Whilst the earliest stars of jazz music were instrumentalists, it wasn’t long before jazz singers took centre stage at the front of the bandstand and became the stars of the day.
We’ve already published our big list of the best jazz vocalists of all time and shone a light on the most famous female jazz singers in history, but what about the male jazz singers specifically? In this article we’ve picked out 15 names – old and new – for you to check out, complete with videos.
15. Johnny Hartman
Whilst not achieving the enduring fame of many singers on this list, Johnny Hartman’s deep baritone can be heard on the 1963 album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” – arguably one of the most fascinating vocal-saxophone sessions of all time and the only one that John Coltrane participated in.
His plain-yet-emotional tone sits perfectly alongside that of John Coltrane in a session that was reportedly made up of single-takes of each track.
The resulting 6-track release is enough to set Hartman’s place in jazz history, alongside McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (double bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) who were that day.
Hartman recorded into the late 70s before his death in 1983 and whilst none achieved the recognition of the Coltrane sessions, albums including The Voice That Is! (1963), I Love Everybody (1966) and I’ve Been There (1973) are recommended additions to any male jazz vocal fan collection.
14. Anthony Strong
Hailed as “England’s new jazz superstar” in his home country, British singer-pianist Anthony Strong’s swaggering vocals and swinging piano style are matched by an energy that have entertained audiences at his live shows around the world.
With an extensive touring history over the last 10 years, he’s played at festivals from The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to Shanghai Jazz Festival in the East.
His albums infuse small group jazz with strings and big band, and a mix of repertoire which ranges from jazz treatment of soul and Motown to standards and original songs.
“Real great music” – BB King
13. Tony Bennett
American jazz singer Tony Bennett has been performing for an unbelievable 70 years, with his first hit (“Because of You” in 1951) selling over 1 million copies.
In a fascinating career, he’s straddled jazz and pop worlds, from his early days singing commercial hits, to his releases in the 2010’s with modern singers such as Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and Christina Aguilera.
But whilst his choice of repertoire has made him a household name outside the jazz world, don’t underestimate the jazz credentials of this NEA Jazz Master; there’s perhaps no one else out there who can swing as hard and phrase as well as as Tony Bennett!
12. Mark Murphy
American jazz vocalist Mark Murphy (born 1932) was an eccentric artist who is perhaps the most underrated jazz singers on this list.
He was a prolific musician whose extraordinary creativity and vocal technique can be heard on around 50 albums, from a discography which runs up until his death in 2015.
His style was born out of bebop (perhaps part of the reason he eluded commercial success) and won legions of jazz fans.
Awards: Best Male Vocalist (Downbeat Magazine) four times between 1997-2001.
11. Al Jarreau
He might be best-known as an R&B or pop singer (his best selling album is Breakin’ Away), but Al Jarreau was a massively influential jazz singer who could scat with the best.
Top of Downbeat Magazine’s ‘Best Male Vocalist’ category every year between 1977 and 1983, he toured relentlessly and was nominated for Grammy’s in 3 separate genres.
Equally at home with smooth jazz as hard-swinging jazz, he has also succeeded in getting many mainstream music fans into jazz – something which should certainly be applauded in our opinion!
10. Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks (1926) was a groundbreaking jazz singer who developed the art of vocalese.
With his comedic wit and distinctive vocal improvisations, his style combined bebop, scat singing, blues music, classical, folk and more.
His performing career covered 8+ decades until his death aged 96 and his considerable back catalogue includes recordings both as a sideman and bandleader.
Perhaps most famously, he was part of the group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross alongside Dave Lambert and Annie Ross
He also appeared alongside fellow jazz legends including Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Manhattan Transfer and Benny Carter.
9. Cab Calloway
The oldest singer on this list, Cab Calloway was born in 1907, starting his career as a singer in Harlem nightclubs.
The son of a preacher, he gained fame for his wild stage performances and quickly became one of the most in-demand jazz artists of the swing era.
Whilst several of his releases achieved huge success, perhaps his most famous song was “Minnie the Moocher” which was covered by artists including Duke Ellington and Bobby Darin.
The big band he led featured up-and-coming stars of the day including Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Hinton.
Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, his 6-decade career got a boost in the 80s when he appeared as himself in a cameo for cult film The Blues Brothers.
8. 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 and he is now arguably the most famous male jazz singer today.
Despite a lifetime of singing, it was two releases on American label Motema label in the early 2010s which brought him to critical acclaim and get signed up by Universal Records’ legendary Blue Note imprint.
His first album for Blue Note – Liquid Spirit – won Best Jazz Vocal at the 2014 Grammy Awards and achieved huge mainstream acclaim and pop chart success internationally.
Gregory Porter has touted extensively in the years since, winning over bigger and bigger audiences with his soulful compositions and sensitive, blues-infused treatment of ballads.
7. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is of course known by many people as a legendary soul singer-pianist with hits such as “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Hit The Road Jack.” He was, though, heavily influenced by the jazz greats who came before him.
Rising to prominence in the late 1950s, he noted fellow singer-pianist Nat King Cole as a big stylistic impact early on in his development.
In the world of jazz, his debut live album was recorded at America’s Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, alongside fellow jazz greats such as Milt Jackson (jazz vibraphone), bassist Oscar Pettiford and guitarist Kenny Burrell.
His career that lasted almost 50 years and “The Genius” (as he came to be known) boasts a discography of more than 500 songs which, soul-hits aside, include renditions of jazz standardssuch as Georgia on My Mind, Stella By Starlight, Willow Weep For Me and It Had To Be You.
6. Chet Baker
The epitome of 50s Cool, singer and trumpeter Chet Baker is one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time.
The young Chet Baker’s west coast aesthetic was first delivered in an innately melodic trumpet style, before being transferred to his voice.
His light, vulnerable vocal sound was nothing like other singers at the time, but this Cool school way of performing Songbook standards became a hit and still appears in many lists of ‘best jazz albums.’
Baker’s vocal ‘scat’ solo on the jazz standard ‘It Could Happen To You’ in 1958 perhaps sums up his talent and appeal best.
It’s simple, pure and romantic, eschewing flashy displays of fast-paced, high-pitched pyrotechnics which categorised many other performers at the time.
5. Mel Tormé
Whilst his smooth, tenor voice saw him named “The Velvet Fog”, Mel Tormé was renowned for an impressive versatility during his career; as well as singing and scatting as well as anyone, he composed songs, arranged music, worked as an actor and author, and played piano and drums.
Without a doubt his most famous work is ‘The Christmas Song (‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’), which was initially made famous by Nat King Cole.
In his early career he led a vocal group called the Mel-Tones, before his solo career took of in the 1950s.
Just as many greats before and since, Mel Tormé attributes some of his success to a famous partnership, working frequently with Marty Paich and his Los Angeles-based Dek-Tette.
Perhaps their most famous was ‘Swings Shubert Alley’ (1960), which includes perhaps the definitive version of ‘Too Close For Comfort’.
Like a number of the great male jazz singers we’ve included in this list, he dabbled with contemporary pop songs in the 60s & 70s, before returning to jazz (for which he is most fondly remembered) in his final decades.
Fun fact: one of his sons, James Tormé is also a jazz singer, keeping the family tradition alive.
4. Kurt Elling
Arguably the finest male jazz singer of the modern age, The Guardian described Chicago-born Kurt Elling as “a kind of Sinatra with superpowers.”
Many fans of the vocal jazz tradition count him as the natural successor of improvising singers like Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks.
With 10 Grammy nominations under his belt, his technical skill and flexibility is coupled with the spirit of a true entertainer.
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.
For a great insight into his mix of entertainment with high-level jazz, check out this tongue-in-cheek version of Pennie’s From Heaven.
It wasn’t long, though, before his smooth, elegant jazz vocal style was discovered and he bent to audience demand to sing more and more.
If you’re looking for some classic early recordings, try Straighten Up and Fly Right’ or ‘Beautiful Moons Ago’.
As is often the case, his rising fame saw the influence of major record labels emerge and he began to record mainly as a jazz singer and was marketed as something of a ballad crooner, complete with lush strings.
“Satchmo” (or “Pops” as he was also known) is of course, above all, a musician and jazz trumpet virtuoso, whose jaw-dropping playing made him arguably the first major jazz soloist in history in 1920s New Orleans.
Alongside this though, he was a brilliant entertainer and is perhaps best known to the wider world as the smiling, gravelly-voiced singer of “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly”, which were released to massive commercial success in the 1960s.
Louis Armstrong is credited with some of the early innovations in scat singing and his series of classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald – including the 1956 outing ‘Ella & Louis’ – are a must-have in any jazz vocal fans’ collection.
Despite the difference in their voices and styles, 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.
Frank Sinatra was one of the most famous performers of the 20th Century and not just in the jazz world; he was a movie star, TV personality and best-selling singer.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that some hardcore jazz enthusiasts argue he shouldn’t be called a jazz singer at all, but Ol’ Blue Eyes swung as hard as anyone, worked with many of the best jazz musicians of the day and contributed a huge amount to the jazz standard repertoire.
His prominent role in bringing jazz music to the masses via a huge collections of hits, makes him an essential part of the music’s history and, of course, to this list of great jazz vocalists!
First finding fame fronting big bands led by Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra 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.
But, in our opinion, all that pales in comparison to his 1966 album ‘Sinatra at the Sands’ which comes live from the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and him on top form, accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra and with brilliant arrangements by Quincy Jones.
Looking for more? Check out our countdown to 20 Frank Sinatra hit songs.
So that’s it!
Our pick of the best male jazz singers of all time.
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 male jazz vocalists has given you some new ideas for your next listening session or shopping trip!
Looking for more jazz? You’ll find many of these men on our lists of the 50 best jazz albums of all time…