Like much of the music business, jazz has traditionally been a male-dominated profession. For most of the 20th century, and to a large (if somewhat lesser) extent even now, men have owned the clubs and booked the acts that played them, and men have been hailed as the stars, innovators and bandleaders of the genre.
In this context, it is no small wonder that a handful of women at the height of the swing era overcame barriers of gender and racial prejudice to rise to the top of the jazz world. This Saturday, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra celebrates four of these women in a program called “Great Ladies of Swing.”
Billie Holiday started her singing career in the nightclubs of Harlem as a young teenager, having grown up listening to recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. More than any jazz singer before or since, she brought the raw expressive emotion of the blues into her interpretations of even the most blandly sentimental Tin Pan Alley pop lyrics, giving them unexpected depth and urgency.
Holiday revolutionized swing by proving that the voice could hold its own with any traditional jazz instrument, and that a woman could compose and improvise as fluently and freely as any man.
At age 22, Ella Fitzgerald already had a bestselling recording as the star of the Chick Webb Orchestra when the bandleader fell ill and died. She took over not only the artistic leadership but also the day-to-day management of the band, and she never looked back.
After the swing era, Fitzgerald eased effortlessly into bebop and then the Great American Songbook, with an interpretive instinct and trademark precision in pitch and diction that led to her being recognized as the “First Lady of Song.”
Like Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan came to the attention of the New York jazz scene through Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where as a teenager in 1942 she opened for the older Ella, who later would call her “the greatest singing talent in the world today.”
Her voice was often described as “operatic” in quality, with astonishing technical virtuosity to showcase her inventiveness in melody and rhythm.
In contrast, Peggy Lee’s interpretive approach was understated, each gesture carefully crafted and choreographed, with subtle use of color and inflection to illuminate the meaning of each song.
Born and raised in North Dakota and of Scandinavian descent, her career launched in the Midwest with Benny Goodman and leaned more toward Hollywood than New York.
Bringing each of these larger-than-life musical personalities to The Capitol Theatre stage on Saturday, backed by the musicians of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra, will be preeminent jazz vocalist Dee Daniels, who last performed in Yakima nearly 10 years ago as part of The Seasons Fall Festival.
Matching Vaughan’s four-
octave vocal range, Daniels’ talent and stylistic versatility have taken her around the world, performing with jazz combos and big bands as well as symphony orchestras across the globe.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.