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Ayler, Albert (12 July 1936–05 November 1970), composer and musician, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Edward Ayler, a semiprofessional violinist and tenor saxophonist, and Myrtle Hunter. Albert and his brother Donald, who later became a professional jazz trumpet player, received musical training early in life from their father. In second grade Albert performed alto saxophone recitals in school. He performed duets with his father (who also played alto saxophone) in church. Together they listened to a great deal of swing and bebop music, both on recordings and at jazz concerts....

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Count Basie, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0047 DLC).

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Basie, Count (21 August 1904–26 April 1984), jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader, was born William Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey, the son of African-American parents Harvey Lee Basie, an estate groundskeeper, and Lillian Ann Chiles, a laundress. Basie was first exposed to music through his mother’s piano playing. He took piano lessons, played the drums, and acted in school skits. An indifferent student, he left school after junior high and began performing. He organized bands with friends and played various jobs in Red Bank, among them working as a movie theater pianist. In his late teens he pursued work in nearby Asbury Park, but he met with little success. Then, in the early 1920s, he moved to Harlem, where he learned from the leading pianists of the New York “stride” style, ...

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Denzil Best With Billy Bauer. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0075 DLC).

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Best, Denzil (27 April 1917–25 May 1965), jazz drummer and composer, was born Denzil de Costa Best in New York City, the son of immigrant parents from Barbados; his mother was Josephine Best (his father’s name is unknown). Best married Arline Riley (date unknown), with whom he had two daughters. Best began studying piano when he was six years old but later learned trumpet, which he played professionally in the mid-1930s with drummer Chris Columbus (Joe Morris). By the end of the decade he became associated with several seminal bop musicians playing at Minton’s nightclub in New York, including ...

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Buckner, Milt (10 July 1915–27 July 1977), jazz pianist, organist, and arranger, was born Milton Brent Buckner in St. Louis, Missouri. Details of his parentage are unknown. His brother Ted was a jazz saxophonist who became a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s big band (the brothers were not related to jazz trumpeter Teddy Buckner)....

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Charles, Ray (23 September 1930–10 June 2004), pop and jazz singer, pianist, and composer, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams. Williams, a teenage orphan, lived in Greenville, Florida, with Robinson's mother and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted her, and she became known as Aretha Robinson. Scandalously Aretha became pregnant by Bailey Robinson, and she briefly left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with relatives in Albany for the baby's birth. Mother and child then returned to Greenville, and Aretha and Mary Jane shared Ray Charles's upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family and took another wife elsewhere....

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Ray Charles. Gelatin silver print, c. 1961, by Michel Salou. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Clayton, Buck (12 November 1911–08 December 1991), jazz trumpeter and arranger, was born Wilbur Dorsey Clayton in Parsons, Kansas, the son of Simeon Oliver Clayton, a musician, and Aritha Anne Dorsey, a schoolteacher, pianist, and singer. His father’s church orchestra rehearsed at their home, and in his youth Clayton experimented with different instruments, learning their basic scales. He took piano lessons from ages six to eighteen. At about age sixteen he was deeply impressed by a trumpeter in ...

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Buck Clayton. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0137 DLC).

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Cohn, Al (24 November 1925–15 February 1988), jazz tenor saxophonist and arranger, was born Alvin Gilbert Cohn in New York City, the son of David Emanuel Cohn, a textile worker, and Gertrude (maiden name unknown). Gertrude Cohn played piano, and Al began taking piano lessons at age six. He switched to clarinet at age twelve and then to tenor saxophone after hearing ...

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John Coltrane Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108321).

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Coltrane, John (23 September 1926–17 July 1967), jazz saxophonist and composer, was born John William Coltrane in Hamlet, North Carolina, the son of John Robert Coltrane, a tailor, and Alice Blair. Coltrane grew up in the High Point, North Carolina, home of his maternal grandfather, the Rev. William Blair, a distinguished figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Coltrane’s mother studied music in college, and his father was a country violinist; at age twelve Coltrane began to play the E-flat horn, then the clarinet in a community band, and he immersed himself in practice and study. In high school he discovered jazz and turned to the alto saxophone, influenced by the recorded work of ...

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Dailey, Albert Preston (16 June 1938–26 June 1984), jazz pianist and composer, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Little is known of his parents or early years except that he studied piano from an early age. At age fifteen Dailey became the house pianist at the Royal Theater in Baltimore, where he performed for four years. He studied piano and composition at Morgan State University from 1955 to 1956 and the Peabody Conservatory from 1956 to 1959....

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Duke Ellington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115052).

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Ellington, Duke (29 April 1899–24 May 1974), jazz musician and composer, was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., the son of James Edward Ellington, a butler, waiter, and later printmaker, and Daisy Kennedy. The Ellingtons were middle-class people who struggled at times to make ends meet. Ellington grew up surrounded by a large, concerned family. His mother was particularly attached to him; in her eyes he could do no wrong. They belonged to Washington’s black elite, who put much stock in racial pride. Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him “Duke.”...

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Erroll Garner Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105243).

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Garner, Erroll (15 June 1921–02 January 1977), jazz pianist and composer, was born Earl (as “Erroll” was pronounced) Garner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Louis Ernest Garner, an electrical worker, cook, musician, and dance- and pool-hall entrepreneur, and Estella Darcus, a dressmaker. At around age two Garner began reproducing on the piano the tunes he heard on the family piano rolls and phonograph. He never learned to read music and could imitate nonmusical sounds on the piano. Fellow musician Eddie Calhoun insisted that Garner could hear sounds “up into an animal range.” At age ten Garner became a soloist with the Kan D Kids, an African-American children’s troupe performing on radio station KQV. He played for church socials and in neighborhood houses on Friday nights (admission was ten cents). He played tuba for his high school band and tried all the other instruments. Garner later said that he loved big bands so much that he wanted to make his piano sound like an orchestra. By the time he withdrew from Westinghouse High School in 1939, Garner was locally famous. Playing “for no money, hour after hour” at clubs such as the Crawford Grill, run by the owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a leading baseball team in the black leagues, Garner made two local recordings at age sixteen; he joined LeRoy Brown’s small band and visited New York. By 1939 he had briefly led a sextet and was working for Brown’s big band....

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Dizzy Gillespie Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114444).

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Gillespie, Dizzy (21 October 1917–06 January 1993), jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, was born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, the son of James Gillespie, a mason and musician, and Lottie Powe. Gillespie’s father kept his fellow band members’ instruments at their home, and thus from his toddler years onward Gillespie had an opportunity to experiment with sounds. He entered Robert Smalls public school in 1922. He was as naughty as he was brilliant, and accounts of fighting, showing off, and mischief extend from his youth into adulthood....