10 Female Jazz Musicians You Need To Know

Though all too often confined to the role of chanteuse, over the past 100 years many female jazz instrumentalists have made noteworthy contributions to the genre through their commitment to musicianship. We line up 10 of the best, from early pioneers like American pianist Mary Lou Williams, to contemporary talents like Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Toshiko Akiyoshi Born in Manchuria in 1929, legendary Japanese bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi began playing the piano at the age of six. However, it wasn’t until her teens that she first heard jazz – a record by American pianist Teddy Wilson – and fell in love with the sound. After coming to the U.S. to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Akiyoshi’s career took off. In the 1970s she began incorporating Japanese elements into her sound – a unique contribution to jazz that she is still recognized for today. Akiyoshi was the first woman to be named both “Best Composer” and “Best Arranger” in the DownBeat Magazine Readers’ Poll and was honored with the prestigious NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2007.

2Carla Bley

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American pianist, composer, and bandleader Carla Bley’s immersion into jazz began in her adolescence after hearing the likes of Lionel Hampton and Gerry Mulligan inspired her to leave her native California for New York City. There she took a job as a cigarette girl at the legendary Birdland club to expose herself to more jazz. Before long, Bley was composing her own music. Alongside future husband Michael Mantler, she founded the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, the group behind what is considered Bley’s best known work. The Escalator Over the Hill, a genre-crossing exploration of free jazz, was listed among The Guardian’s “50 Great Moments In Jazz.”


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