Spotlight on Jazz Women

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Saxophonist and composer Roxy Coss Photo courtesy of the artist

Back in the big band era, women on the bandstand played their roles as “girl singers,” not instrumentalists. Ella Fitzgerald got her start with the Chick Webb Orchestra. Sarah Vaughan worked with the Joe Moony Orchestra. During the 1950s and 60s, a number of women playing jazz-type instruments trailblazed the scene—trumpeter Clora Bryant, alto sax player Vi Redd, trombonist Melba Liston. In the 60’s and 70’s, Carole Kaye played electric bass with the Wrecking Crew collective and composer David Axelrod, working in both the soul and jazz spheres. I also have featured soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom many times over the years. Playing without vibrato, she has a pure sound that reminds me of the late Steve Lacy.

It’s “normal” to find outstanding female flutists, pianists, harpists, pianists or cellists in a symphony orchestra…or to be a female jazz pianist, flutist, or guitar player. But a woman picking up a tenor sax, trumpet, or upright bass is another matter. For whatever reasons, it was decided back in the day (by men of course) which jazz instruments were more appropriate for women. Luckily, there are now more excellent female musicians playing and recording on brass and wind instruments today than ever before. Trombone, trumpet, drums and sax are jazz instruments par excellence, unlike say, piano, harp, or cello—the latter three often played by women in classical groups. And so, I thought I’d spotlight some women in jazz now who are playing exceptional music on instruments once reserved for male jazz musicians. 

We start with Roxy Coss, a saxophone player and composer from Seattle now based in New York City. Founder of Women in Jazz Organization (WIJO), Coss has won the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer award and has been called a rising star on DownBeat’s Critics Poll for several years in a row. She recently released her fifth album, called Quintet. Check out Roxy Coss with “Don’t Cross the Coss” from the new album:

Originally from Chile, sax player Melissa Aldana moved from Santiago to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. Her mentors there included Joe Lovano, George Garzone, and Greg Osby. After graduating in 2009, Aldana headed to New York City, where she studied with George Coleman. Her 2014 album Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio—released on Concord as a prize for winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition—is a fantastic record which I continue to enjoy. Her sound and improvisation are strongly influenced by Sonny Rollins…always a plus.

Aldana plays with drummer Vladimr Kostadinovic’s group in the following video, which also features bassist Linda May Han Oh (more on her below). l like the music and also love the guitarist, Mike Moreno

Katie Thiroux and Linda May Han Oh are two talents on the big upright bass. Aside from gigging and recording, L.A.-based Thiroux teaches jazz bass at the Coburn School, while Oh tours with various groups playing both electric and acoustic bass. Oh was born in Malaysia and later moved to Perth, Australia. She recently toured with Pat Metheny.

Thiroux can sing, too, and here she shows us how to play bass and sing along with it:

Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 1989 and went on to work and teach in Austria as their youngest professor (at age 25) for the Bruckner Conservatory. She’s worked with numerous jazz luminaries in her career, including Gary Bartz, Terri Lynn Carrington, Frank Wess, Clark Terry, and many others. Jensen’s 2018 album with Steve Treseler called Invisible Sounds (for Kenny Wheeler) is on Whirlwind Recordings. And speaking of Terry Lynn Carrington, I also want to give her a shout-out. She’s a great drummer in constant demand in today’s upper-echelon jazz ensembles.