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Ace, Johnny (09 June 1929–25 December 1954), musician, songwriter, and rhythm and blues star, was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of John Marshall Alexander and Leslie Newsome. His father earned his living in Memphis as a packer, but his lifework was as a commuting minister to two rural Baptist churches in East Arkansas. At LaRose Grammar School in south Memphis, John, Jr., as his family called him, displayed both musical and artistic talent. He mastered the piano at home but was allowed to play only religious music there. Along with his mother and siblings, he sang in the choir at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Becoming restless at Booker T. Washington High School, he dropped out in the eleventh grade to join the navy and see the world. His sisters recall military police coming to the house in search of their brother and remember his brief period of enlistment in terms of weeks, ending in an “Undesirable Discharge” in 1947. His mother was furious. “I can’t keep up with you,” she scolded, “and ...

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Armstrong, Lil (03 February 1898–27 August 1971), jazz pianist, composer, and singer, was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of her father, but her mother, Dempsey Hardin, was a strict, churchgoing woman who disapproved of blues music. At age six, Lil began playing organ at home, and at eight she started studying piano. In 1914 she enrolled in the music school of Fisk University in Nashville, taking academic courses and studying piano and music theory. After earning her diploma, around 1917 she joined her mother in Chicago, where she found work demonstrating songs in Jones’ Music Store. Prompted by her employer, in 1918 Hardin auditioned for clarinetist Lawrence Duhé’s band at Bill Bottoms’s Dreamland Ballroom, where she played with cornetist “Sugar Johnny” Smith, trombonist Roy Palmer, and other New Orleans musicians. When Smith became too ill to continue working, he was replaced by first ...

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Austin, Lovie (19 September 1887–10 July 1972), pioneer jazzwoman, was born Cora Calhoun, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Little is known about Austin’s personal life. She studied music theory and piano at Roger Williams University in Nashville and Knoxville College in Knoxville. Her musical contributions were nearly overlooked until the revived interest in women in jazz in the 1970s. The reacquaintance with Austin can be attributed to the publication of three books on women in the early days of jazz....

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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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Carlisle, Una Mae (26 December 1915–07 November 1956), jazz pianist, singer, and composer of popular songs, was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the daughter of Edward E. Carlisle and Mellie (maiden name unknown), a schoolteacher. (The assertion that she was born in Xenia, Ohio, published in many references, does not conform to family records.) With piano training from her mother, she sang and played in public at age three in Chillicothe, Ohio. After participating in musical activities at church and school in Jamestown and Xenia, Ohio, she began performing regularly on radio station WHIO in Dayton while still a youngster. In 1932 she came to the notice of ...

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Carmichael, Hoagy (22 November 1899–28 December 1981), composer, was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington, Indiana, the son of Howard Clyde Carmichael, a horse-and-buggy driver, and Lida Mary Robison. His mother played silent-film accompaniments, and Carmichael began learning to play the piano at age six. Following an undistinguished high school career in Bloomington and Indianapolis and tutoring by Reggie Duval, a ragtime pianist, he worked odd jobs. The slender Carmichael gained enough weight to be accepted into the wartime army—one day before the armistice. After returning to Bloomington in 1919 he played for high school dances....

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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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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Crudup, Arthur (24 August 1905–28 March 1974), blues singer and songwriter, was born Arthur Crudup in Forest, Mississippi, between Jackson and Meridian, the son of Minnie Louise Crudup, an unmarried domestic worker. His father was reputed to be a musician, but Crudup recalled seeing him only twice. Raised by his mother and growing up in poverty, Crudup began singing both blues and religious music around age ten. In 1916 he and his mother moved to Indianapolis. After she became ill, Crudup dropped out of school and took a job in a foundry at age thirteen....

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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....