The Unsung Women of Jazz

During Upper School News, vocalist Tahira Clayton sang a bit from a Nina Simone piece, her gorgeous voice enveloping the Assembly Room in soulful sound.

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong….

Joining Ms. Clayton were pianist Addison Frei, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Jeremy Noller, members of Juilliard’s jazz ensemble, who provided sumptuous, multi-layered accompaniment to Ms. Simone’s evocative lyrics. For the past five years, Chapin has been fortunate to enjoy a vigorous partnership with The Juilliard School, whose masterful teaching artists offer an assortment of assemblies and class visits for students in each division.

Sitting comfortably on the floor, Class 8-12 students listened deeply to the morning music, a few closing their eyes to fully absorb the experience. The mood set, Mr. Noller stepped to the microphone to offer a framework for this particular presentation. “Today we are going to talk about women’s important contributions to jazz,” he explained.

As such, the musicians proceeded to unspool the fascinating stories and invaluable accomplishments of three largely overlooked women who played legendary roles in the evolution of jazz, which first began during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Along with Nina Simone (1933-2003), the students learned about Lillian “Lil” Hardin (1898-1971) and Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), each artist a force in her own right, despite coping with an abundance of obstacles such as racism, sexism, violence and mental illness.

“How many of you have heard of Lillian Hardin?” asked Mr. Noller. After no one in the audience raised her hand, he declared, “Well, we’re going to change that!”

The students soon discovered that Ms. Hardin was the granddaughter of a former slave, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and was among the first in her family to attend college. Moving to Chicago, “the epicenter of jazz,” she worked as a sheet music demonstrator for $3 a week before eventually getting noticed for her supreme talents as a jazz pianist, composer and singer. Ms. Hardin was also the second wife of Louis Armstrong, a fact that often overshadowed her own hard-earned successes.

Ms. Clayton sang a beautiful rendition of Lil Hardin’s romantic song “Let’s Call It Love,” before Mr. Sellick introduced the students to an innovative pianist named Mary Lou Williams, describing her as “the most important jazz musician of all time.”

Raised in Pittsburgh, Ms. Williams was a prodigy on the piano. Her father snuck her into clubs to perform during a childhood marked by instability and loneliness. She moved to Kansas City as a young adult, joining “territory bands,” which were traveling dance ensembles popular during the Jazz Era. In the 1940s, she settled in New York City to play at Café Society, the storied Greenwich Village nightclub, and to compose jazz, one of the first women to do so.

Known as a savvy mentor, Mary Lou Williams hosted a revolving cadre of up-and-coming and established musicians in her Harlem apartment, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “They flocked to her as the mother of music,” explained Ms. Clayton as she and the jazz ensemble launched into Ms. Williams’ atmospheric number, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”

Circling back to Nina Simone, Mr. Frei gave an overview of this gifted musician, who was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Trained on piano, Ms. Simone aspired to become the first African-American concert pianist, but she was not accepted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. This fact, which she blamed on racism, ignited a lifetime of social activism. “Her music developed a politically conscious tilt in the 1960s,” Mr. Frei commented, adding that Ms. Simone’s songs often explored the “intersectionality” of being both black and female.

The Upper School students also learned that Ms. Simone struggled with mental health issues and had a series of abusive personal and professional relationships, the details of which were portrayed in the award-winning 2015 documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Feeling excluded from the American music industry, she left the United States and moved abroad, living in Barbados, Liberia and France. “For her entire life, Nina made sure to even the playing field for all blacks,” noted Mr. Frei.

The final song of the Assembly was the iconic racial protest, “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol and sung by numerous recording artists, including Nina Simone. Ms. Clayton and the Juilliard musicians performed it stunningly.

“So, do we all remember the three artists?” Mr. Noller asked at the end of the hour. Without missing a beat, the audience shouted out in unison, “Lil Hardin, Mary Lou Williams and Nina Simone!” It is difficult to believe that these Upper School students  would soon forget these incredible women or their tremendous contributions to the musical landscape.

Browse photos from the assembly below: