Who are the greatest women jazz singers of America? Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan top the list of greatest female jazz vocalists.
Jazz is a unique American art form that came out of a combination of African and European music in the early twentieth century. In other words, jazz music is a combination of black and white cultures meeting in America and influencing the world.
So who are the top female jazz vocalists of all time? Which female jazz performers deliver the best performances to become the great innovators of jazz singing? Below is my own personal list compiled over a year of listening to jazz music and a variety of female singers.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional jazz critic, nor am I a musicologist, just an impassioned listener who has recently discovered what angels sound like when they sing. To the ladies of jazz, many of whom broke race and gender barriers to achieve success, I salute you. (In chronological order of birth dates.)
Nellie Lutcher (1912-2007)
Born in Louisiana, Nellie Lutcher’s voice has a charming squeak that she inserts into her phrasing that makes her voice unique. It gives her a slight Betty Boop quality to her voice that is instantly recognizable and difficult to imitate. Lutcher also likes to hum or scat over the other band member’s solos, which gives the listener the feeling that she is engaged in an exciting live performance even in the studio.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) Born Eleanora Fagan
Billie Holiday, known as Lady Day, grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and had a traumatic childhood that may have in part contributed to the emotional delivery of her jazz singing. Even though Holiday died an untimely death at age 44, her music and her voice are still quite popular. Holiday is considered by most jazz critics to be one of the greatest and best jazz vocalists ever.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Also known as the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald was born with an incredibly beautiful voice that she used to entertain millions despite her shyness. Fitzgerald is known for her collaborations with other great jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, and Duke Ellington.
Anita O’Day (1919-2006) Born Anita Belle Colton
Anita O’Day (The Jezebel of Jazz) says her jazz singing was influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Martha Ray. O’Day had a sassy stage presence refusing to wear the ballroom gowns that were de rigueur for most female jazz singers, O’Day wore a shirt with a man’s jacket changing the world of jazz and fashion forever. One of the strong points of Anita O’Day’s singing is her sense of rhythm and timing, combined with a fast and confident delivery.
Peggy Lee (1920-2002) Born Norma Deloris Egstrom
Peggy Lee was born in North Dakota and is known as being a songwriter and actress, as well as a jazz singer. Peggy Lee’s vocal style seems effortless but is nuanced with the experience of a seasoned musician. Lee was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards and won three Grammys, including a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1995.
Carmen McRae (1920-1994)
Born in Harlem in New York City to Jamaica immigrant parents, McRae was inspired by the singing of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Nominated for seven Grammy awards, McRae never won, though in 1994 the National Endowment for the Arts named her a Jazz Master in recognition of her life’s work in music.
Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990)
Known as The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan is acknowledged by critics as having one of the best jazz singing voices ever. Born in New Jersey, Vaughan became a singing star after appearing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City. Vaughan worked with many of her contemporary jazz masters including Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Count Basie, Errol Garner, and Dinah Washington.
Nina Simone (b. 1933-2003) Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon
Known as the High Priestess of Soul, Simone was born in North Carolina and started her musical career training to become a classical pianist. The voice of Nina Simone has a unique tone that has a masculine edge combined with a lot of power. Simone influenced many other musicians including Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, and Alicia Keys.
Cassandra Wilson (b. 1955)
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Cassandra Wilson has already won two Grammys for her jazz singing. Wilson is not just a jazz artist; her repertory covers blues, folk, hip-hop, and pop. The voice of Cassandra is flirtatious and smoky, served up with a serious side of soul.
Dianne Reeves (b. 1956)
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Dianne Reeves was influenced by the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Reeves has won four Grammy awards for best jazz vocal performance for her record albums. Dianne Reeve’s voice has a classic jazz voice so retro that you’ll swear it was 1950 all over again.
Special thanks: Happy Birthday to you, Joe Goldberg, and thank you. (1932-2009)