14 Famous Female Jazz Singers you Should Know

Jazz is a genre of music that has been in circulation since the late-19th century. With strong roots in the African-American culture of New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz has expanded outwards widely, making it a genre that is popular globally. The emergence of the Jazz Age in the 1920s pushed jazz across the world to a variety of audiences. There are many notable jazz musicians who have left their marks on the smooth genre of music, including a multitude of exceptional female musicians.

In this post, we’re going to look at 14 famous female jazz singers throughout history and explore their lives and careers.

1. Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

Ella Fitzgerald is an iconic jazz singer who is also referred to as “The First Lady of Song.”

During her lifetime, Ella Fitzgerald reigned in popularity for over 50 years, winning 13 Grammy awards during her tenure and selling over 40 million records.

Ella Fitzgerald collaborated with a variety of other talented and notable jazz musicians, like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

Her melodic and versatile voice attracted a range of audiences from numerous backgrounds.

Ella Fitzgerald began her singing career in New York at the Apollo theater after spontaneously deciding to sing for a performance rather than dance, as she had originally planned.

Her final performance was also in New York at Carnegie Hall, where she had previously performed 25 other times.

2. Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began her singing career in Harlem, New York, alongside Laurence Jackson in 1930.

Also known as “Lady Day,” Billie Holiday received her famous nickname in 1937 from Lester Young, a prominent saxophone player.

Holiday made history the following year, in 1938, by becoming the first African-American woman to work with a white orchestra.

In 1939, she debuted her iconic song “Strange Fruit” in Cafe Society, the first integrated nightclub in New York.

Following her passing in 1959, Billie Holiday has continued to receive awards, including Grammy awards.

3. Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990)

Sarah Vaughan is a skilled vocalist who performed with both big bands and as a solo musician during her lifetime.

Though she was active in music as a child, Sarah Vaughan began her music career after winning a talent competition at the Apollo Theater.

Vaughan, whose parents were also musicians, grew up learning how to play the organ and the piano.

Early into her music career, Sarah Vaughan also worked with Dizzy Gillespie, one of the most famous trumpeters.

Along with Charlie Parker, a notable saxophonist, Vaughan and Gillespie created bebop, which would later become a popular form of jazz.

4. Etta James (1928-2001)

Etta James is the musician behind the silky voice that is heard on the popular song “At Last.”

Even at the age of five years old, Etta James was already gaining notoriety for her voice by singing for her church’s choir and performing for radio audiences.

However, her musical career didn’t begin to blossom until the 1960s, after she released a multitude of songs and signed with Chess Records.

James stunned audiences with her duets and ballads, like “At Last,” but also had many other popular songs, such as “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

5. Diana Krall (1964-)

Diana Krall is a jazz musician from Nanaimo, British Columbia.

She is both a vocalist and a pianist who has won three Grammy awards over the course of her career.

With a background in music from early in her childhood, Diana Krall studied music at Berklee College of Music, a prestigious school of music in Boston, Massachusets.

Krall’s first album was released in 1993, but her subsequent album, All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, was the album that allowed her to gain popularity among audiences.

During her career, Krall has collaborated with a variety of skilled musicians, including Tony Bennett.

6. June Christy (1925-1990)

June Christy was born in Springfield, Illinois and is popular with listeners for her smooth voice.

Christy began singing for a jazz band in Decatur, Illinois when she was 13 years old, providing her with experience before she moved to Chicago, Illinois after she graduated high school.

After hearing June Christy perform, Anita O’Day recommended Christy as her replacement in the Kenton Band.

Christy began her solo career in 1951 after she signed to Capital Records.

Something Cool was initially recorded in 1953 and was one of Christy’s most cherished projects.

Something Cool is the only solo project from June Christy that is still being printed. 

7. Dee Dee Bridgewater (1950-)

Dee Dee Bridgewater is a three-time Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist who was born in Memphis, Tennessee.

She began her professional jazz career as a singer for the Thad Jones/Mel Louis Big Band.

Though she has experimented with pop music, Bridgewater has always held her roots in jazz.

Bridgewater has also won a Tony award during her career and is currently on tour.

8. Anita O’Day (1919-2006)

Anita O’Day is a popular jazz vocalist who began her lengthy career as a teenager.

After changing her birth-given name, Anita Belle Colton, O’Day started performing in Off-Beat alongside several notable musicians, including her later bandmate, Gene Krupa.

In addition to her music and performances, a 1958 documentary, named Jazz on a Summer’s Day, allowed Anita O’Day to rise in popularity.

9. Julie London (1926-2000)

Julie London is an American jazz vocalist who recorded 32 full albums during her career as a vocalist.

London helped develop Liberty Records, which earned her the nickname “Liberty Girl.”

The majority of London’s albums were recorded under Liberty Records, allowing both London and Liberty Records to rise in popularity with one another.

10. Carmen McRae (1922-1994)

Carmen McRae is an iconic jazz vocalist who was a contemporary of numerous other great female vocalists, such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

McRae, who looked up to Billie Holiday, wrote a song named “Dream of Life” that was later recorded by Billie Holiday.

Though McRae didn’t achieve the notoriety that Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald achieved, she gained recognition for her skilled interpretation of lyrics, a talent that listeners primarily attribute to her.

11. Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

The Jazz Age in the 1920s shed light on many talented jazz musicians, and Bessie Smith was one of those musicians.

Bessie Smith was both a blues and a jazz vocalist, singing with a voice that was both powerful and soulful.

As a child, Smith performed as a street singer while she was being raised by her aunt.

She joined the Moses Stokes minstrel show in 1912 as a dancer.

After joining Rabbit Foot Minstrels, Bessie Smith found a mentor in Ma Rainey, allowing her to have the guidance that she needed to progress as a vocalist.

Smith signed with Columbia Records in 1923 and became one of the highest-paid African-American performers of the time.

Bessie Smith is acclaimed as the Empress of the Blues.

12. Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010)

Abbey Lincoln is a Chicago-born vocalist who was heavily-influenced by both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.

Lincoln, who had the opportunity to meet both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, recorded her first jazz album in 1956.

Subsequently, in 1957, Abbey Lincoln played a role in the film The Girl Can’t Help it.

Lincoln continued her acting career alongside her career in jazz until 1962, when she stopped recording music for over ten years.

After teaching drama courses at California State University, Abbey Lincoln made a return to jazz in 1973 with her album People in Me.

13. Blossom Dearie (1924-2009)

Blossom Dearie is a jazz musician who had a distinct voice, making her popular with many listeners.

Dearie was both a vocalist and a pianist, beginning to play the piano when she was five years old.

Despite having training as a Classical musician, Dearie was drawn to jazz music.

About a decade prior to moving to Paris after signing with Barclay Records, Blossom Dearie lived and performed in New York.

14. Norah Jones (1979-)

Norah Jones is a vocalist and pianist who is most known for her 2002 breakout hit, “Don’t Know Why.”

She is the daughter of a well-known sitar musician, Ravi Shankar.

Though she has been regarded as one of the best modern jazz singers, she took a break and ventured out to other genres before making a recent return to jazz.

Photo of author
Written by Laura Macmillan
Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.