Jazz music has been described by many as rhythmic, emotional, free, and smooth. The music style developed in the United States early on in the 20th century in the heart of the diverse city of New Orleans.
Since then, music lovers have been blessed to experience the soulful, artful, and oftentimes improvised tunes from the likes of singers like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Dean Martin, to name a few.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the history of jazz by exploring 35 of the greatest and most famous jazz singers to ever grace a microphone.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
We begin with Ella Fitzgerald, who is truly one of the greats—you have to be to earn such a title as the First Lady of Song.
One of the most popular female jazz singers in the country, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards and sold more than 40 million albums in her lifetime.
Not only did she have incredible solo success, but she worked alongside some of the best in the business, including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra.
Although Fitzgerald came from humble Virginia beginnings, she was recording her first of over 200 albums by the age of 21 and topping the charts shortly after.
2. Frank Sinatra
Even those who know little about jazz know the name Frank Sinatra. Born in December of 1915,Sinatra was the child of immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey.
As a child, he loved to perform, participating in the glee club and singing at local nightclubs. It’s said that his inspiration to sing came from another great jazz singer Bing Crosby.
Sinatra gained exposure through the radio and began recording in the 30s. He led a successful solo career encompassing big band and jazz hits. Later, he formed the famous Rat Pack and began an acting career.
In total, his career spanned over 50 years and left us with a lifetime of music and productions to enjoy forever.
3. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, less formally known as Lady Day, was a famous American jazz and swing music singer.
Though her life was cut short due to heart and liver problems from drugs and alcohol, she had quite an extensive career that spanned four different record labels.
Many jazz enthusiasts considerher the greatest jazz vocalist of all time, but her life didn’t begin that way.Holiday had a rough childhood that landed her in a facility for troubled African American girls. As a young adult, she moved to New York City and worked in a house of prostitution for a while.
But after she began singing in local clubs, Holiday was discovered by a producer and started recording vocals. The rest is history!
4. Louis Armstrong
Jazz singer Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential jazz artists of all time. His five-decade career included playing the cornet, singing catchy jazz hits, and appearing in Hollywood films.
Armstrong had a rough start in life. He dropped out of school in fifth grade so he could work and purchase his first cornet. After being arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, he learned how to play and later led the band.
In 1924,Armstrong’s wife encouraged him to make it on his own—and he certainly did. He founded Louis Armstrong and His Five, later the Hot Seven, spearheaded jazz improvisation, and expanded his impressive feats with incredible vocals.
Though he passed before the age of 70, Armstrong left us with over 30 albums and much more.
5. Nina Simone
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone was the sixth of eight children in a very poor family. Though they didn’t have much, she was able to learn the piano at a young age, which led to her love of music.
After attending the Juilliard School of Music, she began playing and singing jazz in a nightclub. Her family didn’t approve of the music she played, so she disguised herself with the name Nina Simone.
It was this humble beginning that launched her whole career. Simone’s career entailed 40+ albums that exuded not only jazz stylings, but R&B, blues, soul, classical, and gospel.
6. Nat King Cole
For those who are not jazz aficionados, you probably recognize the name Nat King Cole most for his Christmas songs. But Nathaniel Adams Coles was much more than a Christmas vocalist—he was a professional singer, jazz pianist, and actor.
Cole was born in Alabama and learned music from his mother. After moving to Chicago, he dropped out of high school to pursue music. His career only blossomed from there.
He spent time with the King Cole Swingsters and later recorded his first hit “Sweet Lorraine.” Both his singing and acting career continued well into the ’60s until he passed away of lung cancer.
7. Gregory Porter
The birth of the success of Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter, and actor Gregory Porter actually came out of the death of his first dream, which was to play professional football.
After injuring his shoulder, Gregory’s mother encouraged him to pursue music. But it wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he recorded his first album—which shows it’s never too late to achieve a goal.
To date, Porter has released four successful albums, like Liquid Spirit and Take Me to the Alley, and has gained great notoriety in jazz, blues, soul, and gospel.
8. Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan went by many names, a couple being Sassy and the Divine One. This American jazz singer began studying music when she was seven years old and grew up singing in church.
But what truly launchedVaughan’s career was her victory at Harlem’s Apollo Theater talent competition. She became a successful solo artist, encompassing sounds of jazz and pop, and had hit singles like “Broken Hearted Melody” and “Whatever Lola Wants.”
Vaughan went on to win four Grammy awards during her lifetime, one of which was the Lifetime Achievement Award, and a NEA Jazz Masters Award.
9. Michael Bublé
Moving to contemporary times, MichaelBublé is one of the few jazz singers who is well-known for his work across several genres.
Bublé had the grand dream of becoming a professional singer from the young age of just 2. He was deeply inspired by Bing Crosby. But his dreams weren’t always so clear-cut, asBublé loves hockey and also dreamed of playing for the Vancouver Canucks.
As far as talent went, it seemed that all of his was channeled into music, not sports, as the Canadian-born singer released his debut album in 2003 and completed his tenth album in 2018.
10. Mel Tormé
Not only was MelTormé one of the great jazz singers, but he started out as a child prodigy beginning his professional career at the very young age of three.
As a teenager,Tormé moved on to bigger and better things. He continued singing in a band led by Chico Marx, where he also played drums and created arrangements.
From the 1940s to the ’90s,Tormé carved his path to fame continuously. He started working as an actor and appeared in Frank Sinatra’s first film. He also performed in musicals and sang in concert halls and nightclubs.
Tormé’s husky voice was one for the ages that awarded him the nickname the Velvet Fog. Listen to his version of “Blue Moon” to find out for yourself.
11. Chet Baker
Dually talented artist Chet Baker was both a jazz vocalist and a trumpeter. He had a significant impact on the cool jazz subgenre, which landed him the nickname Prince of Cool.
It comes as no surprise thatBaker was a musical success, as he was raised in a musical household. His mother was a pianist, and his father was a professional guitarist.
Baker’s musical talent earned him an induction into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, the DownBeat Magazine Jazz Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, among many other accolades.
Though his career didn’t start until his late forties, partially due to his time in the army, he certainly made his name known.
12. Carmen McRae
Born in Harlem, New York City, Carmen McRae began studying music and the piano at the age of eight. The influential American jazz singer got her professional start by playing piano in an NYC club in her teens and twenties.
By the time the 1950s rolled around,McRae had scored her first record contract. From there, the accolades piled on as she was named best new female vocalist of 1954.
McRae was inspired by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday—all of which we already recognized as some of the greats. She also recorded alongside Louis Armstrong, made several film appearances, and performed at jazz festivals.
13. Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding is a woman of many talents. She is a jazz singer, bassist, and composer whose roots stem from a multilingual, multiethnic household.
Spalding taught herself how to play the violin at an early age and scored a spot in the local community orchestra at the incredible age of five. She continued to perform and learned several more instruments, branching out into various genres like hip-hop and blues.
Spalding attended the Berklee College of Music and became the school’s youngest teacher at the age of 20. She started releasing albums in 2006 and has since won four Grammy awards, a Boston Music Award, and a Soul Train Music Award.
14. Harry Connick Jr.
New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. is a wonderful performer and an award-winning artist. He discovered his musical talent very early and began performing with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra at the age of nine.
He eventually studied at the Manhattan School of Music before releasing his first self-titled album.Connick has an extensive repertoire of music, which includes jazz albums, instrumental albums, and Christmas albums—When My Heart Finds Christmas was a bestseller.
Today,Connick remains a successful singer, actor, composer, television personality, and pianist. It has also been recently announced that he is set to judge 2023’s Australian Idol.
15. Ray Charles
The Genius singer and musician Ray Charles Robinson Jr. was born in Albany, Georgia. As a young toddler,Charles mostly enjoyed cars and farm machinery.
However, it didn’t take long for him to discover and learn the piano. By the age of four or five,Charles started to lose his vision and became blind. He later attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where he continued to develop his musical talent.
At just 14 years old, Ray moved to Jacksonville and played piano at the Ritz Theatre. He saw some hard days before forming his trio and recording his first big hit, “Confession Blues.” From there, Ray’s success only grew.
He recorded several successful jazz and blues hits and albums and even dabbled in Latin music, gospel, and pop. His career is speckled with awards and recognition.
16. Dean Martin
Chet Baker may have been the Prince of Cool, but Dean Martin was the King of Cool.
The Ohio-born singer, actor, and comedian worked hard early in life, taking on jobs as a gas station worker, a steel mill worker, and a casino croupier just to make it by.
But this crooner eventually got his time in the spotlight—so much so that he’s still a beloved jazz musician today.
Martin began singing in nightclubs and modeling his style off of the great Bing Crosby. His acts grew more famous, and he moved onto bigger venues, writing and recording music along the way.
He was well-known for his pairing with comic Jerry Lewis, and the two shared a bill at the 500 Club in Atlantic City.
Martin was later affiliated with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and was hoisted as a playboy, topping charts and enjoying an acting career.
17. Kurt Elling
Kurt Elling is a current American jazz singer and songwriter born in Chicago. He began his music career like many other artists: in church.
While studying at Gustavus Adolphus College,Elling discovered jazz music and fell in love. He performed all around Chicago—not just singing, but performing improv and scat.
After recording his first demo in the 1990s, he was signed by Blue Note Records. In fact, Kurt’s demo became the label’s debut Grammy nominee.
Kurt Elling moved on to work with several other labels and recorded more albums. During his career, he has been nominated for ten Grammy awards, two of which he won and one as recently as 2021.
18. Diana Krall
Canadian jazz pianist and jazz singer Diana Krall has accumulated a number of national honors, provincial and territorial honors, and an honorary doctorate, among other awards and recognition.
Krall started studying piano at the age of four and continued to learn at the Royal Conservatory of Music. She began playing professionally in local restaurants at just 15 and later earned a scholarship for the Berklee College of Music.
Krall wasted no time after graduating college and returned home to record her first album, Stepping Out. She has recorded over a dozen albums, one of which was dedicated to the Nat King Cole trio in 1996.
19. Tony Bennett
Anthony Dominick Benedetto—known to most as Tony Bennett—is one of the best-known pop singers of the 1950s and ’60s, particularly with his song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
In the early years of his career, his record label encouraged him to stick with being a pop crooner. But Bennett always had a soul for jazz and loved collaborating with talented musicians in the genre.
His 1987 album, simply called Jazz, featured highlights of his collaborations over the years with legends like Count Basie, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, and others.
Bennett has enjoyed amazing longevity in his career and made comebacks during the 1980s and 2020s to introduce himself to new generations of fans.
20. Dianne Reeves
Detroit native Dianne Reeves was born to make music. Her family was lucky enough to have several talented musicians, including her cousin, Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist George Duke.
Dianne’s career began in the mid-1970s when she recorded with various jazz musicians, including Billy Childs, Lenny White, and the band Caldera.
Reeves is often praised for her highly skilled, instinctual singing style, featuring a creative interpretation of lyrics, scat, and runs. She is a classically trained singer who understands how music works and spins beautiful sounds from that foundation.
21. Al Jarreau
Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Al Jarreau made a name for himself in jazz clubs across the US and Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, charming audiences with his smooth, heartwarming voice and talent for vocal percussion.
By the ’80s, Jarreau was a household name and commercial success. His 1981 album, Breakin’ Away, made it to the top 40 on pop charts. Its pop sound was heavily tinged with jazz and R&B elements and was brought to life by Jarreau’s brilliant songwriting.
Jarreau continued making music throughout the ’90s and 2000s. He retired in 2017 and sadly passed away only two days after. The 11-time Grammy winner left behind a musical legacy that won’t be forgotten.
22. Dee Dee Bridgewater
This gifted performer has multiple awards, traveled the world, and acted on both stage and screen. Dee Dee Bridgewater was exposed to music from a young age by her father, who was a musician and teacher.
Bridgewater began touring with her husband’s band at only 19 years old and, by the age of 24, had already put out her first album, Afro Blue. She went on to have a successful, award-winning recording career with 20 albums.
The Memphis-native singer also appeared on stage in The Wiz, Lady Day, and other productions, eventually adding several TV credits to her portfolio.
23. Louis Prima
During the 1920s and ’30s, mainstream culture still held a great deal of bigotry against anyone who wasn’t a “standard” white Anglo-Protestant. Because of this, many musicians shied away from highlighting their ethnic heritage.
Louis Prima took the opposite route, celebrating his background in fun, playful jazz numbers that incorporated traditional Sicilian music styles and dialects.
The decision paid off, and Prima became one of the top performers of the 1940s and ’50s. His unique brand of jazz and distinctive vocal delivery sent him to the top, giving him a slot in Las Vegas and a memorable vocal role in Disney’s 1967 classic The Jungle Book.
24. Cassandra Wilson
Whether singing with the band M-Base, recording solo material, or collaborating with greats like Wynton Marsalis and the Roots, Cassandra Wilson wows with her authentic artistry.
Wilson’s parents worked as teachers and were deeply interested in music. This love of music and learning led Wilson to embrace a style all her own that blends folk, country, and blues with her first love, jazz.
Wilson has won two Grammy awards (for her albums New Moon Daughter and Loverly) and multiple other music awards. She has also been honored with doctorates from both Berklee and the New School.
25. Anita O’Day
Song stylist Anita O’Day was a classic female jazz crooner who insisted on doing things her way. She performed at jazz clubs across the US and Europe and, in her early days, embraced a renegade style of dress, rejecting fancy dresses for plain black shirts and skirts.
In addition to performing with jazz bands, the Kansas City native released dozens of albums as a solo artist, each one showcasing her sultry tone, creative phrasing, and impressive vocal control.
Favorite among fans, however, was her live performances, thanks to her natural charisma and charm. A documentary was made about this iconic jazz vocalist in 2007, titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.
26. Jamie Cullum
While the United States is considered the birthplace of jazz, many British artists have made names for themselves in the genre. Jamie Cullum is one of the most highly-praised British jazz artists of the last 25 years.
Cullum blends traditional jazz sounds with other styles of music, like rock and adult contemporary, creating a class with broad popular appeal. His mastery of the piano and guitar, along with his smooth, soothing voice, have helped make him the success he is today.
He is a Grammy-nominated artist who has performed at many music festivals, including Coachella, the North Sea Jazz Festival, Glastonbury, and the Montreux Jazz Festival.
27. Dinah Washington
Where do jazz singers get their soulful inspiration? In the case of Dinah Washington, it was gospel music that planted the seed. The Chicago-based crooner spent her early years surrounded by the sounds of the choir at the Baptist church her family attended. Later, that musical influence led her to sing with jazz bands.
After signing with Mercury Records in the late 1940s, Washington had several hits, including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Baby Get Lost, and I Wanna Be Loved. Audiences loved her high, raspy voice and sexy, torch-song style.
Sadly, Washington didn’t live to continue her remarkable career. She passed away in 1963 at the age of 39. Her legacy continued, and in 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
28. Betty Carter
Improvisation is one of the key stylistic points of jazz music. Performers don’t stay “on book”; they use their creative intuition to play and sing new sounds and put their personal stamp on a song.
Betty Carter was a master of improvisation, using vocal techniques like scat and runs to have fun with a melody. This creative energy propelled her through a storied career that included collaborations with the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.
Later in life, Carter became a passionate music educator and mentor, helping young people learn more about jazz and encouraging them in their careers.
29. Johnny Hartman
This jazz singer got his start singing in the US Army, but after winning a singing contest, Johnny Hartman won the attention of two jazz legends who helped his career take off.
First, it was Dizzy Gillespie who invited Hartman to tour with him in 1948. This undoubtedly helped Hartman showcase his talents and make valuable connections in the business.
In the early 1960s, he was invited to collab with the great John Coltrane. This was quite a compliment because Coltrane rarely brought singers on board and preferred to let the instruments do the talking. Johnny Hartman must have had something exceptional.
30. Bobby Darin
As one of the top heartthrobs of the 1950s, Bobby Darin enjoyed fame and adoration from his legions of fans. With hits like “Dream Lover,” “Splish Splash,” and “Beyond the Sea,” he was well-known as a pop act, but he also made other kinds of music, including jazz.
Darin’s smooth voice was perfect for jazz music, and he had a knack for lyrical interpretation too. His talent is apparent in one of his best-known songs, “Mack the Knife.” The song is about a killer who has so far evaded capture thanks to his stealth moves. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.
31. Joe Williams
Georgia-born singer Joe Williams had a big, booming, emotional voice that communicated the real meaning of the blues. He told stories of love and loss that were entertaining and relatable to his audiences.
He rose to fame as a singer with the Count Basie Orchestra and developed a relationship with Basie so close that Williams sometimes referred to him as his father.
In addition to his music, Williams also enjoyed an acting career. Some may remember him as Clare’s father, Grandpa Al, on the Cosby Show.
32. Nancy Wilson
The husky, sensual voice and elegant beauty of jazz, pop, and R&B singer Nancy Wilson won her plenty of attention and spots on many variety shows and TV dramas. In 1968, she had her own variety show on NBC, the Nancy Wilson Show.
Wilson had a gift for storytelling that kept audiences in thrall when she sang. Songs she’s well-known for are “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” and “Guess Who I Saw Today.”
She won three Grammy awards, an NAACP Image Award, and an honorary degree from Berklee for her works. The Ohio-born chanteuse was an activist for equal rights and a supporter of education.
33. Mark Murphy
Another prolific jazz artist was Mark Murphy. He put out over 50 albums during his career, which spanned from the mid-1950s to 2015.
Murphy was born and raised around Syracuse, New York, and showed an aptitude for music from an early age. He began singing with his brother’s band when he was a teenager. Like many aspiring jazz singers, he moved to New York City to pursue his dream.
Murphy had a knack for wordplay, quick, precise diction, and vocal improvisation. He also possessed a deep, velvet singing voice. These gifts won him a recording contract in 1955 and many years of success in the ensuing years, both in the US and the UK, where he eventually moved.
34. Norah Jones
In the early 2000s, jazz had all but disappeared from most mainstream radio stations. Rock and pop ruled the day, with some adult easy-listening standards thrown in for good measure. Nobody thought classic, old-time jazz would make a comeback. That is until Norah Jones came along.
The Texas-based songstress grew up inspired by Billie Holiday, and it showed in her skilled vocal styling. As a trained pianist, Jones wasn’t just a vocalist; she wrote and played her own music.
In addition to her talents, Jones’ youth and beauty drew crowds, and her album Come Away With Me scored her five Grammy Awards in 2004.
35. Madeleine Peyroux
Our last singer started her career singing in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Madeleine Peyroux then toured Europe with a group called the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band before starting a solo career.
Peyroux was often compared to Billie Holiday, but she had her own unique touch to jazz singing and interpretation. After her breakthrough with her second album, Careless Love, which landed at #7 on the UK charts and was soon certified Gold, she went on to release seven more over her career.
The Athens, Georgia-born singer is known to have collaborated with other artists, like William Galison and Julian Coryell. Her works have landed her several awards, including a BBC Jazz Award for Best International Jazz Artist.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Jazz Singers
It’s safe to say that the jazz genre is composed of some extremely talented artists that span the years, from as early as 1901 to the present day.
From singers to pianists to trumpeters, the genre is full of soul, rasp, smooth, improv, scat, and more.
Whether you’re already a fan of jazz or newly exploring this musical world, this list can certainly get you started on some of the must-know artists.