20 of the Most Famous Jazz Singers of All Time
Jazz music has been around for over a century and has produced some of the most iconic musicians in history. Many jazz singers become well-known due to both their powerful voices and notable contributions to the genre. From the early pioneers to today’s legends, here is a list of the most famous jazz singers of all time.
1. Billie Holiday
We’ll start this list with a blues/jazz vocalist who is well-known for her creative improvisation and being a self-taught singer. Billie Holiday is one of the most influential jazz singers of all time because of her unique and emotionally charged vocal style.
Her songs “Strange Fruit,” “The Man I Love,” and “Fine and Mellow,” are among the songs that have captured the interest of the public and earned Holiday much success. She has been nominated for a total of 23 posthumous Grammy Awards and has been an inspiration in making jazz more popular with mainstream audiences.
2. Kurt Elling
This American jazz vocalist is known for his inventive vocal style and scatting abilities. He has won numerous awards throughout his career, including two Grammy Awards under his name.
Elling improvised lyric-making into his jazz performances, which has helped him appeal to a wider range of listeners. His albums “Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman,” “Close Your Eyes,” and “The Messenger” are among his most popular works.
3. Michael Bublé
A smooth-voiced singing sensation, Michael Bublé is known for his vocal renditions of songs from various artists. He has won several awards, including four Grammy Awards, multiple Juno Awards, and other notable accolades.
Bublé has sold over 75 million records worldwide and his songs “Home,” “Everything,” and “Haven’t Met You Yet,” have become international hits. Bublé’s ability to connect with his audiences through his charming personality and fantastic vocal performances has made him one of the most famous jazz singers in recent years. His albums “It’s Time,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” and “Michael Bublé” are some of his most successful works.
4. Mose Allison
Mose Allison is an American singer and pianist who has been performing since the 1950s. He is known for his songs that contain a mix of modern jazz and blues. Allison collaborated with various artists such as Georgie Fame, Van Morrison, and Ben Sidran.
He has received notable recognitions for his talent, one of which is being nominated thrice in the Grammys. His influence in the jazz genre has been significant, with his music being covered and recorded by different artists such as The Clash, Leon Russell, and Herman Brood.
5. Nat King Cole
A self-taught singer with a smooth and pure baritone voice, Nat King Cole was one of the first black artists to be accepted into the mainstream music industry. He has recorded over 100 songs, many of which have become hits, such as “Unforgettable,” “Nature Boy,” and “Mona Lisa.”
Cole has won various awards throughout his career, including a Grammy. His talent and approachable personality have made him one of the most popular and famous jazz singers of all time.
6. Cab Calloway
Cab Calloway was an American Jazz singer, bandleader, and composer who is known for his energetic stage presence and his distinctive voice. From performing in the Cotton Club to touring, Calloway’s career spanned over four decades.
Calloway’s success increased due to touring and performing worldwide. Being inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame is only one of the many notable achievements that Calloway had. One of their most well-known and top-selling songs, “Minnie The Moochers,” features scat lyrics amidst a jazzy sound.
7. Chet Baker
Being referred to as the ‘Prince of Cool,’ Chet Baker was an American jazz trumpeter and vocalist who gained prominence in the 1950s. His success continued throughout his career as he collaborated with other artists, such as Russ Freeman and Gerry Mulligan.
Baker was most recognized for his trumpet playing, but his style of trumpet playing is characterized by its smooth tone, precision, and lyricism, all of which are elements of his vocal talent. He is known to be one of the pioneers in cool jazz, his dashing appearance adding to his charm. His albums “Chet Baker Sings” and “It Could Happen To You” are some of his most famous works.
8. Betty Carter
Improvisation through scatting and other vocal techniques are some of the elements that made Betty Carter’s style of jazz singing unique. She was also known for her breathiness, sense of rhythm, perfect pitch, and ability to connect with her audience.
Through humble beginnings, Carter’s career spanned over five decades during which she collaborated with different artists, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Benny Bailey. Her unique vocal style and stage presence earned her various awards, including a Grammy. Other than performing, she gained an interest in teaching and mentoring young artists, which she established a program called ‘Jazz Ahead’ for.
9. Blossom Dearie
With a light and airy voice, Blossom Dearie was a jazz singer and pianist known for her distinctive vocal style. She often performed songs with a childlike quality, which contributed to the vulnerability in her voice.
Her vocals are described as innocent and girlish, yet sophisticated. Over her career, Dearie has received various recognitions, such as being nominated for a Grammy and being inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She is also known for popularizing songs like “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Just One of Those Things.”
10. Louis Armstrong
One of the most influential artists in jazz history, Louis Armstrong was a trumpeter, composer, and singer who has won awards, such as Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and other recognitions. He is one of the first black artists to cross over into the mainstream music industry.
He is widely acclaimed for his scatting and lyrical improvisations, which helped shape the course of jazz. Other than his successful career, Armstrong is also known for his charismatic personality. He is also known for popularizing songs like “West End Blues” and “What a Wonderful World.”
11. Bobby McFerrin
Primarily known as a jazz vocalist who incorporates spiritual music, Bobby McFerrin is also a composer and conductor. He is best known for his vocal techniques, such as rapid switching of falsetto and modal, and making use of improvised percussion sounds with his mouth and chest.
Winning over 10 Grammys, McFerrin is one of the most awarded artists in jazz history. His album “Simple Pleasures” is one of his most successful, which featured the single “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” He has also collaborated with various artists from different genres, such as Chick Corea and Yo-Yo Ma.
12. Sarah Vaughan
One of the finest voices in the jazz genre, Sarah Vaughan was a singer known for her unique female baritone that has soprano power and nearly-perfect pitch. She has performed with well-known artists such as Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine.
After that, Vaughan chased after a solo profession and always shifted record companies. Throughout her career which lasted over four decades, she won many awards such as the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.
13. Nina Simone
Nina Simone was a jazz vocalist who began her music education from her benefactors in her hometown to enroll at Juilliard and later debuted as a pianist. She’s also a singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist.
Her music incorporates gospel, folk, pop, R&B, soul, classical, and jazz genres. Simone’s vocal style is described as soulful with a mix of passion and anger. Some of her most famous works are “Feeling Good,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” and “Mississippi Goddam.” She is also known for being an outspoken civil rights activist, which is reflected in some of her songs.
14. Mel Tormé
One of the most respected and renowned jazz singers of all time, Mel Tormé was known for his vocal range and ability to sing difficult melodies with ease. He is also a proficient musician, arranger, drummer, pianist, and actor.
Starting his singing career at four years old and his debut song at 15, Tormé went on to have a successful career as a jazz singer. His rich tenor voice has garnered him the name ‘The Velvet Frog.’ Over the years, he has received two Grammy Awards and made appearances in various movies and television shows. Tormé is also known for popularizing the holiday song “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”
15. Frank Sinatra
Making jazz a popular music genre in the mainstream industry, Frank Sinatra was a singer, composer, and actor who was active for over five decades. He is one of the most popular and best selling artists of all time, with 150 million units sold worldwide.
Sinatra’s vocal style ranged from soft and intimate ballads to up-tempo swing numbers. While he is mostly recognized as a swing artist, Sinatra is often attributed to the jazz genre. He has received various awards and recognitions, including nine Grammy awards. Some of his most popular songs are “My Way,” “New York, New York,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”
16. Carmen McRae
Being a famous jazz singer because of her smoky vocals and variation of melody in jazz, Carmen began her music career as a pianist with Benny Carter and Count Basie. She is known for her elegant behind-the-beat skills in phrasing and scat improvisations.
She also recorded with other famous jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Joe Pass, and Dave Brubeck. McRae’s vocal style was inspired by Billie Holiday, which led her to be one of the most important singers of Holiday’s work. She has received many awards and recognitions throughout her career, including the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.
17. Bessie Smith
A blues singer who became prominent in the jazz era, Bessie Smith was one of the most influential jazz singers of her time. She is known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’ and has been a major influence on other blues and jazz singers.
Smith’s vocal style was characterized by her powerful contralto voice and intense emotional impact in her performances. She made recordings with some famous artists like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Green, and Coleman Hawkins. Some of her notable songs are “Downhearted Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.”
18. Ella Fitzgerald
Queen of Jazz’ and ‘First Lady of Song,’ Ella Fitzgerald was a popular jazz singer known for her scat singing and vocal range. She started her career as a part of the Chick Webb orchestra and became known for her version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
With her scat style in lyrics and girlish voice, Fitzgerald is also known for popularizing and performing songs from The Great American Songbook. Some of her most popular songs are “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” “Mack the Knife” and “How High the Moon.” Over the years, she has won 13 Grammy Awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
19. Gregory Porter
A jazz singer in the modern era, Gregory Porter is known for his smooth baritone vocals and traditional jazz sound. He was inspired by artists Nat King Cole, Bill Withers, and Donny Hathaway. He also draws influence from other genres such as gospel, soul, and blues.
He has two Grammy Awards under his name, winning Best Vocal Album for “Liquid Spirit” and “Take Me To The Alley.” Some of Porter’s popular songs are “Real Good Hands,” “Hey Laura,” and “I Will.” As an active artist, Porter is currently working on his sixth studio album.
20. Dean Martin
Dean Martin was a singer, actor, and comedian who rose to prominence in the United States. He performed with Jerry Lewis, went solo, and soon joined Frank Sinatra in the group Rat Pack.’
Martin is known as the ‘King of Cool,’ and his laid-back singing style made him popular with audiences. He has appeared in several films and hosted the television program “The Dean Martin Show.” Some of his most popular songs are “Everybody Loves Somebody,” “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?,” and “Sway.”
Jazz music has been around for a long time and has produced some of the most talented musicians in the world. These singers have made their mark on the genre and have inspired other artists for generations to come.
Some of the most famous jazz singers of all time have cemented their place by mixing different vocal styles, improvising, and giving unforgettable performances. Whether it’s a classic standard or a new composition, these jazz singers have proved that jazz music is timeless.
Kurt Elling Featured Image (Top-Right) by: Simon Bierwald from Dortmund, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Bublé Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons