Black women's jazz legacies in Europe

Photo of Billie Holiday with her dog

Young, gifted and Black

Isabel Crespo (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

They were young, gifted and Black and today, we celebrate them. They were once in a lifetime talents, visionaries and geniuses who left a unique music legacy in Europe and across the world. With unprecedented strength and determination, they stood up for themselves, became civil rights activists, broke the mould with their music and opened the path for many other women to succeed regardless of their colour. They also had difficult lives and saw unbearable tragedies. Physical, mental, alcohol, drug abuse are words that resonate in some of their biographies. The most talented women in jazz were survivers of two of the most prevalent discriminations even today: to be women and Black.

Lady Day, Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Born Eleanora Fagan, she will always be remembered for her magnetic interpretation on stage and almost instrumental-like voice. Miles Davis said, ‘Billie Holiday doesn’t need any real horns, she sounds like one anyway’. For many, she was the greatest vocalist of Strange Fruit, a song written in 1937 by Abel Meeropola that depicts a lynching and the most infamous episodes of racism. The song became an anthem of the civil rights movement, and with her unique voice and courage, a protest song in all her concerts.

Billie Holiday toured twice in Europe. First in 1954, thanks to the Swedish entrepreneur Nils Hellstrom, starting in Stockholm, then Germany, Netherlands, Paris and Switzerland.

Billie Holiday in Brussels (1954). The Billie Holiday Experience, Youtube CC license.

The second time was in 1959 when she made one of her last television appearances for Granada's Chelsea at Nine in London.

Billie Holiday Live in 1959. Reelin' In The Years Archives, Youtube CC license.

She died the same year not without leaving us with a final studio recording orchestrated by Ray Ellis, who also accompanied her on the famous album Lady in Satin from 1958.

Despite limited commercial success in her lifetime, Holiday won posthumously four Grammy Awards and her melodies and recordings changed the sound of jazz forever. Her life has been depicted in several movies like Lady Sings the Blues interpreted by Diana Ross.

Billie holiday: lady sings the blues. National Audiovisual Institute France, In Copyright

Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

It's an arduous task to summarise 60 years of a successful career. Perfect diction and tone, master of the scat song (onomatopoeic, and nonsense syllables improvisational vocal singing), her silky voice is recognisable even for those who are unfamiliar with jazz, thanks to her well-known standards interpretations like Dream a Little Dream of Me, Summertime or Cheek to Cheek from the Great American Songbook.

After initial musical success with the Chick Webb Orchestra, she started her solo career with Verve, one of the world’s largest jazz record labels. Collaboration with Louis Amstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as movie and popular TV shows appearances, helped her achieve fame in her country.

She also enjoyed amazing success in Europe. At the peak of her career, and from 1957 to 1960s Ella travelled almost every year to Europe with the show produced by Norman Granz, travelling all over the world together. Among her many awards, she counts fourteen Grammys.

The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990)

Sara Vaughan became a professional singer after winning a talent contest held at the famous Harlem's Apollo Theatre in NY and worked with big band leaders like Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine.

In 1943 and 1944, while working with Earl Hines big band, she was brought together with beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and had the opportunity to sing with them. In 1946, she started her solo career. She signed for Columbia Records and recorded pop music between 1949 and 1953. Later, she also produced jazz numbers on the Mercury Records’ subsidiary label, EmArcy.

In the second half of the 1950s, she toured constantly. In 1958, she visited Europe with her trio (pianist Ronnell Bright, bass player Richard Davis and drummer Art Morgan).

Performance of Sarah Vaughan and her band. From Avro's tele-archive. Netherlands Institue for Sound and Vision, InC.

Over the years, her voice modulated and deepened a bit, but never lost its magnificence. She mastered the scat singing and remained a popular live performer, touring also in Europe until the end of her career.

Sarah Vaughan and Michel Legrand: sassy and Myke's blues. National Audiovisual Institute France, In Copyright.

High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone (1933- 2003)

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a prodigious child who played piano by ear at the age of three. She was taught classical music at an early age and soon wanted to pursue a career as a concert pianist to become the first Black female to achieve it. She studied in the Juilliard School in NY and then applied for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but the latter denied her admission, turning this event into a key pivotal moment in her life. Nina Simone, the amazing talented storyteller, singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and fearless civil rights activist was born.

Looking for an income she started to play in a nightclub in Atlantic City (New Jersey) where she was required for the first time to sing. She brilliantly blended Gershwin or Cole Porter famous tunes with jazz, soul and classical melodies. Billie Holiday - and her interpretation of Porgy from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess opera - was an important inspiration for her. In the mid-1960s, when she became a leader in the civil rights movements, along with her famous protest songs like Mississippi Goddam, Four Women, Ain't Got No, I Got Life or To Be Young, Gifted and Black (named after Lorraine Hansberry), she included Strange Fruit in her repertoire.

Nina recorded for several major record labels but she left the US in 1970 and spent almost a decade in Barbados and Liberia, also living in the 1980s in England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. It’s at that time when Nina's popularity in Europe rose with My Baby Just Cares For Me. It became a massive hit when it was used by Chanel in a perfume commercial.

In the late 1980s her friend Gerrit de Bruin helped Nina to settle in Nijmegen where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, properly treated and lived anonymously. She also spent a couple of years in Amsterdam. From 1993 she lived in the South of France, where she passed away from breast cancer in 2003.

Among the many awards and recognitions, she received two honorary degrees in music and humanities, becoming 'Dr. Nina Simone'.

Nina Simone on BBC HARDtalk, 1999. Youtube CC license.