10 Jazz Singers You Should Know

10 Jazz Singers You Should Know

Connee Boswell (The Boswell Sisters)

(1907-1976) Active 1920’s-1950’s

Musical influences- Mamie Smith, Enrico Caruso

Connee Boswell was one of the finest jazz singers of the 1930’s. She was also an arranger, composer and Ella’s Fitzgerald main early musical influence. She’s the epitome of the 1930’s jazz vocal sound- a fast vibrato that starts at the beginning of any held note (instead of coming in at the end of a phrase), rich tone & long legato phrases.

My favorite recordings that Connee did were with her two sisters in the Boswell Sisters. The harmonies in these recording are so tight and well executed- a very distinctive 1930’s sound (and a great way to practice harmony singing).

Recommended albums- Singing The Blues With Connee Boswell & The Boswell Sisters Collection

Billie Holiday 

(1915-1958) active 1933-1959

Influences- Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith

Billie Holiday is one of the most beloved and admired jazz singers of all time. Her vocal style was unlike anything that came before her. She was strongly influenced by jazz instrumentalists. She altered melody lines by playing with the notes, phrasing and rhythm. Billie rarely sang the written melody of a tune, even on her own compositions. She was a great improviser- she never sang a song the same way twice.

There is a bittersweet sadness in her voice, a strange and beautiful timbre. It is the voice of an artist who had a tragic life- prostitution, drugs, alcohol and the deep racism of the time.

She didn’t have a huge voice, her artistry was more subtle. Billie Holiday is a perfect example of how being able to belt loud and high is not necessary to be a great singer.

Recommended albumsLady Sings The Blues & The Centennial Collection

Ella Fitzgerald

 (1917-1996) Active 1934-1994

Musical influences- Connee Boswell, Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie

Ella Fitzgerald is the pinnacle of jazz singers. She had it all. Immaculate voice, unbelievable ears, boundless creatively and a love for singing that came through in every note she sang. She could out-scat the best horn players of her time. She was a monster musician.

Ella was strongly influenced by Connee Boswell in her youth. She developed her unique sound touring with trumpet player and bebop visionary Dizzie Gillespie. She learned to improvise like a horn player playing with Dizzie and his band. She is one of the best scat singers (vocal improvisation) of all time.

Recommended albumsSweet and Hot & Ella And Louis

John Hendricks 

(1921- ) Active 1957–present

Musical influences-  Louis Armstrong, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, and Dizzy Gillespie

John Hendricks is a huge vocal talent and one of the few remaining musicians from the golden era of jazz still alive. He was also part of the hugely popular vocal jazz ensemble Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

He is still performing and teaching young aspiring jazz singers. I had the great experience of working with him for a week when I was in college.

Mr. Hendricks is known as “Godfather of Vocalese”. Vocalese is the art form of taking an instrumental solo (from a famous recording of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk etc…) and putting lyrics to it. John Hendricks is a talented lyricist and he can execute extremely difficult horn lines like no one else.

Believe me, this stuff is hard to sing. 

You can hear an example of vocalese in the video below. This recording of “Freddie Freeloader” is one of my favorite jazz recordings of all time.

The original recording is from Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album with solos by Miles, John Coltrain, Wyton Kelly, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers. The vocal version with Hendricks’ lyrics features John Hendricks (as Coltrane), Al Jarreau (as Miles), George Benson (as Cannonball) and Bobby McFerrin (as Wynton Kelly).

John Hendricks was also part of the hugely popular vocal jazz ensemble Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

Recommended albums- Freddie Freeloader & Good Git Together

Etta Jones (not to be mistaken for the more well known Etta James)

(1921-2001) Active 1943-2001

Musical influences- Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington

Etta Jones was a beautiful jazz singer with a tone quality that ranged from bright and vibrant to rich and soulful. She sang with an artful mastery of phrasing and the use of space to convey emotion.

She was underrated throughout her 57-year career. Though she never achieved the fame of some of her contemporaries (Ella, Sarah, Carmen), she was a great performer and earned 3 Grammy nominations.

A singer after my own heart, Etta loved sad ballads. She is quoted as saying: “When it’s sad, it’s beautiful.”

“Don’t Go To Strangers” is a lovely sad ballad and my favorite of Etta’s recordings.

Recommended albums– Don’t Go To Strangers & The Best Of Etta Jones

Carmen McRae 

(1922-1994) Active 1931-1991

Musical influences- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald

Carmen McRae is my favorite female jazz singer. She is considered one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century. She was also a composer, pianist, actress and a great scat singer.

In her early recordings, her phrasing and tone sounded a lot like Ella Fitzgerald. But as she grew as a musician, she came into her own sound.

Her rhythmic treatment and time feel are amazing. She swings hard. There is no question of where the pocket is when Carmen is singing- she lays it down. Listening to Carmen changed the way I sing and opened my ears to the importance of having a great time feel.

Her vocal tone can range from sassy and confident to cool and velvety.

Recommended albumsCarmen Sings Monk (my favorite jazz album of all time) & 8 Classic Albums -Carmen McRae Box Set

Sarah Vaughan 

(1924-1990) Active 1942-1990

Musical influences- soprano Leontyne Price

Sarah Vaughan has the biggest, most impressive vocal instrument of all the jazz singers listed here. She was capable of singing classical arias and had a huge 4 octave range. (An average vocal range for a women is 2 to 2.5 octaves.) She was a talented pianist as well.

Ella Fitzgerald called her the world’s “greatest singing talent.”

Mel Torme said “She had the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field.”

She had a gorgeous. rich as molasses tone and a prominent vibrato. I learned to create a rich tone in my lower register by listening to Sarah. Her voice is beautiful and expressive and her scat singing was on par with Ella’s.

Recommended albumsSarah Vaughan & Sarah Vaughan/Count Basie

Mel Torme

(1925-1999) Active 1933–1996

Musical influences- Patty Andrews (The Andrews Sisters) & Ella Fitzgerald

I love Mel Torme for so many reasons. In addition to being an incredible singer & improviser, he was also a composer and arranger, drummer, and actor in radio, film, and television.

Mel’s tone was sweet, smooth and velvety (he was nicknamed “The Velvet Fog”) and he could sing a beautiful ballad. He could also swing like crazy. His time feel was impeccable and he used complicated rhythmic ideas in his scat solos.

Check out his great solo in the blues “Sent For You Yesterday” below.

Recommended albums The 1958 Torme-Paich Legendary Sessions & Mel Torme Sings Schubert Alley

Chet Baker

 (1929-1988) Active -1950’s-1980’s

Musical influences- Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis

Chet Baker was a trumpet player, composer and a singer. He was a great improviser- both on the horn and with his voice. In fact, his scat solos sounded very much like a horn- the phrasing and articulation was that of an instrumentalist.

Chet had a subtle voice. He had a sweet, melancholy tone and an understated vibrato. He too, like Billie Holiday, struggled with drugs and alcohol.

Chet was part of the West Cost style of playing jazz that became popular in the 1950’s- a cool and laid back sound.

“How Long Has This Been Going On” is one of my favorite Chet recordings.

Recommended albums– It Could Happen To You & Chet Baker Sings

Kurt Elling 

(1967-) Active 1995-present

Musical influences- Jon Hendricks, Stevie Wonder

Kurt Elling is the only modern jazz singer I included in this list. He has a huge, beautiful, versatile voice.

He takes his voice to its extremes- the highs and lows of his vocal range and dynamics. He has incredible control over his instrument.

Mr. Elling is also a composer, lyricist and (like Jon Hendricks) a vocalese performer.

Modern jazz has a lot of soul, R&B and funk influences. Kurt Elling’s sound is a great example of old traditions mixing with modern influences. His style evolves from album to album. My favorite album of his is from early in his career- “Live In Chicago”. Jon Hendricks makes an appearance on this album.

Recommended albums- Live in Chicago (my all-time favorite Elling Album) & Nightmoves

There Are So Many More Wonderful Jazz Singers

This list only covers 10 great jazz singers- there are so many more. The genre is rich with incredible singers to learn from and be inspired by. Who are some of your favorite jazz singers? Please share them in the comment section!

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