Jazz is an American musical art form born in the African American communities of New Orleans in the early 20th century. From its humble beginnings, jazz has grown to become one of the most popular and widely-recognized genres in the world.
It has often been a genre dominated by men. However, there have been many women who have made significant contributions to jazz over the years. And in this article, we’ll be taking a look at the lives and careers of 15 of the greatest and most famous female jazz musicians of all time.
1. Mary Lou Williams
As a young girl in Atlanta, Georgia, Mary Lou Williams began teaching herself how to play the piano. As a six-year-old, she was already earning an income playing piano in homes and she was soon performing alongside some of the biggest names in jazz.
In the 1930s, she became one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time, composing and arranging music for some of the biggest stars in the industry.
In her lifetime, Mary wrote over 350 compositions. She even founded her label, Mary Records, where she released the self-produced “Black Christ of the Andes.”
2. Diana Krall
Next, we have Diana Krall who is a celebrated female jazz singer and pianist who has won numerous awards throughout her career.
Hailing from Canada, she is known for her smooth vocals and her swinging jazz style. Legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday are the main influences for her style.
Her popularity has led to over 15 million album sales since beginning her career in 1993. Eight of her albums debuted at the top of Billboard’s Jazz Album List.
Two of her most popular songs are “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “The Look of Love.”
3. Toshiko Akiyoshi
Japanese American jazz pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi began playing the piano at the age of six, and by the time she was a teenager, she had already established herself as one of Japan’s most promising young jazz musicians.
She moved to the United States in 1956 to study at Berklee School of Music and in 1972, Toshiko was able to finally form a band in Los Angeles.
She married Lew Tabackin, a prominent flutist and saxophonist, and formed the band with him. Their band debuted to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall in 1983.
Toshiko Akiyoshi earned more than 14 Grammy nominations and released over 20 albums. She would go on to have a six-decade career.
4. Carla Bley
Carla Bley is a highly-acclaimed jazz composer and pianist who has been active in the music industry since the 1950s.
Born in California, she self-taught and is known for her unique, experimental style.
Her music often incorporates elements of classical and avant-garde music with her pivotal work being the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill.
She eventually formed the non-profit Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association to create and distribute unconventional jazz.
5. Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane was a jazz pianist, harpist, and composer whose surname you might recognize. That’s because she was married to legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.
She began her career as a church organist in the late 1950s and soon caught the attention of some of the biggest names in jazz.
In the 1970s, Coltrane began experimenting with spiritual jazz, a style heavily influenced by her Indian religious beliefs. Her later years were more devoted to Hindi devotional songs. She eventually adopted a Sanskrit name, Turiyasangitananda.
Her album A Monastic Trio is considered one of the most important albums in the history of spiritual jazz.
6. Melissa Aldana
Melissa Aldana is a Chilean female jazz saxophonist who many hail as one of the most talented young musicians in the jazz scene.
She began performing in her teens in jazz clubs and would go on to Berklee College of Music and has since released two critically acclaimed albums.
She won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013. Music critics often give her praise for her powerful and emotive playing style.
Her current band, the Melissa Aldana Quartet, was formed in 2017 who she continues to play and record with.
7. Blossom Dearie
Blossom Dearie was an American jazz singer and pianist best known for her quirky, girlish vocal style.
She was from New York and earned the middle name Blossom from the flowers delivered the day of her birth.
She started playing the piano as a five-year-old and since then went on to release over a dozen solo albums during her career and was popular among both jazz and cabaret fans.
8. Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn was an American jazz singer and pianist who was best known for her mellow, laid-back vocal style and introspective songwriting.
Hailing from Washington, D.C. she studied classical music at Howard University. After graduating she went on to have a number of high-profile collaborations with jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, and more.
Her song “Here’s to Life ” is considered one of the most beloved jazz standards of all time and she earned a total of nine Grammy Awards.
9. Lil Hardin Armstrong
Next up we have Lil Hardin Armstrong who was an American jazz pianist and singer. Like Alice Coltrane, you might recognize her surname too and that’s because she was married to legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whom she often collaborated with.
She began her career in the 1920s, and soon became one of the most popular jazz performers of her time.
Hardin Armstrong is best known for her rollicking and boogie-woogie piano playing, which helped define the early jazz sound.
Some of her most well-known works include “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and “Don’t Jive Me.” Unfortunately, she died before she could finish her biography.
10. Terri Lyne Carrington
Terri Lyne Carrington is an American jazz drummer, composer, and producer who many cite as one of the most talented young musicians in the jazz scene.
Carrington has released over a dozen albums in her career and is a frequent collaborator with some of the biggest names in jazz such as Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau.
To date, Terri has won three Grammy Awards and received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.
11. Melba Liston
Melba Liston was an American jazz trombonist and composer who was often hailed as one of the most talented trombonists of her generation.
She began playing the trombone at the age of nine, and soon caught the attention of some of the biggest names in jazz.
In the 1950s and 60s, she worked with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis. She often worked as a ghostwriter for other noted jazz musicians.
12. Clora Bryant
Next we have Clora Bryant who was a famous female trumpeter and vocalist from Texas whose talent made her popular among both jazz and R&B fans.
She began playing the trumpet at the age of 11. It did not take long for her to catch the attention of some of the biggest names in jazz.
In the 1950s and 60s, she worked with artists such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
Sadly, she had to stop playing the trumpet after quadruple bypass surgery in 1996. But, these health issues didn’t stop her from singing.
13. Eliane Elias
Eliane Elias is a Brazilian jazz pianist and singer who many consider one of the most talented musicians in the jazz scene.
At the age of 17, she began performing in her native Brazil. But, she first came to prominence in the 1980s, when she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
Since then Elias has released almost 30 albums and frequently collaborates with some of the biggest names in jazz. Herbie Hancock is one of the most noteworthy collaborations from her 1995 album Solos and Duets.
She’s been nominated for numerous Grammy awards and even won two!
14. Emily Remler
Emily Remler was a jazz guitarist who was hailed as one of the most promising young guitarists of her generation.
She first came to prominence in the 1980s, when she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
But, in 1990, she died tragically at the age of only 32 from a heart attack. She released six albums before her death.
15. Bobbi Humphrey
And finally, we have jazz flutist Bobbi Humphrey who was popular among both jazz and R&B fans.
She first came to prominence in the 1970s and since then she has released twelve albums and founded Paradise Sounds Records.
She is a frequent collaborator with some of the biggest names in jazz and has been nominated for four Grammy Awards.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Female Jazz Musicians
As we can see, there have been many talented women in jazz throughout history.
These women have helped to shape the sound of jazz and contribute to one of America’s most beloved art forms.
Hopefully, in the years to come, even more women will be inspired to take up jazz and carry on this illustrious tradition.