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Roxy Coss on Jazz Sheroes

Saxophonist recommends seven cuts from women in jazz who have inspired her

Roxy Coss (photo by Desmond White)
Roxy Coss (photo by Desmond White)

In creating my new album, The Future Is Female, I’ve thought a lot about women and the role they play in the lineage and trajectory, the past and future, of society and of jazz. It’s made me realize how little I still know about the women in the music. If I’m a part of this musical lineage, I need to know who paved the way for me. Some of these artists changed jazz—not just for women, but changed it, full stop—and some took fearless political stands that have allowed me to even exist in this music.

Nina Simone
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
Silk & Soul (RCA Victor, 1967)
Last year, when I was working on my album, I learned Nina’s version of this for a project at Jazz at Lincoln Center called Let Freedom Swing, where we teach kids about jazz and American history. The lyrics are still very relevant and timely; those issues continue to be issues for people who aren’t of the straight-rich-white-hetero-male norm. The song speaks to me deeply, and this performance is flawless.

Mary Lou Williams
“Night Life”
The Chronological Mary Lou Williams (1927-1940) (Classics,1992)
You can hear the whole trajectory of the music in this one track recorded in 1930. She’s playing stride, boogie-woogie, swing. I can hear compositions that wouldn’t be written until years later, like “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Be-bop”; I also hear modal chords, bebop chords and, far into the future, the beginnings of hip-hop.

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra
Carla Bley, composer/arranger/conductor
“Blue Anthem”
Not in Our Name (Verve, 2005)
Carla really was the co-leader of this orchestra, even though her name isn’t above the title; the woman is the invisible figure. She composed this track, and she also arranged and conducted this album—which I listened to a lot in formulating The Future Is Female. This track in particular has a beautiful tenor solo by Chris Cheek that combines vocalization with sensitivity and deliberation. As the composer, Carla provided the foundation for that story to be told.


Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
Ingrid Jensen, trumpet solo
Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009)
Ingrid is a mentor of mine. I remember hearing her perform this solo live at the CD-release show in Brooklyn and it blew my mind. When I got the album, I kept this track on repeat. Darcy created this platform for Ingrid’s voice, and she takes that and runs with it. She does stuff on the trumpet that no one else does, and she demonstrates that on this tune.

Esperanza Spalding
“I Know You Know”
Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008)
I was graduating [from William Paterson University], figuring out what direction I wanted to push myself in musically, and I was inspired by this young, cool woman who clearly had her own unique voice in jazz. It comes through on this track, which feels very free to me. There are all these different flavors—bebop, Latin, R&B—and yet it’s still very clearly Esperanza’s voice.

Geri Allen
“Dark Prince”
The Gathering (Verve, 1998)
Geri was one of the greatest pianists, composers and mentors that I know of. This is a track that I just randomly clicked on one time and was caught off guard by how good it was. The energy is palpable: swinging and funky, mysterious and free. Again, it embodies many different elements of the music, yet it is still very much identifiable as her voice.


Ella Fitzgerald
“How High the Moon”
Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (Verve, 1960)
I had a chance last year to do concerts with the great vocalist Thana Alexa, and we did the music of Ella for her centennial. Thana performed her whole solo on “How High the Moon,” and hearing it live gave me goosebumps. It was crazy that she sang a solo like that at that time—at any time. It demonstrates how she shaped this music; she’s like the mother of the music.

[As told to Michael J. West]

Listen to this Artist’s Choice playlist by Roxy Coss on Jazz Sheroes:


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Originally Published