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Turning The Tables: Celebrating Eight Women Who Invented American Popular Music

Whose faces would you put on a musical Mount Rushmore? The question amounts to a facile parlor game, but for the team behind the annual series Turning the Tables – an annual collaboration between NPR Music and Lincoln Center dedicated to recalibrating music history so that underrepresented, overlooked and hidden-in-plain-sight pioneers get their due – it opened up a set of possibilities as wide as a whole mountain range.

This year, Turning the Tables focused on music's "founding mothers," eight women without whose contributions jazz, blues and myriad other musical styles would be unrecognizable: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maybelle Carter, Marion Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, Celia Cruz and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Over eight weeks, NPR Music shared essays, videos and reported stories illuminating the rich histories of these women. The season-opening concert produced by Jill Sternheimer and the team at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was itself an historic occasion bringing together three generations of stellar musicians and writers.

The Jazz Night radio program delves deeper into five of these eight women, whose lives and careers laid the groundwork for modern jazz. Through the music of Smith, Williams, Anderson, Holiday and Fitzgerald, we tell the story of the music — from early blues to swing to bebop and beyond. "We're trying to acknowledge an area that has been under acknowledged over the years and trying to create a different future," said activist and author Angela Davis, in an interview with her friend, composer and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

Carrington served as the musical director for the concert, and is herself well on the way to legend status via her own compositions and dazzling drumming, assembled a band that navigated from the Appalachian country of the Carter Family to "Guantanamera," the unofficial Cuban anthem and a favorite of salsa pioneer Cruz. The night's mood ranged from down and dirty to sacred and funky to dramatic and somber as some of the best singers working today shared the microphone on some of the finest songs in the American repertoire. Lizz Wright stunned with her meditative version of "Strange Fruit." Rhiannon Giddens got everyone dancing with the gospel roof-raiser "Up Above My Head." Americana's rising star Courtney Marie Andrews shared the program with the venerable jazz pianist Amina Claudine Myers. With something for everything, from Charenée Wade's savvy spin on "Cotton Tail" to Valerie Simpson's no-holds-barred breakdown on Bessie Smith's "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," the concert showed that women indeed laid the floorboards upon which we all dance.

Featured performers: Courtney Marie Andrews, Rhiannon Giddens, Xiomara Laugart, Valerie Simpson, Charenée Wade, Lizz Wright.

Lea-Lorién Alomar (voice)
Gerardo Contino (voice)
Terri Lyne Carrington (drums and bandleader)
Jeremy Bosch (flute)
Tanya Darby (trumpet and backing voice)
Lakecia Benjamin (saxophone and backing voice)
Edmar Colón (saxophone, piano and backing voice)
Felicia Collins (guitar)
Adam Rogers (guitar)
Jon Cowherd (keyboard and piano)
Alex Tosca Laugart (piano)
Ben Williams (bass)
Crystal Vargas (percussion)

Radio set list:

"Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair" (George Brooks)
"Credo" (Mary Lou Williams)
"Deep River / Go Down Moses" (African-American spirituals; arranged by Terri Lyne Carrington)
"Strange Fruit" (Abel Meeropol)
"Cotton Tail" (Duke Ellington)
"What's Your Story Morning Glory" (Mary Lou Williams, Paul Francis Webster and Jack Lawrence)
"Mack the Knife" (Kurt Weill)

Video set list:

"You Are My Flower" (A.P. Carter)
"Strange Fruit" (Abel Meeropol)
"What's Your Story Morning Glory" (Mary Lou Williams, Paul Francis Webster and Jack Lawrence)
"Guantanamera" (Joseíto Fernández, Julián Orbón, Peter Seeger, Héctor Angulo)
"Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair" (George Brooks)
"Deep River / Go Down Moses" (African-American spirituals; arranged by Terri Lyne Carrington)
"Up Above My Head" (Written by Rosetta Tharpe)
"Cotton Tail" (Duke Ellington)

Copyright 2020 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
Sarah Geledi
Sarah Kerson
Sarah came to WBGO in 2018 after spending time at WNYC and WCBS 880 as a producer and news assistant. As a production assistant at WBGO, she works with Jazz Night in America and on other WBGO programming. She developed a love for music as an undergraduate at Barnard College, where she DJ'ed blues, country, soul, and hip-hop shows at WKCR. Sarah got her start in public radio as an intern in the Michigan Radio newsroom in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.