Claudia Russell

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KSDS Presents the Top Female Jazz Pianists- Marian McPartland

Best known as the host of the weekly national radio program Piano Jazz, Marian McPartland helped to popularize jazz with her intricate knowledge and prowess on the piano. She made the program one of the most popular in the history of public radio.

Born to a musical mother who played classical piano, she studied at the famed Guildhall School of Music in London. Her first professional activity was as part of a touring vaudeville act featuring four pianists. During World War II, she entertained the troops and while playing in Belgium met her late husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, whom she married in 1945. They relocated to the U.S. in 1946, whereupon she performed in his band in Chicago. She formed her first active trio in 1950 for an engagement at the Embers in New York. Two years later, she began what would be an eight-year residency at the Hickory House in New York with her trio.

In 1963, she worked with the Benny Goodman Sextet, and in 1965 she began her radio career, at WBAI in New York. In 1970 she started her own record company, Halcyon Records, one of the first jazz women to do so. In 1979, she began her weekly radio show Piano Jazz, which -- after 30 years of continuous programming -- became the longest-running syndicated National Public Radio program, and led to McPartland's induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. An intimate program involving just her and a guest -- usually a pianist -- the program won numerous awards, including the Peabody Award. Many of the programs have been subsequently released on compact disc. As part of the segments, McPartland interviewed the guest, drawing out colorful anecdotes and stories about their careers. The shows also included performances of McPartland and the guest together. Taken as a whole, the series presents a formidable history of jazz.

Her playing career also included piano tours with such greats as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Ellis Larkins, and Benny Carter. She performed with symphony orchestras and at many of the major jazz festivals, and received numerous awards, including a DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

McPartland received several honorary doctorates as well as a Grammy Trustee's Award for lifetime achievement. She also authored The Artistry of Marian McPartland, a collection of transcriptions, and Marian McPartland's Jazz World: All in Good Time, a collection of her jazz profiles.


KSDS Presents the Top Female Jazz Pianists- Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was an African American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger who wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded over one hundred records.  Williams was born as Mary Elfireda Scruggs on May 8, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was one of eleven children, and taught herself to play piano at a very young age, performing her first recital at age ten. She became a professional musician at the age of fifteen, when she played with Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians. In 1925, she joined a band led by saxophonist John Williams, and married him in 1927.

Williams and her husband moved to Oklahoma City, where in 1929 John joined Andy Kirk’s band, Twelve Clouds of Joy. Mary Lou Williams worked for a year as a solo pianist and a music arranger until she joined the band in 1930.  By that point she took the name “Mary Lou” and was recording jazz albums.  By the late 1930s Mary Lou Williams was now well known as a producer, composer, and arranger working for bandleaders Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.

Williams left Twelve Clouds of Joy in 1942 after divorcing her husband. She moved back to Pittsburgh, where she started a band with Harold “Shorty” Baker and Art Blakey. Williams eventually left the group to join Duke Ellington’s orchestra in New York where she became the star vocalist.  In 1947 Williams moved back to New York where she started a radio show called Mary Lou Williams’s Piano Workshop.

In 1952, Williams took her talents overseas, moving to Europe for two years, and performing mostly in England.  In 1954 she abruptly retired from music and focused on her newly embraced Catholic faith.   She created the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort to help addicted musicians return to performing.  By 1957 she returned to the music business in time to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival.  She also started her own record label and founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.

Through the 1960s Williams focused on religious jazz with recordings like Black Christ of the Andes which was a tribute to the Afro-Peruvian priest St. Martin de Porres.  She also wrote Music for Peace which was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.   Williams never fully abandoned secular music as in 1965 when she performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival.   In the 1970s her career underwent a revival when younger audiences discovered her talent.  She recorded new albums and became an artist-in-residence at Duke University (1977-1981), teaching the History of Jazz among other courses.  She also directed the Duke Jazz Ensemble.  In 1978 she performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter and invited guests.  Later that year she participated in Benny Goodman’s 40th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert.

Mary Lou Williams died in Durham, North Carolina on May 28, 1981. She was 71.


KSDS Presents the Top Female Jazz Pianists- Lil Hardin Armstrong

Lil Hardin was originally from Memphis and raised on and taught to play church hymns, traditional spirituals, and classical music.  Her early piano education began with her third grade teacher, but Hardin would go on to attend Fisk University to study piano and music.  One of her first gigs was working in a cabaret, something she knew her family would not approve she told them she was the accompanist for a dance school.  She later studied at New York College of Music and earned her post-graduate diploma in 1929.   She was working with bandleader Lawrence Duhe, when King Oliver asked her to join his band.  She played with that band until her return to Chicago in the early 1920s.  Her noted works with Louis Armstrong, who was her husband from 1924 until their divorce in 1938.  Her contributions to Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are many.  Not only was she a well-schooled pianist, she was also a vocalist and composer.  Among her well-known compositions are classics "Struttin' With Some Barbeque" "Just For a Thrill" and "Clip Joint."  Hardin also led her own swing bands in the late 1930 and early 40s.  She died in Chicago and, unfortunately, her letters and the unfinished manuscript for her autobiography disappeared from her home.

Ella Fitzgerald- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

She is remembered as "The First Lady of Song" and fittingly so.  Ella Fitzgerald possessed one of the greatest voices of all time in any genre.  Throughout the course of her nearly sixty year career, she sold over 40 million records.  Among her many honors were 13 Grammy Awards wins, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts Medal of Honor, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Her musical story began famously in 1934 with Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  Fitzgerald decided to give it a try, as a dancer. She was intimidated by another dance act and at the last moment decided to sing...and won the night.  In 1935 she met bandleader Chick Webb and joined his orchestra for a successful run at the Savoy Ballroom. In 1938, she recorded "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (a song she co-wrote) and the song became one of the best selling records of the decade.  With Webb's death in 1939, Ella took over as bandleader until 1942.  

Fitzgerald continued to work with other orchestras, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie were just two, as well as lead her own smaller groups.  She became a master scat singer, able to mimic nearly every instrument in the band.  Her range spanned three octaves and the clarity of her voice unmatched.  It's said she possessed perfect pitch.  That voice would thrill audiences worldwide for decades, making Fitzgerald one of the most beloved singers of her generation and of generations to come.  She worked with artists as diverse as Count Basie to Stevie Wonder.  Her live recordings made for Verve Records remain highly acclaimed.  The version of "Mack The Knife" from her album "Ella in Berlin" won a Grammy and shows off Fitzgerald's improvisational skills beautifully: she forgot the words at one point and simply improvised lyrics to great applause.  

She remains an important influence on jazz singers and musicians alike and continues to be one of the best-selling jazz artists in history.

Nina Simone- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

Her life and music have been the subject of books, film, and countless conversations about music, racial equality, and her legacy in both.  Nina Simone, respectfully called The High Priestess of Soul left a mark on the world that is more than musical, though musicians as diverse as Elton John, Mos Def, Alicia Keys, and John Lennon have cited her influence.

Born in North Carolina, she began playing the piano when she was only three or four, playing in church and performing her first classical recital at age 12.  She was a gifted pianist and had early plans to pursue a career in classical music.  Simone spent the summer of 1950 at Julliard in preparation for her audition for the Curtis Institute of Music.  Though she performed well in her audition, she was famously not accepted to the Cirtis Institute, something she would believe the rest of her life was the result of racial discrimination.  Listening closely to her performances reveals those classical roots, blended with jazz, blues, and soul.  Her debut album "Little Girl Blue", released in 1959 on Bethlehem Records remains because a classic jazz recording, included her version of "I Loves You Porgy" (her only Billboard Top 20 hit in the U.S.)

In the 1960s, Simone used her music to address the racism in the United States.  She had left her American record label and signed with a Dutch label, Philips Records.  It was Philips who recorded and released her scathing "Mississippi Goddam" on the 1964 album "Nina Simone In Concert."  The backlash included radio stations in the southern U.S. actually burning promotional copies of the record.  But, she was undeterred and continued to use her music and voice to denounce racial discrimination, performing and speaking at major civil rights events, including the Selma to Montgomery marches.  

Her voice was powerful, her piano style impeccable, and presence undeniable.  Throughout her lifetime, she released over thirty albums, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and two days before her death, she was issued an Honorary Doctorate from the Curtis Institute of Music, the school that turned her away so many years before.  


Sarah Vaughan- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

She was known as "Sassy" for her personality and style and known as "The Divine One" for the quality and control of her once in a lifetime voice.  Sarah Vaughan joins Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald as one of the early influential jazz singers...and one of the most beloved singers in jazz history.  Her sound was warm and deep, yet capable of reaching great heights, often compared to the richness of an opera diva.  In fact, Betty Carter once noted that Vaughan could have "gone as far as Leontyne Price" with the proper training.  Fortunately, she stayed with jazz and enjoyed a nearly fifty year career. 

As with many singers of her era, Vaughan grew up singing and playing piano in church.  The pop sounds of 1930's radio caught her young ears and by her mid-teens, she was (illegally) performing in Newark clubs.  Vaughan's early musical success began in 1942 at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.  She won the night with her version of "Body and Soul"; part of the prize was the opportunity to open for Ella Fitzgerald.  As fate would have it, Vaughan's final recording was a scatting duet with Fitzgerald for Quincy Jones' 1989 release "Back On The Block."  It was her only recording with Fitzgerald, bringing full circle her connection that began decades earlier when she opened for Fitzgerald at the Apollo.

Vaughan's extraordinary career yielded fifty studio albums, eight live albums, and numerous awards. She earned four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1989, was named an NEA Jazz Master.  She recorded for major labels like Decca, Columbia, and Mercury.  She had exquisite musical rapport with Billy Eckstine, first working with him in Earl HInes' band, then joining Eckstine's band in 1944.  From fronting larger ensembles, to her intimate trio recordings (Including "After Hours" featuring guitarist Mundell Lowe) Vaughan's command of her voice allowed her to swing fiercely and present a ballad with intense emotion.  She was truly one of a kind.

Billie Holiday- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

Billie Holiday was one of the most influential women in jazz music.  Lady Day, a nickname given to her by saxophonist Lester Young (she dubbed him Prez) patterned her singing style after instrumentalists and became known for her improvisation skill, as well as the unique quality of her voice.  Holiday's life has become the stuff of jazz legend.  Her turbulent childhood saw her moved from place to place, physically abused by the adults in her life, and trouble with the authorities that would last until her death in 1959.  Music was her escape and that troubled young lady would contribute some of the most important compositions and recordings in jazz history. 

Throughout her career, Holiday recorded now-classic records for Brunswick, Okeh, Decca, Capitol, and Columbia recording companies among others.  Her first big hit, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" in 1935 with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra, became a jazz standard.  As a songwriter, Holiday collaborated on many tunes that are now part of the jazz repertoire: "Don't Explain", "Fine and Mellow", "Billie's Blues," "Lady Sings The Blues," and the unparalleled "God Bless The Child."  She sold out Carnegie Hall three times, has songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and has influenced countless singers for decades.  

Holiday was plagued by alcohol and heroin addiction; her multiple run-ins with police have also become the stuff of jazz legend.  Holiday died in 1959 in a Manhattan hospital, under police guard.  Her hospital room had been raided by federal authorities and she had been arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying.  Holiday didn't live to see the numerous awards and honors her work eventually received.  She was nominated for 23 posthumous Grammy Awards, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Downbeat Hall of Fame.

Carmen McRae- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

Like her idol Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae is remembered for her one of a kind voice and lyrical interpretation.  She was an accomplished piano player and early in her career she played piano at the famed Minton's Playhouse in Harlem.  It was at Minton's where she met notable jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke, who would become her first husband.  McRae found success as a pianist in Benny Carter's band, worked with Count Basie, and made her first recording not as a vocalist, but as a pianist with Mercer Ellington's band in the mid-40s. She often accompanied herself in her early gigs as a singer.

The warmth in her voice set McRae apart.  She could deliver a ballad with deep emotion, she could swing like mad, and had a command of phrasing that still inspires jazz singers today.  Throughout her fifty year career, McRae toured the world, appeared at major jazz festivals, and recorded dozens of albums.  Even toward the end of her career, she was recording important albums, notably "Carmen Sings Monk" and "Sarah-Dedicated To You" for Novus Records in the early 1990s.  

She earned seven Grammy Award nominations over the course of her career.  In 1993 she was honored with the NAACP Image Award and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1994.

Anita O'Day- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

Anita O'Day began her career not as a singer, but a dancer.  As a teen, she travelled the marathon dance circuit before deciding she would hang up the dance shoes in exchange for a microphone.  O'Day's earliest recording success was in the early 1940s when she made sides with Gene Krupa's big band, and soon after, the Stan Kenton Orchestra.  While rooted in the swing of these early bands, she was later cited as one of the early bebop vocal influencers and is considered part of the West Coast Cool Jazz sound. 

Rather than position herself as another "girl singer," O'Day presented herself as part of the band.  Her rhythmic approach and use of short phrasing set her apart from more traditional singers.  Throughout her career she worked with Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson.  Her 1958 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival was captured in the documentary "Jazz On A Summer's Day."  Drugs would play a big part in O'Day's story: She was arrested several times for marijuana possession and fell victim to a heroin addiction, nearly dying of an overdose in 1968. Her resilience showed itself and O'Day recovered and continued to record and perform.  

She published her memoir "High Times, Hard Times" in 1981 and in 2007, "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer", a full length documentary about her premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  

Dinah Washington- KSDS Presents The All-Time Top Listener-Favorite Female Vocalists

Dinah Washington dubbed herself "Queen of The Blues", but her sound and her style adapted easily to jazz, pop, and R&B.  Through her short lifetime, she recorded a legacy that has influenced artists as varied as Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, and Amy Winehouse. 

Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago's Southside, Washington found her voice in gospel choirs.  She toured with a gospel group before turning her attention to jazz and blues.  Noted for her clean, expressive voice, she worked with Lionel Hampton's band in the mid-1940s, using members of that band to record her debut LP.  The album features her first hit and one of her enduring classics, "Evil Gal Blues" which made Billboard's Harlem Hit Parade in 1944.  Washington had success with hits like "What A Difference A Day Makes" and the country crossover gem "Cold, Cold Heart" by Hank Williams. Her interpretations of torch songs had an authenticity rooted in her own life (Washington was married seven times.)

Among her awards and recognition, Washington earned a 1959 Grammy Award for "What A Difference A Day Makes." That song and two others have been inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame.  In 1993, thirty years after her death at 39, she was inducted as an Early Influencer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That same year, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp to honor her.