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How women have influenced jazz music through the decades

Michelle is a professional freelance writer who loves music, poetry, pets, and the arts. She is a techno-geek as well.


By Michelle Liew


The smooth sounds of jazz resonate with many of us. Many of us have fond memories of sitting in a cocktail lounge, sipping a cool drink and letting the soothing waves of these eclectic sounds wash over us the way shampoo slides over a little baby.

Indeed, jazz has been an irremovable part of our lives since the dawn of the 20th century. Widely enjoyed by many, this musical form is also responsible for other genres that developed as its offshoots. Rap and hip hop of this modern day and age owe their inception to their big sister, the jazz form.

When we think of jazz, we think of greats like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or Art Tatum. Move down the decades and we have talents like Eric Clapton.

But many of us forget the contributions of many great female jazz artists and singers, some of whose records are not often played. This article will touch on the history of jazz and the contributions of these great women.


The history of jazz music

By general definition, jazz music is a musical form that developed in the early 20th century among the members of the black community of the southern United States. It greatly involved the musical improvisation of European forms, with musicians blending them with African American elements. The used of “worried” or transitional blues notes lowered in pitch and multiple, offbeat rhythms give jazz its unique musical flavor.

The influence of regional cultures has also given the jazz forms of different parts of the United States its unique flavor. Hence, the birth of Kansas City Jazz, Latin Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, New Orleans Jazz and the Big Band Swing in the 1930s and 40s.

Other forms like modal jazz, chamber jazz, ethno jazz, smooth jazz, and in recent years, jazz rap and jazz fusion, have developed over the course of recent decades.


The development of jazz music in the 20th century

The development of jazz through the 20th century


1900 - 1910

Jazz was in its infancy in the first decade of the 20th century.Jazz icons like Louis Armstrong and Bix Biederbecke were born in the first decade of the 20th century and began playing music that had more subversive, expressive forms.

1910 -1920

The jazz form began to flower, or as it were, to trumpet. Black musicians living in the poorer area of Harlem began to find innovative ways of generating income. They developed the rent party. Hosts would charge a small fee to those who wished to come for a party accompanied by jazz influenced music.

1920 -1930

This decade marked many important developments in jazz. WIth the prohibition of alcohol,rent parties became even more popular and jazz moved to private residences.Jazz musicians like Armstrong became popular.

1930 -1940

Despite the Great Depression of the 1930s. Jazz Music became resilient. The Big Band sound took root and rose greatly in popularity.


With the onset of World War 2, Big Band Swing declined and Beblop developed. Musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Armstrong soon developed the technique of Scat Singing, singing in nonsensical syllables, to a fast tempo.

1950 - today

Becoming more diverse, from this decade on the dfferent forms of Latin jazz, Gypsy Jazz and Smooth Jazz began to develop. Tjazz is improvized and fused with other forms of music.

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson

The nature of jazz music

Jazz, by nature, is considered difficult to define. There are many different forms of jazz music, each with its own improvisation. The best way to do this is by highlighting features that strike the “Aha! That’s Jazz! chord in the listener.


Jazz contains influences from different forms of music, but at least half of it has been created spontaneously. When a good jazz player plays the saxophone or the trumpet, he adds to it passing (transitional) notes of his own or his own little rhythms. Jazz singers are noted for bringing to the table a different version of a song each time they perform, with slight changes in notation or rhythm to give it character.

The Swing/Syncopated beat

The best way to define this is by saying that is a beat that gets your fingers snapping and the toes tapping.

What gives jazz its swing is the technique of syncopation. Syncopation, simply put, is the creation of surprising accents or the use of surprising rhythms at different points of the music. The effect of it is that the beat really hits the senses and gets you moving!

Use of bent notes/blues notes

These notes are notes that are, to put it simply, halfway between one note of the scale and the other.

Jazz players create unique combinations of notes, often moving from one note to the other by playing

passing notes in between.

Use of modes

Instead of employing many different scales in a piece of music, jazz makes use of just one or two scales. The music uses his creativity to vary around them. Hence, the development of modal jazz by greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane.


Women in jazz

Women have made significant contributions to jazz throughout the 20th century, many of them quite overlooked. Besides facing the same problems of racial stereotyping as their male counterparts. they had to deal with gender stereotyping, which sometimes precluded them from playing certain instruments. The cornet, for example, was an instrument thought not suitable for women. They were sometimes not allowed, because of societal norms, to pursue their careers. Jazz, in the early years, was considered inappropriate for women. With many not having much formal education at the time, they were deemed incapable of playing instruments.

Indeed, in the early decades of the 20th century, the Great Depression, the World Wars and many other historical events presented challenges for female musicians to overcome. Yet overcome them they did.

An example of a lady who transcended the boundaries find success in jazz was Mary Lou Williams. Not being able to read musical notation, she learned by listening to others play and adapting sounds by ear. Others like Billie Holliday overcame societal norms to become the rare female jazz greats of the day.


Ella FItzgerald Dream A LIttle Dream of Me

Great women who influenced jazz music through the decades

Through the decades, women have made significant contributions to jazz and influenced the form that it has taken in its present day. Here are some noteworthy women who have shaped it through the decades and left lasting legacies.

Ella Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald grew up in poverty and was homeless before getting a big break in Harlem’s Apollo theatre.

She was famed for the technique of ‘scat singing”, vocal improvisation that meant singing with syllables and not lyrics. A vocalist for the Chick Webb band as a teenager, she sang hits like a Tisket, A Tasket and was known as the First Lady of Song.


Billie Holiday Summertime

Billie Holiday

Mentioned earlier, Holiday overcame societal norms and stereotyping to become one of the most outstanding artists of her time. She developed a very dramatic style and worked with greats such as Lester Young, who gave her the name “Lady Day.” Known for inviting controversy with some of her songs, Lady Day gave the world music that was to influence musicians in decades to come.


Sarah Vaughan Misty

Sarah Vaughan

Vaughan played the piano and sang for the church choir as a little child. She was hired by Earl Hines for his Big Band as a teen. She came under the spell of greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, using her wide vocal range to sing a variety of styles. Her ability,equalled by few other singers left its mark on the jazz scene.


Dinah Washington Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Dinah Washington

Washington, then Ruth Lee Jones, began performing in nightclubs in her teens. Singing with Lionel Hampton, she took the name which made her a star. Her many blues hits gave her the name Queen of the Blues, but she made albums with many jazz bands.


Carmen McCrae Besame

Carmen Mcrae

A protégé of Holiday, Mcrae got her break with Benny Carter’s Big Band. She learned the language of Bebop and in 1954 was named by Downbeat as being the best new female singer. She remained a legend of jazz for the next four decades.


Nancy Wilson When Sunny Gets Blue

Nancy Wilson

Influenced by Dinah Washington and Little Jimmy Scott, Wilson pursued her forte in jazz while working days as a secretary. She soon recorded albums with the likes of George Shearing and Cannonball Adderley. She has acted in shows like the Cosby Show and hosted the Jazz Profiles series heard on many radio stations.The many accomplishments have made the blues singer a prominent and vital addition to the world of jazz.


At Last Etta James

Etta James

James started her career in 1954 with great hits like Roll with me Henry, At Last and Something’s Got A Hold On Me. Facing a number of personal problems, she made are resurgence in the 1980s with the album the Seven Year Itch.

The winner of Six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards is credited with bridging the gap between Rhythm and blues and Rock and Roll. She was ranked No 22 on the list of Rolling Stones Greatest Singers of all time.


Shirley Horn So You Won't Forget Me

Shirley Horn

Hailing from Washington D.C., horn began playing the piano as a child. Famed for her sultry voice and minimalist style, she worked as a singer-pianist while paying for her studies. Her recordings gained fame outside her hometown in the 1980s.


Cassandra Wilson Time after Time

Cassandra Wilson

An eclectic musician, Wilson has taken country, folk and blues influences and incorporated them into jazz tunes. She began working with the likes of Abbey Lincoln, Dave Holland and the MBase collective led by Steve Coleman after moving to New York. Influenced by the pop, folk and country music of her youth, Wilson has won 2 grammy awards.The ability to improvise has given her music a unique flavor and made her an influential addition to the jazz scene.


The Look of Love by Diana Krall

Diana Krall

The Canadian pianist and singer is famed for her contra alto vocals. Named the second Jazz artist of the 2000-2009 decade by Billboard, she had 8 of her albums debuting at the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums. She has won, to date, 2 Grammy Awards and 8 Juno Awards presented to Canadian musical artists. Her intimate singing style has made the Berklee Graduate one of the best selling and influential jazz artists of her generation.



Jazz is indeed an eclectic art form which many women have greatly influenced throughout the decades and still continue to, to this day.

Copyright by MIchelle Liew Tsui-Lin All Rights Reserved


Other music hubs by Michelle Liew



Irma Cowthern from Los Angeles,CA on February 27, 2017:

A great hub.

Anthony on December 29, 2014:

Seriously this is a great hub. I just wrote an article on jazz music. It really goes unappreciated by many but certainly is a talented genre of its own. I have grown to love jazz as I've gotten older.

Ausra on July 08, 2014:

Hello lovers of Jazz., same as You I enjoy listening this fabulous voice Lady. I invite you to follow the project of 12 Art Works - subject: Historical Jazz Musicians made by Canadian artist Marianne Morris.

Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and some other well-known jazz artist are still in process to be painted. Check our website and leave your comments if u want to be part of this project:


The nicest 3 comments and most active visitors will receive each 1 hand signed limited print with the painting ( Ella Fitzgerald ) we show now under Artist at Work.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on July 17, 2013:

Hi, B Leekley, Thanks! I know, there are so many great ladies to mention!

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 17, 2013:

Up, Useful, and Interesting. Some on your list are new to me, and I am glad to learn about them.

Also consider Marian McPartland, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 29, 2013:

These ladies are surely to be remembered for outstanding talent. Thanks for sharing, Lady Deonne.

Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on May 28, 2013:

Your hub is very informative and inclusive. I love all of the females featured. Sarah Vaughn is my absolute favorite. " Guess Who I Saw Today" is a classic. Thanks for sharing.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 24, 2013:

Thanks, Billie. Yes, I connected your name straight to Billie Holiday! That song is hauntingly beautiful and poignant....and a great impetus for the civil rights movement indeed. Thanks for sharing!

Billie Kelpin from Newport Beach on May 23, 2013:

I was born in 1945. My father had been stationed the year before in Arkansas and the guys in his platoon all listened to Billie Holiday. My mother wrote to my father asking for name suggestions when she was pregnant with me. The guys in the platoon decided I should be Billy or Billie, either way - since my father's name was William, and since they all loved Billie Holiday. My mother wanted me to be "Kathleen". Now when I tell my name to new people who can't get it, I say "Billie, like Billie Holiday," and they all know what it is then. I'm very proud that I was named for some one who wrote, "Strange Fruit," a great influence in the Civil Rights Movement to come!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 21, 2013:

Heya, Pinto!! Thanks...I'm a swing pianist so I guess I love jazz!! Thanks so much for sharing!!

Subhas from New Delhi, India on May 21, 2013:

O Gosh! You have opened up the whole era of jazz music development from a whole new perspective. Your knowledge regarding your subject is commendable.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 20, 2013:

Thanks, Platinum Owl!

platinumOwl4 on May 20, 2013:

This is a fantastic publication. Many of the women in your article I admire for their contribution to the music industry in general and jazz in particular. I had and opportunity to meet Nancy Wilson and I will never forget her. Each time I hear her music I get chills.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 14, 2013:

Thanks, Lurana. Women learning new instruments was sort of frowned upon. I think we lost quite a few talents during that time! Thanks for sharing, Lurana!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 14, 2013:

Thanks, Victoria!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 14, 2013:

Thanks, jhamann. Jazz is such soothing music! Glad to share this with you. Thanks for swingin' by!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 14, 2013:

Thanks, Mary. Jazz music is awesome and has a rich history! Thanks for sharing.

MrsBrownsParlour on May 14, 2013:

Great topic, with excellent cultural perspective and extensive information. I didn't know women were prevented from learning certain musical instruments. Imagine how many talented musicians the world missed---it's tragic.

Billie Holiday is my favorite of this list! Thanks for a great article. :-) ~Lurana

Author Victoria Sheffield from Georgia on May 14, 2013:

Nice this is one nice HUB!!

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on May 14, 2013:

I am a huge jazz fan, and I feel that you did an incredible job discussing some of the greatest jazz musicians in jazz music. Thank you for such a well written hub. Jamie

Mary Craig from New York on May 14, 2013:

Totally impressive! "The jazz form began to trumpet." and it hasn't stopped since. This glorious tribute to the women of early jazz is an insight into a piece of history we don't often see. Thanks for all your work! Loved the videos too.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Shared too.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 13, 2013:

Hi Christy! Thanks for coming by! Women have made lots of underrated contributions. We should give them a thumbs up or two! Thanks for sharing!

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on May 12, 2013:

Absolutely awesome, Michelle! I love articles that say hoorah to the tributes of women! Well done with the research as well.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 12, 2013:

Thanks, fossilady! Sorry about the videos. Will check out the links to see if they are working! Yes, Sarah Vaughan is a great.

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on May 11, 2013:

Sarah Vaughan, aaaah, love her. She started out so shy in the video and then she opened her mouth to sing. ..divine. Wonderful collection of jazzy ladies. I would have listened to them all if I could have, got the message that the video player was too small on most of them. Very interesting article! Voted +

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 10, 2013:

Thanks, Janet...jazz is one of the most difficult yet interesting of musical forms. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 10, 2013:

Thanks, Travmaj! Enjoy the videos.......nice running into the older ones, especially of Sarah Vaughan. It was a musical journey writing this! Thanks for sharing!

Janet Giessl from Georgia country on May 10, 2013:

A very great tribute to such wonderful women that have influenced jazz music. You have done a great job. I love jazz music and your hub was so interesting to read the music videos are wonderful.

travmaj from australia on May 09, 2013:

Michelle, I don't know how I missed this hub - such a tribute to the women of jazz. And totally packed with information - I'm not the greatest jazz follower but of course just say 'Ella' and I know instantly - and many of the others of course.

You covered so much I am now going back to treat myself to more.. Voting of course and thank you.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

Glad to connect with a fellow jazz lover, Who! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

Yes, Ella is one of mine too! Thanks for sharing, Hatter!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

Thanks, Lastheart!!!!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

Krall has made many noteworthy contributions to jazz, Kidscrafts. Thanks for sharing!!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

This is true, Act 3. Too many jazz greats in one hub! Thanks for sharing,

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 09, 2013:

Thanks, Gwen!! Fitzgerald was a true music icon and gem! Thanks for sharing!

whonunuwho from United States on May 09, 2013:

Thank you for this marvelous read, my friend. I have always been in awe of the Jazz Movement and how much society and its people who cope, evolve their music. Wonderful and a fine message received. whonu

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on May 09, 2013:

Gee... and you started off with a picture of one of my favorites. There are some people on FB I know will also like this.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Thanks for the link too! I forgot about Nina.......too many to mention in one hub. Arrgh!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Spot on about that, Martie. Many want to be jazz players because of the cool sounds, augmentation, diminished notes, passing notes and syncopation...but whoa, they don't know that this is the hardest to do. Now, if they think classical is difficult, jazz can be worse because of the creativity and improvisation that's needed! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Thanks, To Start Again. These are definitely the ladies of music to beat! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Thanks, Eddy!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Thanks, suziecat7. These women are sure talented! Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Thanks, Mary!! They're cool ones, I'll say. I love Etta James. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

Fitzgerald will always be THE jazz icon!! Thanks for sharing, Bill!

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

I am quite an Adele fan too, Jools. And I can see how the music influenced her. I suppose Krall would not want to make too many daring improvisational moves! Thanks for sharing, Jools!!!!

Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord on May 08, 2013:

I love jazz and this is one of the best presentation I have seen in HubPages.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on May 08, 2013:

Thank you for sharing a hub with all those great women jazz musicians. For sure some of those ladies paved the way for others!

My husband and I had the chance to see Diana Krall live in concert in Ottawa a few years ago (before she had her twins).

I love the deep voice of Carmen McCrae!

chet thomas from Athens, GA on May 08, 2013:

Thanks for including mention of Mary Lou Williams. There are too many great female jazz musicians for one hub! Marian McPartland and Mary Ford come to mind. Also Joni Mitchell worked with Charles Mingus and helped blaze the trail for Cassandra Wilson.

dreamseeker2 on May 08, 2013:

Wow! You've done your homework! I remember some of these names and women. : ) I liked Ella Fitzgeralds music. Thanks for sharing this with us. Voted up and awesome.

Martie Coetser from South Africa on May 08, 2013:

What a perfect description: "The best way to define jazz is by saying that is a beat that gets your fingers snapping and the toes tapping."

So many aspired musicians want to start their music education with jazz, not realising that it is one of the most difficult genres in music. Almost like mathematics - you have to 'get it'.

Excellent hub, midget! As always :)

BTW, one of my favourite jazz songs: http://youtu.be/W8qQ5GuVYzo

Selina Kyle on May 08, 2013:

What a great group of ladies you honored here. I love Billie Holiday and Etta James and what I have heard of Diana Krall, I have enjoyed. I will definitely have to check out these other women. Nice job and thanks for the introduction to some incredible artists. :)

Eiddwen from Wales on May 08, 2013:

So so interesting Michelle and one for me to vote up.


suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on May 08, 2013:

Really loved this Hub. I'm a jazz music fan and it is great to see this tribute to these talented women. Voted up!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on May 08, 2013:

Another great Hub! I like the way you included a video on each of these female artists. I'm not a fan of Jazz per se, but I do like some of these singers you wrote about.

Voted UP and will share all around.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 08, 2013:

You have some great ones listed here and I have heard them all...Fitzgerald has always been my favorite. Interesting article and well done.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on May 08, 2013:

Michelle, very interesting hub; will check out the videos later. I know that Etta James has been a huge influence on Adele and she used to regularly cover 'At Last' when she first came onto the London pub scene a few years ago. Of these artistes, Ella is my favourite. I am not a big DIana Krall fan, I find her a bit too 'contained' for jazz. One of my favourite bands of all time, Manhattan Transfer, also had 2 female members, both were excellent vocalists.

Michelle Liew (author) from Singapore on May 08, 2013:

An article on jazz music and the contributions of many women to the form.

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