WRCJ 90.9 FM celebrates music by Black composers and musicians all year long and this month, we’re honoring 28 Jazz Innovators in 28 Days. Throughout February, check back here or visit WRCJ’s Facebook Page to discover African-American musicians and composers who made, and are making, outstanding contributions to the world of jazz music.
We also invite you to watch the 20th anniversary showing of “Ken Burns’ Jazz” on WTVS Detroit Public Television Thursdays at 10pm EST.
Note: The following list was compiled by the WRCJ staff and is meant to be instructional, not a definitive “ranking.” To learn more about jazz, listen to “Maxology with Maxine Michaels,” Fridays 7p – 11p; “JazzFest Detroit with John Penney,” Saturdays 7p – 10p; and “The Swing Set with Linda Yohn,” Sundays 7 – 9p, only on WRCJ 90.9 FM Detroit.
28 Jazz Innovators in 28 Days
February 1 – Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)
Nicknamed “Satchmo”, “Satch”, and “Pops”, Armstrong was an American trumpeter, composer, vocalist, and actor who was among the most influential figures in jazz. Learn more in this short video courtesy of Biography.com.
February 2 – Jelly Roll Morton (1890 – 1941)
Born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, Morton was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer. Listen Now to hear Morton tell the story of his “I’m Alabama Bound.” Audio courtesy of the Library of Congress.
February 3 – Earl Hines (1903 – 1983)
Earl “Fatha” Hines was an American jazz pianist, bandleader and composer and has been called “the first modern jazz pianist.” Discover for yourself in this vintage 30-minute video as Earl performs and talks about his style and influences.
February 4 – Sidney Bechet (1897 – 1959)
Sidney Bechet was an American saxophonist, clarinetist and composer and is said to have recorded the first significant jazz solos (other than pianists). Check out this 1958 performance of “I’ve Got a New Baby.” Video courtesy of ina.fr.
February 5 – Billie Holliday (1915 – 1959)
Born Eleanora Fagan, “Lady Day” was an American jazz and swing singer, whose captivating voice was complemented by her pioneering use of phrasing, tempo and improvisation. Maxine Michaels suggests this performance of “Comes Love.”
February 6 – Fats Waller (1904 – 1943)
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comic entertainer, acclaimed as one of jazz’s best stride pianists. Here he is performing his “Ain’t Misbehavin” in a classic scene from the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
February 7 – Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974)
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra leader. Ellington wrote more than 1,000 compositions, most notably with pianist and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Watch this performance of “Take the A Train” from the 1943 film “Reveille with Beverly.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
February 8 – Charles Mingus, Jr. (1922 – 1929)
Mingus was an American jazz double bassist, pianist, composer and bandleader, who once said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Check out this solo with his sextet in 1964.
February 9 – Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981)
Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, she was a true pioneer as a female jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. A child prodigy, she was playing with Ellington by age 15 and leading her own band at 19. Please enjoy this 1978 performance of the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love.”
February 10 – Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969)
Coleman Randolph “Hawk” Hawkins was the first prominent jazz tenor saxophonist and a major influence on later tenor players. His rich tone first took jazz ballads to new heights and his improvisational skills led him to be a Bebop pioneer. See how he plays around the melody in this performance of “Lover Man.” (tune starts 2 minutes in).
February 11 – Lionel Hampton (1908 – 2002)
“Hamp” popularized the use of the vibraphone as a jazz instrument and was also a fine drummer, pianist, singer and bandleader. In his long career, he played with all the greats and always brought rhythmic vitality and dynamic showmanship to the stage. He swings this 1957 TV performance of “Flying Home.”
February 12 – Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982)
Monk was an American jazz pianist and composer of many jazz standards (“Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk”). In fact, he’s the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington. A pioneer of modern jazz and bebop, he once said, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” Watch this 1966 performance of “Round Midnight” with his quartet in Norway.
February 13 – Wynton Marsalis (born 1961)
The second of six sons in the Marsalis family of New Orleans, Wynton is a trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music and, of his nine Grammy Awards, he is the only musician to win in jazz and classical in the same year. A very thoughtful man, Wynton recently spoke about Democracy and performs “Amazing Grace.” Courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
February 14 – Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955)
Nicknamed “Bird” and “Yardbird,” Charles Parker, Jr. was a highly influential soloist who changed the course of jazz history with the creation of bebop. He played the alto saxophone with blazingly fast virtuosity and revolutionary harmonic ideas. Here’s a short clip of Charlie with Dizzy Gillespie from 1951.
February 15 – Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935 – 1977)
Kirk played all types of saxophones, flute, and other instruments and was renowned for his ability to play several instruments at once. Blind since age 2, he was an innovator never content with past accomplishments; he always kept inventing. His genius is on display in this amazing performance in Prague in 1951.
February 16 – Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993)
John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was a trumpeter, bandleader, and composer who largely created bebop and modern jazz by adding harmonic and rhythmic complexity previously unheard in jazz. It’s said that his trumpet playing influenced everyone after him. Watch this performance of “Sunshine” in 1970, courtesy of France Musique.
February 17 – Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996)
She once was called “the best singer on the planet” for the purity of her tone, her phrasing of lyrics and her inventive improvisation, called “scat” singing. She rose to fame in 1938 with “A Tisket, A Tasket” and enjoyed a career of more than 60 years. She’s at the height of her powers in this 1968 performance of “Summertime” in Berlin.
February 18 – Nat “King” Cole (1919 – 1965)
Nathaniel Adams Coles was an exceptional jazz pianist whose professional career started at age 15. In 1940, he reluctantly became a singer, scoring his first hit with “Sweet Lorraine,” and went on to be one of the most popular vocalists ever and the first African-American man to host an American TV series. We’re fond of this 1951 performance of “Route 66.”
February 19 – John Coltrane (1926 – 1967)
John Coltrane was an American saxophonist and composer and his saxophone sound—brooding, searching, dark—is still one of the most recognizable in modern jazz. He once said, “I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” This 1960 performance of “On Green Dolphin Street” certainly brings joy.
February 20 – Herbie Hancock (born 1940)
Herbert Jeffrey Hancock is a jazz pianist and a composer of newer jazz standards. At age 11, he played Mozart with the Chicago Symphony and later became a major influence on electronic jazz as Jazz/Fusion pioneer. Here, he tells the story of writing “Watermelon Man” and performs the 1962 original and the 1973 Headhunters versions.
February 21 – Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)
Miles was a trumpeter, composer and bandleader (giving many other jazz greats their start), whose minimalist style and inventiveness put him at the forefront of bebop, cool, modal, hard bop, and fusion. He was cool, complex and unpredictable. Check out this 1959 performance of his classic “So What.”
February 22 – Charlie Christian (1916 – 1942)
He was one of the first to play single-note solos on the electric guitar, taking it out of the rhythm section and practically inventing the “lead guitarist.” Although he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years, his influence is huge. Listen to this tasty solo on “Rose Room” with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1939.
February 23 – Horace Silver (1928 – 2014)
Horace Silver was a pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and an NEA Jazz Master. He stressed melody in his compositions (many are now jazz standards) and his infectious, bluesy playing brought him great popularity. Here’s a 1968 live performance of his classic “Song for My Father.”
February 24 – Stanley Clarke (born 1951)
Clarke is a bassist, film composer and founding member of Return to Forever, one of the first jazz fusion bands. For more than 50 years he has been taking the bass to new levels with his melodic flights and use of the “slap.” A true legend, here he is performing “School Days” in 2003 at the Newport Jazz Festival.
February 25 – Jimmy Smith (1925 or 1928 – 2005)
Smith helped popularize the Hammond B-3 organ and is a NEA Jazz Master, America’s highest jazz honor. He drew on gospel and soul as he created rapid keyboard runs while punching out bass lines with the pedals. His influence on later organists is immense. Take a close-up look at the keyboard in this swingin’ version of “The Cat.”
February 26 – Betty Carter (1929 – 1998)
Born Lillie Mae Jones in Flint, Michigan, she grew up in Detroit and gained fame as Betty Carter, a jazz singer known for her scat improvisations and imaginative interpretation of lyrics and melodies. She is also a NEA Jazz Master. A true jazz singer, her style was unique. Watch how she transforms “Blue Moon” in France in 1968.
February 27 – Quincy Jones (born 1933)
Quincy Delight Jones Jr. is a record producer, multi-instrumentalist, composer (the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar twice in the same year), arranger, and film and television producer. In a career spanning 70 years, he’s worked with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Michael Jackson. He’s also beloved for his humanitarian work. Learn more in this bio from mojo.com.
February 28 – Art Blakey (1919 – 1990)
He was a jazz drummer who came to prominence in the 1940s with big bands and bebop musicians and, with Horace Silver in the 1950s, formed the influential group “The Jazz Messengers,” which he led until his death. He was a powerful drummer and a mentor to many younger musicians, inspiring those who played with him to play better. Dig this drum solo from 1959 courtesy of drummerworld.com.
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