25 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Female Jazz Singers Of All Time

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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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, making it a genre that is popular worldwide.

The emergence of the Jazz Age in the 1920s introduced jazz to a variety of audiences. Many notable jazz music artists emerged, including a multitude of exceptional female singers.

In this post, we’re going to look at 25 of the greatest and most famous female jazz singers of all time.

Related: For more like this post, see our list of legendary jazz singers here.

1. Aretha Franklin

The “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin truly deserves the title, for she is an artist whose influence can be heard in countless genres of music. Though she is best known for her contributions to soul and R&B, she also had a significant impact on jazz.

Born in 1942, Franklin had her career beginnings when she was just a teen. At age 14, she already released an album, Songs of Faith. Her early career was marked by jazz recordings that showcased her versatile voice.

Though she eventually focused on soul and R&B, jazz remained in her music. She became known for her improvisational skills, the use of melisma, and her unique phrasing, all of which reflect jazz’s influence on her singing style.

2. Norah Jones

The renowned singer, songwriter, and pianist Norah Jones has made significant contributions to the world of jazz. Her music is characterized by a fusion of jazz, traditional vocal pop, and contemporary folk.

Jones had shown an early inclination toward jazz when she majored in jazz piano and sang with the University of North Texas Jazz Singers. She was propelled to fame when her Come Away with Me album was released in 2002. It featured the critically successful single, “Don’t Know Why.”

Throughout her career, Jones received nine Grammy Awards, five Billboard Music Awards, and a Brit Award. She has sold more than 50 million records worldwide and is recognized by Billboard as the top jazz artist of the 2000’s decade.

3. Ella Fitzgerald

The “Queen of Jazz” Ella Fitzgerald was a legendary jazz singer. The world knows her for her tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, and intonation.

Fitzgerald’s musical journey began after winning Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934. Since then, she has recorded more than 200 albums and more than 2,000 songs. Some of these were in collaboration with some of history’s greatest musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Duke Ellington.

In a career that spanned more than five decades, Fitzgerald sold over 40 million records worldwide. Some of her greatest hits include “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

4. Diana Krall

The Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall is up next on our list. She has won three Grammy awards and eight Juno Awards, along with critically acclaimed albums over the course of her career.

With a background in music from early in her childhood, Krall studied music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Her first album was released in 1993.

Her subsequent album, All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio, was the one that gained her fame among audiences. She is the only jazz singer to have eight albums debut at the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.

Some of her famous hits include “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

5. Bessie Smith

The Jazz Age in the 1920s shed light on many talented jazz musicians, and Bessie Smith is one of them. She is both a blues and jazz vocalist possessing a powerful and soulful voice.

Born in Tennessee, Smith began her career as a street performer before finding a mentor in Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer and recording artist. This made way for Smith 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. For her contributions to music, she is dubbed the “Empress of the Blues.”

6. Etta James

Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles, California, Etta James is an influential singer who performed in various genres such as jazz, blues, R&B, and even rock and roll. She became known for her gritty and powerful voice.

Even at the age of five, James gained attention for her voice. She sang for her church’s choir and performed 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.

Perhaps she is best known for her rendition of the timeless hit “At Last,” which became her signature song. Other than that, she also recorded “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Tell Mama,” and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”

Throughout her career, James won six Grammy Awards and 17 Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Hall of Fame, and Blues Hall of Fame.

7. Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone made a name for herself as a singer, songwriter, and musician. She performed in various genres, including jazz, folk, blues, and R&B.

Coming from a poor family, Simone worked at a nightclub as a pianist. Here, her career as a jazz vocalist began as she was told that she had to sing as well. Her performances were characterized by passionate delivery with her contralto voice and an ability to convey different emotions.

As a jazz singer, Simone incorporated classical music, soul, and pop into her jazz performances. This created a sound that was uniquely her own. Some of her notable jazz recordings include “Feeling Good,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Put A Spell On You.”

8. Madeleine Peyroux

From the streets of Paris where she performed as a teenager, Madeleine Peyroux was propelled to fame with her 2004 album, Careless Love. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums.

Before this, she was performing jazz and blues songs. What made her stand out from other jazz artists is her rich, dusky voice, which you can hear from songs such as “Careless Love,” “Don’t Wait Too Long,” and “The Lonesome Road.”

Throughout her career, Peyroux released nine albums and several collaborations. In 2007, she won Best International Jazz Artist at the BBC Jazz Awards.

9. Billie Holiday

One of the most influential jazz singers of all time is Eleanora Fagan, known professionally as Billie Holiday. She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and began her singing career in Harlem, New York, in 1930.

Holiday made history 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.

In a career that spanned three decades, Holiday collaborated with many famous jazz musicians such as Lester Young, Count Basie, and Paul Whiteman. Some of her popular songs include “God Bless the Child,” “Trav’lin’ Light,” and “Lover Man.”

For her contributions to music, Holiday won four Grammy Awards posthumously. She was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone ranked her fourth on its list of “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

10. Sarah Vaughan

“The Divine One” and “Sassy” are just some of the nicknames Sarah Vaughan gained throughout her career. Though she was active in music as a child, she began her music career after winning a talent competition at the Apollo Theater.

Vaughan gained recognition for the power, range, and flexibility of her voice as a jazz singer. Her voice could reach operatic highs and rich lows with fluidity. And with her perfect intonation, this made her one of the most influential jazz singers of her time.

In the late 1960s, Vaughan returned to her jazz roots and performed regularly into the 1970s and 1980s. Though she passed away in 1990, she left a lasting legacy in the world of jazz.

11. Dee Dee Bridgewater

Born Denise Garrett, Dee Dee Bridgewater came to recognition for a jazz career that spans four decades. Her musical career began from singing in talent shows and local jazz bands.

She began her professional jazz career as a singer for the Thad Jones-Mel Louis Jazz Orchestra. Throughout the years, she ascended to the upper echelons of the music world and established herself as an influential figure in the jazz community.

Though she has experimented with pop music, Bridgewater has always held her roots in jazz. She made numerous live performances and collaborated with some big names in the industry.

Bridgewater won three Grammy Awards, one of which was for Best Jazz Vocal Album. She also won a NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2017.

12. Ruth Brown

She might have been called the “Queen of R&B,” but Ruth Brown also made contributions to other genres, including jazz. Thanks to her rich and emotive voice, she is widely recognized for her contributions to jazz music.

Her successful career spanned several decades. She was active from the 1940s until her death in 2006. Some of the songs she popularized include “Teardrops from My Eyes,” “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” and “So Long.”

Brown recorded these hit songs for Atlantic Records, which was dubbed as “the house that Ruth built.”

Throughout her career, Brown received various accolades and awards. She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame the following year.

13. Diane Schuur

Affectionately known as “Deedles,” Diane Schuur is an American jazz singer and pianist born in Washington. Though she was born blind, she possesses an absolute pitch memory and a clear vocal tone that made her a highly celebrated artist.

Shuur has made significant contributions to contemporary jazz throughout her career. As of 2020, she has made 26 albums, which proves her dedication to her craft. Her musical style is known for being versatile and powerful and her enthusiastic take on jazz made her a leading vocalist in this genre.

Despite the challenges posed by her being blind, her passion for music was undeterred. And now she is one of the most influential jazz singers, winning Grammy Awards for Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance.

14. Shirley Horn

The American jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn was born in 1934 in Washington, DC. She became known for her unique style and the slow pace of her music.

Horn’s music career began early. At age four, she was already taking piano lessons. By 12, she was studying at Howard University, taking piano and composition and graduating in classical music.

Though her career began as a pianist, she quickly earned recognition as a jazz vocalist. She was recognized for her distinct voice and the excellent delivery of her performances.

In 1992, Horn’s album, Here’s to Life, was that year’s top-selling jazz album. Another album, I Remember Miles, won her a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

The 109th US Congress recognized her for her contributions to the world of jazz. In 2005, she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. This is the highest honor that a jazz musician can receive.

15. Helen Merrill

Our next jazz singer on the list is Jelena Ana Milcetic, better known as Helen Merrill. She is one of the enduring figures in jazz for having a career spanning six decades.

Merrill found success at the release of her self-titled debut studio album. This played a significant role in establishing her as a jazz musician and made way for a career that witnessed her collaborating with notable artists such as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown.

Notably, Merrill has a strong following in Japan, where she was a favorite jazz singer for five decades. In 2017, she returned to Japan for three nights of “Sayonara” performances, which hints at a retirement.

For her contributions to jazz music, Merrill was inducted into ASCAP’s Jazz Hall of Fame as a Living Legend.

16. Dinah Washington

One of the most popular black female recording artists of the 1950s was Dinah Washington. Born Ruth Lee Jones, she grew up singing and playing the piano in a gospel group, showing her musical talent from early on.

Though Washington was primarily a jazz vocalist, she was also excellent at performing other styles such as blues and R&B. She made hit after hit between the 1940s and 1950s, starting with her version of Fat Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” With 27 Top 10 hits, Washington was one of the most successful singers of the period.

For her contributions to music, Washington was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

17. Carmen McRae

The iconic Carmen McRae was a remarkable jazz singer. Many consider her as an influential jazz vocalist of the 20th century.

McRae was a contemporary of numerous other great female vocalists, such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Though she didn’t achieve the notoriety that Vaughan and Fitzgerald achieved, she gained recognition for her skilled interpretation of lyrics, a talent that listeners primarily attribute to her.

Throughout her career, McRae released numerous albums and also appeared in films. In 1994, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award.

18. Dianne Reeves

The highly acclaimed jazz singer Dianne Reeves is up next on our list. Born in 1956, she became one of the top jazz singers since the late ’80s. In addition, she is considered a successor to Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae.

Reeves was lucky in that her love for music was fostered in the environment where she grew up. Her talent and improvisational process earned her the distinction of being an excellent jazz singer. And with five Grammy wins, she is one of the most decorated singers in the genre.

Some of the songs that she recorded are “Better Days,” “Never Too Far,” and “Waiting In Vain.” With more than five decades in the industry, Reeves continues to be an active figure in the jazz community.

19. Eartha Kitt

Our list of jazz singers will not be complete with Eartha Kitt, a highly acclaimed jazz singer. She became an international star known for her distinctive singing style and voice.

Kitt’s career spanned more than six decades, during which she gained a large following. She captivated her audience with her sultry voice and undeniable stage presence. Her signature song, “Santa Baby,” remains a timeless classic that showcases her vocal style.

In the 1950s, six of her songs entered the Top 30, including “I Want to Be Evil” and “Uska Dura.” Other songs, such as “Under the Bridges of Paris,” made their way into the UK Top 10.

Though Kitt passed away in 2008 from colon cancer, her influence in the jazz community remains strong.

20. June Christy

With many other jazz artists competing for the limelight, June Christy stood out for her unique, silky smooth voice. She was born in Springfield, Illinois, and was recognized for her contributions to the jazz genre.

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

After hearing Christy perform, jazz singer Anita O’Day recommended Christy as her replacement in the Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. With the band, Christy had a platform to showcase her singing style that would eventually define her solo career.

Her voice is often described as a foggy alto. The relaxed tempos and lighter tones were a perfect match for her vocal range.

21. Anita O’Day

Another jazz singer who enjoyed a lengthy career is Anita O’Day. She is recognized for her unique sound and known for being skillful with ballads. She would be named “The Jezebel of Jazz” and became one of the greatest jazz singers of her time.

Her big break came when she started performing in a club named Off-Beat alongside several notable musicians, including her later bandmate, Gene Krupa. Her style and approach to music revolutionized what it meant to be a female jazz artist in a male-dominated world.

Throughout her career that spanned decades, O’Day recorded numerous albums for different record labels. In addition to her music and performances, a 1958 documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, added to her rise in popularity.

22. Julie London

Born Julie Peck, Julie London rose to prominence as a jazz and pop singer. Though she was also an actress, her unique singing style made her a standout in the world of music. Specifically, London was known for her sultry contralto vocals.

Throughout her career, London released more than 30 albums of jazz and pop standards. The majority of her albums were recorded under Liberty Records, and this earned her the nickname “Liberty Girl.”

Some of her famous songs include the jazz standards “Cry Me a River” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The former was a significant hit, cementing her place in the music industry. In addition, her recording of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.

23. Abbey Lincoln

The Chicago-born jazz singer Abbey Lincoln was heavily influenced by both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Her first jazz album was recorded in 1956, followed by several others for the Riverside Records label.

Lincoln’s meeting with Holiday and Armstrong early in her career shaped her approach to music. It also helped develop her unique style that combined elements of their music along with her own interpretations.

One thing that made her stand out was her ability to convey emotions in her performances. This contributed to the success of her career in the world of music.

24. Blossom Dearie

Known for her light and girlish voice is Blossom Dearie. She was both a vocalist and a pianist who began to play the piano when she was five years old.

Despite having trained as a classical musician, Dearie was drawn to jazz music. She collaborated with big names in the industry such as Johnny Mercer, Miles Davis, and Johnny Mandel.

Some of her popular songs include “The Riviera,” “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Dearie passed away in 2009. However, her legacy continues through the extensive catalog of recordings she left and the countless musicians she has inspired.

25. Chris Connor

With more than five decades in the music industry, Mary Jean Loutsenhizer deserves a spot on our list. Going by her professional name Chris Connor, this renowned jazz singer became known for her controlled delivery of the American Popular Songbook.

Connor’s career took off in the 1950s with the release of her first album. Her subtle but smoky vocals and her cool jazz sound attracted a large following that remained loyal for decades.

With 42 albums in her name, Connor remains a significant figure in the jazz community. Some of the songs she recorded include “Cherokee,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Wish You Were Here.”

Summing Up Our List Of Female Jazz Singers

Back in the day, the world of music might have been dominated by men. However, many female jazz singers have broken into the scene and left a lasting impact with their unique voices and singing styles.

We hope you liked the list we compiled today. These artists deserve a listen and appreciation for their legacy in the world of jazz.

Have we missed some singers that you want to see up there? Let us know! We’re always open to suggestions and recommendations.

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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.