Learn About 10 Famous Jazz Singers Every Fan Should Know

The human voice can be a powerful instrument, as evidenced by these famous jazz singers. Ever since the days of early jazz and swing, jazz vocalists and instrumentalists have influenced each other's phrasing and melodic conceptions. Ranging from raspy to smooth, from conveying poetic lyrics to gibberish scatting, jazz vocals add another layer of texture and complexity to performances. 

Here is a short list of great jazz singers that will introduce you to the world of vocal jazz. 

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

Louis Armstrong plays the trumpet
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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.

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

Johnny Hartman at The Strand
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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.

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

Frank Sinatra in 'Pal Joey'
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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 It Happened in Brooklyn and Take Me Out fo the Ballgame. 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.

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

Ella Fitzgerald
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Ella Fitzgerald's vocal 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.

Lena Horne: June 30, 1917

Publicity still of Lena Horne
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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. However, aggravated by the racism in the film industry, she shifted to a career of singing in nightclubs. She sang with jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Billy Eckstine and performed popular music too. 

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

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

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

Sassy Vaughan
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Sarah Vaughan began her career opening for Ella Fitzgerald at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Soon her talents attracted bandleader Earl Hines — a prominent figure during the swing era right 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.

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

Dinah Washington
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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. There, she 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 Franklin’s biggest influences, Washington’s boisterous personality carried into her singing.

Nancy Wilson: February 20, 1937

Nancy Wilson singing at the Monterey Jazz Festival
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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.

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

Billie Holiday portrait
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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 vocals reflected her tumultuous life and pioneered a dark, personal approach to singing jazz. The liberties she took with structuring a melodic phrase set the standard for jazz singers.