Image: Billie Holiday at New York City's Downbeat Jazz Club in 1947
Editor’s Note: In recognition of Jazz Appreciation Month, Chartmetric continues its year of honoring Black artists in the context of what we normally do: nerd out on music, data, and culture.
In March, our Women's History Month installment highlighted the social and streaming power of Black female artists and fans. This month, we're highlighting legendary Black female Jazz artists.
This year’s Jazz Appreciation Month is all about Women’s impact and contributions in jazz, so we'll pay tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone, looking at their continued impact from a playlist perspective.
Jazz has a long and storied history as a distinctly American genre rooted in African American traditions and the Black communities of New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York City. Drawing on Blues, Ragtime, and West African polyrhythms, Jazz quickly came to dominate popular music throughout the first half of the 20th century. During the latter half of the 1900s, Jazz started its shift in popular consciousness from a danceable Pop genre to a more technical and diffuse genre, or collection of sub-genres, as Rock and Roll took the throne.
However niche the genre and its various offshoots have become, Jazz remains a cornerstone of the Western music canon, having produced larger-than-life virtuosos of their respective instruments, including Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Herbie Hancock, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, and the three artists we focus on below: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone.
She's known as the Queen of Jazz today, but Ella Fitzgerald's crown didn't come easy. Though she was born April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia, Fitzgerald's arguable hometown is New York, where she spent her formative years. After her mother died in 1933, Fitzgerald moved from her stepfather's home in Yonkers to her aunt's home in Harlem.
While she spent some of her rebellious teenage years getting into minor trouble, she was still forced by authorities into the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx and the New York Training School for Girls in Hudson. Throughout this tumultuous period in her life, however, she sang on the streets of Harlem, eventually winning first prize at one of the Apollo Theater's first Amateur Nights. She was just 17.
Early in her career, Fitzgerald had a number of hits, including "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," which she adapted from an American nursery rhyme. As Jazz evolved from Swing to Bebop, Fitzgerald did too, gaining recognition for her vocal improvisational ability, or scatting.
By 1954, Fitzgerald had already cemented her place in music history. Still, she and her entourage were blatantly discriminated against by Pan-American Airlines when they were forced from their first-class seats and off of the plane entirely, resulting in her missing two concerts of her first Australian tour. She would go on to set a box office record with that tour.
In 1967, Fitzgerald received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, adding to the seven Grammys she already had by that point. By 1995, she had won a total of 14 Grammy Awards. Sadly, just a year after receiving her final Grammy, she died of a stroke at the age of 79.
In the 25 years since her death, her work has remained iconic, even if interest in her music has waxed and waned. As with many legendary Jazz artists, engagement for Fitzgerald tends to increase around the holidays, with her Spotify Monthly Listeners increasing 3-4x in 2018 and in 2020 (although interestingly not in 2019) before dropping back down after the holidays are over.
However, 2020 was a particularly unique and tumultuous year in modern memory, with a pandemic coinciding with a long overdue groundswell of support for racial justice. From a playlist perspective, this upheaval coincides with some interesting editorial decisions being made on major streaming platforms with respect to Fitzgerald's music.
On Spotify, Fitzgerald more than doubled the editorial playlists she was on from July 28 to August 10. From November 29 to December 17, Fitzgerald's editorial playlist count almost doubled again. In other words, from July to December 2020, her editorial playlist count increased 4x. In the year and a half prior to July 2020, Fitzgerald's editorial playlist count had remained stagnant at just below 90. By the end of the year, she had been added to more than 380 editorial playlists on Spotify, about a third of which followed the George Floyd protests.
What makes that trend particularly interesting is that her playlist count on Apple Music seems to have exhibited similar growth, albeit at different points throughout the year. On Apple, Fitzgerald's first 2x increase came at the end of March 2020, indicating that this editorial bump either had something to do with pandemic lockdowns going into effect and people turning increasingly to catalogue or 2020's Jazz Appreciation Month theme, which also highlighted women in Jazz. Considering her editorial playlist count on Apple also doubled at the end of March 2021, the latter explanation is likely the more appropriate.
On Deezer and Amazon, correlations with external events are much more difficult to discern. Fitzgerald's 3x editorial playlist count increase happened at the end of April 2020 and remaining consistent into 2021 on Deezer. On Amazon, her growth has been generally linear since March 2019, save for a dip from October 2020 to February 2021.
Whether Fitzgerald's editorial playlist counts continue to grow or not, it's a testament to her longevity that her Spotify Popularity has hovered around 70 out of 100 since November 2016 and she remains in the top 1K most popular artists across the social and streaming landscape, according to our own Cross-Platform Performance (CPP) ranking.
Similar to Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday wasn't born in New York, but it was no doubt her musical home. Although Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, she spent most of her early years in Baltimore, eventually moving to Harlem to be with her mother at just 13.
Much of Holiday's early live is tragic, so singing was no doubt an escape for her, and by the early 1930s, it had become her entire reality. Taking her pseudonym from the first name of actress Billie Dove and the last name of her father Clarence Halliday, Holiday quickly became known for her virtuosic improvisational abilities, and by the late 1930s, she had recorded her magnum opus, "Strange Fruit," based on Abel Meeropol's poem protesting lynching. She was just 24.
By the 1940s, Holiday had become a commercial success with "God Bless the Child," which sold more than a million records, came third in Billboard's songs of the year, and entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976.
30 years prior, Holiday starred in a Hollywood film called New Orleans, alongside Louis Armstrong. Throughout the film's production, however, the producer and screenwriter tried to diminish both of their roles to avoid the impression that Black people created Jazz. Black people did, of course, create Jazz, and the genre would not be what it is without Billie Holiday's voice.
Like Fitzgerald's Spotify listenership, Holiday's Monthly Listeners peaks also align with the holiday season; however, since April 2018, Holiday has remained on an upward trajectory that's more pronounced than Fitzgerald's.
Holiday's artist profile has also benefited from a February 2021 Netflix movie, The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday, which shot her Wikipedia views up from around 7K a day to more than 200K upon the movie's release.
Similar to Fitzgerald, Holiday's editorial playlisting on Spotify took off at the end of July and has continued to grow since. On Apple, we find the same end-of-March dynamic, suggesting that, indeed, Apple editors are adding both Fitzgerald and Holiday to their playlists in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month in 2020 and 2021.
Once again, we see the late April 2020 spike on Deezer and the general growth (minus the October 2020-February 2021 dip) trend on Amazon.
While Billie Holiday's Spotify Popularity and CPP ranking are just a bit below Fitzgerald's at just under 70 and just above 1K, respectively, for an artist whose last recording came out four months before her untimely death in 1959, that's proof enough that no one will — or should — stop honoring her life, music, and legacy any time soon.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone originally started out as a pianist. After being denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which she had a good case for being the result of racial discrimination, Simone made a living playing piano at an Atlantic City nightclub, where she adopted her famous moniker to avoid detection, especially by her family.
Being a concert pianist was really Simone's primary aspiration, but when the nightclub told her she'd have to sing as well, her career as a Jazz vocalist quickly started to overshadow her piano chops.
While not too far removed from Fitzgerald and Holiday in age, Simone arguably belongs to a different era and generation of Jazz, one that fused more readily with other Black-pioneered genres like R&B, Soul, and Gospel.
It was really during the '60s and '70s when Simone came into her prime, both as an artist and also as an activist for racial justice. In 1964, Simone released "Mississippi Goddamn" in response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four Black children. The song was boycotted in Southern states and, according to Simone, by the music industry itself. As Simone devoted herself more to activism and less to music, speaking at the Selma to Montgomery Marches and subscribing to a Black nationalist approach to progress, she eventually chose to leave the United States altogether.
For the next 20 or so years, Simone bounced around Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, the Netherlands, and southern France, where she died in 1993 after a long battle with breast cancer.
What make Simone particularly important in the history of Jazz are both her bridging of the genre with contemporary Pop music and also her political activism through song and action. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result, Simone's Spotify Monthly Listeners have been on an upward trend with minimal cyclicality, especially as it pertains to the "holiday bump," since April 2018, and she has a considerable amount more listenership overall than Fitzgerald and Holiday.
On the playlisting side of things, Simone's trends across all four platforms seem to mirror Holiday's, again hammering the point home: For these three Jazz greats, Spotify editorial playlist count increases coincide with protests for racial justice in 2020 and Apple editorial playlist count increases correlate with Jazz Appreciation Month in 2020 and 2021, while Deezer and Amazon exhibit less discernible external correlations.
Why Editorial Decisions Matter
While much of the editorial playlist ecosystem on the major streaming platforms is likely data-driven, there are ultimately still people behind those editorial playlists who are pulling the strings, determining what artists and what tracks will reach the most listeners. In a sense, understanding what's happening at the top of the music streaming food chain provides us both with an idea of what listeners have the biggest appetite for at the moment and also what DSPs think listeners should be consuming.
Fortunately, all four of the major DSPs we looked at are amplifying the voices of these Black female Jazz artists with regard to their editorial playlists, cementing their staying power not just as virtuosic instrumentalists and recording artists but as enduring icons of fortitude and resilience — two things that people are in dire need of after 2020.
While there are no doubt still racial and gender inequities in the music industry, in the Jazz genre, and in American society writ large, what Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone represent is an aspirational model of defiance through music. And the more that younger listeners stumble upon them on editorial playlists, becoming interested and inspired in turn, the more hope there is that that aspirational model continues on as a concrete reality in generations to come. That's why editorial decisions matter — not because editorial playlists matter, but because the lives of these Black female Jazz artists matter.
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