Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914 and as a child was a skilled pianist. By twelve he was writing original songs and could sight read sheet music. With Birmingham being an important stop for touring musicians, during his childhood he was able to see famed musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
By his teenage years he was producing from memory full transcriptions of big band songs he had heard and began playing semi-professional solo piano in ad hoc jazz bands. Attending Birmingham Industrial High School he took lessons the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, a demanding disciplinarian and producer of many professional musicians.
Claiming that he was of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona of “cosmic” philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of “afro-futurism” as he preached awareness and peace above all. He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun).
From the mid-1950s to his death, Sun Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and names, asserting that the ever-changing name of his ensemble reflected the ever-changing nature of his music. His mainstream success was limited, but Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer with music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians and music touching on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime, swing, bebop, free improvisation, electronic and space music.
Sun Ra had several music periods during his lifetime – late 30s creating a conservatory workshop in his family home, conscientious objector during the war years, Chicago playing blues and jazz with Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith, New York Monday night gig at Slug’s Saloon and praise from Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and Philadelphia that would be the base of operations for the Arkestra until his death.
Sun Ra known for his “cosmic philosophy, musical compositions and performances was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979. The prolific Jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher passed away on May 30, 1993, at 79.
Gerald Wiggins was born on May 12, 1922 in New York City. He started classical piano lessons when he was four but by his teenage years became interested in jazz. He doubled on bass while attending High School & Art and for a period in the 40s accompanied Stepin’ Fetchit. Following this he worked and toured with the big bands of Les Hite, Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter. Stationed in Seattle while in the military he played in the local jazz clubs.
By the mid 40s Wiggins relocated to Los Angeles and played music for television and film. He has worked with Lena Horne, Kay Starr, Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Jimmy Witherspoon Helen Humes, Joe Williams, Ernie Andrews and Eartha Kitt to name a few. He also worked at the Hollywood studios as a vocal coach and worked with Marilyn Monroe and others.
Always a highly flexible pianist, Wiggins was comfortable in swing and bop settings with a consistently witty style filled with catchy riffs became his distinctive signature. His best-known recording as an organist was Wiggin’ Out but it was Wiggins’ trio work with Andy Simpkins and Paul Humphreys that is legendary. Pianist Gerald Wiggins passed away at the age of 86 on July 13, 2008.
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Carla Bley was born Carla Borg on May 11, 1936 is best known for her work as a jazz composer, pianist, organist and band leader in the post bop generation and free jazz movement of the 60s.
Raised in Oakland, California she was encouraged by her father, piano teacher and choirmaster, to sing and learn the piano. Giving up church to immerse herself in roller-skating at fourteen, Carla moved to New York and became a cigarette girl at Birdland. It is here that she met and married Paul Bley, who encouraged her to start composing. Her compositions would later begin to appear on recordings by George Russell and Jimmy Guiffre, with compositions being performed by Gary Burton, Art Farmer and Paul Bley.
In 1964 she was involved in organizing the Jazz Composer Guild bringing together the most innovative musicians in New York and started the JCOA record label, which released albums by Clifford Thornton, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd, Michael Mantler and herself. With Mantler the two started the New Music Distribution Services, now defunct, that specialized in small, independent labels issuing creative improvised music.
Carla Bley has collaborated with a number of other artists, including Kurt Weill, Jack Bruce, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Lew Soloff, Phil Woods and her current partner bassist Steve Swallow. She has continued to record frequently with her own big band and a number of smaller ensembles.
Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910 but grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. As a very young child she taught herself to play the piano and one of her greatest influences was Lovie Austin. She had her first public performance at the age of six and went on to help support her ten half-brothers and sisters playing for parties. Mary Lou began performing publicly at the age of seven becoming admiringly known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty”.
In 1924 at age 14 she was taken on the Orpheum Circuit. The following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. A year later she was jamming with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers at Harlem’s Rhythm Club and Louis Armstrong stopped in, listened to her picked her up and gave her a kiss. By 1929 she was married to John Williams and composing, arranging and playing piano for Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, an association that would last until 1942.
Returning to Pittsburgh she put together a group that included Art Blakey, went on the road with Duke Ellington, moved to New York taking a job at Café Society and became closely associated with the bebop generation. She lived in Europe for two years in the fifties and upon her return took a hiatus from performing and began composing religious jazz music.
Throughout the seventies her career flourished recording both group and solo settings and commentating The History of Jazz. She toured extensively playing concerts and festivals, accepting an artist-in-residence appointment at Duke University and performed at the White House in 1978.
Mary Lou Williams was much more than a pianist. She was a composer and arranger who wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than a hundred records. She wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and was friend, mentor and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer on May 28, 1981 in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 71. Looking back over her career at the end of her life Mary Lou Williams was known to have said, “I did it, didn’t I? Through muck and mud.”
Stanley Cowell was born on May 5, 1941 in Toledo, Ohio. As a child he studied piano and pipe organ. By age 15, he was a featured soloist with the Toledo Youth Orchestra, a church organist, choir director and a budding jazz pianist. He went on to get his bachelors from Oberlin, Masters from the University of Michigan and graduate studies at USC.
The Sixties saw Cowell moving to New York City and working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Marion Brown, Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson, Miles Davis, Clifford Jordan, Harold Land, Abbey Lincoln, Stan Getz and as a member of the Detroit Artist’s Workshop Jazz Ensemble.
By the 70s Stanley was a member of Music Inc. with Charles Tolliver with whom he found the Strata East record label, worked with the Heath Brothers, Donald Byrd, Roy Haynes, Oliver Nelson, Sonny Rollins, Richard Davis, Art Pepper and the list continues. He was the musical director for George Wein’s New York Jazz Repertory Company at Carnegie Hall along with Gil Evans, Dr. Billy Taylor and Sy Oliver.
He recorded successfully as a leader for Arista-Freedom, ECM, Strata East, Galaxy, Concord and Steeplechase among others. Since the eighties Stanley Cowell has been a busy jazz educator and a part of the quartet led by J.J. Johnson.
He remains an excellent mainstream jazz pianist with an ability to adapt to a variety of acoustic jazz settings.
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