Whilst brought to prominence with star soloists playing trumpet and saxophone, jazz music arguably wouldn’t have reached widespread fame without the singers who brought it to the masses.
We’re already given our pick of the most influential vocalists of all time, as well as the most important male jazz singers in history; for this article we’ve round up our guide to the best female jazz singers of all time.
From Bessie Smith – born before the start of the 20th Century – to modern vocalists like Cecile Mclorin Salvant – we’ve got almost 100 years of jazz singing history for you!
15. Nancy Wilson
Born in Ohio in 1937, Nancy Wilson enjoyed a career that lasted 5 decades, well into the 21st Century.
She was known as an all-round entertainer, mixing jazz, blues and soul music with a a career as a film & TV actress.
She moved to New York (at the behest of none of than Cannonball Adderley!) in her early 20s and was an almost instant hit, signing to Capitol Records the following year.
Whilst many know her for songs considered mainstream, her jazz CV features many of the best musicians of the era, including Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Hank Jones.
14. Diana Krall
As an art-form, jazz relies on the next generation of musicians not just to keep the tradition alive, but to continue to win over fans to the genre.
It’s hard to think of many contemporary jazz singers who have done this as successfully as Canadian singer-pianist Diana Krall.
Born in 1964 she has sold upwards of 14 million albums and turned a whole generation of unsuspecting listeners into jazz fans.
Since graduating from Berklee College of Music in the early 80s, she’s made a constant stream of recordings bringing the great American songbook (and more) to life.
Surrounding herself with many of the modern greats (including long-time colleagues John Clayton (bass) and Jeff Hamilton on drums), the use of her music in countless movies has also done no harm to her reputation as the jazz singer that everyone knows.
13. Julie London
Whilst perhaps best known for her iconic and sultry performance of Cry Me A Riving, Julie London initially found fame as an actress, before recording 30 albums as a ‘cool’ jazz singer.
She was allegedly ‘discovered’ performing at a jazz club in Los Angeles jazz by club where she was signed by Simon Waronker, founder of Liberty Records.
She recorded a range of classic jazz songs, but singing sentimental ballads – aka ‘Torch Songs’ – became her calling card. As Waronker noted: “the lyrics poured out of her like a hurt bird.”
Essential Julie London Album: Julie Is Her Name
The very first track on her debut album Julie Is Her Name (1955) is Cry Me A River, the most popular recording of her career. It also features sweet renditions of classic songs such as “No Moon At All ” and “I’m In The Mood For Love.”
Rising to prominence in the early 2010s off the back of a Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition win, Cecile McLorin Salvant has won plaudits for her remarkable stage presence and a sound that is both highly original yet influenced by the great female jazz singers such has Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.
Anyone looking for the perfect introduction to her live performance needs to check out the now-famous video of her singing ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was‘ – Live at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York.
In terms of repertoire, she tends to mix lesser-known jazz standards, French songs (her first language), original compositions and early blues numbers which are performed as part of a busy international touring schedule.
Key Cécile McLorin Salvan album : Dreams and Daggers
This album from 2016 features a mixture of live tracks taken from the New York jazz club The Village Vanguard (featuring Aaron Diehl, Paul Sikivie and Lawrence Leathers) alongside and studio tracks with a string quartet.
Our top pick is her version of “Nothing Like You by Bob Dorough.
11. Anita O’Day
Born in 1919, Anita O’Day began singing professionally at the age of 19 with Bob Crosby’s big band, before being hired by the legendary Benny Goodman.
Her precise, ‘hip’ and percussive delivery of jazz songs pretty much redefined the role of female big band singers and paved the way for future generations of vocalists to forge their own paths.
She parted ways with Benny Goodman in 1942 and went on to form her own trio. This, in turn, morphed into Anita O’Day & Her All-Stars which toured the world.
With a sound heavily influenced both by West Coast Cool jazz and the more East coast Bebop style, she sadly retired from performing aged just 39 years old as a result of a cancer diagnosis.
10. Shirley Horn
Whilst singer-pianist Shirley Horn may not have reached the levels of fame associated with female vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, she became one of the most respected artists of her generation over the course of several decades.
A true ‘singers singer’, she allegedly practiced several hours every single day to perfect her vocal skills, her sweet and velvety vocals collaborating with many of the most famous jazz musicians of all time including Miles Davis, Toots Thielemans and Dizzy Gillespie.
9. Dinah Washington
Whilst Dinah Washington’s jazz vocals will be forever immortalised by that classic version of the classic song Unforgettable (one of the most recorded songs in history), her powerful mezzo-soprano voice has been used to perform everything from jazz and blues to R&B, soul and gospel music.
Across a three-decade-long career, the ‘Queen of the Blues’ recorded and toured extensively, with an array of top ten hits in her native America.
8. Blossom Dearie
With a highly distinctive girlish voice and a glorious sense of humour, Blossom Dearie spent part of her career in Paris, meaning she could deliver her songs in both English and French.
Born in 1924, she was also a female jazz pioneer, playing piano as part of the rhythm section in many of her groups.
Some of her most memorable work came later in her career when she performed interpretations of witty numbers such as “I’m Hip”, “My Attorney Bernie” and “Peel Me a Grape” – all of which can be heard complete with a laughing audience (at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club) on record.
Highlighted album: Soubrette: Blossom Dearie Sings Broadway Hit Songs
Orchestrated and conducted by arranger Russell Garcia, ‘Blossom Dearie Sings Broadway Hit Songs’ includes one of the singer’s most famous recordings, the track “Rhode Island Is Famous For You”.
We also love her in a small group setting, such as the record My Gentleman Friend.
7. Carmen McRae
Born in 1920, Carmen McRae is the daughter of Canadian jazz singer Jimmy McRae – not a bad start in [jazz] life!
Whilst she developed a highly individual style with complex yet melodic interpretations of jazz standards, her early obsession with Billie Holiday is also evident.
As a soloist, some of her most popular albums – both with the public and with critics – pay tribute to fellow jazz musicians such as Nat King Cole, Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan.
6. Bessie Smith
Born back in 1894, Bessie Smith (aka “The Empress of Blues“) was one of the most popular singers of the 1920s/30s.
Due to the fact that she performed at a time when recordings were made acoustically, it’s not easy to find great recordings of her. Despite this, her powerful vocal style is considered by many to be the most expressive of all time.
As fitting for a star of this era, she recorded with many of the biggest names in early jazz, including Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.
The history of the “Protest Song” can be traced to Bessie Smith, with songs such as “Jail House Blues” and “Work House Blues” talking of conditions and struggles at the time.
Bessie Smith dies aged just 43 (car accident) yet her work paved the way for future generations of African American women in entertainment. She has been noted as a musical influence of a vast range of singers including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and even Janis Joplin.
5. Betty Carter
Born in 1929, Betty Carter emerged in the bebop era, working with greats such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as well as a regular gig with the Lionel Hampton band.
A pioneer of jazz scat singing (something which some of her swing-era colleagues didn’t like), she is renowned for her adventurous interpretations of melodies.
Introduced by Miles Davis, she recorded an album of duets with Ray Charles in 1961 before work dried up – in part due to her steadfast devotion to acoustic jazz.
She received something of a revival in the late 1970s/early 1980s, though, both in terms of public interest and critical acclaim.
In tried-and-trusted jazz style, she gave many musicians from the younger generation their break, touring in later years with musicians such as Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green and John Hicks who were just starting out.
Key Album: The Audience With Betty Carter
Whilst Carter’s early work is more traditional, this is a fantastic example of her later years.
At a time when self-releasing was unusual, she started her own record label (Bet-Car Records) and released this live double album in 1980.
Check out the 25-minute(!) long first track which features her impress scat soloing, as well as the original compositions featured in part two.
4. Nina Simone
Largely known now as an American jazz singer, Nina Simone was originally a classical piano prodigy.
Combining this influence with the music of blues, gospel and folk, she managed to create a unique sound, delivered with her trademark fire.
As with many singer-pianists, her vocals often took the majority of the limelight, but she continued to accompany herself, with a legendary ability to improvise complex Bach-style counterpoint during her solos.
Songs such as “Mississippi Goddam” (1964) positioned her as a prominent Civil Rights activist, something she maintained throughout the rest of her career.
Recommended Nina Simone recording: Little Girl Blue
Despite her extensive recording history, one song – ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ – has remained her most famous, appearing on countless movies and adverts to this day.
The track appear on her debut album (also known as “Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club“) complete with the trademark descending piano introduction.
The album also features ‘I Loves You Porgy’ (Simone’s first hit) and instrumental tracks alongside Jimmy Bond (bass) and Albert “Tootie” Heath (drums).
Famed for her vibrato-laden sound and her wide vocal range, Sarah Vaughan (aka ‘The Divine One’) started out in the 1940s with big bands led by Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines.
This bebop finishing-school stood her in good stead for a career which featured a mixture of small band jazz recordings (with top-level rhythm sections featuring the likes of Joe Benjamin and Roy Haynes) and large ensemble recordings including a series in the sixties arranged by Quincy Jones, Billy May and Benny Carter.
Sarah Vaughan has “the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field” – Mel Tormé
Recommended Sarah Vaughan album: The Complete Recordings with Clifford Brown
Not just historically significant (Clifford Brown would be killed just a year after this recording), this 1954 album showcases Vaughan and her trumpet colleague at their virtuosic best.
Billie Holiday’s husky voice and fluid treatment of classic melodies has proved highly influential and utterly iconic in the history of jazz vocals.
Her close relationship with saxophonist Lester Young (who nicknamed her ‘Lady Day’) is well-documented on some early 1930s recordings led by pianist Teddy Wilson is some of her best loved, and she also had spells as a jazz singer with big bands led by clarinetist Artie Shaw and pianist Count Basie.
As with others on this list, she used her fame to shine a light on political and racial issues of the day, with her incredibly moving song “Strange Fruit” a classic example.
Holiday’s complex life, including struggles with alcohol and drugs, is well-documented in several fascinating biographies and would lead to her death aged only 44, in 1959.
Recommended Billie Holiday album: Lady in Satin
This album was recorded just one year prior to her passing; something which is evident by the vocal quality which has lost some of its shine.
Despite that, it’s a masterclass in ballad singing: an album full of emotional intensity in front of the lush string arrangements of Ray Ellis.
As with many of the most famous jazz singers of all time, Ella Fitzgerald is a popular figure who transcends the genre.
It’s not difficult to see why: her singing is infused with a real sense of fun bright, both light and breezy whilst at the same time incredibly swinging and technically perfect.
Her first success was during the swing era (check her performance of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket‘ with the Chick Webb Orchestra) before she became a bandleader in her own right.
With a career that stretched right through to the 1980s, she won 13 Grammy Awards and countless plaudits, not least for her Songbook series; a selection of albums released 1956-1964 that shone a light on individual lyricists & songwriters.
Recommended album: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
Accompanied by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, this Ella Fitzgerald album is the only one from her Songbook series which features the composer as a performer too.
Whilst her recording of Marty Paich arrangements, a collab with Louis Armstrong and a Gershwin tribute are all exceptional, the outing with arguably America’s greatest songwriter Duke Ellington is our top pick.
Thanks for reading our run down of some of the best female jazz singers of all time, stretching almost a century years of music history!
Whether you’re a jazz singer looking for inspiration or just a fan of the music, I hope this snapshot of some of the great jazz vocalists has given you some new ideas for your next listening session!
Looking for more jazz?
You’ll find many of these artists on our lists of the 40 best jazz musicians of all time…
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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