The 1950s are known for societal change, the civil rights movement and for an explosion of arts that included the growth and exploration of jazz music. Whether their career began or ended in the 50s, several women made the jazz movement remarkable by their sheer force of talent or powerful collaborations.
Born in 1915, Billie Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and was arrested for prostitution at 17. Her first gig as a singer was performing Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin in Harlem. She performed with famous jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington throughout the 1930s, and in the 1940s, she saw her career explode with songs like “God Bless the Child.” Holiday suffered from a drinking and drug problem and led a tumultuous personal life. Though she remained immensely popular in the 1950s, she was repeatedly arrested, institutionalized for her addiction and died in 1959 at the age of 44. Holiday recorded several albums in the 50s, including 1958’s “Lady in Jazz.”
Ella Fitzgerald was discovered while performing at an amateur contest in Harlem and debuted at the Apollo Theater at the age of 17 in 1934. Fitzgerald recorded several popular songs, including “A-tisket A-tasket.” Throughout the 1950s, Fitzgerald performed with many famous musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, and was the first African American to perform at the Mocambo. Dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald sold 40 million albums and won 13 Grammy awards.
Born in 1933, Nina Simone attended the Julliard School of Music and trained as a classical pianist. After her rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Simone turned away from classical music and became a jazz performer. She performed in clubs throughout the early 1950s and recorded her albums, including “Little Girl Blue” and “The Amazing Nina Simone”, in the late 1950s. She moved to France in the 60s, where she continued to record, and she died in 2003.
Lena Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn and took a job as a dancer at the age of 16 at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where she appeared with famous performers like Cab Calloway. In 1935, she performed with the Noble Sissle Orchestra. In 1942, Horne moved to Los Angeles and began appearing in films like “Cabin in the Sky.” Horne recorded several albums in the 1950s, including “Porgy and Bess” and “At the Waldorf Astoria.” Later in life, Horne appeared in the film “The Wiz” and had her own one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music.” She was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1989.