When it comes to ‘essential listening’ lists, many of the best jazz singers are omitted in favour of instrumentalists. We wanted to use this article to provide a snapshot of some of the most important jazz vocalists in history, taking you from the early 1930’s through to the modern day.
There can be something uniquely captivating in hearing someone’s actual voice, without the filter of an instrument. It can somehow feel more exposed, a more direct look at the meaning of the music.
This is partly because we also get to hear the lyrics of the song, which is obviously not the case in instrumental music.
But whichever way you look at it, jazz singers have played a long and important role in the history of the music.
Blues vocalists like Bessie Smith had to be heard over the band without any amplification, before the popularisation of the microphone in the 1920s allowed to singers to perform in a more relaxed fashion, even over a powerful big band.
Some singers like to emulate jazz instrumentalists, taking improvised ‘scat’ solos, whilst others prefer to just focus on their interpretation of the melody and words.
Vocalese – where lyrics are put to an existing jazz solo – is another major style.
So, here’s our rundown, in approximately chronological order, of some of jazz’s best singers. Let us know if we’ve missed out your favourites in the comments below!
Table of Contents
Rarely singing the melody straight, Holiday’s husky voice has proved highly influential and utterly iconic.
Her 1930s work with the pianist Teddy Wilson is some of her best loved, and particularly the tracks (like ‘All of Me’, ‘Foolin’ Myself’ and ‘This Year’s Kisses’) that find her accompanied by Lester Young on tenor saxophone. The pair had a special bond: he nicknamed her “Lady Day” and she called him “Prez”.
She also had stints as a jazz singer with big bands led by Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
One of her most famous and moving recordings is ‘Strange Fruit’, which is based on a poem about a racist lynching. Holiday had a difficult and complex life: after a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood she struggled with drug and alcohol problems until her death, aged just 44, in 1959.
Key Billie Holiday album: Lady in Satin
Recorded the year before her death, Holiday’s voice was not in the best shape by the time she made Lady in Satin, and she had lost the top of her vocal range.
But, against the lush backdrop of Ray Ellis’ orchestral arrangements, she gives a performance of remarkable emotional intensity on a programme of beautiful ballads.
Fitzgerald is a popular figure who transcends jazz, and it’s not hard to see why: her singing is bright, breezy, incredibly swinging, with perfect time and intonation and a real sense of fun.
After first finding fame in the swing era with the Chick Webb Orchestra – “A-Tisket, A-Tasket was her first major hit” – she became a star bandleader herself, recording and performing extensively until the late 1980s and winning 13 Grammy Awards along the way.
One of her greatest achievements is her Song Book series, a selection of albums released between 1956 and 1964 that took detailed looks at individual songwriters and lyricists.
Her 1945 recording of ‘Flying Home’ is a landmark in jazz scat singing.
For anyone looking to learn more, A biography of the First Lady of Jazz by Stuart Nicholson comes highly recommended.
Key recording: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
With the singer accompanied by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, this is the only album in the Song Book series where the composer is also featured as a performer.
There are dozens of other classic Fitzgerald albums, including Ella Swings Lightly (with arrangements by Marty Paich), Ella and Louis (her famous collaboration with Louis Armstrong), Ella Sings Gershwin (a duo set with the pianist Ellis Larkins) and Ella in Berlin (a live album with her famous rendition of ‘Mack The Knife’).
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole began his career as a highly rated pianist, leading a popular trio with guitar (usually played by Oscar Moore) and double bass.
However, word soon began to spread about his smooth, elegant jazz vocal style, as audiences begged to hear him sing more and more. Classic early recordings include ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and ‘Beautiful Moons Ago’.
As his fame grew, he began to record primarily as a jazz singer, with large-scale studio albums often arranged by Gordon Jenkins, as Cole was marketed as something of a ballad crooner.
In the 1950s he presented The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show, one of the first variety shows to be hosted by an African American.
Key Nat King Cole album: Love is the Thing
The first of the four albums that Cole would make with arranger Gordon Jenkins features mostly ballads and includes a classic version of ‘Stardust’.
To hear his excellent jazz piano playing, try the 1946 session with Lester Young and Buddy Rich, and the album Penthouse Serenade. The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio features his classic early small group work, with Nat on vocals and at the piano.
As one of the most popular artists of the 20th Century, a movie star and one of the best selling musicians of all time, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some hardcore fans debate whether Frank Sinatra should be called a jazz singer at all.
But Ol’ Blue Eyes certainly swung, performed with some of the best jazz musicians of his time and contributed to the jazz standard repertoire, so we felt he was an essential addition to this list of the great jazz vocalists.
He first found fame fronting big bands led by Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, becoming a huge heartthrob.
He released a number of albums with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, including the mournful In The Wee Small Hours, which has been called one of the first concept albums, and Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, which is considered one of his best.
Key recording: Sinatra at the Sands
This 1966 live album from the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas sees Sinatra on typical relaxed form. He is accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra, with brilliant arrangements by Quincy Jones.
“The Divine One”, as she was known, was famed for her operatic, vibrato-laden sound and her wide vocal range. In her early career in the mid-1940s she was featured in big bands led by Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, both of which were famed breeding grounds for the bebop style that was becoming prominent at the time.
Mel Tormé said that she had “the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.”
Sarah Vaughan made a mixture of small group jazz recordings – often accompanied by excellent rhythm sections with the likes of Roy Haynes and Joe Benjamin – and larger scale albums, including a run of sessions in the 1960s that feature arrangers like Billy May, Quincy Jones and Benny Carter.
The biography, Queen of Bebop by Elaine M. Hayes (which we reviewed here) gives some great insight into this legendary jazz singer.
Essential Sarah Vaughan listening: The Complete Recordings with Clifford Brown
Trumpeter Clifford Brown would tragically be killed in a car crash the year after this classic recording was made in 1954.
Originally issued simply as Sarah Vaughan, it features the both the trumpeter and singer sounding brilliantly virtuosic.
Nina Simone was something of a prodigy as a classical pianist, and she combined a classical influence with the sounds of gospel, blues and folk to create a unique musical palette.
Like Nat King Cole, her soulful singing became as popular as her instrumental work, but she continued to accompany herself at the piano, and was noted for her ability to improvise complex Bach-style counterpoint as part of her solos.
She was a prominent Civil Rights activist, recording a number of protest songs from the 1960s onwards, like ‘Mississippi Goddam”.
Recommended Nina Simone recording: Little Girl Blue
Simone’s debut (also sometimes titled Jazz As Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club) includes her best-known song, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, with that distinctive descending piano introduction.
It also includes ‘I Loves You Porgy’, which gave Simone her first hit, as well as three instrumental numbers, with Jimmy Bond on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.
Nicknamed “The Velvet Fog” for his smooth, high tenor voice, Tormé was renowned for his versatility: in addition to singing and scatting brilliantly, he composed, arranged, acted, wrote books and played drums and piano.
His best-known composition is ‘The Christmas Song (‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’), which was initially made famous by Nat King Cole.
During the 1940s Tormé led and arranged for a vocal group called the Mel-Tones, before going solo in the 1950s.
Just as Frank Sinatra found his ideal arranger in Nelson Riddle, Mel Tormé enjoyed a special working relationship with Marty Paich, with Paich’s L.A.-based Dek-Tette accompanying him on string of excellent albums.
Like a number of great jazz singers on this list, he released covers of contemporary pop songs in the 1960s and ‘70s, before returning to more familiar ground in his final few decades, and it is his jazz singing for which he is most fondly remembered.
Recommended Mel Tormé album: Swings Shubert Alley
This 1960 album, one of the most acclaimed Paich-Tormé collaborations, features a great selection of standards, including perhaps the definitive version of ‘Too Close For Comfort’.
Dearie had a highly distinctive light, girlish voice.
She sang songs in both English and French, having moved to Paris from her native New York as a young woman, before subsequently returning to the United States.
Her later work saw her interpreting witty numbers by Dave Frishberg – tunes like “I’m Hip”, “My Attorney Bernie” and “Peel Me a Grape” – as well as writing songs herself, as she was often heard in Greenwich Village cabaret clubs.
She also played the piano, accompanying herself as part of the rhythm section on most of her records.
Key recording: Soubrette: Blossom Dearie Sings Broadway Hit Songs
With a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Russell Garcia, this features one of Dearie’s most famous recordings, the amusing “Rhode Island Is Famous For You”.
To hear her singing in a more relaxed small group setting, try My Gentleman Friend.
After initial work with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Carter’s first major gig was fronting Lionel Hampton’s band, although her insistence on in improvising and preference for bebop caused friction between her and the swing vibraphonist.
As she became known for her wild jazz scatting and adventurous interpretations of melodies, Miles Davis (who we featured here) recommended her to Ray Charles, with whom she recorded an album of duets in 1961.
As the ‘60s wore on she struggled for work, remaining steadfast in her devotion to acoustic jazz whilst others abandoned ship, but she received renewed critical acclaim from the late 1970s and ‘80s.
A keen advocate for jazz education, she often hired young musicians, with players like Mulgrew Miller, John Hicks and Benny Green all coming through her ranks.
Key Album: The Audience With Betty Carter
Better Carter started her own record label at a time when this was highly unusual, and this live double album was issued Bet-Car Records in 1980.
She takes a highly impressive scat solo on the 25-minute opening track, whilst the second half of the record features more of her original compositions.
Carter’s early work is more conventional, but this is a fantastic example of her mature period.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Cecile McLorin Salvant shot to fame in the early 2010s when she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and recorded that video of ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ – Live at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York.
She’s won plaudits for her remarkable stage presence and a sound that is influenced by Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
Her repertoire typically mixes lesser known jazz standards, French songs (she is American but French is her first language), early blues numbers and original compositions.
The Aaron Diehl Trio accompanies McLorin Salvant on a number of her records, and she also has a duo project with the pianist Sullivan Fortner.
Key Cécile McLorin Salvan album: Dreams and Daggers
This 2016 album contains a mixture of live takes from the Village Vanguard – featuring an excellent rhythm section of Aaron Diehl, Paul Sikivie and Lawrence Leathers – and studio tracks with a string quartet.
Bob Dorough’s ‘Nothing Like You’ is a real highlight.
So 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 was interesting.
Of course, there are loads of others that we could have included. Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Kurt Elling, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington, to name just a few…
Feel free to add your recommendations and suggestions in the comments section as we’ll be updating this list of great jazz singers very soon.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!