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Blues Queens, Cakewalkin’ Babies & Songbirds: A Riverwalk Jazz Salute to Women’s History Month

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This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Carol Woods portrays women who were seminal figures in jazz with dialogue based on their first-person accounts, and Carol interprets important songs from their careers.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

It may have been a man's world in the early days of jazz, but tell that to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday—not to mention artists like Lil Hardin Armstrong, Ethel Waters and Mary Lou Williams

To honor National Women's History Month, vocalist and actor Carol Woods joins The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band to salute leading women in early jazz. Carol is known to audiences around the world for her impressive performances on stage and screen and in cabaret revues. She's appeared in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, in the Broadway revival of Sondheim's Follies, in the touring company of Chicago, and in the recent hit movie, Across the Universe.

Watch this movie clip from Across the Universe featuring Carol Woods.

Billie Holiday has a reputation as the ultimate jazz singer. Along with her original approach to phrasing, she brought a blues feeling into just about every note she sang. Sitting in the parlor of a brothel in Baltimore where at a young age she worked as a housemaid, Billie Holiday was mesmerized by the sound of Bessie Smith's voice rolling out of the Victorola, singing the blues.

Billie had tapped into the legacy of the Deep South where “blues queens" like Bessie sang their hearts out on hot summer nights, under a canvas big top in traveling carnivals. From the Bessie Smith repertoire, Carol Woods performs “Muddy Water," Billie Holiday's hit “What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and offers a snapshot of Billie's early life in her own words.

Jazz writer Whitney Balliet named Ethel Waters one of three great pioneers in jazz singing, along with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. Not as well known today as either Louis or Billie, Ethel Waters billed herself as “Sweet Mama Stringbean" in vaudeville. She became well-known by headlining at The Cotton Club and then starring in Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. Carol Woods portrays Waters in excerpts from Waters' autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Carol performs two songs closely identified with Waters—Harold Arlen's “Stormy Weather" and a stirring song by Irving Berlin, “Suppertime." It tells the story of a black woman putting supper on the table for her children knowing that her husband—the victim of a lynch mob—will never be coming home. This serious song of racial protest was introduced in Berlin's musical revue As Thousands Cheer.

Lil Hardin used to say she was “born to swing." “Hot Miss Lil" played piano, composed jazz tunes, and was in great demand as a bandleader on Chicago's south side in the 1920s. Later on she would marry trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Together they composed some of the most enduring classics of jazz such as “Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and “Gate Mouth."

Watch this clip from the NBC-TV special “Chicago and All That Jazz" with host Garry Moore, which aired on November 26th 1961, featuring the “Hot Miss Lil" on piano and vocals.

Jazz was a man's world in the 1920s, but ten-year-old Mary Lou Williams didn't mind a bit when saxophonist Chu Berry started taking her along on gigs with top jazzmen. A decade or so later, all the leading bandleaders of the Swing Era were seeking her out as a composer, arranger and player. She worked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. In her later life Williams was a dedicated advocate of jazz education and revered as “America's Number One Jazzwoman." Known for her strong, hard-swinging playing, William's jazz compositions featured this week include “Twinklin'" and “Clean Pickin.'"

Carol Woods and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band round out their special broadcast devoted to Women's History Month with tributes to actor, singer and raconteur Pearl Bailey and North Dakota's pop songbird—Peggy Lee.

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