The Jazz wives, the forgotten jazz legends

Talking about female jazz icons everyone knows Billie, Sarah, Aretha and Nina. But there is a large group of Jazz Ladies who worked very hard but aren’t that well known. I am talking about the woman behind the musicians. Who run their husbands bussinesses, took care of their families and were their every step of the way. Let’s talk about Nellie, Lorraine and Lucille. The women behind the Jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins.


Lorraine Willes ( Gillespie) wife of Dizzy Gillespie

Lorraine Gillespie -Willes

The couple met in 1937 when Gillespie was playing with the Teddy Hill Orchestra in Washington, and they married three years later in Boston, Marion “Boo” Frazier, Dizzy’s cousin, told The Record of Bergen County.

Lorraine Gillespie was born in Long Branch and grew up in New York City. She worked in a chorus line at the Apollo Theater in Harlem as a teen, and had a tap-dance school in Queens, where the couple first lived.

The trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, who died in 1993, often praised Lorraine, his wife of 53 years, for her financial skills. ”Lorraine knows how to handle money,” he said. ”Without her, I wouldn’t have a quarter.”

Dizzy always gave her credit for keeping him in line and making sure that the Bussiness got taken care of. No way it could have been easy for her, but she did it.


Nellie Monk

NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 1963: Jazz musician Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie pose for a portrait in November, 1963 in New York City, New York. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)

Nellie was the  prime supporter and muse of the troubled genius, Thelonius Monk. Nellie was amazing. She stuck with Monk through very tough times, basically held his hand as he traveled the world which he was clearly very uncomfortable doing.

Nellie Smith was born in 1921 in St. Petersburg, Fla. She and her family moved to New York City early in her life, first to Brooklyn and then to the San Juan Hill area of Manhattan, west of Lincoln Center, where Monk’s family lived. When she was about 14, she met Monk, who was three years older, on the neighborhood basketball court.

The Monks were together from around 1947 until his death in 1982. She provided financial as well as emotional support, working as a seamstress during World War II in a factory and sporadically making clothes thereafter for her husband and for friends. She never became Monk’s manager as such, but she collected money from promoters, paid musicians, made sure band members had airline tickets and even helped Monk get dressed.

 Lucille Rollins


Mrs. Rollins became her husband’s manager in 1971 strictly by defauled. Sonny trusted no one else to do the job. She helped persuade him to resume performing and recording after one of his periodic hiatuses. Long recognized by jazz critics as an important and influential musician, he went on to enjoy a new degree of commercial success, thanks largely to her career guidance. A decade later, when Mr. Rollins began producing his own albums, she became his co-producer of his last three albums.

Even before that Lucille had become Sonny’s proxy at playbacks and mixdowns because Sonny couldn’t stand listening to his own recordings.

These jazz ladies  were not simply muses who inspired their husbands’ creative passions or housewives relegated to the background of their spouses’ public lives. Rather, they became a significant social and economic force in the jazz world and thus were far ahead of their time.