20 Best Female Piano Players You’ve Never Heard Of
Society has made some amazing social progress over the last few decades, however, gender equality still has far to go. In the music industry, there are many stereotypes that relate to gender, and often times some amazing piano players are overlooked or outright lost in the sands of time.
But that’s not the case today. Because in this article, we have put together a list of 20 of the best female piano players that you’ve likely never heard of (outside of a small few) that are definitely worthy of your time and respect.
Best Female Jazz Piano Players
Let’s kick off this list with Lovie Ausitn.
Like many women at the time, Lovie Austin began as a classically trained pianist and faced many struggles when she decided to pursue music professionally. However, she faced these adversities and came to write many of the classic songs of the early blues era. Many times she can be overlooked because she was not the singer on many of her tracks but didn’t really record solo albums.
Before her professional music career, Austin was able to receive a formal music education, rare for a black woman of her generation. She graduated shortly after WWI and went into touring vaudeville venues. This eventually led to her directing her own shows and leading her own band, The Blue Serenaders. She developed a strong and raunchy percussive playing style to compliment her blues numbers.
In the early 1920s Austin moved to the emerging and magnetic music scene in Chicago. It was there she continued to flourish within the pit orchestra industry. She was eventually appointed as the music director of Chicago’s Monogram Theater and would work there for the next 20 years.
Known as Europe’s First Lady of jazz, Jutta Hipp is an unknown wonder to the music world. She was born in Germany and began classical training at 9 years old while listening to jazz radio stations that were banned by the Nazi regime.
After the war, Hipp fled to West Germany and began playing piano in the clubs. In 1953 she formed her own quintet and recorded three albums. 2 years later Leonard Feather discovered her and helped her move to the U.S. Hipp played in clubs around New York City and even went on tour.
Quickly after her move, she signed with Blue Note Records become the first white female to be signed to the label. While her records did not do great in the U.S, they sold immensely well in Japan and kept her in the industry. She was headlining at Hickory House and even performed at the Newport Jazz Festival.
However, Hipp believed that jazz was an intimate art and played with feeling rather than career ambition. She preferred the smaller and more intimate venues, in contrast to Feather who continued to push her to keep up with the culture. In 1960 Hipp retreated from the music industry all together as most of her small venues had closed and it became hard to find comfortable gigs for the shy performer. She retired to work in a factory until her death.
Barbara Carroll played piano for almost her entire life: 85 years. She began playing piano at the age of 5 and started classical training three years later. After graduating from the New England Conservatory, her professional music career began.
Carroll’s music journey began with a USO during WWII, where she was placed with an all-girl trio. After the war she founded her own trio in New York City and began playing gigs on 52nd street.
The biggest reputation Carroll carries is her musical ventures into the more progressive bebop style of the time. She is one of the first female players to play with such a style. This is also a specific example of her career overall; she was never afraid of the changing music scene but ensured to keep a strong jazz flavor in all her music.
A figure who stands at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz movement and modern creative music is Carla Bley. While she initially was found in the industry as a composer, she was still able to make her reputation and build herself as a musician.
After learning the music fundamentals from her father, Bley taught herself the rest of the skills needed to play piano. In 1955 she moved to New York to work part time as a pianist and part time as a cigarette girl. She came to public attention for the first time when Gary Burton’s quartet recorded a track of hers.
She was able to cement her reputation after her completion of the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill. From there she helped to found the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and composed and recorded for her own label, Watt.
For the past two decades Bley has been going on tour with her midsized big band. She also continues to collaborate and record with many artists, especially a trio with Steve Swallow and Andy Shepard.
Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, Billy Tipton’s biggest secret wasn’t revealed until his death. He was born a girl, and he never told anyone. As a child he was sent to live with his aunt in the great jazz city of Kansas City and studied piano in high school.
However, because of the struggles women faced in the jazz industry at the time, Tipton was denied access to the high school band until she moved back to Oklahoma in 1932. Despite the acceptance, Tipton began to dress and groom in a man’s fashion in 1934 to ‘fit in’ with the all-male band members.
Tipton never looked back because the men’s look made it easier to find work and succeed in the industry. Combined with the climbing pressures of the Great Depression, it was just easier to succeed as a man in the industry. By mid-1936, Tipton was leading a band and had regular appearances on the radio.
Tipton continued to hop between bands until 1949 when there was an offer to join with George Mayer’s Sophisticated Swing Trio and they worked the Northwest Circuit. Two years later Tipton went solo in Washington before forming a trio that travelled a lot and was signed with Tops Records in 1956. Tipton retired I 1970s because of arthritis in his fingers.
Hazel Scott began playing piano by ear at 3 years old. Her mother was also a musician and had many connections helping Scott be able to learn from some of jazz’s biggest names. At 8 years old Scott was accepted at Julliard with a scholarship that had Oscar Wagner privately tutoring her.
By 13 Scott was playing professionally, albeit with her mother’s jazz band, and 2 years later Scott decided to go solo. She was known for her “jazzing” of the classics, a skill that was able to bring in the audiences.
As many other black pianists, and specifically female black pianist had to do, Scott faces racism throughout her career. However, she also tended to fight back, refusing to play for segregated audiences. Eventually she moved to Paris and opened her house to be a meeting center for black artists.
After her return to the U.S. in 1967, Scott’s fame was now behind her. The music scene had moved on to British pop, but Scott still played in small clubs and made some before sadly passing away in 1981.
Emma Barrett was one of the most talented female jazz players of her time. During the years of her learning piano, she never learned to read music, but could follow any piece after hearing it only once. She was self-taught and by the age of 12 was performing publicly.
Barrett spent most of her career living and playing in New Orleans performing gigs with fairly notable jazz artists. In 1923 she was invited to play with the Original Tuxedo Orchestra and stayed with them until the 1940s when she took a small hiatus from performing. She made a comeback in the 50s by leading her own band, Sweet Emma and the Bells.
In the early 60s during the jazz revival, Barrett made her finest recording that garnered her some dedicated fans. She was nicknamed “the bell gal” due to her red garters with bells that she wore to make sounds while she played.
Unfortunately, Barrett suffered from a stroke in 1967 that paralyzed her left hand. However, she continued to perform with artists and even became a symbolic figure with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band thanks to her joyous playing despite her weakened state.
Black Female Piano Players
Let’s kick off this section with Jessie Covington Dent.
Jessie Covington Dent
Despite her career being short from her retirement in 1936, Jessie Covington Dent was a gifted classical pianist. She began to show signs of her musical talent at the age of two, thanks to her musical parents, and began piano lessons at 4. She was taught by Houston’s oldest and most popular music teacher.
Her skills grew quickly and circa 1915 she performed with her mother in the Ladies Symphony Orchestra. Eventually she went to Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1924 and pursuing further studies with scholarships at the Julliard Musical Foundation.
After her studies were complete, Dent taught music for years at her own music school in Houston before moving to New Orleans in 1932. She performed for 4 more years before retiring, however she never left the music scene. She served as a board member of the New Orleans Philharmonic for four years in the 1970s.
Shirley Horn was a classical pianist turned jazz. She began studying piano at the age of 4 and attended the Junior School of Music at Howard University to continue. Afterwards she was accepted at the Julliard School of Music, but unfortunately could not afford the tuition.
After graduation, Horn began to sing and play in local jazz bars and was discovered by Miles Davis. After he listened to her first album Embers and Ashes, he asked her to become his opening act. He even refused to play at venues that wouldn’t allow Horn because of her unknown status in the industry.
During the 1960s while performing at clubs in New York and Europe, Horn also was able to record and release 5 albums. However, after this intense bout of music time she took a break from the industry to focus on raising her daughter. She continued to perform albeit in a much more sporadic and low-key style.
Horn came back to the industry in 1979 with the release of another album and continued to perform regularly. In 1987 she signed with Verve as one of the best female piano players and stayed with that label for the rest of her career.
Gladys Bentley is one of the more well-known pianists on this list, however she is important to mention because of her pioneering status. In the 1920s and 30s she was one of the most well-known and successful black women in the U.S., however in today’s society she may be less so.
As a cross dresser and open member of the LGBTQ+ community, Bentley was constantly pushing the standards of gender, sexuality and race. She is even said to have worn her younger brothers’ suits to school when she was younger and that her parents tried to “cure” her with doctor visits.
At 16 years old Bentley ran away from home to New York City. She overtly incorporated sexuality into her blues act with her signature black and white tuxedo. She began singing at rent parties and buffet flats before moving to speakeasies and night clubs.
In 1928 Okeh Race Records released her first eight albums and a year later she had her own weekly radio show. She was headlining at her acts and created her own musical revue. However, her popularity tended to flow with the gay social scene, waning as prohibition ended but rising during WWII with the opening of more gay bars on the West Coast. Perhaps her popularity will surge again soon.
Bertha Hope Booker
Bertha Hope Booker, like many others on this list, began piano from a young age. However, in her youth she played and learned music from other young musicians in her neighborhood. It was quickly realized she had a natural talent for piano and the gift of perfect pitch.
In her youth, Booker performed in numerous Los Angeles clubs. Eventually she went on to study piano at the Los Angeles Community College. After she graduated, she moved to New York where she worked at a telephone company in the day and performed at night.
Booker served as an artist-in-residence under the New Jersey State Council on the Arts which led her to performing statewide in New Jersey music workshops. Along with this achievement she led her own trio, The Bertha Hope Trio, which went on to tour throughout Japan.
Despite the segregation and discrimination of her time, Florence Price earned her success. She picked up the piano at 4 years old and her first composition was published at 11. Her other major accomplishment was being the first African American woman recognized as a symphonic composer and to have her compositions performed by a major orchestra.
After a series of lynchings occurred in her hometown, Price decided to relocate her family to Chicago. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the paradise she was hoping for. She couldn’t find employment and racism was still at large as she was denied admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teacher Association. But she overcame and established her own music studio teaching piano, music theory and composing pieces for her students that were eventually published in lesson books.
In 1932 after having success entering composing competitions, Price had her big break. She won the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest and attracted the attention of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra director. After that her work was continuously recognized until its decline in the late 1950s.
Beryl Booker, while not largely known, was a master of the swing style. As a largely self-taught musician, her creation of swing piano was bold and confident making her playing distinctive amongst the men in the industry. She ensured the significance of using timing and lengths of notes to stick out from the crowd.
Her first professional gig was in 1946 playing with the Slam Stewart Trio for six years before deciding to form her own. In 1953 she formed the all-female Beryl Booker Trio which, in contrast to the times, was racially diverse consisting of African American and Caucasian women.
Her trio became well-known by the late 1950s thanks to their diversity and for their music. A year after the formation, Booker had the opportunity to tour Europe before coming back and rejoining her trio. Unfortunately, her career was prematurely ended in the early 60s because of her bad health and some other setbacks.
Nina Simone had been trained in classical piano at 3 years old, and even attended the Julliard School for her piano skills until she ran out of money. After that she was denied admission to the local music school because she was black. To combat and overcome these discriminatory policies, she turned to the free sound of jazz.
During the 1950s Simone played in the clubs of Atlantic City, until 1957 when she recorded and released her first album. The album became a Top 20 hit thanks to its track I Loves You Porgy. Her album releases continued through the 1970s until she took a break and returned in the 80s.
Despite her wish to denounce the classical piano industry, her training showed through her jazz playing. The combination of jazz with hints of classical helped make her style more interesting to the audience. She used her stance and place in the industry to help contribute her voice to the work of the civil rights movement with titles like Young, Gifted, and Black and Four Women, both big hits.
Nina Gamble Kennedy
Nina Gamble Kennedy was yet another child prodigy on the piano. As a daughter of two musicians, she received her first music lessons from them before being enrolled in piano classes formally in 1968. She attended the Blair Academy of Music and completed her first piano recital at the age of 9.
While in college, Kennedy performed as a piano soloist with the Nashville Symphony and a few other prominent orchestras. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music, she was accepted to the master’s program at Julliard and continued her studies.
After college, Kennedy continued to perform around the world and in the U.S. She toured Europe multiple times, and also dipped her toe into the conducting realm. Both skills of hers, conducting and piano playing, have been praised by critics and standing ovations alike.
Best Female Pianists Today
Let’s begin with the talented Toshiko Akyioshi.
Born in Manchuria, Toshiko Akyioshi is one of the few Asian women in jazz. As such, she had to face many prejudices and stereotypes as she tried to make her way through the industry. Unfortunately, at the beginning of her career she tended to garner more attention because of her appearance rather than her music.
As a child Akiyoshi’s father encouraged all his children to get involved in the arts, she began practicing classical piano at 6 years old. As a teenager, Akiyoshi took jobs in dancehalls that were frequents by post-war soldiers during the American occupation of Japan in WWII. It was there she was introduced to jazz through a recording of “Sweet Lorraine”.
Looking for something more than her small town, Akiyoshi eventually moved to Tokyo and created her own jazz group. This is where Oscar Peterson discovered her while touring with the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic. With his encouragement, Akiyoshi made her first recording for Granz.
3 years later in 1956 Akiyoshi moved to the U.S. to study music at the Berklee College of Music. After her graduation, she continued to play club gigs and develop her piano skills into those of a first-rate jazz pianist. She co-led her own quartet and recorded a series of small-group solo albums. In 1972 she moved to LA and really flourished to become known as one of the greatest and most innovative contemporary band leaders.
Naida Cole was a child prodigy. She began learning piano before she was 5 years old and graduated from The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto at age 13. Afterwards she went on to continue her piano studies at many different prestigious universities including becoming one of 6 pianists selected to study at the Fondazione Internazionale per il Pianoforte in Italy.
Cole entered and won many national and international music competitions. The most notable and important competition being in 1997, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Her success there brought her to the attention of the rest of North America and she was able to make appearances with the Munich Philharmonic and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Her U.S. debut as a soloist was at the Kennedy Center and led on to continue performances at venues such as Carnegie Hall. In 1999 she became the first Canadian classical artist to ever receive a contract with the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon. She is now coming more and more into the international scene and advancing her career.
Beginning music lessons at age 3, Beth Levin is yet another child prodigy. She debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra when she was 12 years old and from there was taught by legendary pianists such as Leonard Shure and Rudolf Serkin.
Levin loves to play in the Romantic tradition meaning composers such as Beethoven and Chopin, however she does not shy away from more contemporary composer either. She is in demand these days as both a musical interpreter of the Romance era as well as more modern compositions.
In terms of professional repertoire, Levin has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe. In Iceland she even became a founding member of the Trio Borealis. Now she has settled herself in New York where she has performances at high-ranking venues like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Despite her being one of the most famous female piano players today, we believe Martha Argerich still deserves a place on this list. Argerich can still be easily overlooked or forgotten simply because of her gender in the music industry, and thus is on this list.
Born in Argentina, Argerich began performing professionally when she was 8. In 1955 she went to Europe to continue her musical journey. By winning two prestigious piano competitions, she was able to make her U.S. debut 11 years later at the Lincoln Center.
Argerich has performed around the world and gathered an international following. She has won 3 Grammy Awards for her work. However, she rarely does solo performances or recordings. She dedicated most of her career to collaborative chamber music loving to share the spotlight with other musicians.
Similar to Martha Argerich, Yuja Wang is a more commonly known name in the music community. However, we still decided to include her in this list because she is often overlooked in favor of her male counterparts or even more American women musicians. Being an international musician can make it hard to achieve the same success.
Yuja Wang was born in 1987 in Beijing, China to a musical family. She was studying piano by the age of 6 before receiving more advanced training in Canada and America. However, her international rise to fame didn’t come until she was 20 years old.
Martha Argerich was scheduled to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, unfortunately her health began to flair up and Wang had to replace her. It was such an exquisite performance that two years later she signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon.
Wang has a number of critically acclaimed records and performances under her belt, but what really sets her apart is her finger dexterity. Nicknamed “flying fingers” she has the ability to play crazy fast and complex pieces without making a single mistake, which helps make her one of the best female piano players today.
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