When it comes to ‘essential listening’ lists, many of the best jazz singers of all time are omitted in favour of instrumentalists.
We’ve decided to put that right with this snapshot of 26 of the most important jazz vocalists in history, taking you from the early 1930’s through to the modern day.
If you enjoy this one, check the link at the end of the article to the specific male and female singer lists we’ve published too!
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 this 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.
So here’s our countdown, in reverse order, of some of jazz’s best singers ever.
26. Sheila Jordan
Born in Detroit in 1928, Sheila Jordan was influenced early on by the bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, whose pianist Duke Jordan she married in the 1950s on moving to New York.
This fascination with instrumentalists (as opposed to other singers) is evident in her intricate, scat-infused performances. Studies with Cool School great Lennie Tristano added another layer of harmonic and rhythmic complexity to her work, which has spanned more than 7 decades (and counting!).
Recommended album: Portrait of Sheila
Sheila Jordan’s 1963 debut on Blue Note Records was perhaps a fitting release for a label who, until that point, had not released much in the way of vocal jazz.
The opening track “Falling in Love with Love” showcases just why Charlie Parker reportedly billed her as “the lady with the million dollar ears.”
25. Julie London
The epitome of 1950s cool, Julie London initially found fame as an actress, before her sultry vocals found their way onto more than 30 albums, including that famous rendition of Cry Me A River.
‘Discovered’ whilst performing at a Los Angeles jazz club, she was signed to Liberty Records whose founder Simon Waronker remarked how “the lyrics poured out of her like a hurt bird.”
Whilst she covered a range of standard jazz repertoire, she really made her mark singing sentimental ballads or so-called ‘Torch Songs.’
Recommended album: Julie Is Her Name
How’s this for a good start: The first track on her 1955 debut album Julie Is Her Name is Cry Me A River which went on to be the biggest song of her career!
Alongside this, it’s a great way to hear her sweet vocals on a range of classic songs such as “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “No Moon At All.”
24. Mark Murphy
Born in 1932, American jazz singer Mark Murphy was an eccentric character who, despite his extraordinary vocal skill and creativity, is perhaps the most underrated jazz artist on this list.
Murphy was a prolific musician who recorded around 50 albums in a career that only ended, with his passing, in 2015.
His style – which often eluded commercial success but won legions of die-hard fans – came out of the intricacies of bebop, but went much further; heart-wrenching ballads, extended vocal technique and a constant searching which saw experimentations with Brazilian music and acid jazz.
Downbeat magazine named him Best Male Vocalist four times between 1997-2001.
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.
A stalwart of the contemporary jazz scene, she tours and records heavily with her group (usually featuring the Aaron Diehl Trio) and 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.
22. Al Jarreau
Whilst remembered by some as a R&B or pop singer thanks to his best-selling album Breakin’ Away, Al Jarreau was a highly influential jazz vocalist who was just at home scatting as he was delivering a tender classic.
A prolific touring and recording artist, he was top of the Best Male Vocalist category in DownBeat’s Readers Poll every year between 1977-1983, as well as being nominated for Grammy’s in three separate genres.
Equally at home on a smooth jazz compilation as a swinging jazz album, he has also succeeded in bringing many causal music fans into the jazz arena.
21. Anita O’Day
Anita O’Day began singing professionally in 1938 with Bob Crosby’s big band, followed by a gig with Benny Goodman.
A self-styled ‘hip’ singer, her precise, percussive delivery of jazz classics redefined the role of female big band singers.
She left Goodman to form her own trio in 1942, which she led for ten years before forming another group called Anita O’Day & Her All-Stars that toured three continents.
Infusing her performances of both cool jazz and bebop, she led her own groups again until 1964 when she retired from touring after being diagnosed with cancer at just 39 years of age.
20. Shirley Horn
Singer-pianist Shirley Horn never attained the fame of other jazz singers like Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald but, over the course of several decades, became one of the most respected artists of her generation and a firm favourite within the industry.
She reportedly practiced hours every day to perfect her skills as a vocalist and collaborated with many of the jazz greats including Miles Davis (on his album “The Man With The Horn”), Dizzy Gillespie and Toots Thielemans.
Her voice has been described as “sweet” and “velvety,” which perfectly exemplifies her personality both on and off stage.
19. Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks was a pioneering jazz vocalist who developed the art of vocalese.
Known for his comedic wit and vocal improvisation, his style combined scat singing, bebop, blues, classical music, folk lyrics from Appalachia and beyond into an innovative form.
Born in 1926, his performing career has lasted more than 8 decades until his death aged 96 and left behind a huge discography both as a bandleader and sideman. Some notable work includes his time as part of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and alongside artists including Dave Brubeck, Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk, Manhattan Transfer and Wynton Marsalis.
18. Cab Calloway
Born in 1907 as the son of a preacher, Cab Calloway started his career as a singer in Harlem nightclubs, gaining fame for his wild stage performances.
He quickly became one of the most popular performers of the swing era, achieving huge success with songs including “Minnie the Moocher”, “Old Man Mose” and “Hi De Ho”.
As a bandleader, his big band featured young stars of the future including Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster and Milt Hinton and he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
His career – which lasted more than 6 decades – got a boost in the 80s when he was featured in cult film The Blues Brothers, reaching a mainstream audience with his performance.
17. Dinah Washington
American jazz singer Dinah Washington’s voice will be forever immortalised by that classic version of Unforgettable, which has gone on to be one of the most recorded songs of all time.
But aside from this stunning performance, she won fans for her powerful mezzo-soprano voice which incorporated everything from jazz and blues to soul, R&B and gospel music.
In a career which spanned from 1939-1963, the self-titled ‘Queen of the Blues’ recorded and toured extensively, achieving top ten hits for an array of singles.
16. Gregory Porter
Born in 1971 in California, Gregory Porter’s deep, golden voice saw him achieve a rapid rise to success in his early 40s to his current position on the A-list of the jazz world.
Despite singing all his life, it was two albums in quick succession with the Motema label in 2010 & 2012 which saw him reach critical acclaim and get snapped up by legendary label Blue Note Records.
The resulting disc – Liquid Spirit – won the 2014 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal and achieved huge mainstream success internationally, including in the UK where it reached the top 10 of the pop music charts.
As one of the premier male jazz singers of the modern era, Porter has touted extensively in the years since, winning over audiences with his feel-good compositions and sensitive treatment of ballads.
15. Ray Charles
Whilst perhaps known primarily by the wider public as a Soul singer for hits such as “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Hit The Road Jack,” Ray Charles was heavily influenced by the jazz greats who came before him.
Emerging in the late 1950s, he cited fellow singe and jazz pianist Nat King Cole as having a big impact on his early style.
On the jazz scene specifically, he made his debut live album at the legendary Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 and recorded with fellow luminaries such as Oscar Pettiford, Milt Jackson and guitarist Kenny Burrell.
Through a career that lasted almost half a century, “The Genius” (as he came to be known) recorded more than 500 songs, including 48 Billboard charting singles.
Just a handful of the jazz standards he recorded include Stella By Starlight, Georgia on My Mind, It Had To Be You and Willow Weep For Me.
14. Blossom Dearie
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.
13. Carmen McRae
Born in 1920 as daughter of Canadian jazz vocalist Jimmy McRae, Carmen McRae went on to become one of the most influential singers of all time.
Whilst her early fascination with Billie Holiday shaped her approach, she developed her own unique style characterised by her complex yet melodic interpretations of jazz standards.
A prolific recording artist, her rich voice can be heard in a wide range of settings, including with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Count Basie.
As a solo artist, she released various critically acclaimed albums paying tribute to fellow jazz musicians including Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.
12. Bessie Smith
Hailed as “The Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith was born way back in 1894 and became one of the popular singers of the 1920s and 1930s.
Emerging at a time when recordings were made acoustically, her deep, powerful voice is considered one of the most expressive of all time.
She recorded with fellow greats of the time, including Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong and many of her own songs – such as “Jail House Blues” and “Work House Blues” – are considered now to be early examples of protest songs.
Though her life was cut short aged 43 by a car accident, Bessie Smith paved the way for many other African American women in entertainment and has been cited as a musical influence of a huge range of artists including Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and even Janis Joplin.
11. Chet Baker
One of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, Chet Baker was an iconic cool jazz trumpeter and singer.
Encapsulating the ‘West Coast’ aesthetic, the young Chet Baker possessed a seemingly innate melodic ability on the trumpet – something he effortlessly transferred to his vocals.
Chet’s debut vocal album in 1954, aged 25, divided critical opinion at the time. His light, vulnerable vocal sound was a total departure from other singers of the era but this Cool treatment of Songbook standards became a fan favourite and still finds its way onto ‘greatest jazz albums’ lists to this day.
It’s perhaps his vocal ‘scat’ solo on the standard ‘It Could Happen To You’ from 1958 which sums up his talent and appeal best; Chet simply plays what he hears in his ‘mind’s ear.’ He avoids showy displays of technique, in favour of pure, romantic mid-register melody.
10. Betty Carter
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.
9. Mel Tormé
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’.
8. Kurt Elling
Arguably the finest male jazz singer of the modern age, The Guardian described Kurt Elling as “a kind of Sinatra with superpowers.”
Many fans of the vocal jazz tradition count the Chicago-born baritone Kurt Elling as the natural successor of improvising singers like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks.
Taking inspiration from leading horn players as much as singers, his technical skill and flexibility is coupled with the spirit of a true entertainer.
With 10 Grammy nominations under his belt, Elling was hailed by The New York Times as “the standout male jazz vocalist of our time” and is just at ease performing classic songs as he is with vocalese, scat singing and modern jazz stylings.
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.
6. Nina Simone
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.
“Satchmo” (or “Pops” as he was sometimes known) was first and foremost a jazz musician and virtuoso trumpeter, whose jaw-dropping improvisational, technical and rhythmic prowess made him the first major jazz soloist when he emerged in the 1920s.
But, alongside this, he was a consummate entertainer and is perhaps best known to the general public as the grinning, gravelly-voiced singer of “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly”, two popular hits from the 1960s.
He is credited with some of the early innovations in scat singing and made a series of classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald.
Above all, he put jazz singing on the map as the popular music of the era with style and originality!
Recommend Louis Armstrong album: Ella & Louis
In 1956 Armstrong teamed up with “The First Lady of Song” to recorded a gloriously accessible album of hard-swinging jazz songs.
The pair are almost opposites as vocalists: Armstrong’s voice is earthy and deep; Ella Fitzgerald’s tone is light and clean. Despite this, they complement each other perfectly, with their sunny personalities shining brightly.
It’s been described as the perfect jazz ‘gateway’ for newcomers to the genre, but these are two singers with enough timeless quality that it also bears repeated listens for seasoned jazz fans.
“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.
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.
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.
His contribution to the popularisation of the music makes him an essential part of jazz history and, of course, to this list of great jazz vocalists!
Sinatra 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 album features some of the most famous Frank Sinatra songs including ‘Come Fly With Me‘, ‘Luck Be A Lady‘ and ‘One For My Baby‘.
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.
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’).
So that’s it! Our pick of the best jazz singers of all time, stretching almost 100 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!