the first female trombonist to play in the male-dominated big bands of the 1940s to 1960s, performing amongstthe likes of Gerald Wilson and Dizzy Gillespie. While Liston recorded just one album as bandleader – Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones in 1958 – throughout her career as arranger and composer she made many noteworthy contributions to music, including a longtime creative collaboration with jazz pianist Randy Weston. This spawned his critically acclaimed album The Spirits of Our Ancestors. Though a stroke in 1985 left her unable to play, Liston continued her career as an arranger and was honored with a 1987 NEA Jazz Masters Award before her death in 1999.
Born in Los Angeles in 1928, alto saxophonist Vi Redd’s musical family – her father was drummer Alton Redd, a prominent figure on L.A.’s Central Avenue jazz scene, and her great aunt was the renowned musician and teacher Alma Hightower – exposed her to jazz from an early age. Alongside Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston, she is considered one of the early pioneers of female jazz musicianship, who, despite the male-dominated genre, more than proved her worth playing with male contemporaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. In 1989, the Los Angeles Jazz Society honored Redd with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2001 she was recognized with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award.
Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana began playing at the age of six under the schooling of her father Marcos Aldana, also an accomplished saxophonist. By 16 she was headlining sets at clubs in her native Santiago before her career took her to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After graduating, a move to New York City saw the recording of Aldana’s debut album, Free Fall, and a string of performances at high-profile venues and events like Blue Note Jazz Club and the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 2013, Aldana achieved a place in jazz history when she became the first female and first South American musician to win the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition.
New York City-born and New Jersey-raised Emily Remler was a self-taught guitarist whose first foray with the instrument was playing the music of rock and blues legends like Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter. Discovering guitarists like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery while studying at Berklee College of Music turned her onto jazz. After moving to New Orleans, a meeting with Herb Ellis, who she impressed greatly, saw her invited to play at the Concord Jazz Festival, which in turn saw her signed to Concord Records and the release of her debut album, Firefly, in 1981. Sadly, Remler died at the young age of 32. However her legacy lives on, with jazz critic Gene Lees proclaiming her as “an extraordinarily daring player.”
Described by Jazz Times as “a remarkably accomplished straight ahead player with flawless time, pristine execution, serious chops, a keen ear for re-harmonization and an inner urge to burn,” San Francisco-based Mimi Fox first started playing guitar at the age of 10. Over the course of her 30-year career, she performed and recorded with legends and contemporary talents including Charlie Byrd and Terri Lyne Carrington. Alongside a host of album guest appearances, Fox has also released 10 albums as bandleader, including her critically acclaimed 2006 album Perpetually Hip, hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as her masterwork. A devoted educator, Fox inspires younger generations of guitarists as an associate professor at the California Jazz Conservatory.