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Ten Famous Jazz Singers

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Below are ten of the most famous jazz singers. From the days of early jazz and swing, jazz singers and instrumentalists have influenced each other's phrasing and melodic conceptions. This list is a mere introduction to the world of vocal jazz.

1. Louis Armstrong: August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971

Louis Armstrong Plays The Trumpet
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Best known for his trumpet playing, Louis Armstrong was also a talented jazz singer. His warm, raspy voice delighted audiences, as did his often-humorous scat singing. The joy that Armstrong brought to his music is partly what allowed him to be considered the father of modern jazz.

Read Louis Armstrong's biography.

2. Johnny Hartman: July 13, 1913 – September 15, 1983

Johnny Hartman Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Impulse! Records

Johnny Hartman’s career never fully reached the peak that his talents warranted. Although he recorded with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, he was best known for the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!, 1963). Hartman’s lush voice perfectly complemented John Coltrane’s yearning melodies. Although he struggled with his solo career, this exceptional album has earned Hartman a special distinction among jazz singers.

Read Johnny Hartman's biography.

3. Frank Sinatra: December 12, 1915 – May 14, 1998

Frank Sinatra Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Concord Records

Frank Sinatra began his career during the swing era, singing with Tommy Dorsey’s big band. Throughout the 1940s he acquired a large popular following, and began starring in musical films, such as Anchors Aweigh. In the 1960s, Sinatra was a member of the ‘Rat Pack,’ a group of singers including Sammy Davis, Jr, and Dean Martin that performed on stage and in films. For the next several decades, Sinatra performed extensively and recorded best-selling albums.

 

Read Frank Sinatra's biography.

4. Ella Fitzgerald: April 25, 1917 – June 15, 1996

Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Verve Records

Ella Fitzgerald's virtuosity equaled that of bebop musicians. She developed a unique scat singing style, and was able to imitate many instruments with her voice. During a career that spanned almost 60 years, Fitzgerald dazzled audiences with her approach to jazz and popular songs alike. Her vocal timbre and technique remain unmatched.

 

Read the biography of Ella Fitzgerald.

5. Lena Horne: June 30, 1917

Lena Horne Jazz Singer
Courtesy of BMG

Lena Horne got her start as a member of the chorus line at the Cotton Club, a famous jazz club in New York. She was featured in several films throughout the 1940s, but aggravated by the racism in the film industry, she shifted to a career of singing in nightclubs. She performed with jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Billy Eckstine, and balanced her repertoire with jazz and popular music.

6. Nat “King” Cole: March 17, 1919 – February 15, 1965

Nat King Cole Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Capitol

Nat “King” Cole originally worked as a jazz pianist, but rose to fame in 1943 as a jazz singer, performing “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” His music was influenced by the African-American folk music tradition and early forms of rock n’ roll, and won popularity among a large audience. A long career, centered around his soft and alluring baritone voice, was fraught with obstacles stemming from racism, but Nat “King” Cole overcame hurdles to be considered an equal to his white counterparts, such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin

7. Sarah Vaughan: March 27, 1924 – April 3, 1990

Sarah Vaughan Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Verve

Sarah Vaughan began her career opening for Ella Fitzgerald at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Soon her talents attracted bandleader Earl Hines, who was prominent during the swing era, and immediately before bebop came into fashion. She was Hines’ pianist, but it became evident that she was equally gifted as a jazz singer. Later she joined singer Billy Eckstine’s band, in which she developed a style influenced by bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

8. Dinah Washington: August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963

Dinah Washington Jazz singer
Courtesy Emarcy Records
Dinah Washington’s roots were in the gospel church. While growing up in Chicago, she played piano and conducted her church choir. At age 18 she joined vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band, and developed a rousing vocal style with which she used to make many popular recordings in the veins of jazz, blues, and R&B. Said to be one of Aretha Fanklin’s biggest influences, Washington’s boisterous personality carried into her singing.

9. Nancy Wilson: February 20, 1937

Nancy Wilson Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Blue Note

Nancy Wilson enjoyed a quick rise to success. Inspired by Dinah Washington among others, Wilson moved to New York in 1956 where she met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. She soon attracted the attention of his agent and record label (Capitol), and began a career as a solo jazz singer. In 1961 she recorded Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, on which her soulful voice was featured alongside Adderley’s brand of funky hard-bop.

10. Billie Holiday: April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959

Billie Holiday Jazz Singer
Courtesy of Sony Records

Nicknamed ‘Lady Day,’ Billie Holiday developed her vocal style to match the instrumental style of musicians such as saxophonist Lester Young. Her intimate and vulnerable vocal style reflected her tumultuous life, and also pioneered a dark and personal approach to singing jazz. The liberties she took with structuring a melodic phrase set the standard for jazz singers.

 

Read Billie Holiday's Biography.

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