Preface: For the purposes of this article and my realm of knowledge, I’m going to focus solely on female jazz vocalists. But I would like the readers to keep in mind that there are many, many talented female musicians breaking barriers in the jazz world and they should not be ignored! (Check out: Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Osborne, Vi Redd, Kasey Knudsen, Carmen Rothwell, and many others!)
Nobody stands/ in between me and my man/ it’s me and Mr. Jones…what kind of f***ery is this?
– Amy Winehouse
Winehouse’s opening line to Me & Mr. Jones from her renowned album “Back to Black” is one of the most powerful and attention-capturing lines out of any of her songs. It’s that burst of strength and delicacy in her voice that revitalized the era and carried jazz and soul genres into the 21st century. She truly understood the soul and level of personal connection that goes into every jazz song. Her story of how jazz became her as she dealt with her various vices was even made into a documentary: Amy*. Though women are known to be intuitive and are far too often ridiculed for being more “in touch with their feelings”, one could argue that as a strong advantage for creating and perfecting jazz music. Jazz is emotion and energy, understanding yourself and your band to a level that composes intricate riffs and solos never planned and perfectly imperfect.
Winehouse’s tragic success pulled from the founding female jazz vocalists that were able to understand and popularize the emotions of jazz. I view singers like Etta James, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bessie Smith somewhat as the “founding fathers” of how jazz could enter the lives of female vocalists. Even popular artists today utilize the soulful content of these women. In his popular song “Blood on the Leaves”, Kanye West clipped a section of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”*, a song which depicted artistically the horrific lynchings of African Americans as fruit hanging from trees in the south. That level of pain and sorrow was eloquently absorbed in the voice of Billie Holiday. Additionally, Beyonce played the role of Etta James in the movie Cadillac Records, covering a number of her most famous songs including “At Last”.
Further carrying the torch from these titans of jazz includes Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, and Melody Gardot. Each with their own style and intricacies, the emotions of jazz and soul carried through their voices and have continued to inspire young men and women to delve further into that realm. Melody Gardot has a powerful song “Preacherman”* which is one of my personal favorites. While it is a simpler version than some of her traditional jazz songs, it was made to commemorate Emmett Till and 100% of all income received by Decca from Vevo views of the the video were paid to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation for the first year following its initial UK release.
The powerful voices of these women trickles into other genres and artists adding to the complex web that is music today. Florence and the Machine’s “Girl with One Eye” pulls heavily from the jazz genre and the power that comes along with it. Some popular artists like Lady Gaga, Haley Reinhart, Queen Latifah, Adele, and others have either done songs, albums, or career changes to jazz music. Haley Reinhart’s performance on Vintage Postmodern Jukebox of “Creep”* by Radiohead shows the versatility and influence that jazz can create within a song.
Without these women, jazz would not be the way it is today. Jazz is made to be an emotive and messy form of musical expression that has been and will continue to be embodied by strong female vocalists.
*Check out this song/video/movie if you haven’t already!