The 5 Legendary Women Jazz Singers
Written By Patrick Ortiz
Yes, we are talking about jazz again. Besides the blues, jazz is another original American tradition, created from roots of blues and ragtime. Jazz actually originated in African American areas of New Orleans, and the traditions are still carried on today.
To me, jazz is the purest musical genre both from an instrumental perspective as well as vocally. The notion that it is the “musician’s genre” is absurd; you don’t need a degree to appreciate an art form. Especially now when one of the most popular genres is centered around not being able to understand the lyricist, going back to a time when musicians put effort and their heart into each tune is a breath of fresh air.
Lately, I have been checking out the modern champions of jazz who are keeping the music alive and driving it to new heights. Upon hearing beautiful songstresses like Cecile McLorin Salvant, Jazzmeia Horn, and Esperanza Spalding (all of whom you need to check out) I was inspired to go back into the amusing musical time capsule that is Spotify and rediscover the iconic jazz vocal mavens who are still used as the benchmark to this day.
Let’s take a deep dive into the 5 legendary female jazz singers in history!
As a young girl Ruth Lee Jones moved to the prosperous musical city of Chicago from her rural home in Alabama. She instantly fell in love with the culture and met musicians and promoters that provided her with her first shows. Adapting the stage name Dinah Washington, she began playing with the famed band leader Lionel Hampton and also began recording with various labels.
Washington is now recognized as “the most popular black female recording artist of the 50’s,” and sang everything from blues and jazz to country and r&b. She had a voice that was in stark contrast to the other singers around the yearly 40’s. She was said to really get involved with the music and become the lyrics and their meaning. She was able to portray emotions like no one else that even “Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan never tried to sing the low-down blues as Washington did.” Dinah wasn’t particularly known for her immense range or soaring abilities, but she cut through like a knife in any situation and made you feel all sorts of things when she got into it.
Although she left us at such a young age, Washington sure didn’t lead a boring life in her 39 years. She was very volatile, going through seven husbands, dealing with weight issues, and battling with various mental issues. This behavior was reflected in her music, but her songs were also able to stable her in many ways. Sadly, she passed away in 1963 due to a mixture of various prescription drugs. Because of her gifts to the music world and undeniable influence on future singers, Washington was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.
Recommended album: Dinah Jams 1954. This is a fantastic album of many classic jazz standards that showcases Washington’s vast abilities to manipulate melodies in the most creative ways. Also, she is joined by one of the best jazz trumpet players to ever pick up a horn, Clifford Brown. Listen to his solos, then settle with the fact that he was only 25 when he passed away. Truly one of a kind musician.
Like fellow diva Dinah Washington, Nina Simone – born Eunice Waymon – sang a multitude of genres like classical, blues, pop, and of course, jazz. But really in those days, jazz really was the popular form of music and dominated the airwaves for many years.
Simone grew up in a house with eight brothers and sisters and found solace in music, specifically playing the piano. That led her to enroll in various music classes, eventually ending up in Julliard where she studied for a summer to get into a school that she was denied to, she suspected due to racial prejudice. She began performing in bars and local clubs, singing songs she heard on a Billie Holiday album. Beginning in 1954, her career really took off and she saw massive success until her passing in 2003. Because of various experiences with racism and seeing hatred in the world, Simone was inspired to pursue activism, speaking at various marches and rallies and was a full supporter of Malcolm X. However, she embraced combative ways of protest and became consumed with hate. She lived a very troubled live and became abusive to her husbands, coworkers, and even her own daughter. In the 80’s she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, something that was not overly discussed in the 50’s and 60’s.
Despite her personal issues, Nina Simone is one of the most celebrated singers to this day, recording an expansive 40 albums full of rich stories and wide range of styles. Simone didn’t have a bright, stinging voice like a lot of her cohorts, but rather a smooth contralto voice which is the “lowest female voice type.” This allowed her to reach depths that a lot of female singers physically can’t reach.
After several years of getting slighted from a spot, Nina Simone was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Recommended Album: The Amazing Nina Simone This is just one of the many great Nina Simone albums that showcase her many talents. You go from the opening slow-burning track “Blue Prelude” that demonstrates her classical experience, to the jazz classic, “Willow Weep For Me,” that fits her low range perfectly.
All of these names should be recognizable to most of you, but now we get to the top three you for sure know (hopefully!). Eleanora Fagan, known better as Billie Holiday, and nicknamed Lady Day by sax legend Lester Young, was one of the first widely successful and adored female jazz singers. Throughout her career she worked with many notable musicians, including stints in Artie Shaw and Count Basie’s orchestras. It is very easy to say that without Billie Holiday, there wouldn’t be as many jazz vocalists today. She was able to pioneer a sound and enjoyed great success without any formal training. Actually, I would argue that it is precisely because she wasn’t trained into a box that her voice sounded free and effortless.
Holiday in fact was the first jazz woman to experiment with heavy vibrato or the shakiness you hear in her voice, a trademark of her voice throughout her entire career. She also wasn’t afraid to embellish any melody, changing tempos and playing with the phrasing to make it her own.
Unfortunately, like many musicians in those days, Billie struggled with drug and alcohol abuse that also caused various encounters with the law. Eventually, this behavior caught up to her, causing cirrhosis and heart issues. She died at the age of 44 in 1959. Her full influence on music is hard to convey, so I’ll let Frank Sinatra do it: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
Recommended Album: Any of them really, but 1956’s Lady Sings The Blues is a good place to start.
Can you guess the final two?
Sarah Vaughan was one of the classiest ladies in history. She was stunning, full of life, and had one of the “most wonderous voices of the 20th century.” Vaughan began singing and playing piano in church at the age of 7. She actually went to the United State’s first arts magnet high school but because of her “nocturnal adventures as a performer,” she dropped out and pursed her career in music. This move definitely paid off as she began playing gigs in NYC, including a 1942 performance at the Apollo where she opened for Ella Fitzgerald when she was just 18. She was known by her friends and colleagues as a spit fire with tons of personality, earning her the nickname, “Sassie.”
Vaughan throughout her career recorded with some of the best record labels in the business including Columbia, Mercury, and Verve. She received four Grammy Awards which includes a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was given the Jazz Masters Award, the “highest honor in jazz.”
Sarah Vaughan’s vocal style was rather different from the other ladies on our list because of her insane dynamic range. She can lull you into a trance in the deep sultry range of Nina Simone then hit you with high runs that make your hair stand up. Vaughan was also a skilled scat singer, soloing with various syllables in the style of a horn player.
Recommended Album: Sarah Vaughn With Clifford Brown Yes another album with Clifford Brown, he is really that good. This one has a lot of great tunes like the classic “Lullaby of Birdland” and “April in Paris.” I have goosebumps just thinking about it!
“The First Lady of Jazz,” The First Lady of Song” or “Queen of Jazz.” Whatever name you know her by, there is no denying that Ella Fitzgerald was one of if not the greatest vocalist we have ever heard. Even modern pop singers note Fitzgerald as a major influence on their sound. She has worked with countless notable musicians like Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Joe Pass, and the two stellar band leaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
The scope and impact she made on music can never be overstated. She had impeccable tone, clear diction, and is the reigning champion of scat singing. In her lifetime, she recorded with Decca, Verve, and Capitol Records, received 14 Grammy Awards, and won the National Medal of Arts. They really don’t make singers like they used to!
Recommended Album: Literally anything, but a fun one to start with is Ella and Louis. The best jazz vocalist teams up with the jazz trumpet legend Louis Armstrong on their first duet together, which includes eleven hit jazz standards.
What are some of your favorite jazz vocal albums?