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Young at Art

Female jazz prodigies, then and now

Mary Lou Williams
Nikki Yanofsky
Terri Lyne Carrington
Emily Bear with Quincy Jones, founder of Qwest TV
Emily Bear with Quincy Jones


A giant among pianists and equally influential as an arranger, educator and mentor (whose acolytes included Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie), Williams was entirely self-taught. Later synonymous with religious jazz, she made her professional debut at age 6 and teamed with Duke Ellington at 15. No wonder, when a dumbstruck Louis Armstrong first heard the teenaged Williams play, his immediate reaction was to lift her off her feet and kiss her.


Carrington was just 7 when her grandfather, a drummer with Fats Waller, provided her with her first kit. At age 11 she received a full scholarship to Berklee. By 18 she was playing with Stan Getz and Pharoah Sanders, and subsequently spent a decade touring with Herbie Hancock. Following her Grammy-winning success with The Mosaic Project, an all-star, all-female album and live show, she’s formed a supergroup alongside Esperanza Spalding and Geri Allen.


In 2007, when the 13-year-old performed “Airmail Special” on the multi-artist tribute We All Love Ella, she became the youngest vocalist to record for Verve. Her adoration of Ella continued with the live recording Ella… Of Thee I Swing and, at 16, she released the studio album Nikki. That same year, Yanofsky earned worldwide acclaim, singing “I Believe” during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. Now 19, the pert Montrealer has just completed her second studio album.


Move over, Mozart. Chicago pianist Emily Bear began composing at 3 and had completed more than 350 works before her 8th birthday. Though classically trained, she’s demonstrated strong jazz and pop chops, performing at, at age 9, both the Hollywood Bowl and the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011. Bear launched her recording career in 2007 and recently released her sixth album, Diversity, produced by Quincy Jones, who hails her as “the complete 360-degree package.”

Originally Published