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12 of the Best Jazz Singers of All Time

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Maybe you have heard a song that really caught your attention, but listening more closely to it you realize it was the sound of the singer and how they were kind-of just part of the song. Without that particular singer, the song just might not sound the same to you.
Let’s take a look at some of the jazz singers that can do this to us.

Ella Fitzgerald

There is probably no greater jazz singer than “The First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald. Her audience was the entire world and she performed at packed venues wherever she sang. She also performed with many of the greatest orchestras and other jazz greats of the time such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole to name only a few.

Her voice was distinct and crisply unique hitting every note she desired yet allowing her to sing songs and sultry ballads with both orchestras and other ensembles.

She was also uniquely capable of imitating the instruments in an orchestra making her an excellent scat singer as well.

Billy Eckstine

Although he played many instruments, his main instrument was his voice and Billy Eckstine was a huge influence on Jazz singers and in entertainment especially during the 50’s.

Billy Eckstine was also a bandleader during the swing era.
He had a very resonant deep baritone voice that made him famous whether singing pop or jazz songs.

Frank Sinatra

Who could forget “Old Blue Eyes”? Sinatra’s versions of almost every tune in the Great American Songbook are standards for every jazz musician. His rich voice and wonderful charisma easily make him one of the greatest ever.

Nat King Cole

You just cannot deny the vocal qualities of Nat King Cole. He had such a smooth and distinct richness to his voice that drew millions of fans into his songs.

Albeit most of his success was with more popular hits, it was his jazz influenced vocals and hits he created with his jazz trio that made him famous.

He was also a great piano player and his jazz trio format paved the way for this type of jazz ensemble to this day.

His vocal quality was such that no matter where or when you hear a recording of him singing, it is fresh and beautiful every time, causing a certain type of pause in your day.

Johnny Hartman

Johnny Hartman was a great singer of ballads who unfathomably never realized any great amount of fame.

He was an emotive singer revealing great stories through his amazing singing voice. Check out 1963’s album, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. This album is a classic by many critics and fans alike and coupled with the smooth sax of Coltrane, the blend is irresistible.

Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae was a good composer and pianist as well as a great vocalist.
She released over 60 albums and was one of the most influential jazz vocalists in the 20th century.

Her stylings were such that she could deliver a performance with a sense of irony to certain phrases and songs accompanied by her slightly behind the beat signature style.

Diana Krall

Her distinctive minimalistic and lower sounding vocal qualities delivered with her laidback style while accompanying herself on the piano have made Diana Krall one of the newer jazz vocalists that should be on this list.

Joe Williams

Joe Williams had a great baritone voice and a style that could do nothing more than to propel him to fame.

Although maybe 15 years or so into a busy career, Joe Williams became famous after being the lead vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra for about 7 years during the 1950’s.

Betty Carter

Betty Carter was a great improvisational singer and interpreter of songs. She was also an exceptional scat singer.

Here legacy lives on through her efforts to find great new talents in the jazz scene which still functions today through her “Jazz Ahead” organization.

Billie Holiday

She is perhaps one of the most unique voices in jazz to this day.

It is not only her vocal timbre or qualities that made her so unique, but how she placed emphasis on certain aspects of the vocals through phrasing and dynamics. It was like she was sing-talking in some performances.

She is certainly one of the iconic vocalists that many try to copy even today.
Lady Day and her unique vocal stylings will always be remembered through her many timeless recordings.

Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett has had a long and varied career spanning about seven decades. He stayed with his signature sound and style and was quoted as saying that the songs of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer amongst others, was the equivalent of an artistic renaissance in the 1920’s and 30’s. He stayed with those songs and style over his entire career earning him a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters (NEA) award among many others.

Sarah Vaughan

As a vocalist, Sarah Vaughan had no equals. Her range, timbre and utter control of her pitch perfect vocals were unparalleled and probably used as the example to strive for as demonstrated by the many musicians who strove for such excellence, indicating Sarah Vaughan’s quality as their goal.

Although she has indicated that she liked to sing all different types of music, she will always be remembered as a jazz singer because she was steeped in that genre through her career.

She has had albums by other jazz singers dedicated to her memory and was truly a remarkable singer with a natural-given musical instrument.

Summary

I hope this short piece on some of the great jazz singers has inspired you to check out some of their recordings. Although some of the recordings you find may be dated, the music and singers who created them are timeless due to their uniqueness and quality of vocals.

There are many more singers, and many newer singers appearing on stages today that may one day find themselves on your own list of best jazz singers.
Enjoy!

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Marc-Andre Seguin
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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