Women have been making jazz music for as long as it has existed — yet we might not often think about the contributions and accomplishments of a great number of female singers, instrumentalists, composers and arrangers that have been lost to jazz’s deeper archives.
For every Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, there are dozens of highly influential yet largely unheralded female musicians. Lil Hardin Armstrong, Valaida Snow, Lovie Austin, Dorothy Ashby, Irene Higginbotham and Dorothy Fields are among the names of women who are unjustly underappreciated, yet thrived in their time — all while fighting a lifelong battle for gender and racial equality.
Yet the world has made progress over the years in acknowledging the contributions of women and the obstacles they face — and jazz has been evolving with it. Artists like Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Esperanza Spalding, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Melody Gardot and Tia Fuller have been dominating as some of the biggest contemporary names in jazz.
But there are plenty that have yet to break out — and some young Canadians look poised to do so very soon. Here are just a few Canadian women in jazz that you need to know.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Alison Young moved to Toronto in the early 2000s and has since become a powerful presence in the city’s jazz community. Emerging as one of Toronto’s most in-demand saxophone sensations, Young has toured worldwide and appeared on nearly 30 recordings, including Juno-nominated albums by Alysha Brilla and Shakura S’Aida.
Since 2012, Young has also led her own band. Her debut album So Here We Are is nominated for solo jazz album of the year at the 2019 Juno Awards.
“She’s been recognized for several years now as one of the great sax players of Canada,” says musician and broadcaster Jaymz Bee. “But what some people don’t know is she’s also an incredible vocalist. She’s been doing that in public for just a couple years. But Alison Young is about to be a worldwide phenomenon.”
This is perhaps the most recognizable name on this list. Laila Biali has been establishing herself as one of Canada’s brightest young stars, touring with Grammy winners, playing the world’s most prestigious music halls and earning plenty of personal accolades along the way. Her latest album is nominated for vocal jazz album of the year at the 2019 Juno Awards.
The singer-songwriter described this self-titled effort as a “new beginning,” an eclectic record that spans a wide range of influences yet refines it down into a focused mix that’s rooted in jazz tradition but adds flavours of pop, gospel and R&B.
“She’s a quadruple threat,” says musician and broadcaster Heather Bambrick. “She’s a singer, she’s a piano player, she’s a writer and she’s an arranger. Her music bridges all kinds of gaps. She’s really working tirelessly to bring her music to international audiences, and I think she’s going to be the next big thing hitting international stages from Canada.”
This Juno-winning Toronto saxophonist and band leader has been making waves for several years with her unique style that mixes jazz with elements of classical, pop, hip hop, Latin and world music. In her music, Allison Au is constantly in pursuit of self-expression, exploration and experimentation, and her playing is engaging, imaginative and exceptionally distinctive.
The Allison Au Quartet earned their first Juno nomination for their debut album The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey, in 2013, then seized the honour of best jazz album of the year, group, for 2015’s Forest Grove. And this year, Au’s group is already up for their second Juno for Wander Wonder.
“She has kept a consistent band dynamic among the people with her from the time of her first Juno,” says JAZZ.FM91 host and music director Brad Barker. “She’s kept that same band together. It’s one thing to be a great player, but then also to be able to keep a band together and have them execute your compositional vision is really big props to her.”
This classically trained jazz vocalist is all about echoing the legendary singers of the ’40s and ’50s — but with a modern spin.
“Jessica Lalonde is timeless, she is classy, and she is a fantastic singer,” Bee says.
Since releasing her debut solo album Spinning Daydreams a decade ago, Lalonde has been a prolific performer at home and around the world. A few years ago she delved into Bel canto singing under the guidance of Metropolitan soprano Aprile Millo, and while in Italy performed alongside Millo in a series of concerts and worked with legendary conductor Richard Bonynge. She’s also collaborated with a vast array of artists in a variety of genres, including Canadian indie-rock groups Born Ruffians and Will Currie and the Country French.
Recently, she headed back into the studio with jazz giant John MacMurchy to record her second solo album.
This Cuban-born percussionist stood out for playing the batá drum, an instrument that is considered sacred in the Santería religion and that is usually played by men.
Magdelys Savigne is now a fixture of Toronto’s Latin music scene. She plays for the Toronto-based Afro-Cuban post-rock band Battle of Santiago, whose album La Migra was nominated for a Juno Award for world music album of the year in 2018. She’s an integral member of Juno-winning band Jane Bunnett and Maqueque as well as Bill King’s Rhythm Express. And in 2016, she formed her own Cuban band, OKAN, with Havana-born violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez.
“She is a fantastically gifted percussionist and drummer with great spirit and charisma,” says Laura Fernandez, host of the JAZZ.FM91 program Café Latino. “Her name has become synonymous with excellence.”
A young talent from Calgary, Caity Gyorgy has been making a name for herself on Canada’s festival and talent-show circuits.
She has an incredibly refined voice for her age, counting Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Esperanza Spalding and Cécile McLorin Salvant among her idols. But what really sets her apart is her unparalleled vocal improvisations.
“She is the greatest scat singer I’ve ever seen live in concert,” says Jaymz Bee. “She does things I have never heard in my life, and I highly recommend anyone to see her in concert.”
This bassist from Vancouver has become known as one of the Canadian jazz scene’s finest, with multiple National Jazz Awards and a Juno nomination under her belt. Jodi Proznick has performed with countless jazz icons, is highly in-demand for visiting artists, and has featured on more than 40 recordings. Some of her most high-profile gigs have been opening for Oscar Peterson in 2004, and accompanying Michael Bublé in the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
This year, Proznick is nominated for the Juno Award for vocal jazz album of the year for her album Sun Songs, with Laila Biali on vocals.
“She’s not only one of my favourite individuals, but one of my favourite artists,” says Heather Bambrick. “She is a killer bass player and a brilliant songwriter.”
But further than that, Proznick is perhaps just as well known as an educator and mentor. She’s a faculty member at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, teaching jazz theory, jazz history, improvisation, bass lessons and more. She’s the artistic director of the VSO School of Music Summer Jazz Workshop. And she’s been a guest adjudicator and clinician at schools, festivals and conferences across the country.
“She’s a supporter of all kinds of other artists,” says Bambrick. “She’s a mentor to women, helping develop other female artists in the jazz idiom. She’s a hero to a lot of people.”
Sarah Thawer is a dynamic force behind the drum kit, and she’s getting the attention of artists all over the world.
“She’s one of the most versatile and gifted drummers I have ever seen or worked with,” says Laura Fernandez. “She’s a rising star and her name is becoming widely known all over the world, not just here in Canada.”
Thawer studied jazz and world music at York University and received the faculty’s highest distinction, the Oscar Peterson Scholarship. She’s shared the stage with Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, Rich Brown, Del Hartley, D’bi and the 333, Benny Dayal and Funktuation, Mitch Frohman and more.