Introducing the best female jazz singers of all time – from greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to some of the genre’s best-kept secrets.
To compile this list, we’ve looked at accolades such as award wins, record sales, and the consensus of music industry critics over the years. All these women have made their mark on the world of jazz either during the genre’s golden age, in contemporary music, or somewhere in-between.
Let’s dive in and learn more about these world-changing female jazz singers.
Ella Fitzgerald is the first name you think of when someone mentions outstanding female jazz singers. Dubbed ‘The First Lady of Song,’ Fitzgerald had an extensive career that ran into the late 80s, earning 13 Grammy Awards, and setting the standard for future jazz artists. She is known for her flawless diction, her silky tone, and her incredible ability to improvise using her scatting skills.
Ella Fitzgerald began her singing career in the late 30s in Chick Webb’s band and afterwards, teamed up with producer Norman Granz to establish herself as a solo artist in the 50s. Her first major hit was ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket,’ and later had hits such as ‘Summertime’ and ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me.’
One of the most influential jazz singers of all time, and undoubtedly one of the best female jazz singers to ever live.
Billie Holiday is an artist that manages to convey her tragedies through her voice. Being a child prostitute and spending time in prison, Holiday created poignant records with vocals that hit you with her pain and sadness. Her unique husky tone established her as an important singer of the era and became a big influence on younger jazz musicians.
Billie Holiday got her start in the big-band era and was nicknamed “Lady Day” by Lester Young, her producer and friend. Holiday was a pioneer of manipulating tempo, and was known for her improvisation and rarely singing the melody straight.
As a young piano prodigy, Nina Simone originally dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. However, after being deterred by the racism she witnessed, she reinvented herself as a nightclub singer. Her elusive husky style made everything sound personal and mysterious, and her ability to accompany herself on the keys made her a brilliant act to see.
Many of her songs from the 60s onwards were part of her civil rights activism, an important part of Simone’s life. Her debut album includes her hit song ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me,’ a distinctive melody that features an iconic piano line, courtesy of Simone herself.
Nicknamed ‘The Divine One,’ New Jersey born Sarah Vaughan had an astounding four-octave singing voice. Her feathery and acrobatic voice was decorated with a vibrato so delicate that Mel Tormé claimed she had ‘the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.’
Vaughan got her first break in the 1940s singing in Earl Hines’ big band. She was able to perform in small group jazz recordings as well as producing huge scale albums. Her impressive career saw her win the NEA Jazz Master Award, as well as four Grammys including the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although many regarded her as ‘Queen of the Blues,’ Dinah Washington’s forte was jazz. This dynamic singer had a mezzo-soprano voice and incorporated elements of soul, R&B, and gospel into her music. As well as being extremely versatile in terms of genre, she also had perfect enunciation and a sharp delivery.
After getting her start by winning a talent competition at just 15, Washington began singing in clubs across Chicago. Her song ‘Unforgettable’ is one of the most recorded songs of all time and has immortalised her as one of the best and most influential female jazz singers. She won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance.
Born in North Dakota, Peggy Lee began as a vocalist on local radio and first made waves in the swing era with Benny Goodman’s band. She is known for her elegant and alluring voice that’s so crystal clear and melodic it can be recognised by a single note.
Her most famous record, ‘Fever’ is one of the most recognisable jazz songs of all time, and is still being covered today, most notably, in recent times, by Billie Eilish. Over the course of her career, she was nominated for 13 Grammy Awards and won one for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance.
Bessie Smith, born in Tennessee, is the only singer on this list to be born in the 19th century. Famous for her immensely powerful voice, especially her low notes, Smith was nicknamed ‘The Empress of the Blues’ in the 1920s.
Smith recorded with big players in her field including Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. This allowed her to become the highest paid African-American entertainer at the time, and her voice is considered one of the most expressive of all time. Now, her music is remembered for its connection with early protest songs, reflecting the attitudes of the time.
Daughter of jazz vocalist Jimmy McRae, Carmen McRae was born in Harlem, New York and was immediately wrapped up in music, beginning her studies at just age 8. McRae got her start playing piano in clubs in New York City as a teenager and in her early 20s.
Heavily inspired by Billie Holiday, McRae took jazz standards and created intricate tweaks to create her own unique style. In the 50s, she got her first recording contract and soon was named the best female vocalist in 1954. She produced her own albums but also recorded with Louis Armstrong and performed at multiple jazz festivals throughout her career.
Born in Michigan and later brought up in Detroit, Bessie Carter is known for her technical scatting ability – something that would cause problems when she fronted Lionel Hampton’s big band, her first major gig.
Carter’s seductive, subtly expressive delivery made her interesting to Miles Davis. Later, Davis would recommend her to Ray Charles with whom she recorded an album of duets with in 1961.Despite the collaboration, her fame was rocky in the 60s. She found a new wave of approval in the 70s and 80s where people found their appreciation of her singing style.
Blossom Dearie was born in New York and later moved to Paris. She had a distinguishable ‘girly’ voice that had a delicate timber and light quality. On her records she sang in both English and French and could faultlessly accompany herself on the piano.
Dearie first made her name in ‘The Blue Stars,’ a vocal group she was part of in Paris in the 1950s. Not just a vocalist and pianist, she was also a prolific songwriter and in the 1970s, she started her own record label ‘Daffodil.’ She regularly performed in London and New York and collaborated with many other jazz singers and musicians.
Born in Washington DC, Shirley Horn never attained the high levels of fame that she deserved. However, she became a very well respected performer of her generation. Horn had a sweet yet sultry voice that was both velvety and smokey.
A dedicated artist, Horn practised hard to perfect her skills working for hours every day. She led a jazz trio from the age of 20 and was noticed by Miles Davis who, in 1960, praised her for her musical ability.
Although her career was humble at first, she gained more notoriety in the 80s, releasing albums more consistently, including live recordings. In the end, she was nominated for an impressive 9 Grammys in her career.
Despite being unfairly dubbed ‘The Jezebel of Jazz’ by disapproving newspapers, Anita O’Day had a precise, strong, and faultless vocal delivery that redefined female big band singers. Throughout her career she worked with many renowned jazz musicians including Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Sean Kenton.
She began singing professionally in 1938 with Bob Crosby’s band and then soon formed her own trio in 1942 which she was a part of for 10 years. She was also part of ‘Anita O’Day and Her All-Stars’ who toured three continents, pleasing audiences with their cool jazz rhythms and bebop phrasing.
Julie London was a woman of many talents. Born in sunny California, she was the epitome of ‘50s cool’ and was an artist, singer, and model. London has sold over 3 million copies of her famous rendition of ‘Cry Me a River,’ and her vocals have appeared on 30 albums.
She initially found fame as an actress but thanks to her sultry vocals, she established herself as a singer after she got discovered while performing at a local club. London was known for her ability to make the listener feel like she was the only one in the room with them and could convey great intimacy through her timbre.
Somewhat of a musical marvel, Esperanza Spalding taught herself the violin and joined an orchestra at just age 5. Coming from a multiethnic household, Spalding was exposed to multiple genres of music, ultimately focusing on jazz. She attended Berklee College of Music and became their youngest ever teacher at age 20.
She began releasing albums in 2006 with her third album Chamber Music Society becoming a commercial success, charting at No. 34 on the Billboard 200. She has won 4 Grammys including Best New Artist, making her the first jazz artist to win this award. She also has a Boston Music Award and a Soul Train Music Award.
Diana Krall is known for her low vocal range, and began performing regularly in restaurants at the age of 15. Billboard magazine named her the second greatest jazz artist of the noughties and she is the only jazz singer to have had eight albums debut at the top of the Billboard Jazz Album chart, making her one of the best selling artists of her time.
Accompanying herself on piano which she learnt at just four years old, she has recorded more than 12 albums of which she’s sold over 15 million copies. She has won three Grammys and has also earned nine gold, three platinum and seven multi-platinum albums.
Texas born June Christie was a pioneer of the ‘cool jazz’ movement. Best known for her debut album Something Cool, the record was important in the launch of the cool jazz movement, growing in popularity in the states after World War II.This subgenre is known for its more relaxed tempos and lighter tone, in contrast to bebop that was popular at the time.
June Christie made her start in the big band swing era and, after replacing Anita O’Day in Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, went on to make her first solo record in 1947. She had a silky smooth voice decorated with a subtle vibrato and experimental phrasing.
Helen Merrill was born in New York to Croatian parents. With a ‘voice like honey,’ Merrill started singing professionally in her teenage years. In the 50s she sang with band leader Earl Hines and soon broke away as a successful solo artist. Her debut album, the self-titled Helen Merrill, became an immediate success allowing Merrill to tour and record further in both Europe and Japan.
Merrill was part of the first generation of bebop, known for her emotional performances and delightfully smooth vocals. Although fading slightly into obscurity in the United States in the 60s, she later established herself as a performer and regained popularity.
Dee Dee Bridgewater
Thanks to her trumpeter father, Dee Dee Bridgewater was exposed to jazz early, helping her to become one of the best female jazz singers of the 90s with multiple acclaimed albums.
Bridgewater started her singing career at just 16, performing in clubs in her home state of Michigan. In the early 1970s, Bridgewater joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra as lead vocalist marking the start of her major successes.
Dee Dee Bridgewater has three Grammys, two of which include the award for ‘Best Jazz Vocal Performance,’ and ‘Best Jazz Vocal Album,’ which she won for her album ‘Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee.’
Abbey Lincoln, born in Michigan, is best known for the political activism found within her records. The bulk of her work throughout the 60s reflects this and is especially prevalent in Max Roach’s civil rights album ‘We Insist!’ of which Lincoln performed on all five tracks.
Upon its release, ‘We Insist!’ wasn’t well-received with critics claiming it to be too controversial. However, it is now considered a pivotal album for the time and genre. Lincoln is known for her robust, intense voice that featured both classic jazz stylings as well as frequenting a more avant-garde flavour.
With a career that lasted more than six decades, with 4 Grammy Award nominations, and with over 30 albums recorded, Ernestine Anderson is sometimes described as one of jazz’s ‘best kept secrets.’
After moving to Seattle in 1944, this husky vocalist got her big break as a teenager playing in big bands that would later feature names such as Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. When Anderson was 18, she toured with Johnny Otis’ band and then in 1952, toured again with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra before laying roots in New York City.
Her legacy remains as one that broke down the boundaries of genres, and her contribution to music places her firmly amongst the best female jazz singers of all time.
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