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Allen, Henry “Red” (07 January 1908–17 April 1967), trumpeter, was born Henry James Allen, Jr., in Algiers, Louisiana, the son of Henry James Allen, Sr., a trumpeter and leader of a brass band, and Juretta (maiden name unknown). Allen received instruction from his father and his two uncles, who were also trumpeters. Rehearsals were held at home, giving Allen the opportunity to hear New Orleans greats like ...

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Anderson, Cat (12 September 1916–29 April 1981), jazz trumpeter, was born William Alonzo Anderson, Jr., in Greenville, South Carolina. Nothing is known of his parents, who died when he was four. Anderson grew up in Jenkins’ Orphanage in Charleston, where as a boy he received the nickname “Cat” after scratching and tearing in a fight with a bully. He played in the orphanage’s renowned bands, beginning on trombone and playing other brass and percussion instruments before taking up trumpet. From 1929 onward he participated in orphanage band tours, and in Florida in 1933 he formed the cooperative Carolina Cotton Pickers with fellow orphanage musicians. Returning to Charleston in 1934, they continued playing as the Carolina Cotton Pickers and then resumed touring....

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Armstrong, Louis (04 August 1901–06 July 1971), jazz trumpeter and singer, , known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the illegitimate son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother’s care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence-torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist ...

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Bailey, Buster (19 July 1902–12 April 1967), jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, was born William C. Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of his parents. He attended the Clay Street School in Memphis, where he began studying clarinet at age thirteen. In 1917 he turned professional after joining the touring band of famed blues composer ...

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Bailey, Mildred (27 February 1907–12 December 1951), jazz singer, was born Eleanor Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Washington, the daughter of Charles Rinker, a farmer of Irish descent, and Josephine (maiden name unknown), who was one-eighth Native American. She attended local schools in Spokane. The Rinkers were a musical family—Mildred’s mother, father, and a brother played piano, her father also sang, and another brother played the saxophone. When Mildred was in her teens, her mother died of tuberculosis; She subsequently moved to Seattle to live with an aunt. In Seattle she met and married Ed Bailey; they had no children. Around that time Mildred obtained her first singing job, plugging hit tunes in the back of a Seattle music store. She later divorced her husband and in 1925 moved to Los Angeles, where she found work playing piano and singing in a Hollywood speakeasy. The same year she married Benny Stafford, but the childless marriage did not last....

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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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Bechet, Sidney (14 May 1897–14 May 1959), jazz soprano saxophonist and clarinetist, was born Sidney Joseph Bechet in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Omar (or Omer) Bechet, a shoemaker and amateur flutist, and Josephine Michel. An incorrigible truant, after age eight he stopped attending school and started teaching himself clarinet. What basic education he later received came from private tutoring by a cousin. He received some clarinet training from ...

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Beneke, Tex (12 February 1914–30 May 2000), saxophonist, was born Gordon Lee Beneke in Fort Worth, Texas. By the age of nine he showed a talent for the saxophone, experimenting with both soprano and alto sax before settling on tenor. During the early and mid-1930s he began his professional career by playing in regional bands, first in Texas and then Oklahoma. In 1935 he joined the bandleader Ben Young's orchestra and toured with the group throughout the Midwest in one-nighters before arriving in Detroit in 1937. A fellow ...

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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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Bigard, Barney (03 March 1906–27 June 1980), jazz musician, was born Albany Leon Bigard in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Alexander Louis Bigard and Emanuella Marquez. Little is known of his family except that it produced musicians: his older brother Alex was a drummer, his uncle Emile was a violinist who played with musicians like ...

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Brown, Lawrence (03 August 1907–05 September 1988), jazz trombonist, was born in Lawrence, Kansas, the son of John M. Brown, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and Maggie (maiden name unknown), who played pump organ for the church. When Brown was six the family moved to Oakland, California, where he learned piano; tuba, which he began to play in the Oakland public school system; and violin. He also briefly experimented with alto saxophone before taking up trombone, to which he became intensely devoted after the Browns relocated across the bay to San Francisco....

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Brubeck, Dave (06 December 1920–05 December 2012), jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer, was born David Warren Brubeck in Concord, California, the youngest son of Howard Peter Brubeck, a rancher, and Elizabeth Ivey, a pianist and music teacher. In the mid-1890s his grandfather bought a ranch at the northern foot of Mount Diablo in Clayton, California. His parents' home was in the adjacent town, Concord, where young Dave attended elementary school. His brilliance would eventually be obvious, but as a child he was placed in a slow learning group because he had difficulty with spelling and reading. Dave was born cross-eyed and later in life speculated that he may also have had an unidentified learning disability....

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Butterfield, Billy (14 January 1917–18 March 1988), jazz trumpeter, was born Charles William Butterfield in Middleton, Ohio. His parents’ names are unknown. He studied privately with cornetist Frank Simons in his youth. At Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, his intended medical studies gave way to work with dance bands. He soon quit school to join Andy Anderson’s local band. While playing with Anderson’s band in 1936, he was heard by bandleader ...

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Calloway, Cab (25 December 1907–18 November 1994), jazz and popular singer and bandleader, was born Cabell Calloway III in Rochester, New York, the son of Cabell Calloway, a lawyer who also worked in real estate, and Martha Eulalia Reed, a public school teacher and church organist. Around 1914 the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. His father died around 1920, and his mother married John Nelson Fortune, who held a succession of respectable jobs. Calloway sang solos at Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, and he took voice lessons at age fourteen. He was nevertheless an incorrigible teenager, and in 1921 his stepfather sent him to Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, a reform school run by his granduncle, a pastor in Downington, Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1922 Calloway returned home on his own initiative, by his own account not reformed, but now a man rather than a boy. He thereafter moved comfortably between the proprieties of mainstream American life and the depravities of American entertainment....

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Carney, Harry Howell (01 April 1910–08 October 1974), jazz baritone saxophonist, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother’s given name was Jenny; other details of his parents are unknown. Carney studied piano at age six, switched to clarinet, and then took up alto saxophone in the seventh grade, when he met saxophonist ...

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Catlett, Big Sid (17 January 1910–25 March 1951), drummer, was born Sidney Catlett in Evansville, Indiana, the son of John B. Catlett, a chauffeur. His mother (name unknown) was a cook. He briefly studied piano before playing drums in school, an activity he continued at Tilden Technical High School after the family moved to Chicago. There he studied under theater orchestra drummer Joe Russek. He worked with lesser-known bands and on occasion substituted for ...

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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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Horace Clarence Boyer

Christy, June (20 November 1925–21 June 1990), jazz singer, was born Shirley Luster in Springfield, Illinois. She moved to Decatur, Illinois, as a young child and at age thirteen began singing the popular songs of the day with a local band. After graduating from high school she settled in Chicago, where she secured work as the “girl” singer with local society bands. Uncomfortable with both the style and repertoire of such bands, Luster signed on in 1938 with a dance unit led by ...

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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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Cole, Cozy (17 October 1909–29 January 1981), jazz percussionist, was born William Randolph Cole in East Orange, New Jersey. He was led into a musical career by his three brothers, all of whom were jazz musicians. Cole took up the drums while a young boy and continued to study the instrument in high school. He began playing professionally as a teenager before attending Wilberforce College in Ohio for two years....