Jazz Women: piano players

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.


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