Turning the Table

"The greatest woman jazz pianist in captivity." "The greatest woman jazz pianist in the world." "Highly acclaimed as a deluxe tickler of the ivories." "One of the foremost swing pianists of either sex." By 1936, then-25-year-old Mary Lou Williams' reputation already preceded her. The pianist's primary gig — Kansas City band Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy — was taking off, booked for packed dances around the country alongside artists like Louis Armstrong.

As one of the most beloved singers of the 20th century, Ella Fitzgerald was admired around the world. She was also one of the most acclaimed, earning a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award; a National Medal of Art and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, 14 Grammy Awards and honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Howard Universities.

Ella Fitzgerald In Soulsville

Sep 6, 2019

Ella Fitzgerald often said, "I'm not going to be left behind. If you don't learn new songs, you're lost." The year was 1967 and she was 51 years old. She said more in 1968: "I want to stay with it. And staying with it means communicating with the teenagers. I want them to understand me and like me." Youth was listening to soul, a new keyword in black popular music, whose powerful musical and political currents were converging around 25-year-old Aretha Franklin.

Most people who don't know jazz can probably recognize the name of one of the genre's best singers: Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is one of the eight women at the center of this season of NPR Music's Turning the Tables, and she's arguably one of the most important vocalists not just in jazz but in the entire history of American music. With an exceptional vocal style, supreme technical capabilities and a spirited energy, she was "The First Lady of Song."

The eight women we chose to honor in this season of Turning the Tables were skilled singers, writers, instrumental innovators and musical pioneers. But often in the stories of these women's lives and legacies, their musical skills are obscured by a focus on persona or biography. We also want to highlight their work as musicians and the fundamental musical contributions they made to American popular music.

The Joy Of Ella Fitzgerald's Accessible Elegance

Sep 5, 2019

Nana had a big wooden box of a television in the corner of her apartment along Van Aken Boulevard in Cleveland, Ohio, known as "the Widow's Block." Brick with plenty of sunlight, there were four or five buildings of 100 or so units that housed most of our grandmothers after their husbands passed in the late '60s, '70s and even '80s. Close to the places the elegant women knew – church, grocery, movie theater, drug store, Chinese restaurant and confectionary – they played bridge, hosted dinners and maintained their friendships.

Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters And The Colors Of Sound

Sep 4, 2019

There is a widespread tendency to superimpose racial identity on the singing voice and musical genres, and for many years, my own encounters with this left me struggling to understand the sense of alienation I felt when I was accused or celebrated as sounding "white." Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, I was constantly on the lookout for role models who looked and sounded like me. There was always a sense of tension between what people expected of me and the eclecticism of my own vocal style, musical tastes, and sensibilities.

The Voice That Shattered Glass

Sep 3, 2019

It's the stuff of legends: an urban legend and a jazz legend combining into a legendary advertising campaign.

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Listening For Marian Anderson In The Past And Present

Aug 30, 2019

I learned relatively early the importance of paying attention to silence. Long pauses and refusals to answer were forms of evidence at home as well as school. What I didn't hear or wouldn't say was often as laden with meaning as what I was told or said, and it's in part the conversations shared between sound and silence that led me to study music. I came to the decision honestly, though not easily. As a college student I struggled to commit to the major, delaying my declaration on multiple occasions because I rarely saw or heard anyone who looked or sounded like me in my music classes.

"When will we listen to black women?"

As one of the 20th century's most venerated vocalists, Marian Anderson performed in stately concert halls and grand opera houses around the globe. But the site of her best-remembered concert was a wooden platform erected on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9, 1939 — a chilly Easter Sunday afternoon — Anderson performed there, after she was barred from singing at Washington, D.C. venues that enforced "whites-only" policies.

Classical singer Marian Anderson was one of the all-time greats — both as an artist, and as a cultural figure who broke down racial barriers. She is best known for performing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after she was denied permission to sing for an integrated audience at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall. But she was much more than that — she helped shape American music.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify or Apple Music.

Biographies of musicians tend to be either hagiographic or hyper-factual, either shoring up the myths that celebrity produces or burying insight beneath a pile of mundane details.

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Jazz singer Billie Holiday brought emotion to every note she sang.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Crazy in love, I'd say.

Billie Full Of Grace

Aug 20, 2019

To consider a women's Hall of Fame in American music is to come face-to-face with that music's debt to African-American religious life. The biggest names in blues — Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox — all came up singing in the makeshift choirs of black churches in the South. What Billboard magazine first christened "rock and roll" were the Holy Roller hymns of gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

The World Of Billie Holiday: A Turning The Tables Playlist

Aug 19, 2019

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Maybelle Carter apparently made a mean chicken gizzard soup, which called for chicken livers, necks and backs, besides the gizzards. Her daughter June Carter Cash published that recipe, along with a host of others, in Mother Maybelle's Cookbook: A Kitchen Visit With America's First Family of Song in 1989, a little over a decade after her mother's passing. Only those who'd had the privilege of being guests in Maybelle's home had witnessed what she could do with soup pots and frying pans in the name of painstaking hospitality.

On The Border With Maybelle Carter And Lydia Mendoza

Aug 15, 2019

Imagine, if you will, being a listener to a radio station on the U.S.-Mexico border in 1939. You would likely be listening to XERA, a radio station broadcast from Cuidad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas. You might hear a song like "La Pollita," performed by Lydia Mendoza.