Justly referred to as “The First Lady of Song” and “The Queen of Jazz”, Ella Fitzgerald is one of the all time greats. Her voice spanned a range of three octaves, her control had few equals and her ability to improvise as a vocalist was the equal of any of the horn players she sang with.
Born in 1917, her recording career spanned 60 years, in which she sold 40 million copies of her 70-plus albums (6 of which were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame) and won 14 Grammy Awards. Ella was an intensely private woman – even now, it is unclear how many times she married – and she died in the peace and privacy of her own home in Beverly Hills. Her death was marked by numerous tributes from artists who had worked with her or been inspired or influenced by her.
One of the most influential jazz artists, Lester Young’s instrument of choice was the tenor saxophone (with occasional forays into the clarinet). Unlike many of his contemporaries, his style was relaxed and laid-back, featuring complex melodies and improvisations.
Young first came to prominence as a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, but left music to serve in World War Two. After the war, he embarked on a solo career, although he frequently played with other musicians and featured in their recordings just as they featured in his.
Lester Young’s greatest influence on the world had little to do with his playing: he is credited with having invented a large portion of ‘hipster’ slang. In particular, the modern colloquial meanings of cool (as ‘good’) and bread (as ‘money’) are attributed to him.
Young suffered from alcoholism in his later life, and died from complications brought on by it at the age of 49.
Born Eleanora Harris, Billie Holiday was one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century. She sang across a range of genres, including jazz, folk and pop, but always in a voice and a style that was distinctively her own. It is no exaggeration to say that she single-handedly changed the way that pop music was sung – no female vocalist who followed her is entirely free of her shadow, and not a few male vocalists also owe a debt – Frank Sinatra, for example, said that she was his single largest influence.
Holiday’s death, at the age of 44, came a few months after she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, caused by her heavy drinking. She died after spending a month and a half in hospital – a period during which she was arrested by the New York Police Department for drug possession and other crimes. Her health had prevented her from being arraigned, and the charges were still pending when she died, placing her beyond the reach of any earthly jurisdiction.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was one of the greatest and most influential of Jazz musicians – although he himself always described his music as “American music”, and used the phrase “beyond category” to praise music he particularly liked.
He was born in Washington DC in 1899 to parents who were also musical, and who nurtured his talents. Ellington started writing his own compositions at the age of 15, and by the time of his death, would have created more than a thousand pieces of original music, embracing the jazz he is best known for as well as other musical styles including blues, gospel, pop and classical.
He is universally regarded as one of the all time greats in his field, and achieved (and faded from) popular and critical success several times during his life (and after).
L.A. Money Train — Rollins Band
Woke Up This Morning — Alabama 3
One of the most influential bluesmen of all time, Martin James “Jimmy” Reed’s professional career spanned four decades, not including a brief interuption for his wartime service with the US Navy in World War Two. His best known songs are Baby What You Want Me To Do, Bright Lights, Big City and Big Boss Man – the last of which gave Reed the nickname he would be known by to fans.
Reed was never as successful as many of his contempories, but he was frequently covered by other artists and his music influenced many more. Elvis covered Big Boss Man in his ’68 Comeback Special, and the Rolling Stones have cited Reed as one of the major influences on their own music. In 1991, 25 years after his death, Reed was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
An accomplished bassist, pianist and bandleader, Charles Mingus is perhaps best-remembered today for his work as a composer. Between 1943 and his death in 1979, he composed and arranged numerous influential works of jazz – his final composition, Epitath, was appropriately never performed until after his death.
Mingus was a perfectionist, especially as a bandleader, and was notorious for his temper – he was widely known as ‘the Angry Man of Jazz‘ – but most of the musicians he worked with agreed that his perfectionism most often brought out the best in their performances.
John Coltrane, born on September 23, 1926, is a legend of twentieth century jazz. He worked alongside other greats such as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. He pioneered Free Jazz, and made more than fifty recordings in the twelve years of his career.
Coltrane died from either liver cancer or hepatitis, depending on who you believe, but either way, his heroin use was almost certainly a contributing factor.
L.A. Money Train — Rollins Band
Woke Up This Morning — Alabama 3
Born in 1928, Eric Allan Dolphy first came to prominence as a member of Miles Davis’ jazz quintet. He played bass clarinet, alto saxophone and flute. In the early Sixties, he became a recognized jazz leader himself. An exponent of free jazz, Dolphy’s improvisational style was so original and avant garde that he frequently transcended the boundaries of that form.
On June 28, he collapsed into a diabetic coma while in Berlin. Despite being rushed to hospital, he died the next day. A journalist once wrote of his music that it was “too out to be in and too in to be out” – a fitting epitath for a man who recognized few limits in his art.
Mingus never believed that his ground-breaking composition would be performed while he lived – hence his title. He stated that he had written it “for my tombstone.” If it was an epitaph, it could scarcely have been a better one, for all that it was more than a decade since his death.
The manuscript was only found after his death, when Mingus’ works were being catalogued. In this, its first performance, the concert was produced by Sue Graham Mingus, his widow, and played by a 30-piece orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller. Schuller later stated that Epitaph was “among the most important, prophetic, creative statement in the history of jazz,” and The New Yorker wrote that Epitaph represents the first advance in jazz composition since Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige which was written in 1943.
Born Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, there have been few bluesmen to equal to the talent of Howlin’ Wolf. His unusual name derives from his early (and notably unsuccessful) attempts to yodel – he sounded more like a howling wolf, and the name stuck.
Wolf’s career stretched over a quarter of a century, from 1951 until his death. He probably would have had a longer musical career had he not served in the military during World War Two, and his career would no doubt have brought him more joy had his mother not believed it to be ‘devil’s music’. Wolf died in Hines VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois, mourned by a generation of bluesmen he influenced and a legion of fans the world over.