Turning The Tables: The Motherlode A collection of glowing reviews, heartfelt remembrances, poems and tributes in celebration of the legacies of the eight women we're honoring in the third season of Turning the Tables.
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The Motherlode

How do you measure a monumental artistic life? By how deep it runs.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe on stage in 1959.
V&A Images/Getty Images

The women we have chosen to honor in this season of Turning the Tables can rightly be called fundamental to the sound and meaning of American popular music. As we chose our eight — Bessie Smith, Maybelle Carter, Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, Celia Cruz and Rosetta Tharpe — we invited a spirited debate about what that means. How do we decide what makes an artist great? Or makes her the greatest? What constitutes a meaningful legacy — and who gets to decide which legacies matter most?

One image these conversations inspired was of a musical, feminist Mt. Rushmore: Bessie Smith carved in stone next to Maybelle Carter (or Ma Rainey or Mahalia Jackson or Ruth Brown, or any of the other groundbreaking women whose names came up in our discussions). What would it mean to say these artists are monumental American figures at this scale: founders and originators whose work in the world forever changed history? Some answers might sound like this: "In all probability there is not another artist on the stage who has more admirers than Bessie Smith, the crowned queen of blues, the greatest of them all," as the Chicago Defender published on Dec. 22, 1928. Or, "She has become in her time the standard by which all of the rest of us are measured," as Peggy Lee said of Ella Fitzgerald at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979, "and that's as it should be."

Of course, as some on our panel were quick to point out, the imagery of monuments is inherently hierarchical; it lifts up individual figures for their achievements as if they are lone actors whose greatness places them above their peers, foremothers and inheritors. But the importance of these artists can also be found in the connections they made. To build a bridge between genres (as Rosetta Tharpe did between the world of gospel and the emerging sound of rock and roll); between eras (as Mary Lou Williams did, effortlessly transitioning from stride to swing to bebop); between continents (like Celia Cruz combining African rhythms and American influences): This, too, illustrates their greatness. These artists' work resonates across time, embraced by each generation of artists that has come after them. At his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1992, Johnny Cash said some of his earliest songs "were influenced by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe." "Ella was the first singer I heard growing up that made me realize what greatness is," jazz and soul singer Kandace Springs told us. "I still listen to her versions of songs to know what to aim for." Our image changed then, to a mother lode: a central vein that uncovers an overwhelming inheritance.

The collection of quotations below proves how the greatness of these artists cannot be contained within a single definition. To create it, we read historical accounts of these artists' lives, looked to their influence across popular culture and reached out to contemporary artists who feel a connection to our eight. Through glowing reviews of these artist's early performances and contemporary testimonies about their lasting impact, from heartfelt remembrances to poetry in their honor to video footage of musical tributes, we invite you to celebrate, re-examine and redefine the legacies of these eight women who invented American popular music. —Marissa Lorusso


Listen to a playlist of songs by the eight women who invented American popular music on Spotify or Apple Music.


Greatness in their time

"In the music, in [Billie Holiday's] phrasing, her timing, the timbre of her voice, the social roots of pain and despair in women's emotional lives are given a lyrical legibility." (Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Angela Davis, 1998)

***

"She functioned as a fountainhead not only of blues phrasing style but of jazz vocal instrumental arranging and popular music vocal style as well. Literally thousands of jazz and pop singers, black and white, have been in her debt since her death, but by today few are aware of the roots of their style. ... Bessie's magic was that she could bring to the listener the intimacy of the country blues while projecting with perfect musicianship and imagination the worldly qualities of the new. ... As kind as she was tough, as country as she was worldly, Bessie Smith brought to her work a musicianship touched by genius. Viewed but dimly through the imperfect medium of early 78 r.p.m. recordings, and supported in an early-jazz accompaniment style that was itself just a-borning, the art of Bessie Smith nonetheless stands as one of the landmarks of musical history." ("Blues and Bessie Smith," Carman Moore; New York Times, March 9, 1969)

***

"In all probability there is not another artist on the stage who has more admirers than Bessie Smith, the crowned queen of blues, the greatest of them all." (Chicago Defender, Dec. 22, 1928)

***

"Nobody – not Chuck Berry, not Scotty Moore, not James Burton, not Keith Richards – played wilder or more primal rock'n'roll guitar than this woman who gave her life to God and would have celebrated her 100th birthday on 20 March [2015]. With a Gibson SG in her hands, Sister Rosetta could raise the dead. And that was before she started to sing." ("Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother Of Rock'n'Roll," Richard Williams, The Guardian March 18, 2015)

***

"Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and always have been just a little ahead throughout her career...her music retains — and maintains — a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul." —Duke Ellington (Music Is My Mistress, 1973)

***

"Ella Fitzgerald is Bing Crosby's choice as the nation's number one female singer. ... But better yet the little "Tisket-A Tasket" girl is the choice of tune lovers the world over. Her records are among the best sellers in more different countries than any other artist can boast. ... Whenever the question 'who is the greatest female singer' is answered there is never a dissenting vote when Ella Fitzgerald is named. Yes. 'Miss Tisket A Tasket' is the nation's choice." (Chicago Defender, June 21, 1958)

***

"If there's ever anyone I see, other than my dad, when I close my eyes on stage, it's Ella Fitzgerald. She wasn't just the greatest jazz singer ever; she was the best singer I ever knew." —Natalie Cole at the 1996 Grammys tribute

***

"Mother Maybelle was an open C chord. You can't make music without it."—Bobby Bare (Quoted in Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1978)

***

"Part of the beauty of Marian Anderson's voice is the reflection of an artistic conscience which knows no compromise with the truth. ... Every part of her art is part of the art of song. All the vivid humanity of her singing she accomplishes by singing alone. She is every inch a singer, and one is tempted to say that she is all a singer ought to be." —Cecil Smith (Quoted in the Chicago Defender, Feb. 13, 1937)

***

"I wish to make it clear that no musician, woman or man, regularly working a Manhattan club today, can touch [Mary Lou Williams]." (Washington Post May 18, 1947)

***

"For close to 40 years, [Celia] Cruz has been idolized throughout Latin America for the smoking-hot stamp she puts on this Afro-Cuban sound. She is to salsa what Ella Fitzgerald is to jazz: A singer whose vocal flirtations with an orchestra set concerts on fire." ("'Queen of Salsa': Celia Cruz' sizzling reign goes on unchallenged," Judy Hevrdejs, Chicago Tribune, October 1988)

***

"It's amazing to me how modern [Mary Lou Williams] is. Usually players are set in their style by the age of 25, but she kept growing. She was a great stride player in the '20s, a great swing player in the '30s and a great bebop player in the '40s. She just kept going." —David Berger (quoted in "The Jazz Player's Choir of Angels," Richard Harrington, Washington Post, March 26, 1999)


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Honors & Remembrances

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

(from "The Day Lady Died," Frank O'Hara, 1964)

***

"It would be hard to overstate Maybelle Carter's importance to popular music history. Her revolutionary guitar style helped transform the instrument from background rhythm to the dominant lead sound in pop culture, and Maybelle's picking on 'Wildwood Flower' is still the standard for young guitarists." —Ali Tonn, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"Ella Fitzgerald has changed the face of jazz since she was discovered as a teenager, and she is an American music legend." —President George H. W. Bush, Dec. 11 1992 as Ella was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

***

"With the passing of Billie Holiday, the jazz world lost one of its most memorable personages. She was more than just a good singer. She had a style, an easy way of delivery that made her most tormented tones emerge seemingly without effort." ("Billie Holiday Discs Still Toppers On Stem," Chicago Defender, Oct. 24, 1959)

***

"[Maybelle Carter] taught us the circle would be unbroken. Love, President Jimmy Carter." (read by Johnny Cash at Maybelle's funeral; quoted in The Hartford Courant, "Final Tribute Paid Country Music Figure," Oct. 26, 1978)

***

"Maybelle Carter was part of the so-called 'Big Bang' of country music in 1927, when in the space of a few days in Bristol, Tenn., both the Carter Family and then Jimmie Rodgers were recorded for the first time. Maybelle's cousin Sara had a remarkable voice, and Sara's husband A.P. Carter had a talent for collecting songs, but I think Maybelle's guitar playing had as great an influence on American music as the Carter Family's enduring songs. She had developed her style on her own, picking the melody with her thumb while simultaneously strumming the rhythm and chords with her other fingers — called 'the Carter scratch.' It became one of the most-copied guitar styles in music history (Duane Allman taught "Wildwood Flower" to his wife). 'There's rhythm and there's the melody,' Vince Gill told us for our documentary film, 'and at its simplest place, it still carries maybe the most poetry. Mother Maybelle as a guitarist may be the most iconic instrumentalist that we've ever had.'

And after the original Carter Family disbanded, she extended her legacy even further, performing with her three daughters as The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. In the 1940s, they were responsible for bringing the young Chet Atkins to Nashville, which in itself was a great contribution to the music's history. In the early 1950s, Maybelle helped Hank Williams through some of his darkest hours with some late-night stew and motherly conversation, and would later do the same for Johnny Cash (who ended up marrying Maybelle's middle daughter, June, in 1968). Then, in the early 1970s, she participated in the landmark triple-disc album Will the Circle Be Unbroken with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a hippie band from California, creating something that brought old-time country music to a whole next generation. That's quite a legacy." —Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker

***

"In a sense, there were two Marian Andersons. The first was the artist whose haunting, impassioned singing prompted the great maestro Arturo Toscanini to proclaim, 'A voice like yours is heard once in 100 years.' The other was the model citizen who quietly but effectively helped the nation confront its own racism." ("Two Marian Andersons, Both Real," David Mermelstein, New York Times, Feb. 23, 1997)

***

"Whether you were a disenfranchised individual, or functioned under a presumption of 'influence,' there are obvious reasons why Marian Anderson was an important human being for all Americans to see and hear — actually for all people across the globe to see and hear.

She stood upright and sang with a balanced grace in spite of explicit prejudice and discrimination.

She was a role model and guide for those who were interested in classical music, but who didn't feel they had a place or were represented.

She sang and made music with a simple, yet impassioned directness — nothing theatrical, but full of drama, human greatness and vulnerability." —Julia Bullock

***

"I'm not sure if I'll ever get my musical head or heart around all of Ella Fitzgerald's recordings. I came for the joy, I stayed for the peerless musicality and technically perfect instrument and I never left. Her most playful riffing is a rollercoaster that could be careening off the rails at the very top in a dizzying, swinging, giddy ride but somehow comes safely to a confident, perfect, yet too-soon end and all you want to do is get back in line to do it again. She's way out, but she's in control and knows exactly what she's doing. In my work and listening life, Ella can't be matched." —Cheryl Pawleski, Omnivore Recordings & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"Celia Cruz could take any song and make it unforgettable. She transcended the material. With Celia, even the most simple of songs became injected with her personality and her vigor." —Rubén Blades (Associated Press, July 17, 2003)

***

"I don't know of anybody in show business, black or white, who has done as much for the people of show business and to entertain audiences throughout the world as our friend Ella." –Ed Sullivan (quoted in "Tributes Pour On Ella Fitzgerald", Robert Windeler, New York Times, Dec. 2, 1968)


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Performance

voice rescuing razor thin lyrics
from hopscotching dreams.

we first watched her navigating
an apollo stage amid high-stepping
yellow legs
we watched her watching us
shiny and pure woman
sugar and spice woman
her voice a nun's whisper
her voice pouring out
guitar thickened blues,
her voice a faraway horn
questioning the wind,
and she became Ella,
first lady of tongues

(from "A Poem for Ella Fitzgerald," Sonia Sanchez, 1998)

***

"Billie Holiday, the queen of all 'pop' singers recently broke all records at Hollywood's Sunset Strip. And when Lady Day concluded her last day on the strip, Hollywood folk shouted, 'Bravo Lady, Sunset Strip belongs to you.' As this reporter caught the Billie Holiday show last week at the Apollo theatre here in Harlem, where she performed to a capacity crowd, the audience went into a swoon as she sang in her magnetic manner. Her audience there was shouting and screaming, 'Go Lady Day, you're still the greatest.'" ("Star Of Fame Is Still Shining On 'Lady Day': Holiday's Busy With Book, Too," Chicago Defender, October 1955)

***

"She shimmers onto the stage of Washington's Sheraton Park Hotel, every sequin sparkling, smile blazing, as the impatient audience cheers and surges toward her, chanting, 'Celia Cruz!' 'Celia!' 'Celia!' 'Celia Cruz!' This is it: ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros; the real thing, the queen of tropical music, la rumbera de America Latina has hit the stage. A thousand hands reach toward the tiny platform as if asking for a blessing." ("Steam & Salsa: After the Hard Years, the Explosive Celia Cruz Hammers Her Message Home," Alma Guillermoprieto, The Washington Post, Jan. 9, 1983)

***

"Miss Anderson sings with ease and simplicity and with a charming naturalness and shows unusual reserve power, giving the impression always that the heights and depths of her lovely voice have not been completely revealed." ("With the Clubs: Marian Anderson Recital," Chicago Defender, Nov. 21, 1925)

***

"That's what Bessie could do — she had the capability to jump into any pocket. If she heard, then she could do it, and everybody else had to catch up and follow." —Queen Latifah (on All Things Considered, May 16, 2015)

***

"The greatest ovation ever accorded any group of music makers in central Georgia, was paid Sister Rosetta Tharpe, sensational gospel singer, and Madame Marie Knight, golden voiced singer and pianist when they appeared in concert here recently before a record-breaking crowd at Macon Auditorium." ("Tharpe, Knight Score In Macon," Chicago Defender, May 7, 1949)

***

"At the Grand Central Palace on July 21, Ella Fitzgerald once again proved to be the sole reigning 'Queen Of Song' ... Fitzgerald took the stage to a packed house and received such tremendous ovation that she was forced to do encore after encore. The ovation attended Miss Fitzgerald was so great that her allotted time had to be increased ten fold and it was way past the hour mark before La Belle Fitzgerald could beg off and the rest of the show allowed to go on." (Chicago Defender, July 31, 1948)

***

"The Carters command an audience that bridges the gap between coffeehouse and civic auditorium. Maybelle's ringing, highly personal rendition of 'Wildwood Flower' may enchant a sophisticated class of UCLA students one week and bring down the house in Sand Gap, KY., the next. ... Maybelle can play just about any instrument that can be picked — and a few that can't." ("The Carter Family Is Music to Ears of 3 Generations," The Atlanta Constitution, June 29, 1969)

***

"[Mary Lou Williams] has the most consistent way of swinging; even with a rhythm section that isn't quite hanging together, she can make it swing, and this is really remarkable. It seems that no matter what's going on around her, she can get this thing going. When in doubt — swing! ... Considering all the psychological things that go into swinging, she's even more remarkable. You could wake her up out of a dead sleep, and she'd start swinging without even thinking about it." —Billy Taylor ("Marian McPartland in Conversation with Mary Lou Williams," DownBeat Magazine, Aug. 27, 1964)

***

"Cuban rhythms and melodies take on a warm luster as they are presented by this fine Havana artist. Senorita Cruz's delivery is quite uncomplicated, but it is, indeed, the essence of vitality." (Los Angeles Times, Geoffrey Warren, Nov. 27, 1959)


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Influence & Impact

sometimes the deaf
hear better than the blind
some men
when they first
heard her sing
were only attracted
to the flower in her hair

("Billie Holiday" by E. Ethelbert Miller, 1994)

"My mother and father loved Billie Holiday. I like to consider her music, her voice my inheritance. She is one of the few singers I can listen to while writing. Her singing is never a distraction but a reminder of why one has ears. I wrote my poem "Billie Holiday" after I learned more about her life. I wanted to explore where the "blue pain" of her sadness came from. My poem encourages the reader to look beyond the woman's beauty. —E. Ethelbert Miller

***

"Billie Holiday never won a Down Beat poll while she was living, which is ironic since there isn't a girl singing jazz today who does not, in one way or another, reflect the Billie Holiday vocal style." (Ralph Gleason, Boston Globe: "Jazz Singer Was in Hall of Fame Before Vote Was Counted: Billie's Vocal Style Set the Pace for All Singers After Her," Jan. 14, 1962)

***

"Around 1998, when I first saw video of an incredibly charismatic Rosetta Tharpe playing her white electric guitar and singing 'Down By the Riverside,' my mind was blown. I thought, Who is this woman and why haven't I heard of her? Since then, in my writing and teaching I've returned again and again to that question, which speaks to larger issues of cultural memory. In addition to opening my ears to Golden Age gospel music, Tharpe's legacy has been to push me to think about how cultural erasure happens and to be vigilant about it in our own moment." —Gayle Wald, professor, George Washington University & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe embodied every woman I had heard sing and play in the small Pentecostal church my great-grandmother attended. When I hear Tharpe's records, I think of the sound of heels tapping in counterpoint to the syncopated clapping and guitar licks that accompanied the singing in that church. Rosetta's singing brings memories of hot afternoon gospel sings, where I watched as the spirit overtook people and prayed that God would send a breeze through the open church windows. Each sung note and guitar lick told the stories of those seeking transcendence from earthly problems. Every now and then I will play her version of 'Precious Memories,' just to reconnect with my great-grandmother and my memories of visits to that small Pentecostal church in southern Virginia. More importantly it spurs me to fight on another day!" —Tammy Kernodle, professor, Miami University & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"When I think about Marian Anderson, one word that comes up in my mind is 'rare': a rare gift, rare voice, rare story. And when I think about her legacy, I think of how incredibly courageous she had to have been to even pursue this career at that particular time. Being an African-American classical musician, becoming an opera singer: I owe so much of my path to Marian Anderson. Her legacy means so much to me because without her, there would be no me." —Karen Slack

***

"When I was a kid — about 11 or 12 — I was hanging out with Ella Fitzgerald in her dressing room before her show at Symphony Hall in Boston. I told her how I had seen her recently on the Grammys with three other singers and when she started scatting, she 'dusted' the others. She said, 'Oh no, they are real singers. I'm just a rhythm singer.'

For many years, I didn't understood that comment. I didn't see how she could reduce herself to being 'just a rhythm singer.' For most of us, she was so much more. But in recent years, I have focused more on her incredible rhythmic ability and I see that she was pointing to her strongest attribute. Her time was impeccable. And certainly there was no faltering with clarity of note and pitch either, but it is the complexity of the rhythm that makes jazz music as special as it is — it's the way it feels based on the execution of rhythm, something that connects heavily with African tradition. And though technical virtuosity is ever-present as well, it is the 'swing' aspect that you connect with the most, tapping your foot or dancing or any other way one gets with 'the groove' while listening.

Ella's experience singing beside the best of the jazz horn players helped her ability to sing as they played, which makes me think that if she had played an instrument, she would have been just as good at that as she was 'scatting' or improvising like a horn. But women were not encouraged to play horns when she entered on the jazz scene, not in the same way men were. There was a pervasive narrative that men play the music and women sing it, still Ella disrupted that narrative with how she sang — more like an instrumentalist, becoming a trailblazer and setting the standard that others were held up to. And to this day, it can be argued that there has not been anyone that could 'dust' Ella when it comes to scatting." —Terri Lyne Carrington, musician & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"From her, I learned to bring everything I had onto the stage with me. And now, some forty-plus years later, without music and by simply reading, I am able to read poetry and satisfy audiences. Much of the presence I bring to my performance, I learned from Celia Cruz." —Maya Angelou (Letter to My Daughter, 2009)

***

"[Ella Fitzgerald] has become in her time the standard by which all of the rest of us are measured, and that's as it should be." –Peggy Lee at the Kennedy Center Honors, 1979

***

"My grandma Maybelle was part of the beginning of popular music! She was creative in a way I dreamed of being, taking a simple instrument, whether guitar, banjo or autoharp, and finding a way to make it sing in harmony along with what she was hearing in her head. ... As far as I can remember, she lived to play and always said to her grandchildren that we had a responsibility to carry on the music. The fans were a priority for her — never let them down and always show up!

She taught me bits and pieces of how to play, but mostly I watched her in her humble, graceful way be completely authentic and never try to be anything other than herself. My grandmother's music always felt like the most natural thing for me to sing and play, and touches a place in my heart that feels like home and feels spiritual at the same time. Whenever I am at a loss as to what to do musically in my career, I have always gone back to that place that made me: music from the heart, Appalachian pride all of us Carters share! I feel like I was left an amazing treasure and a secret I can't keep. It has to be shared. And then I am doing what she always wanted: carrying on the music of my Grandma Maybelle Carter." —Carlene Carter

***

"Mother Maybelle was a journeywoman. She showed up and did her job and didn't make a fuss about it. She didn't complain about the rigors of being on the road. Her work ethic was formidable and fierce. She knew who she was. She knew she had prototypical gifts— what she created was the template for generations to follow. I play the 'Carter scratch' on guitar— I learned from Helen and June— and it was like learning an alchemical recipe. I owe her and her three daughters, one who became my stepmother, a great debt." —Rosanne Cash

***

"Ella was the first singer I heard growing up that made me realize what greatness is. I still listen to her versions of songs to know what to aim for. Every note she ever sang couldn't be improved. I would call her the most perfect singer in jazz — actually, in all of music." —Kandace Springs

***

"'A voice, once in a century' is the quote most often used to describe the beauty, the unique timber, the depth of feeling in everything that Marian Anderson sang.

As importantly were her devotion to her faith and the majesty, seemingly in-born, which gave her the ability to face obstacles with assurance and confidence.

When still an adolescent, I became aware of this voice and its ability to capture the mind and spirit even through a recording. The Brahms 'Alto Rhapsody' was the pathway to my understanding of what it means to be a singer, a story-teller, a purveyor of humanness at its highest level. She was truly adored, admired and revered throughout the world." —Jessye Norman

***

"Billie has that rawness, that realness that so few singers have. When I first heard her, I didn't think it was jazz; I felt it was really soul music, before anyone called it soul. It was like I was looking right into her heart — kind of frightening in a way, but so beautiful!" —Kandace Springs

***

"I was auditing a jazz history course [in graduate school] when I first heard Ella in a very real way. ... The performance was 'High How the Moon' from the [Ella In Berlin] album. I can remember it like yesterday, because it remains one of my favorite Ella performances. As she worked through the intricate vocal improvisation that consisted of multiple musical quotations, I was captivated. I had never heard anything like it. The way the musicians followed her lead totally redefined what I thought about in terms of jazz performance. Ella personified for me — a young, black woman trying to find herself in a space that often silence her voice and made her invisible — the embodiment of freedom. I thought then and even more so now: This is what freedom sounds like. When I saw pictures of her, I thought, 'This is what freedom looks like.' She was curvy and sophisticated! She was Ella — Not Billie! Not Dinah! Not Sarah! Not a template, but her own self! I wanted to be that: free in body and spirit!" —Tammy Kernodle, professor, Miami University & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"Along with Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe pioneered women playing the electric guitar — developing her own swinging, propulsive style of singing and playing that brought her jubilant gospel message to millions of fans around the world. The finesse and ease with which she wielded her guitar made a huge impact on me." —Bonnie Raitt

***

"Mary Lou Williams passed away three months before I moved to New York in 1981. I never got to see her perform live but heard of her when I was still residing in Brazil. It was not until the mid-'80s that I heard recordings of her and learned of her influence on so many jazz musicians that I studied and revered. She was certainly a pioneer and an important voice for jazz and women." —Eliane Elias

***

"Mary Lou Williams was an undeniable genius in the jazz world during a time when American society was not calling jazz musicians (male or female) 'genius,' but the term was especially not reserved for women. She accomplished more than most artists of her time, regardless of gender. Her writing and arranging alone would have made for an extraordinary career. And her piano playing alone would have as well. But together, she made a miraculous and pioneering contribution to the music. For her to accomplish all of this as a woman in a patriarchal society makes it even more impressive. The obstacles of race and gender combined are difficult to navigate in present day, so we can imagine how it was for her then. Though she may not have identified as feminist, especially during a time where feminism as a term was not as popular in her community, she led by example. And for all female jazz artists and composers, she left broad shoulders to stand on. I can't think of any other person whose artistry spanned masterfully through as many jazz subgenres as her: from stride and boogie woogie to bebop and the avant-garde. I'm so happy I had the pleasure of meeting her when I was young, as she is one of my inspirations — an unparalleled heroine." —Terri Lyne Carrington, musician & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"As a pianist, I was searching for an identity in a music that went beyond the classical repertory. The first time I heard Mary Lou Williams play 'Night Life,' I thought, 'What the hell! Who is the hell is this?' I had never heard so much music come from a piano! I had never heard such power, such creativity, such freedom! That experience completely changed the trajectory of my life. I not only totally changed the scope of my graduate study and began researching everything I could about Mary Lou Williams, I also started experimenting with playing jazz. I secretly took jazz piano for a semester with legendary pianist/organist Hank Marr. That experience untapped a connection to black music that no one had ever urged me consider. My connection with Mary Lou lead me to other female pianists like Hazel Scott and Marian McPartland. There was so much in Mary Lou's story that I could relate to; so much I heard in her music that went beyond notes and riffs! She and Ella articulated for me in a real way the artistry that black women bring to whatever they do. They totally destroyed the canonical model of the 'great man' for me!" —Tammy Kernodle, professor, Miami University & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"In some cultures, there is no word for music, because it embodies the entirety of life. It is not something that is distinguished from life as a separate expression. This is Billie Holiday. Every note is life. We are a culture that analyzes everything to deem it valid or to place a value on it. In an effort to not participate in that way, I will say no more about Billie Holiday, because her ability to be one with art, to merge her life with her artistry, says it all." —Terri Lyne Carrington, musician & Turning the Tables panelist

***

"I first heard about Mary Lou Williams when I was a teenager; I had heard a few of her recordings thanks to my parent's jazz record collection. I liked the energy in her sound and the fluidity of her improvisation. I became aware of the breadth and depth of her compositions, and as I saw only a small handful of women instrumentalists, she made an impression on me.

I met Mary Lou Williams in Monterey California in the early 1970s . I was there as a student participating in the summer high school band that would play at the famous Monterey Jazz Festival. Mary Lou was a clinician and performer that year. She showed me a finger exercise that I use to this day. The energy and spirit of her music-making was still there alongside a quiet and regal presence. I'll always remember that." —Patrice Rushen

***

"I felt immediately that [Mary Lou Williams] was an important influence, because she was always such an innovator. She kept moving along with the time; that's what I liked about her most of all." —Marian McPartland (Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1981)

***

"Billie Holiday was ahead of her time. Besides Louis Armstrong and Nat 'King' Cole, I can't think of another jazz vocalist who composed songs on the level that she did. 'God Bless the Child' is a masterpiece. And her groundbreaking concept as lead vocalist/bandleader singing as a horn has been the model for every serious jazz singer since: Ella, Sarah, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Kurt Elling and Cassandra Wilson." –José James

***

"There, I heard some of my earliest heroes. It was at the Home of the Blues record shop where I bought my first recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing those great gospel songs. I can still see Sister Rosetta playing that Stella guitar ... Some of the earlier songs I wrote were influenced by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe." —Johnny Cash at his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, 1992

***

"Sister Rosetta Tharpe is someone I admire greatly. I learned about her when I was younger at Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in a history of women in music class. She's always been someone who I think about as the creator of rock and roll, and to know that a black woman has shredded her way for others is super empowering to many, including me!" —Black Belt Eagle Scout

***

"It is impossible to overestimate the impact of Bessie Smith on the history of modern music. For sheer power and emotion, she remains one of the greatest blues singers of all time, and is still influencing blues and jazz artists today." —Bonnie Raitt


Additional reporting by Rosalind Faulkner

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