Designated as Jazz Appreciation Month, April is a time for paying tribute to jazz as an historical and living American art form. As a distinctively American musical form, jazz expresses a wide range of emotions, from sheer joy and ecstasy to deepest sorrow and pain. Central to this musical expression is improvisation, a spontaneous interchange between soloists and ensemble, often with “call and response” and other characteristics that give jazz a uniquely American flavor.
Most remarkably, a number of jazz artists just happen to have been born in Jazz Appreciation Month. The following list spotlights seven noted jazz performers born in April: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Booker Little, Carmen McRae, Johnny Dodds, Freddie Hubbard, and Art Taylor.
Ella Fitzgerald: First lady of song
Legendary jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) was born on April 25. One of the most popular jazz singers of the 20th Century, she was known as the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella.”
The New York Times spoke of Fitzgerald’s “vocal range spanning three octaves and the “purity of her tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a ‘horn-like’ improvisational ability. . . .” A 1964 Profile in Time Magazine describes the matchless jazz singer’s improvisational styling:
“She is the chair professor of the art of scat singing, wherein a singer abandons comprehensible lyrics in the middle of a song, and she can scoodee-oo-da for 800 bars without running out of fresh gibberish.”
To learn more about this renowned performer and to view a slide show of highlights from her life, click here.
Billie Holiday: Lady Day
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, singer-songwriter Billie Holiday became the 20th Century’s most influential jazz singer who, according to critic John Bush,” changed the art of American pop vocals forever.” Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday’s vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Although she had no technical training and never learned how to read music, she used her unique voice to develop an ability to boldly turn any material into her own music.
A musical legend still popular today, Holiday died an untimely death on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. Her evocative style with its innovative techniques has generated moving songs that will be remembered and enjoyed far beyond her short lifetime
Born April 2, 1938 in Memphis, Booker Little, Jr., another jazz trumpeter of renown,was also ready to take be-bop, the musical genre of their era, to the next level.
Little received his Bachelors of Music in trumpet from the Chicago Conservatory, where he studied theory, composition and orchestration, and roomed with legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who counseled and inspired him.
Booker’s work with drummer Max Roach and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy was outstanding and promising. A website devoted to Little made the following statement about his musicianship:
“Little’s association with the forward-thinking Dolphy audibly pushed him to new exploratory heights, and solidified his own distinct musical concept. He sounded like no other: his dramatic use of dissonance, distinctive and atypical phrasing, and unique motivic development set him apart from other leading trumpeters of the era, such as Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. Even as his improvisations became more and more challenging, his impeccable technique and meticulous control grew even stronger.”
Born on April 8, 1920, Carmen McRae, as a jazz vocalist, never reached the heights of popularity attained by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, yet she was widely regarded as their artistic equal, according to the New York Times.
Strongly influenced by Billie Holiday, McRae reportedly stated, "If Billie Holiday had never existed, I probably wouldn't have, either. McRae, however, was widely recognized for her distinctive flavor and the special touch she added to her stylistic interpretation of song lyrics. Critics spoke of her as “the singer’s singer” who expressed her regard for song lyrics and her interpretation, in this comment in the New York Times:
"Every word is very important to me," she said. "Lyrics come first, then the melody. The lyric of a song I might decide to sing must have something that I can convince you with. It's like an actress who selects a role that contains something she wants to portray."
Her rich musical career included more than 60 albums, performing and recording in the United States, Europe, and Japan, receiving seven Grammy Award nominations and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master Award.
According to Wikipedia, McRae sang in jazz clubs throughout the United States — and across the world. In addition, she was among the featured vocalists at the celebrated Monterey Jazz Festival (1961–1963, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1982), performing with Duke Ellington's orchestra at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1980, singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1989.
Although she moved to California, McRae was a regular performer at New York’s famous Blue Note where she performed twice a year throughout the 1980s. Her career as singer, actress, composer and pianist spanned five decades, leaving her mark as one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th Century.
Johnny Dodds: from New Orleans to Chicago
While never as famous as Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, clarinetist Johnny Dodds played a key role in bringing the gospel of New Orleans music to a wider audience, serving as the model for Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and other young musicians.
John M. “Johnny” Dodds was born April 12, 1892 in New Orleans, one of six children born to musical parents Warren and Amy Dodds. His younger brother, Warren “Baby” Dodds later became an accomplished jazz drummer in his own right.
In all, Dodds recorded over two hundred and sixty sides in his lifetime, most in between 1923 and 1929, and worked almost exclusively in his adopted hometown of Chicago, venturing to New York only once for a 1938 recording date.
As an ensemble player, Dodds had a peerless ability to create the musical environment in which others could shine. By choosing to stay in Chicago instead of going to New York, he led a contented family life but was largely forgotten by the jazz mainstream.
In 1987, Dodds was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and his influence can be heard in the playing of Benny Goodman and other musicians.
Freddie Hubbard:Ready for Freddie
Born on April 7, 1938, Freddie Hubbard started playing mellophone and trumpet in his school band. In 1958, he moved to New York and started playing with some famous jazz players, such as Philly Jones, J.J. Johnson and others. In 1960, he came up with his first record as a leader, “Open Sesame.” In 1961, he made his renowned record, "Ready for Freddie." Some of his recordings of the 1970s, like "Red Clay," "Sky Dive," and others are considered some of his best works. During this same period Hubbard earned recognition as one of the biggest stars. He is famous for the bebop, hard pop and post pop styles. He has been awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the highest honor in jazz. He was also recognized as one of the very well-known American trumpeters of his day.
Art Taylor: Born to be a drummer
Recognized for his strong sense of swing, expert control of dynamics and deep melodic sensibility, Art Taylor has been placed on the list of the elite of hard bop drummers, alongside Max Roach and Elvin Jones.
Arthur S. Taylor Jr. was born on April 6, 1929 in New York City. Taylor’s parents were of Jamaican descent, and as a child, his father took him to see drummers Chick Webb, Jo Jones and J.C. Heard. Around the age of seventeen, he went to a jam session and was so excited by what he heard that he resolved to become a drummer himself.
The following Christmas, Taylor’s mother gave him his first drum set, and within a month he began working as a drummer, eventually performing with a group in Harlem, including tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, and pianist Kenny Drew..
During the 1950s Taylor also recorded with Bud Powell, who helped to increase the drummer’s visibility, and by the mid-1950s, he had performed and recorded with trumpeter Miles Davis. During this time, he formed and led his own ensemble, “Taylor’s Wailers.”
By the late 1950s, Taylor had become the house drummer for Prestige Records, with nearly 300 records with a host of noted musicians, including John Coltrane on his monumental album Giant Steps. In 1958, Art made his first trip to Europe with trumpeter Donald Byrd .
By 1963, Taylor decided to relocate to Paris, France, deciding to stay in Europe, in part because of his growing disillusionment with the American jazz scene. After relocating to Europe, Taylor authored Notes and Tones, a frank and influential book of interviews with fellow African-American jazz musicians. Taylor died on February 6, 1995 at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan at age sixty-five.