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Today’s post collects some of our favorite jazz pianists who also happen to be women. We think anyone who enjoys jazz piano will enjoy the music you’ll hear today.

jazz women

Any collection of the great female jazz musicians must include Mary Lou Williams, who is so integral to the history of American music that she played with an early incarnation of Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians in 1922 (at the age of twelve) and later taught and collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Williams became the first jazz musician to perform with a major symphony orchestra when, with a rhythm section of Al Lewis and Jack “the Bear” Parker she performed her Zodiac Suite with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Williams again expanded the range of jazz with her 1968 Mass for Peace, a moving Catholic mass in the soul jazz idiom.

We have already posted a collection of her compositions (here), and instead begin this collection of songs with an extraordinary solo piano recording which was the first record Williams issued under her own name. She writes to jazz archivist Bernard Brightman (founder of Stash Records):

I didn’t know they were recording me. I was in Kansas City when Jack Kapp had Andy Kirk send for me to come to Chicago. I went and they sat me down at a piano. I composed this as I played. I thought they just wanted to hear me play. This became my first record. After that Jack Kapp insisted that I play on all of the recording dates for the Kirk band.

She was soon arranging the best of those recordings as well, and working for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy launched a legendary career. The recording was made in April 1930.


There were many female jazz pianists before Mary Lou Williams, including two great ladies named Lil.

Lil Henderson fine accompaniment has been heard by millions, and she first got her start joining a li’l band called the Wildcats Jazz Band. Thomas Dorsey, the legendary “Father of black gospel music,” explains that in The Voice of the Blues, an enlightening collection of interviews edited by Jim O’Neil and Amy van Singel:

That was my band, with Ma Rainey, Gabriel Washington, Al Wynn and David Nelson. We only had about four or five pieces … Fuller Henderson was a trumpet player, yeah, and then we used his wife with Ma Rainey. I got sick and I turned the piano over to Fuller’s wife, and she traveled with ’em a season.

For a while Lil Henderson remained part of Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band, and it happens she was recorded backing “The Mother of the blues” in Chicago in June 1926, and it was for a fitting tune. Here they are performing “Trust No Man.”

The other Lil’s playing is far more documented on wax, although sometimes her role in jazz histories is limited to the moment she encouraged Louis Armstrong to leave King Oliver’s band in 1924. Yes, Lil Hardin (soon Lil Armstrong) gives some weight to the old phrase “behind every great man is a great woman,” but she was also an accomplished jazz musician in her own right.

She was a pianist, bandleader (in the 30s of an all women’s big band), and a composer. It’s for this last she’s best remembered, writing jazz gems like “Don’t Jive Me” and “Doin’ the Susie Q” and also songs which would be later be hits for Ray Charles (“Just for a Thrill” in 1959) and Ringo Starr (“Bad Boy” in 1978). Her “Oriental Boogie” was reworked by Austrian electro DJ Parov Stelar as the widely popular “Booty Swing,” becoming a dancefloor hit in 2010.

camille howard

Camille Howard got her start playing in Roy Milton’s popular rhythm & blues band, but her most famous recording was made unexpectedly, much like Mary Lou Williams’ “Nightlife” we heard earlier. At the end of epic New Years Eve session — trying to cut as many numbers as possible before the advent of the second American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban on the first day of 1948 — Milton’s band had five minutes of studio time to kill before midnight. The time was given to Howard.

With Dallas Barley (of Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five) on bass and Milton on drums, Howard improvised “X-Temperaneous Boogie” just before those outside the studio heard church bells ringing in the new year.

Standing next to Mary Lou Williams in Art Kane’s famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph is Marian McPartland. She is one of two women in today’s collection not born in the United States. She was English, and a classically trained concert pianist who fell in love with jazz.

During the Second World War Marian Turner enlisted in the UK’s Entertainment National Service Association, which entertained Allied troop in Europe. After a couple years she left to join the United Service Organization in part because it provided the opportunity to perform with American jazz musicians. She is probably also the only woman in today’s collection who went through basic training.

She met Jimmy McPartland in St Vith, Belgium in October 1944, and they were married the following February in Germany. McPartland was a well known jazz musician, a cornetist from Chicago. Marian McPartland had her first serious experiences performing jazz in the band he led in the USO, but he encouraged her to explore her own style rather than follow in his, which was based in traditional New Orleans jazz.

Back in the states she began leading jazz trios, and also played with Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Terry Gibbs. The longest lasting of her trios featured bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, and recorded several acclaimed albums for Capitol (Metronome named them best small combo of the year in 1954). Still, she never received due credit for the quality of her work. Leonard Feather once opened a review with “she’ll never make it: she’s white, she’s English and she’s a woman.”

mcpartland west side story

She began writing about jazz in the July 1949 issue of Downbeat with a firsthand account of the Paris Jazz Festival. Soon she was a frequent contributor, and her writing often reflected on the role of women in jazz. Some years later she would take her advocacy further by hosting the first ever Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City.

McPartland is best remembered today for hosting a NPR program, Piano Jazz, for more than twenty-five years. The program featured her at a piano with guests, playing and discussing jazz. In addition to being one of NPR’s longest-running cultural programs, it was one of the most praised.

Hazel Scott is the other jazz musician in today’s post who emigrated to the United States to perform jazz. Her family came to New York from Trinidad in 1924, when she was four years old. Just a few years later she was a student at Juilliard. As a teenager Scott performed in her mother’s women’s jazz band, which sometimes featured Lil Armstrong. She had a regular gig at New York’s Café Society, and was also frequently heard on the radio playing a variety of piano music, including jazz.

Hazel Scott appeared in several motion pictures, and in 1950 she was the first African American woman to host her own television program, The Hazel Scott Show.

She also recorded several albums in the 1950s, notably a highly sought-after trio LP Relaxed Piano Moods, which she recorded with Charles Mingus and Max Roach on their invitation to appear on their independent label, Debut Records.

Scott was an outspoken civil rights activist. As an actress she refused to take roles she felt represented black people poorly, and as a musician she would not play in segregated clubs. In one famous incident, she was led out of Austin by the Texas Rangers because she would not perform in a club after she learned that black and whites were seated separately. “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?,” she asked when interviewed by Time magazine. She also successfully sued a Washington restaurant for refusing to serve her and a friend “because they were negroes.”

In 1950, Scott was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and read a prepared statement which denied involvement with the Communist Party. A week later her television show was cancelled. Eventually, Scott left to live and perform in Paris, and did not return to the United States until 1967. Had she not left the country at such a critical time for the Civil Rights movement, and such a pivotal period in the history of jazz, she would surely be more well known today.

hazel scott trio

great day in harlemHere is a close up of our print of Art Kane’s famous photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland are standing together, as one might expect — the only other woman in the group if fifty-seven musicians is singer Maxine Sullivan, standing next to fellow vocalist Jimmy Rushing. When Marian McPartland passed away three years ago, she was one of four figures in this famous photograph remaining. Today only Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins are alive.

In Friday’s post we’ll listen to more women play the piano, moving forward into the 1960s and beyond. We’ll hear Nina Simone, of course, and also a magnificent interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues” and a legendary avant garde album from the Impulse! catalog which was arranged by a female piano player. Here’s a hint: it’s not Alice Coltrane. Wondering what it is? Tune on Friday.

The operas of Guiseppe Verdi remain enormously popular (with people with whom opera remains popular) — our own Minnesota Opera produced his MacBeth just a couple years ago. But Verdi, who began as a church musician, composed relatively little sacred music during his extensive career. It was, however, to those roots he began to return after the enormous success of what was expected to be his swan song, Aida, which was first produced in 1871 when the composer was fifty-eight.

He was expected to settle into an early retirement, as his predecessor Rossini had done some years earlier. Already Verdi was more interested in farming and his comfortable estate in Busseto, near his birthplace, preferring it to the treadmill of opera production (which he once described as his anni de galera, or “years as a galley slave”) and the politics of Italy’s progressing unification.

Verdi’s most beloved works come from the late end of his productive years — Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Travista in particular — but his masterworks are those operas from the years he could choose his subject and compose at leisure. This allowed him to explore his lifelong love for Shakespeare with his final operas Otello and Falstaff.

Although he had a superhuman capacity for efficient invention  — idly composing his lovely string quartet, his only chamber work, while watching the rehearsals for a production of Aida — Verdi showed limited interest in any form outside of the theater. Its said at the age of ten he walked kilometers to serve as the church organist in Busseto, but it was not until this these years of semi-retirement his passion for sacred music returned.

verdi requiem

He contributed to a requiem in honor of Rossini, but his portion was withdrawn and went unperformed for nearly twenty years. In the interim, he composed his complete Requiem to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and Italian patriot whose work Verdi admired.

The story of Rafael Schächter offers the power of Verdi’s Requiem: He was an established musician in Czechoslovakia, but as a Jew was arrested by the Nazis and transported to the Terezín concentration camp. There he organized a choir which at its largest contained over 200 souls, and produced — with a single piano — a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at first without permission from the camp’s freizeitgestaltung (“administration of free time activities”). The crowning achievement of Schächter’s captive choir was Verdi’s Requiem, performed sixteen times by diminishing numbers between January 1942 and its finale in the fall of 1944 before an audience which included members of the S.S. and the International Red Cross.

It is unknown when Schächter died after he and a thousand others were transported to Auschwitz a few months after the final performance of the Requiem. That we know his serial number but not his fate a testament to the barbarism of bureaucracy. A performance at Terezín was attended Adolf Eichmann, who was said to remark, “The crazy Jews are singing their own requiem.” Schächter, on the other hand, saw it as defiance, telling his choir their work was but a rehearsal for the grand performance they would give in freedom in Prague.

Verdi had used a chorus of Hebrew slaves in his historical opera Nabucco to represent the Italian people, captive to foreign powers when he composed the opera in 1842. It’s famous “Va Pensiero,” taken from Psalm 137, a nationalist anthem. At the interment of his remains at the Casa di Riposo, which you can visit still today, a choir of eight hundred led by Arturo Toscanini sang it in his honor.

His late operas were, unlike Nabucco, distinctly apolitical, and entirely removed from the Christian church. Aida centers around Egyptian polytheism, and the tragic hero of Otello is, of course, a Muslim. Scattered through this period he wrote four works which have posthumously been collected as Four Sacred Pieces. While we may be tempted to compare them to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, they were composed without the same deliberate intention.

verdi four sacred pieces

Unlike Strauss’ Songs, Verdi’s works were composed entirely apart from one another and at least one, “Ave Maria,” was intended as an academic exercise. This recording by Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as with performances dating to as early as 1898, does not follow the composer’s wishes. He did not want “Ave Maria” performed with the other works, and along with “Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” it was to be performed by a capella by solo voices, not a choir.

The “Stabat Mater” is a 13th century hymn which has been interpreted by many of the great composers. It tells the story of the crucifixion through Mary, its title meaning “sorrowful mother.” In Verdi’s hands there is a little of his theatrical flair, notable in the seventh stanza when Mary recalls the flogging of Jesus by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers.

“Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” is built around Saint Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary in Dante’s Paradiso on behalf of the traveller. He thanks her for the gift to humanity of the Son of God, and holds her up as the idea of human virtue:

Your kindness not only helps
those who ask it, it often
freely anticipates the request.

In you is tenderness: in you is pity:
in you is generosity: in you whatever excellences exist
in the creature, combined together.

After the passage used by Verdi for this piece, St. Bernard leads Dante on the next step of his journey, bringing him face to face with The Holy Trinity. This is the triumphant conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“Te Deum” is the oldest of the hymns, dating to the baptism of Saint Augustine by Saint Ambrose in the year 387. It remains significant in Catholic liturgy today, particularly for significant events such as consecration or canonization.

It was significantly featured in Italian opera the year before Verdi passed away, sung by a chorus after the villainous chief of police announces his plot to possess the singer Tosca by executing her lover in Pucinni’s La Tosca. “Tosca,” they add, “you make me forget even God.” Actor Eugenio Giraldoni debuted the role of Baron Scarpia — his father Leone had appeared in many of Verdi’s opera.

In his final years Verdi invested a great deal in two philanthropic projects: a hospital in a town neighboring Busseto and a rest home for elderly musicians in Milan. The second is the Casa de Riposo per Musicisti, where the chorus of eight hundred sang “Va Pensiero” in his honor in 1901. The rest home continued in operation funded by the royalties from his operas. According to an Julian Budden’s authoritative biography, Verdi wished to be buried with the score to the last of the Four Sacred Works, “Te Deum.”


John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” was recorded in February 1966, just a few weeks after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his family had moved into their 1550 South Hamlin Avenue apartment in Chicago, to begin working on the Open Housing campaign.

coltrane cosmic music

The recording was released posthumously in late January 1968 on Cosmic Music, one of the first two LPs Impulse records pulled from unissued recordings after Coltrane’s death. Eventually there would eight albums in all — plus many live recordings — found in the archives. Fans have mixed reactions to some of these recordings, but “Reverend King” is surely an excellent example of Coltrane’s last group at work. This band featured his wife, Alice, Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashid Ali, and on “Reverend King” additional percussionists Ray Appleton and Ben Reilly.

At the time the recording was released on Cosmic Music, Reverend King had recently announced the Poor People’s Campaign, with a focus on pushing Congress to pass a economic bill of rights” for working people, as outlined in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? 

The campaign’s broad agenda was not received well by many of The Reverend King’s dearest supporters, notably Bayard Rustin. Five years earlier Rustin had been the primary logistical organizer of the 1963 march in Washington DC at which Reverend King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

After Reverend King’s assassination on April 4th, thousands of demonstrators established a symbolic shanty town at the National Mall where he had delivered this famous address. The encampment was called “Resurrection City” and remained for nearly six weeks.

“Reverend King” was not the first piece of music in which Coltrane expressed the inspiration he found in the Civil Rights leader. He modeled one of his most moving songs, “Alabama,” on Reverend King’s eulogy for the four victims of the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

Reverend King’s eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Denise McNair was delivered three days later, and is a deeply moving and spiritual address, which does not shy from the political situation which led to the terrible terrorist attack. A funeral for the fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was held on a different date.

(we posted an alternate version of Coltrane’s “Alabama” here)

Thank to all reading. We hope you take an interest in these recordings because the goals of racial and economic equality outlined by Reverend King in these speeches and in his last book are still within our reach. We also hope you stay warm on this extremely cold day here in Minneapolis and do not forget those around us who struggle for safety and shelter in this weather.

Oh, and your friendly neighborhood record shop will be open it’s regular hours — 11am to 7pm — on this national holiday.

French officials ordered security measures in the wake of the ISIL terrorist attack in Paris last Friday, which included the cancellation of all concerts. As just about everyone around the world has read or heard by now, the largest massacre was at a show by an American band, Eagles of Death Metal, at the Bataclan Theater. Included in the eighty-nine victims was Nick Alexander of Colchester, England, who was serving as their merch manager. This all hits close to home for anyone who loves live music, and like us spends a lot of evenings in clubs and theaters.

The restrictions have since been eased as the city seems safer, although efforts to capture the possible mastermind of the attack led to a shootout late last night in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The legendary Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers didn’t cancel a show last night at a Paris venue, Backstage at the Mill. In this BBC story, lead singer Jake Burns expressed their condolences to the victims. “For us, we’re musicians, we’ve just come to do what we do. Hopefully the people who come tonight can manage to forget about their troubles for an hour and a half,” he said. “That would be our job done as we see it.”

Burns and the band grew up in Belfast during the worst of what were called the Troubles, the long and bloody conflict in Northern Ireland which deterred touring bands from visiting the capital city for much of the seventies.

“As a youngster, it was frustrating to be deprived of such a normal part of life. For us as a band, our performances were sometimes delayed because of disturbances and road blocks, nothing serious. But we do have an appreciation of just how difficult these situations can be.

Obviously, in Northern Ireland, conflict became very much the normal state of affairs. Here, it isn’t. It’s a huge shock to the system for people here. Unfortunately, we can’t do a lot to help, we’re just here to do our job.”


After their encore, lead singer Jake Burns told the crowd, “The world has you in its heart.”


Before French officials eased the restrictions, another Irish group with roots in the Troubles, U2, was forced to cancel a concert which was to be televised on Saturday. They had been rehearsing in Paris, just three miles from the Bataclan, when the attacks began on Friday night. Bono spoke with an Irish radio station in the morning, offering his reaction. “Our first thoughts at this point are with the Eagles of Death Metal fans,” he said.

If you think about it, the majority of victims last night are music fans. This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror or whatever it’s called. It’s very upsetting. These are our people. This could be me at a show. You at a show, in that venue. It’s a very recognizable situation for you and for me and the coldblooded aspect of this slaughter is deeply disturbing and that’s what I can’t get out of my head.

All four members of U2 visited the Bataclan Theater on Saturday, laying flowers on the sidewalk with others.


There is a lyric in the bridge of Stiff Little Finger’s first single, “Alternative Ulster,” which seemed like a fitting response to the Islamic terrorists like ISIL, even though the song was originally about the conflict in Ireland.

They say they’re a part of you
But that’s not true you know
They say they’ve got control of you
And that’s a lie you know

dropkick me jesusWritten by Paul Craft somewhere near the intersection of inspirational and absurd, it’s hard to believe that “Dropkick me Jesus” was a hit for Bobby Bare in 1975. What’s more, this goofy waltz was nominated for a Grammy.

We’ve always offered a 15% discount on pride weekend, but with the recent Supreme Court decision it seems like this year it’s more special than ever.

Probably, there are more appropriate pride-themed records we could post but we’ve always been fans of the Dynamic Superiors. Lead singer Tony Washington expressed his homosexuality in a way which went beyond the fairly timid early 70s standards at Motown. The group waited a decade for their break, and didn’t waste it with several hit off the four albums they made for the label — all of which were ahead of their time. We think they’re the single most under-rated Motown group.

Their biggest hit was “Shoe Shoe Shine” — one of the best new songs to come out of the seventies throwback to doo wop and vocal groups. This performance from Soul Train captures the group’s showmanship and old-fashioned devotion.

Our favorite Dynamic Superiors songs is “Nobody’s Gonna Change Me.” We never really understood why it hasn’t been adopted as an anthem, except that its not as catchy as “I Will Survive.” The group’s performances (check the choreography in that Soul Train appearance!) and class were legendary. Washington passed away in anonymity in the early 80s — we were told someone somewhere in Hollywood was working on a biopic about him.

In the meantime we have some records: four on Motown and one on another label. It wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole the group as a “gay group,” but Washington is an unrecognized icon. Also, their albums were some of the best stuff Motown released in the mid 70s.

sesame street liveWe love Sesame Street Live because there’s a few reasons its a rarity in the Sesame Street catalog: for starters it was the last to be originally issued by Columbia Records (all subsequent releases were on CTW’s own Sesame Street imprint). It features the only appearance on album of the second Gordon, Hal Miller, who sings “Show Me How You Feel.” Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman soon after, and Orman still plays the role today. We’ve already posted the most well-known album by the original Gordon, Matt Robinson, here.

The last reason Sesame Street Live is a special album is this song performed by Emilio Delgado, who has appeared on the program as Luis since 1971.

Luis runs the Fix It shop on Sesame Street with his wife Maria, and we love him because he’s a family man and small business owner. He seems to love his work even when he’s surrounded by broken toasters. He is also remarkable as certainly the longest-appearing Mexican American on television. Surprisingly, Luis hardly ever appears on the more than sixty albums in the classic Sesame Street catalog of the seventies and eighties. He makes up for it with this positive song written by Sesame Street’s musical genius, Joe Raposo.


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