Celebrating the 20th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month - "Ellas" Edition

Updated: May 4

The Stories Behind the Songs

Jazz Saxophonist
Jazz Saxophonist

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, also cleverly called as "JAM."The Smithsonian's Museum of American History held the first JAM twenty years ago and has continued the tradition annually since. The intention behind JAM is "to stimulate and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz—to study the music, attend concerts, listen to jazz on radio and recordings, read books about jazz, and more."


To mark the 20th Anniversary of JAM, the Museum of American History is focusing on the impact the women have had on jazz. Although jazz headliners may have been mostly men in the past, more and more women are taking center stage. As of 2019, about one-third of jazz recording released feature a women-led album. On this year's poster, by Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. sophomore visual arts student Naa Anyele Sowah-de Jesus, they are highlighting the career of pianist, singer, songwriter, storyteller, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. This month, the museum is hosting several online events to celebrate JAM, many of which are free of charge. Upcoming online JAM events include NEA Jazz Masters's performance on Thursday, April 22, 2021at 7 p.m CDT watch online here; Keeping the Rhythm: An Exploration of Women Drummers on Friday, April 23, 2021at 6 p.m CDT register here; and finally, The Soulful Shirley Horne on Thursday, April 29, 6 p.m. CDT, in this event, Howard University Assistant Professor Jessica Boykin-Settles will share about vocalist Shirley Horne's life and music purchase tickets here.


Jazz is truly an American art, with a rich history that includes a diverse group of Americans from all walks of life. At Perennial Music and Arts, we're celebrating by listening to and learning about some influential jazz songs that have become standards and their composers/performers too. In this second post of two, we are going to focus on three "jazz ellas," Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. In our last post, Celebrating the 20th Annual Jazz Appreciation Month - Fellas Edition, we focused on three legendary jazzmen, Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington.



Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"


Ella in Nov. 1946
Ella in Nov. 1946

Jazz vocalist and songwriter, Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born April 25, 1917in Newport News, Va. She is known for imbuing emotion, elegance, and instrumental precision into her vocal performances. She is often referred to the "First Lady of Song" because her many classic renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook (is not a literal book but a collection of significant early-20th-century American jazz standards and popular tunes). Her famous recordings include Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" with trumpet virtuoso and vocalist Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," and her song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."


Carl Van Vechten, 1940
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1940

Ella's parents, William and Temperance "Tempie," split up when she was still a baby. Tempie and Ella relocated to Yonkers, N.Y. Eventually, the moved in with Joseph Da Silva, Ella's stepfather. Ella's half-sister, Frances, was born in 1923. Joe worked as a ditch digger and a chauffeur; Tempie worked at a laundromat and catered. Ella took occasional small jobs to contribute to help out the household as well. Ella considered herself a "tomboy" and enjoyed playing baseball. She also enjoyed singing and dancing with friends and going to Harlem on the train to watch performances at the legendary Apollo Theater. She also enjoyed participating in music at the family's church and listening to jazz records, especially those of singer Constance Foore "Connee" Boswell (Dec. 3, 1907 – Oct. 11, 1976). Ella carved out her distinctive fast vibrato singing style by trying to copy Connee's vocal timbre.


In 1932, Tempie died from injuries she received during a automobile accident. Ella continued to live with Joe for a short while, then she went to stay with her aunt, Virgina. Shortly after, Joe died from a heart attack and Francis moved in with Ella and Virginia. The turmoil at home caused Ella difficulties in school, and she began to skip school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was sent to a reform school where she was mistreated and neatened by her supposed caretakers. Ella used these hard memories to imbue her vocal performances with emotion.


Chick Webb
Chick Webb

Ella received her first step onto the stage in 1934, when she won a drawing to participated in Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. She had planned to dance but after seeing a dance performance by the Edwards Sister, she decided to sing instead. She asked the band to play "Judy" by Hoagland Howard "Hoagy" Carmichael (Nov. 22, 1899 – Dec. 27, 1981). Connee Boswell's and her sisters rendition of this song was among Tempie's favorites. Her performance was so enthusiacally praised by the audience that they demanded an encore. So, she performed the B-side of the Boswell Sister's record, "The Object of My Affections." The band's saxophonist and arranger, Bennett Lester "Benny" Carter (Aug. 8, 1907 – July 12, 2003), was so impressed with Ella's musical ability that he began introducing Ella to people who could help launch her career. The two remained lifelong friends. Eventually, she met drummer and bandleader William Henry "Chick" Webb (Feb. 10, 1905 – June 16, 1939) and became a vocalist with his Chick Webb Orchestra. He became a mentor to Ella.


Sheet Music from 1938
Sheet Music from 1938

In 1938, when she was just 21 and regularly performing with Chick Webb at Harlem’s Savoy Nightclub, Ella had the idea to turn the American children's song-game "A-Tisket, A-Takset" into a jazz song. The game itself dates back to at least 1879. She convinced the band's arranger, Al Feldman, also known professionally as Van Alexander (May 2, 1915 – July 19, 2015) to compose the song with her. On May 2, 1938, the orchestra only rehearsed the song for an hour before recording it that night. Only six weeks later, the song reached number one. By 1950, it sold over one million copies. In 1986, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song became popular and was later recorded by many other performers. It was such a staple in her

1938 Record from the Smithsonian
1938 Record, Smithsonian

repertoire that Ella, herself, recorded the song 13 different times. In 1942, she sang it in Arthur Lubin's film Abbot and Costello's Ride 'Em Cowboy. The song was so popular that Its success also inspired a follow-up song, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” written by Fitzgerald and Webb. Watch Ella's performance of the song in Ride 'Em Cowboy in the video below. Notice how she uses her voice in much the same way an instrumentalist plays a flute or trumpet with agile runs and expressive intonation.



Sadly, Chick Webb's health in decline, and only one year after "A-Tisket, A-Takset" was at the top of the charts, he passed away on June 16, 1939. Ella took over the large responsibility of leading the band. It was renamed "Ella and Her Famous Orchestra." Between 1935 and 1942, Ella recorded almost 150 songs with Webb's orchestra. In addition to her work with Webb, she also led a smaller ensemble called Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight. Due to financial concerns, Ella and Her Famous Orchestra performed their last concert at Earl Theatre in Philadelphia, PA in July 1942. At Ella married Benny Kornegay, a local dockworker who had been pursuing her. Upon learning that Kornegay had a criminal history, Ella realized that the relationship was a mistake and had the marriage annulled.


With Dizzy and other Jazzmen, Sept. 1947
With Dizzy and other jazzmen, Sept. 1947

With World War II came the end of the swing era and the rise of bebop. During this period, Ella took the voice as an instrument a step further, and she began to scat sing frequently, improvise with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. On singing with trumpet great John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie (Oct. 21, 1917 – Jan. 6, 1993), Ella remembered, "I just tried to do [with my voice] what I heard the horns in the band doing." In 1946, while on tour with Gillespie's band, Ella fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. The two were married and eventually adopted a son, whom they named Ray, Jr. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't last, and they divorced in 1952.


Even as the swing era ended and bebop, Ella continued to tour and perform. Her American Songbook series of concerts and recordings from 1956 to 1964, included songs composed by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorzenz Hart. Ira Gershwin described Ella's renditions of his and his brother's songs: "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them." Beginning in the 1950s, she also made appearances on television variety programs. She also earned support from famous fans of her music, including actress and singer Norma Jeane Mortenson, known professionally as Marilyn Monroe (June 1, 1926 – Aug. 4, 1962) who secured a gig at the popular Mocambo Club for Ella. Monroe said that if they booked Ella, she would take the front table every night. Ella recalled, "Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."


Performing at the White House in 1981
Performing at the White House in 1981

In 1987, Elle was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1990, France presented her with their Commander of Arts and Letters award. In 1992, she received the highest on-military honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Additionally, She was given honorary doctorates from many institutions and many other honors including 13 grammy awards. By the 1990s, Ella had recorded and released over 200 albums. In 1991, she gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She supported many charitable organizations. She founded the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation which focuses on charitable grants for four major categories: academic opportunities for children, music education, basic care needs for the less fortunate, medical research revolving around diabetes, heart disease, and vision impairment.

Neon Sign from the "pub" in her house
Neon Sign from the "pub" in her house, Smithsonian

Ella Fitzgerald suffered ill-health from diabetes and cardiac concerns. Due to diabetes, Ella experienced severe circulatory problems and had have both of her legs amputated below the knees. During her late years, she enjoyed sitting in her backyard and spending time with Ray, Jr. and her granddaughter, Alice. Although she was ill, she still found joy in life, saying, "I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds and hear Alice laugh." On June 15, 1996, Ella died of a stroke in her Beverly Hills home at the age of 79. She was buried in Inglewood, CA. She was a shy person who know that she was given a gift that she had to share with the world.


"I know I'm no glamour girl, and it's not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I've got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing."

—Ella Fitzgerald



Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam"

Nina Performing in France
Nina Performing in France

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, known professionally as Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. She was known for blending a brand range of popular and art musical styles, including baroque, classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. She referred to the music she played as "Black Classical Music."



Nina at 17
Nina at 17

Nina was born on Feb. 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. She was a child prodigy with her talents being recognized by the age of three when she started playing piano by ear. Her mother was a Methodist minister, and her father, a handyman and a preacher as well, Nina was the sixth of eight children. Growing up, she played the organ in her mother's church, St. Luke’s C.M.E. Church, but she didn't sing.


Nina studied piano with Muriel Mazzanovich, an Englishwoman who had married a Russian painter. With "Miss Mazzy," she learned the works of great composers, such as J. S. Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy, and Schubert. She performed a full recital at the age of 16 performing selections by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy—repertoire that is often performed by professional concert pianists. (See her program below.) Nina was an excellent student and graduated high school with straight-As and was first in her class. Her community raised money for a scholarship so that she could study at Julliard in New York City.



Her family relocated to Philadelphia, PA where she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute. She planned to be a concert pianist. However, she was denied admission. Simone said that she later found out from an insider from Curtis that she was not admitted, although she performed an excellent audition, because she was Black.


Although her dream of attending Curtis and becoming a concert pianist had hit a wall, she remained dedicated to make a living as a musician. It was at this time that Classical pianist Eunice Waymon became jazz legend Nina Simone. Nina applied for a job as a piano player at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, NJ in 1954. The owner said that she would have to sing as well as play jazz standards and hits of the day. To prevent her pious family from finding out she worked in a bar she took the stage name of "Nina Simone." She got the name from a pet name of "Nina" that her boyfriend called her and a French actress, Simone Signornet. Although she had never sung before, she was able to get the the audition and landed the gig.


Nina's performances drew a following and began recording her music in the 1957 under the Bethlehem label. Her first album "Little Girl Blue" included songs from the Great American Songbook as well as "Central Park Blues," which Nina composed herself. She earned a Top 20 pop hit with her version of "I Loves You Porgy," from the George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess. With her reputation as an amazing live performer, her second album Nina Simone at Town Hall was recorded in concert.


Nina in 1965
Nina in 1965

During the 1960s, Nina began addressing social justice issues in her music, composing protest songs such as "Mississippi Goddam" (1964), "Four Women" (1966), and "Young, Gifted and Black" (1969). "Mississippi Goddam" was her first civil right song. It's Nina's response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL, which killed four black children, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. Nina composed the song before a concert at Carnegie Hall in under one hour. Listening to it, you can hear an almost stream-of-consciosuness flow to the lyrics and vocal line. The song was banned in several souther states supposedly for containing the word "goddam" in the title. The Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."


As a jazz performer, Nina never forgot her classical education, she integrated the techniques of composers, such as Bach and Chopin, into her jazz piano, as demonstrated in the video of her playing "Love Me Or Leave Me" in the Encore! section at the bottom of this post. She was sometimes called the "High Priestess of Soul," a title she didn't like, and she didn't like being referred to as a "jazz singer" either. In her autobiography, she wrote, "If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing."


"I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important."

—Nina Simone


Nina in 1969
Nina in 1969

Later in her life, Nina lived in several different countries in Europe, Africa, and the CArribean. She finally found her home in the South of France. Nina was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and endured financial problems as well as professional and personal conflicts related to the illness. She career had a renaissance in the 1980s when her song "My Baby Just Cares For Me" was used in a Chanel No. 5 commercial. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published in 1991. She continued to perform, including a 1999 performance with her daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud, professionally known as Lisa Simone.


In her final years, Nina Simone battled breast cancer. She died at her home in France at the age of 70 on April 21, 2003.


Her impact of her art was felt by many musician fans. She has been remembered in documentaries and books and in art. The mural, photographed in 2015, below at 1141 Albany Ave. Chicago, IL shows, according to a neighbor: "That is Nina Simone, a Spanish guy did it, his friends own the house. First he painted her with and afro, then he painted her old."


Nina Simone Mural, Library of Congress Collection
Nina Simone Mural, Library of Congress Collection

During her life, Nina was the recipient of many rewards and honors, including the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy." She received two honorary degrees in music and humanities, from Amherst College and Malcolm X College and preferred to be called "Dr. Nina Simone." Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute, which ha refused her admittance decades earlier, awarded her an honorary degree. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.



Toshiko Akiyoshi's "Hiroshima – Rising from the Abyss"


Toshiko in July 1955
Toshiko in July 1955

Toshiko Akiyoshi (Akiyoshi Toshiko) was born on Dec. 12, 1929 in Manchuria region of China to Japanese emigrants. She is a Japanese-American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader.


After World War II, in 1946, the Akiyoshi family returned from China to Japan where they lived in the city of Beppu. She began playing the piano at the age of six. Due to hardships because of the war, her family was not able to provide her with a piano. So at the age of 17, she took a job playing in a dance-hall band. She was not familiar with jazz until a Japanese record collector introduced her to the music of Theodore Shaw Teddy Wilson (Nov.r 24, 1912 – July 31, 1986), a foremost performer of swing piano. She has said that Wilson's music appealed to her because he started in classical music just as she did. Canadian pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson (Aug. 15, 1925 – Dec. 23, 2007) heard her play while he was touring Japan on with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1952. Peterson recommended that jazz record producer Norman Granz (Aug. 6, 1918 – Nov. 22, 2001) record her. She then came to the United States and then had the opportunity to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA.


Toshiko Dec. 1953
Toshiko Dec. 1953

In 1959, Toshiko moved to New York, playing well-known jazz clubs, such as Birdland, the Village Gate, the Five Spot, and the Half Note as a pianist. Throughout the 1960s, she sough to prove her talents as a composer and arranger for big band, but these did not pan out. In 1972, she relocated to Los Angeles, CA and formed her band with her husband, She moved to New York in 1959, playing at Birdland, the Village Gate, the Five Spot, and the Half Note; but despite a brief attempt in the 1960s to showcase her talents as a composer and arranger for large ensembles, she did not have the opportunity to form a big band after she moved to Los Angeles in 1972 with her husband, saxophonist/flutist Lewis "Lew" Tabackin (b. March 26, 1940).


In 1973, Toshiko and Lew formed the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin. Within a few short years, the band placed first in the DownBeat magazine's Critics' Poll, and their album, Long Yellow Road, was named best jazz album of the year by another publication, Stereo Review. Throughout the 1970s, Toshiko integrated Japanese themes into her jazz compositions and arrangements. She also includes classical forms in her jazz pieces. In 1982, they moved the band to New York City.

Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band at Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey, CA, in 1981, Brian Mcmillen
Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band at Monterey Jazz Festival, Monterey, CA, in 1981, Brian McMillen

In 1999, Toshiko was approached by a Buddhist priest, Kyudo Nakagawa, who asked her to write a piece for his hometown Hiroshima. Nakagawa sent her some photos of the aftermath of the 1945 nuclear bombing. At first, she did not think she was up to the challenge. She explains her inspiration:


"I always consider myself a pianist. I never considered myself a writer, but that seems to be where my value lies. Anyway, when I saw this photo taken after atomic bomb was dropped, it was a great shock to me. I never seen it before and it horrified me. And then I thought, I don't know if I can write something like this. I didn't know if it means anything to write something. Who is going to get benefit from that? So I was going to decline, and I just kept looking at different pages, and the first couple of times I missed one page. There was a young woman who was underground, and she wasn't affected by the bomb. When she came up and smiled a little bit, it was such a beautiful face and it had nothing to do with the war. When I saw that photo, I said, "I can write that." In other words, we must have hope. The worse the situation is, we have to have hope, learn from that and say it shouldn't happen. We all keep saying to the world, anti-war, anti-nuclear weapon, and we'll just keep hoping to have peace someday, and so on. That last part is hope."


We must have hope.

—Toshiko Akiyoshi