The jazz world has been renowned for producing a steady stream of super-talented virtuoso musicians – namely saxophonists, trumpeters, pianists, guitarists, and drummers – but it has also given us wonderful exponents of what is arguably the oldest and most personal musical instrument of them all: the human voice. With such an overwhelming amount of talent to consider, that makes it nigh-on impossible to compile a list of the 50 best jazz singers of all time.
There have been an array of different – and some very singular – voices in jazz’s long and storied history, and all of them jostle for position among the best jazz singers of all time – from big, loud, robust ones, such as the blues-influenced shouters Bessie Smith, Joe Williams, and Jimmy Rushing, right down to delicate and refined songbirds, vividly exemplified by Blossom Dearie’s girlish pipes. And in between those two extremes you’ll find vocal gymnasts – Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, and Bobby McFerrin spring to mind – alongside golden-voiced balladeers whose calling-card is a smouldering sensuality (think Peggy Lee, Julie London, Johnny Hartman, Chet Baker, Chris Connor and Cassandra Wilson). There were some singers, such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole and Mark Murphy, who were multi-disciplined and could combine a vibrant athleticism with a silky, lush delivery, so that they were adept at both uptempo material and ballads. And then there are those haunted souls – namely Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Anita O’Day – whose troubled personal lives imbued their performances with a poignant emotional dimension that had a cathartic effect on their listeners.
So jazz, as the following list of the 50 best jazz singers of all time confirms, has produced a welter of wonderful and contrasting voices, both male and female, over the years. All of them are unique in their own way, and many have contributed greatly to the development of an art form that continues to evolve and which is being kept alive today by the emergence of new young stars such as Cecile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn, who, in just a few years’ time, will probably find themselves placed on a list such as this.
Without further ado, here’s our countdown of the 50 best jazz singers of all time…
50: Jackie Paris (1924-2004)
A child tap dancer born into a musical Italian-American family from New Jersey, Carlo Jackie Paris started his music career leading a jazz trio in which he played guitar and sang. He toured with Charlie Parker in the early 50s, a decade in which he recorded several albums and won a clutch of awards. Paris’ career tailed off dramatically from 1962, but he made a comeback just before his death. Charles Mingus once described this underrated and largely forgotten musician as his favourite singer.
49: Madeleine Peyroux (born 1974)
Originally from Athens, Georgia, Peyroux’s relocation to Paris, France, as a teenager, where she busked as a street musician singing and playing guitar, helped to shape her distinctive brand of bohemian-esque retro jazz. There are perceptible echoes of Billie Holiday in Peyroux’s phrasing and tone, but via a series of consistently fine albums she has patented her own singular style.
48: Mose Allison (1927-2016)
A noted singer-songwriter from Tippo, Mississippi, Allison found a unique niche for himself in the jazz world with his often witty and elegantly wrought tunes infused with a piquant blues flavour. Though no vocal gymnast, Allison’s voice was light in tone, conversational in its approach and, with its southern lilt, stands out from the crowd enough to earn its place among the best jazz singers.
47: Dakota Staton (1930-2007)
After winning DownBeat magazine’s Most Promising Newcomer accolade in 1955, this Pennsylvanian chanteuse signed to Capitol Records and lived up to her early promise by delivering a classic LP in 1957, The Late, Late Show, which made the Top 5 of the US Pop charts. Though her declamatory, athletic style, with its clear enunciation, is indebted to Dinah Washington, Staton forged her own signature sound.
46: Cab Calloway (1907-1994)
One of the originators of scat singing, this charismatic, flamboyant bandleader from Rochester, New York, is best remembered for his classic 1931 song ‘Minnie The Moocher’. In its chart-topping wake there followed a slew of further swing-driven hits characterised by humorous lyrics peppered with witty wordplay and hip street argot.
45: Helen Humes (1913-1981)
Starting out singing gospel music in her local church in Louisville, Kentucky, lithe-voiced Humes was precociously talented and made her first recordings when she was 14. She recorded with Harry James before Count Basie spotted her singing in Cincinnati’s Cotton Club venue in 1937, while seeking a replacement for a departing Billie Holiday. Humes also recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vibraphonist Red Norvo.
44: Leon Thomas (1937-1999)
From Miles Davis’ hometown of East St Louis, Illinois, Thomas was steeped in the blues but, uniquely among this list of the best jazz singers, went on to be part of the avant-garde vanguard. He cultivated an unusual and idiosyncratic vocal style in the 60s, defined by yodeling and tremulous ululations. Though he recorded first with Count Basie, Thomas is best known for his work with Pharoah Sanders, and also recorded with Santana.
43: Cassandra Wilson (born 1955)
With her sultry, smoky-hued voice, Mississippi-born Wilson started her career as part of saxophonist Steve Coleman’s experimental M-Base collective in the 80s, but really blossomed when she signed with Blue Note in 1993, where her unique style and striking reconfigurations of classic rock and pop songs took her music to a wider audience.
42: Andy Bey (born 1939)
Still recording today, New Jersey’s Bey is an original voice in jazz – John Coltrane once called him his favourite singer – who has ploughed his own unique furrow over five decades. Though nominally a lush, resonant-voiced baritone, Bey’s voice is said to extend four octaves in range. Among those he’s collaborated with are Max Roach, Gary Bartz, Stanley Clarke and Horace Silver.
41: Etta Jones (1928-2001)
Hailing from South Carolina, this southern song siren, who had a hint of Billie Holiday in her slightly nasal tone, cut her first record as a 16-year-old in 1944, but it wasn’t until 1957 when she released her first LP. Adept at performing both swinging uptempo material and ballads, Jones was a versatile vocalist whose most commercially successful offering was her 1960 Prestige album, Don’t Go To Strangers, whose title track was a pop and R&B hit.
40: Gregory Porter (born 1971)
Though something of a late developer – he’s still only five albums into his career – this Californian jazz cat in a cap is already on his way to becoming one of jazz’s greatest ever vocalists. A self-sufficient singer-songwriter who’s also comfortable with, but never reliant on, The Great American Songbook, Porter possesses a distinctive voice that has been reared on a diet of gospel music and Nat “King” Cole records. His exciting soul-jazz style has reinvigorated the world of jazz vocalists.
39: Al Jarreau (1940-2017)
A vocal gymnast from Milwaukee who gave up practicing psychology for music, Jarreau was one of those jazz singers who could improvise like a horn player and used his voice to make an array of percussive sounds. Though his musical sensibility was steeped in jazz, his albums often blurred the boundaries between different styles, embracing R&B, Latin music, pop, and fusion.
38: Joe Williams (1918-1999)
Many great soul singers started off in the church, but so did some of the world’s best jazz singers. Georgia’s Joe Williams, who was born Joe Goreed, sang with gospel group The Jubilee Boys in his youth, but ended up being drawn to “the Devil’s music” (one of his biggest hits was the classic ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’). He was closely associated with Count Basie’s band and sang with the jazz aristocrat between 1954 and ’61. With his high-decibel, stentorian baritone style, Williams’ virile voice had no problem being heard over a blaring big-band backdrop.
37: Shirley Horn (1934-2005)
A virtuoso pianist with a mellow, seductive set of pipes, this Washington, DC-born singer was a graduate of Howard University who led her own jazz trio from the age of 20. Her career gained considerable attention when Miles Davis, in an rare act of generosity to a fellow musician, singled her out for praise in 1960. Despite this, Horn’s recordings were sporadic until the late 80s, when she signed to the Verve label and started making albums more regularly.
36: Mark Murphy (1932-2015)
Citing Nat “King” Cole and Anita O’Day as key influences, this singer and occasional actor from Syracuse, New York, recorded his debut album for Decca in 1956. Spells at Capitol and Riverside in the late 50s and early 60s cemented Murphy’s position as one of jazz’s hippest, cutting-edge male singers. His hallmark was doing vocalese versions of instrumental jazz classics, scatting and improvising with his voice like a horn player.
35: Al Hibbler (1915-2001)
Blind from birth, Mississippi-born Al Hibbler impressed with a resonant yet smooth, caramel-coated baritone. He featured in Kansas jazz pianist Jay McShann’s band in 1942 before landing a job with Duke Ellington a year later. Hibbler started recording as a solo artist from 1945 and scored a No.1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit with ‘Unchained Melody’ in 1955. He also recorded with Count Basie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
34: Dee Dee Bridgewater (born 1950)
This multi-award-winning singer (to date, she has won three Grammys and a Tony) was born Denise Garrett in Memphis, but was raised in Michigan and was exposed to jazz at an early age (her father was a trumpeter). Her first solo album, initially released only in Japan in 1974, was followed by a dalliance with fusion in the late 70s. With a series of acclaimed albums, she staked her claim as one of the best jazz singers from the 90s onwards.
33: George Benson (born 1943)
Like many of the best jazz singers – notably Louis Armstrong and Nat “King” Cole before him – Benson was a prodigiously talented instrumentalist (in his case, on the guitar) who found greater fame as a singer. He largely played guitar-led jazz until 1976, when his Breezin’ album yielded the vocal hit ‘This Masquerade’. Though influenced by soul singers Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, Benson patented his own smooth jazz vocal style and is renowned for his ability to scat sing while doubling the melody on his guitar.
32: Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016)
Blessed with a warm, husky vocal timbre, Texas-born Anderson got her big break as a teenager after she moved to Seattle in 1944 and played in a band featuring future megastars Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. She sang with Johnny Otis’ and Lionel Hampton’s bands before establishing herself as a solo artist in New York during the 50s.
31: Mel Tormé (1925-1999)
Boasting multiple talents – he could act, write songs, play the drums, and authored several books – this Chicago renaissance man is best known for his distinctive voice, which earned him the nickname The Velvet Fog. A precocious child performer, Tormé wrote a song for bandleader Harry James when he was only 13, and, when he reached adulthood, carved a career as singer and scored several hits in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
30: Dianne Reeves (born 1956)
Though she’s comfortable in several different genres and has branched out into fusion and R&B recordings, this Detroit-born, Colorado-raised singer (cousin of the late keyboard maven, George Duke) more than earns her place among the best jazz singers of all time, having won the Grammy award for Best Jazz Performance five times in a career that stretches back to the 70s. A skilled interpreter of jazz standards who can also scat convincingly, Reeves is also an accomplished songwriter.
29: Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010)
A gifted singer-songwriter and occasional actress from Chicago, Lincoln (born Anna Marie Wooldridge) possessed a gorgeous, full-bodied voice that was also very versatile, and was comfortable in both straight-ahead, bop-influenced jazz and more avant-garde-oriented music. A political activist, Lincoln’s 60s work reflected her interest in the Civil Rights movement and African independence.
28: Billy Eckstine (1914-1993)
From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Billy Eckstine could play trumpet, trombone, and guitar, but is mostly remembered for his sonorous, bass-baritone croon, whose forte was pleading romantic ballads. He was also a noted bandleader and, in the early 40s, he helped to nurture the talents of rising beboppers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
27: Oscar Brown, Jr (1926-2005)
A prolific songwriter and also a playwright and an ardent Civil Rights activist, Chicago-born Brown tried his hand at being a lawyer, an advertising man and a soldier before becoming a singer and tunesmith in the 50s. Noted for his cool delivery and wry observations, he contributed several classic songs to the jazz repertoire, including ‘Work Song’, ‘Afro Blue’ and ‘Dat Dere’, which he wrote the lyrics for.
26: Helen Merrill (born 1930)
With a voice like the sonic equivalent of golden, drizzled honey, this native New Yorker with Croatian ancestry (her real name is Jelena Milcetic) went professional as a teenager and made an impression singing with Earl Hines in the early 50s before embarking on a glittering solo career. She remains much loved in Italy and Japan, where she lived for several years.
25: Kurt Elling (born 1967)
One of the best jazz singers among contemporary jazz, Chicago-born Elling made his debut album for Blue Note in 1995 and quickly established himself as name to reckon with. Able to scat and improvise with his voice like an instrumentalist, Elling is also an astute interpreter of standards and a writer of strong original material.
24: June Christy (1925-1990)
Like so many female singers from jazz’s golden age, Texas-born Christy (born Shirley Luster) first made her mark in the big band swing era. In 1945, she successfully auditioned to replace Anita O’Day in Stan Kenton’s orchestra and graced several of the band’s hits, including the Latin-tinged million-selling ‘Tampico’. She cut her first solo record in 1947 and, after that, never looked back. With her sonorous tone, subtle vibrato, and strong but nuanced phrasing, Christy epitomised the West Coast “cool school” art of jazz singing.
23: Blossom Dearie (1924-2009)
With her almost twee, little-girl-like timbre, New York-born Blossom Dearie (her real name) possessed one of the most delicate voices among this list of best jazz singers. She made her name as part of a vocal group, The Blue Stars, based in Paris in the 50s, before striking out on her own. A prolific recording artist, Dearie was also a noted songwriter and, in the 70s, started her own record label, Daffodil.
22: Anita O’Day (1919-2006)
Once dubbed The Jezebel Of Jazz by disapproving newspaper editorials passing judgment on her having been incarcerated in the 50s for cannabis possession, O’Day (born Anita Colton in Kansas City) cut her teeth working for bandleaders Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton before beginning a solo career where she combined the élan of swing rhythms with horn-like bebop phrasing.
21: Bobby McFerrin (born 1950)
A ten-time Grammy-winning master of scat and vocal percussion, this innovative Manhattan singer gained worldwide mainstream acceptance with his chart-topping song ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ in 1988. He started out performing with Pharaoh Sanders in 1980 before beginning his solo career two years later, and continues to astound audiences today with an array of vocal acrobatics that see him rightly hailed as one of the world’s best jazz singers. A veritable one-man voice orchestra.
20: Chris Connor (1927-2009)
Baptised Mary Loutsenhizer, this languorous, mellow-voiced Kansas City singer made her recording debut with noted bandleader Claude Thornhill in 1949 before joining Stan Kenton’s groundbreaking post-swing big band in the early 50s. It was at the independent Bethlehem label, though, in 1954, where Connor made her solo breakthrough. Two years later she joined Atlantic Records, where she stayed until 1961 and arguably produced her best work.
19: Jimmy Rushing (1901-1972)
This diminutive singer may have only been five feet tall but he’s a true giant of big-band swing singing. Born in Oklahoma City, the orotund Rushing started singing professionally in the 20s and, in 1935, joined Count Basie’s band, where he stayed for 13 years before leaving to become a successful solo singer. Renowned for the ranginess of his voice, which could morph from a throaty baritone to a soaring tenor, Rushing possessed a rough-textured tone and, in terms of volume, could sing with a big band without being drowned out.
18: Julie London (1926-2000)
A sultry chanteuse and actress from California, London earns her place among the best jazz singers for her plaintive 1956 signature recording of Arthur Hamilton’s ‘Cry Me A River’ alone, which sold three million copies and made the 30-year-old a talent to reckon with. London’s calling card was a smoky timbre and her ability to convey intimacy with languid phrasing.
17: Chet Baker (1929-1988)
A chiseled Adonis who became the poster boy of “cool jazz” in the 50s, Oklahoma’s Chesney Baker was not only a great trumpeter with a burnished tone, but also possessed a sonorous, dreamy voice that was especially effective on romantic ballads.
16: Betty Carter (1929-1998)
From Flint, Michigan, and raised in Detroit, church-reared singer Lilli Mae Jones morphed into one of jazz’s most virtuosic scatters, Betty Carter. Though she started out in vibraphone maestro Lionel Hampton’s big band in the late 40s, she was a disciple of bebop rather than swing, and by the mid-50s was recording her own albums. A hook-up with Ray Charles in 1960 (on Miles Davis’ recommendation) boosted her career and set her on a path to greatness. Carter is noted for her breathy, nuanced delivery, spontaneous scatting skill and ability to get inside a lyric.
15: Jon Hendricks (born 1921)
One of the prime architects of the vocalese style, this elastic-voiced Ohio singer has been dubbed The James Joyce Of Jazz for the ingenuity and wordplay of his lyrics. His main claim to fame is being part of the groundbreaking vocal trio Hendricks, Lambert & Ross, a group that took the late 50s jazz world by storm.
14: Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Unique among the best jazz singers, Simone originally dreamed of becoming a concert pianist in the classical music world. Deterred by that milieu’s purported racism, Eunice Waymon, from North Carolina, reinvented herself as nightclub singer/pianist Nina Simone, and patented an allusive style that drew on jazz, blues, gospel, and folk influences. Possessing a husky, expressive contralto voice, Simone had the ability to make everything she sang sound like a personal statement from the depths of her soul.
13: Johnny Hartman (1923-1983)
Raised in Chicago but born in Louisiana, this largely unheralded baritone singer possessed an opulent, well-rounded tone and started out singing with pianist Earl Hines’ band after World War II, before hooking up with bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn’t until 1955 when Hartman made his own records, initially for Bethlehem and then Savoy. Hartman’s career when into overdrive after saxophonist John Coltrane invited him to make an album together for Impulse! Hartman’s forte was ballads, which brought out his gift as a storyteller.
12: Carmen McRae (1922-1994)
Harlem-born McRae was an able pianist as well as a spectacular singer. Like many of the best jazz singers of the post-war era, her prime vocal influence was Billie Holiday, whose rubato, behind-the-beat phrasing she borrowed, though she established her own, instantly recognisable style early on. McRae rose to fame in the 50s and was renowned for her supple voice and putting an ironic twist on lyrics.
11: Bessie Smith (1894-1927)
The only one of our 50 best jazz singers of all time to be born in the 19th Century, Chattanooga-born Smith was dubbed The Empress Of The Blues in the 20s, when she became one of the highest-paid African-American entertainers. Possessing a powerful, strident voice with a growling quality in her lower notes, Smith recorded with early jazz stars Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Both Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington cited her as a major influence.
10: Jimmy Scott (1925-2014)
“To me the lyric must mean something – it has to be telling a story,” said Ohio-born “Little” Jimmy Scott, who was renowned as a balladeer and whose seraphic, almost androgynous, high tenor voice had a haunting, otherworldly quality. Scott’s unique voice was a result of his having Kallman syndrome, a genetic disorder that prevented his body from reaching puberty. Scott first made his mark in the 40s but, by the 60s, had fallen into obscurity. He made a triumphant comeback in the 90s, which helped to cement his place in the pantheon of all-time best jazz singers.
9: Peggy Lee (1920-2002)
One of those rare singers whose identity can be recognised from just singing a single note, Lee (a farm girl born Norma Delores Egstrom, in Jamestown, North Dakota) perfected the art of sensuous minimalism. Her career took off in the swing era as a featured singer with Benny Goodman’s band, but she was soon in demand as a solo act, racking up a raft of hit singles, including the classic ‘Fever’ in 1958.
8: Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Though often depicted as an R&B singer, and heralded as one of the founding fathers of what eventually became soul music, Ray Charles Robinson (to give him his full name) was also an accomplished jazz musician who could play saxophone and keyboards as well as sing. Though he started off as a cross between singers Charles Brown and Nat “King” Cole, Charles – dubbed The Genius – found his own vocal style in the 50s.
7: Dinah Washington (1924-1963)
From Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Ruth Jones is better known as Dinah Washington, a dynamic singer whose tart delivery and perfect diction had a profound influence on many of the best jazz singers who followed her, including Esther Phillips and Nancy Wilson. Though she was crowned Queen Of The Blues, Washington’s métier was jazz, though she was supremely versatile and scored R&B and even pop hits during her brief but spectacular career.
6: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
New Orleans-born Satchmo rose to fame as a formidable trumpeter with a gift for improvisation in the 20s, but his gravelly voice made him distinct among the best jazz singers, helping him to conquer mainstream America and transform him into the unlikeliest of pop stars, especially in the 60s, when he scored his biggest worldwide hit, ‘What A Wonderful World’.
5: Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990)
Nicknamed Sassy or The Divine One, this New Jersey singer was famed for having a four-octave voice that was opulent in tone and texture, yet also light and supremely agile with a feathery, tremulous vibrato. She got her big break with Earl Hines’ band in the 40s, before finding fame as a solo artist. A sublime talent and a hugely influential singer.
4: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
The hard-knock life of her early years (she was a child prostitute and spent time in prison) coupled with a debilitating drug addiction imbued Holiday’s voice with a sense of pain and sadness that seemed to pervade all of her recordings and give them an added poignancy. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Holiday (whose nickname was Lady Day) started singing in the big-band era but her unique tone and timbre soon conferred on her solo stardom, and she went on to influence almost every other female on this list of the best jazz singers of all time.
3: Nat “King” Cole (1919-1965)
Nathaniel Adams Cole was a superb jazz pianist, though he built his fame as a pop vocalist whose velvety pipes were caressingly smooth on the ear. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole pioneered a jazz trio format in the 40s, then scored some R&B hits before morphing into a slick pop balladeer in the 50s and beyond. In his heart, though, he was a committed, dyed-in-the-wool, jazz man.
2: Frank Sinatra (1916-1998)
The incomparable Chairman Of The Board himself, Frank Sinatra started as a bobby soxer teen idol in the 40s and got his break singing with the bands of Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey. His career received a boost when he signed to Capitol Records in 1953, where he reinvented himself as a sophisticated swinger who phrased his vocals like a jazz horn player, and whose repertoire drew on The Great American Songbook. Over a century after his death, nobody can swing like Sinatra – he’s still the undisputed “king of the hill”.
1: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
In pole position in our list of the 50 best jazz singers of all time is this incomparable chanteuse, originally from Newport News, Virginia. Dubbed The First Lady Of Song, Fitzgerald began her career with Chick Webb’s band in the late 30s, before hooking up with jazz impresario Norman Granz and establishing a stellar solo career in the 50s. With her silky, unadulterated tone, flawless diction and peerless scatting ability – which allowed her to improvise like a horn player – Ella Fitzgerald set the gold standard in the art of jazz singing.
Looking for more jazz greats? Check out our list of the 50 greatest jazz drummers of all time.
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