When you hear the name John Coltrane, you probably know you are hearing about a “jazz great,” but do you really know what made him stand out from the crowd? If you love jazz but have not been listening very long, then you might not be able to follow the conversation when the genre’s true aficionados really starting jamming. Check out our easy list to get a basic overview of what makes these five jazz greats just so special in the jazz books.
Mary Lou Williams
For starters, Mary Lou Williams was alive for nearly the entire initial lifespan of jazz, since she was born in 1910 and died in 1981. Of course, she did not start performing at birth. She entered the jazz arena playing in a swing band but continued throughout the evolutions of the music to stay at the forefront. She also is unique because she was one of the few musicians fully accepted by the classical world at that time.
Skill Set: composer, pianist
Miles Davis may be best known for his 1960s recording Bitches Brew. He is also known for the strangely exotic impact a rampant heroin addiction had on his music, his life as a hustler, and his raspy voice, which he acquired in 1955 after an operation to remove polyps from his larynx. Davis was instructed by his doctors to remain silent until he healed but could not avoid an argument and permanently damaged his voice. He was also called “The Prince of Darkness” after this time.
Skill Set: prolific composer, extremely flexible musician, bandleader, trumpet, flugelhorn, electric organ
Thelonious Monk’s music has been called “Picasso’s work set to music.” Although his work sometimes is misconstrued as overly simplistic and minimalist, it has many layers and often includes dissonance. His piano playing changed the way musicians in multiple genres approach the instrument, thanks to a percussive style that includes lots of silent gaps and hesitations in the music. One famed critic once called him “the elephant on the keyboard.” Monk would also occasionally stand up while his fellow musicians were playing and dance for a few minutes before returning to the piano. He also had a distinct look, including suits, hats, and sunglasses.
Skill Set: piano, composer
No list like this could be complete without Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. Not only did Fitzgerald collaborate with other greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but she also performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra, often in Harlem. She was an incredible improviser and scat singer. She is known for “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”. Fitzgerald’s performance career lasted nearly six decades, during which she won 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Skill Set: impeccable diction, vocal talent, swing, bebop, traditional pop, vocal jazz, blues, scat singing
After all that, we couldn’t leave John Coltrane off the list! Coltrane played truly spiritual jazz, and is known for his album, A Love Supreme. He was also at the forefront of the free jazz movement and collaborated with many other musicians throughout his career, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He is considered one of the greatest and most influential saxophonists in music history and was even canonized by the African Orthodox Church. He played the tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and flute, and would sometimes keep an extra set of drums on stage so he could play those as well.
Skill Set: musician, bandleader, composer, clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, alto sax, flute
Even if you know little or nothing about jazz, you have probably heard the name Ella Fitzgerald. She is known as “The First Lady of Song,” “The Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” just to name a few. Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than 50 years, won 13 Grammy awards, and sold more than 40 million albums. She was known for her incredible vocal range and incredibly diverse audience of fans, but there are a few things most people do not know about jazz’s first lady.
1. She may have worked for the mafia in high school.
Although Fitzgerald was a great student in her younger years, she spent her high school days in Harlem after moving in with her aunt in order to escape a troubled home life after her mother’s death. The New York Timesactually reported she worked for a mafia numbers runner and may have even acted as a lookout at illicit locations like local brothels. Fitzgerald’s non-school-related activities eventually caught up with her, and she was placed in an orphanage and, eventually, the state reformatory for girls. Sadly, the caretakers at the reform school beat the girls, and Fitzgerald eventually ran away. She found herself broke, alone, and living on the street, a terrible combination that ultimately set the stage for her entry onto a real stage at the Apollo.
2. She started out singing for tips on the street.
When Fitzgerald returned to Harlem, she made money by singing for tips on the street. She got a lucky break when she won an opportunity to compete at an “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater, where she initially planned to perform a dance routine. She changed her mind at the last minute after realizing she would have to follow the Edwards Sisters, Ruth and Louise, one of the most famous female tap-dance teams of all time. The Edwards Sisters had just closed the main show, and Fitzgerald feared any dance she presented would pale by comparison. Fortunately, her street performance experience meant she had a large vocal repertoire to choose from. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” before obliging audience demands for an encore with the Boswell Sisters’ “The Object of My Affections.” Apollo band member Benny Carter was so impressed with her performance he began to introduce her to anyone he thought could help launch her career, and soon Fitzgerald’s career took off.
3. Marilyn Monroe gave Fitzgerald a big break.
Fitzgerald’s star was on the rise when Marilyn Monroe demanded the owner of the popular nightclub, the Mocambo, book Fitzgerald on his stage. He had previously refused to book her because he felt she lacked the “glamour” his audience demanded (some historians say he did not want to book a black musician). Monroe told the owner she would take a front table every night Fitzgerald performed, promising the “press would go wild.” They did, and Fitzgerald recalled years later that she owed Monroe “a real debt,” adding, “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
Fitzgerald was known for her incredible work ethic, and often played two shows a day in cities hundreds of miles apart. She did not slow down as she aged, refusing to slow her hectic performance schedule until after her half-sister, Frances, died and Fitzgerald took on care of her sister’s family. She received the National Medal of Arts from the United States in 1987 and a similar award from France several years later, finally giving what would be her final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1991. She eventually had both legs amputated in an attempt to control side effects from severe diabetes. Fitzgerald died in 1996, but her legacy lives on. Now, turn on a “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” or “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and take a minute to enjoy that legacy for yourself!