The ten best women jazz singers of all time share a certain elegant quality that’s hard to pin down. Sure, they had some of the greatest voices in the world. But it was their attitude, confidence and musical prowess that really separated the greatest woman jazz singers from the rest. The following had that characteristic, and are well remembered for it.
- Carmen McRae. A prolific legend, McRae recorded over 60 albums over her long career. She drew stylistic qualities from Billie Holiday, and had a range that arguably outmatched her mentor.
- Nina Simone. Simone was not only a fantastic singer, she was an accomplished pianist and songwriter as well. Her music drew from jazz, blues and even classical. It has a melancholy quality which, coupled with her unusually deep voice, puts her among the most unique women jazz singers in history.
- Etta Jones. No typo here. Though her name is similar to more famous musician Etta James, it is Jones who can be counted among jazz’s best female singers. Stylistically, she resembled a smoother, more feminine version of Billie Holiday.
- Lena Horne. From the age of sixteen, Horne was performing as a jazz singer. She learned from greats including Duke Ellington. Her one person Broadway show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” ran for over 300 performances. Horne is one of the few women in jazz to stay in the public eye for a significant length of time.
- Dinah Washington. Married eight times and divorced eight, Washington was no stranger to showmanship and extravagance. Her career spanned genres including jazz, blues and even pop. She had a big, melodramatic voice that echoes in the voices of female jazz singers even today.
- Diane Schuur. Born in Seattle, Washington, Schuur grew up idolizing great jazz singers including Sarah Vaughan. After catching the attention of Stan Getz, she went on to perform with the likes of the Count Basie Orchestra and B.B. King. Her latest album was released in 2008.
- Ernestine Anderson. Nominated for best jazz vocal performance by a woman four times, Ernestine Anderson’s five decade career has been nothing short of illustrious. Her sultry voice and stylistic rhythm are a delight to hear.
- Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan, one of the “big three” female jazz singers, got her start with Earl Hines’ big band. She had a range of classical quality, and is forever associated with the bebop years of jazz along with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie.
- Billie Holiday. She may not have had the most perfect voice from a strictly musical standpoint. But Billie Holiday is undoubtedly among the greatest female jazz singers ever. Her singing, as critics and fans not, was exceedingly passionate and intimate. Tragically, her lifestyle cut her life short. But, at her peak, Holiday was certainly one of the best in the jazz scene.
- Ella Fitzgerald. No list of woman jazz singers is complete without Ella Fitzgerald. The quintessential vocalist, everything about Ella was impeccable. Her style, grace and voice propelled her to legendary status. The First Lady of Song, as she was called, is among the greatest musicians – not just singers – in history.
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