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Top 10 Famous Female Jazz Vocalists

Many renowned jazz performers, including many of the excellent female musicians, have left their imprints on the realm of jazz music.

Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald are a timeless trio of female jazz singers that will never go out of style.

They led the way and carved themselves their rightful places in a genre once dominated by men, bringing happiness to our lives with their artistry.

In this article, we’ll take a look at ten notable female jazz vocalists throughout history and take a glance at their lives and careers.

What is jazz vocal music?

Jazz vocal is an instrumental approach to jazz that uses the voice. It is similar to a cappella in that it uses voice arrangements to create sounds that constitute music rather than traditional musical instruments.

What makes a good jazz singer?

Any true jazz singer must have the sensibility to lyrics, a fully advanced musicality, a strong rhythm, and a nice sounding tone.

What are the distinguishing features of jazz vocals?

These characteristics include the flexibility to swing, the ability to interact creatively and artistically with improvising, and the ability to transform good songs into something unique and personal.

10. Dakota Staton

Dakota Staton
Dakota Staton

On June 3, 1930, Dakota Staton was born and died on April 10, 2007. She was an American jazz vocalist best known for her 1957 No. 4 song “The Late, Late Show.”

Due to her conversion to Islam, she changed her name to Aliyah Rabia performed under that name for a short time.

She took classical singing classes in her teens and performed in local clubs. Later, as a vocalist with the Joe Westray Ensemble, a prominent Pittsburgh orchestra, she sang mainly in the Hill District, a jazz hotspot.

For several years, she then worked in nightclubs in Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

A Capitol Records producer, Dave Cavanaugh, noticed her performing at a Baby Grand’s Harlem nightclub in New York.

She was contracted and produced many songs, and her success earned her the title of “Most Promising Newcomer” in Down Beat magazine in 1955.

She issued numerous critically acclaimed albums, including The Late, Late Show, whose title song became her most significant success.

After that, she returned to the United States in the early 1970s; she continued to record semi-regularly, with her songs taking on an increasingly strong gospel and blues flavor.

Her health deteriorated after she had a stroke in 1999. Staton passed away in New York City in 2007 at 76.

9. Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith in 1936
Bessie Smith in 1936

Elizabeth Smith commonly known as Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894, died on September 26, 1937, in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

She was the most successful female blues performer throughout the 1920s and 1930s. She is widely considered among the best vocalists of her time, and she had a significant influence on other blues and jazz performers.

Smith experienced childhood in obscurity and hardship. She performed her first public appearance at the Ivory Theatre in her hometown when she was eight or nine years old.

Smith spent several years touring the South, singing in tent shows, pubs, and small-town theaters. Smith recorded her debut recordings in February 1923, including the famous “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold over two million copies.

She released 160 records, many of which featured some of the greatest jazz players, notably Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong.

Smith’s topic was traditional blues showing up: poverty and tyranny, romance or emotional intimacy, grim acceptance of failure at the hands of a harsh and unsympathetic society.

Her rich contralto tone and unique emotional intensity made her famous.

With the Great Depression and as social factors transformed the character of mainstream music and bowdlerized the raw reality of the thoughts she expressed in her music, her record sales and renown declined in the late 1920s.

8. Dinah Washington

Washington in 1962
Washington in 1962

Ruth Lee Jones, commonly known as Dinah Washington, was born on August 29, 1924, and died on December 14, 1963. She was the most prominent black female performer of the 1950s songs.”

She was primarily a jazz vocalist, but she also performed and recorded in blues, R&B, and traditional pop music, earning her “Queen of the Blues.”

She was known for her unusual gospel-influenced style and excellent voice control. Ruth Jones relocated to Chicago as a child with her family. She used to sing and play the piano in her church choir early.

She started singing and playing the piano in local Chicago nightclubs in 1939 while also touring with Sallie Martin’s gospel ensemble. Between 1942 and 1943, she went by the stage name Dinah Washington.

Later, she switched to the mainstream music industry, where she achieved her most tremendous financial success, most notably with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.”

On the other hand, Washington continued to perform at jazz festivals, and she maintained many of her early followers because of her passionate, flexible style.

She was elected into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Washington’s accomplishments include concerts at the International Jazz Festival, the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, regular gigs at Birdland, and performances with Duke Ellington and Count Basie in 1963.

7. Anita O’Day

Anita O'Day in 2005
Anita O’Day in 2005

Anita Belle Colton, professionally known as Anita O’Day, was born on October 18, 1919, and died on November 23, 2006.

She was an American jazz singer who was greatly praised for her sense of rhythm and dynamism, as well as her early big band appearances, which shattered the stereotype of the “lady singer.”

She formed her career as a chorus girl and got work as a singer and waiter. Her first significant break came in 1938, when Carl Cons, the editor of Down Beat, invited her to perform at his club, the Off-Beat, which eventually became a favorite hangout for artists.

Later, in 1939, O’Day was chosen as a vocalist for Miller’s Quartet. She made an appearance with the Krupa band in 1942. When Krupa’s band disbanded, O’Day joined Woody Herman for a month-long stay.

She devoured the rest of the year working as a solo artist. In April 1944, she joined Stan Kenton’s band, returning to Krupa’s band, and stayed for over a year.

During the 1940s, O’Day attempted to gain widespread popularity while retaining her image as a jazz vocalist. During this time, she recorded two dozen tracks, most of which were for small labels.

Her career rose again in September 1948, when she performed with Count Basie. Anita O’Day Sings Jazz was recorded in 1952 for the newly formed Norgran Records. Her popularity extended as a result of the album’s critical success.

O’Day collaborated with Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Thelonious Monk as a live performer.

6. Billie Holiday

Holiday with her dog Mister 1947
Holiday with her dog Mister 1947

Billie Holiday (full name, Elinore Harris and known as Lady Day) was born on April 7, 1915, in Pennsylvania, United States of America, and died on July 17, 1959, in New York.

She was an American jazz vocalist regarded as one of the best from the 1930s to the 1950s. Holiday had a groundbreaking impact on jazz music and mainstream singing.

Her vocal technique, heavily influenced by jazz instrumentalists, initiated a new approach to phrasing and tempo manipulation. Her vocal timbre and improvising abilities were well-known.

Holiday recorded her first albums along with Benny Goodman and others in 1933. Two years later, a series of records with Teddy Wilson and Count Basie’s band members earned her wider attention and established her status as the leading jazz singer of her day.

In 1937 and 1938, she traveled with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and in the latter year, she launched the opulent Café Society in New York City.

Her recording career peaked between 1936 and 1942. She was frequently linked with saxophonist Lester Young at the time, who earned her the nickname “Lady Day.”

After recording “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s prominence surged. Though a few artists have recorded “Strange Fruit,” nothing surpasses Billie Holiday’s original.

Holiday received four Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album, which were given posthumously. She was inducted into both the Grammy and National Rhythm & Blues Halls of 

Fame. In addition, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On July 17, 1959, Holiday passed away of cirrhosis at 44.

5. Helen Merrill

Helen Merrill 1957, professional promo photo
Helen Merrill 1957, professional promo photo

On July 21, 1930, Helen Merrill was born. She is a jazz vocalist from the United States.

When she was fourteen, she began singing at jazz bars in the Bronx. Merrill had started up music full-time at the age of sixteen.

Merrill made her debut in 1952 when Merill requested her to perform “A Cigarette For Company” with Earl Hines. Mercury Records signed Merrill to its EmArcy label.

Her first album, the eponymous Helen Merrill, released in 1954, was an instant success and established her as a member of the first wave of bebop artists.

Merrill focused much of her time traveling Europe after infrequent recording in the late 1950s and 1960s, where she had more financial success than in the United States.

She returned to the United States in the 1960s but relocated to Japan in 1966, where she stayed after touring. She developed a fan status in Japan that has endured for decades.

Merrill became involved in other elements of the music industry while in Japan, creating albums for Trio Records and co-hosting a program on FEN with Bud Widom.

In 1987, she and Gil Evans produced new arrangements of Dream of You, which were issued under the title Collaboration and became one of Merrill’s most critically acclaimed albums of the 1980s.

4. Sarah Vaughan

Vaughan in 1946
Vaughan in 1946

Sarah Vaughan (nicknamed Sassy or the Divine One) was born on March 27, 1924, in New Jersey, United States, and died in California on April 3, 1990.

She was an American jazz vocalist and pianist recognized for her rich voice, wide range, improvisational ingenuity, and virtuosity. She began learning piano and organ at the age of seven, and she started singing church choir.

She was employed as a vocalist and second pianist by the Earl Hines Orchestra after winning an amateur contest at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater in 1942.

She joined singer Billy Eckstine’s ensemble a year later when she encountered Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Vaughan sang with John Kirby and appeared on television variety shows during the mid-1940s. During the 1950s, she toured the United States and Europe, and in 1953, she contracted with 

Mercury Record Corporation and EmArcy, Mercury’s jazz label, to perform both pop and jazz. She was a contralto with a three-octave range who became known as one of the finest jazz singers of all time.

“Broken-Hearted Melody,” “Make Yourself Comfortable,” “It’s Magic,” “Misty,” and “Send in the Clowns” were among her best-known songs. Vaughan died the same year she was honored in the Jazz Hall of Fame, in 1990.

3. Betty Carter

Carter performing at Pori Jazz in 1978
Carter performing at Pori Jazz in 1978

Betty Carter, also known as Lorraine Carter or Lorene Carter, was born on May 16, 1930, in Michigan, USA, and died on September 26, 1998, in New York.

She was the American jazz vocalist well known for the scat and other complicated musical interpretations that displayed her extraordinary vocal versatility and musical creativity.

Carter attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music in her home state of Michigan, where she studied piano.

She started singing in Detroit jazz clubs at the age of 16, and then after 1946; she performed in bars and theaters around the Midwest, initially under the name Lorene Carter.

Carter strove to develop her style, driven by the experimental character of bebop and influenced by singers Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

In 1948, Lionel Hampton invited Carter to join his band; nevertheless, her obsession with improvisation irritated Hampton, fired her multiple times in two and a half years.

She toured with Ray Charles from 1960 to 1963 and recorded duets in 1961.

Later, she reappeared to the stage in 1969, accompanied by a small acoustic group of piano, drums, and bass. Bet-Car Productions, her label, published her first album in 1971.

Look What I Got! (1988), Out There (1958), The Audience with Betty Carter (1979), Betty Carter (1953), The Modern Sound of Betty Carter (1960), and which earned a Grammy Award is among her solo albums.

In 1992, she was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Arts in 1997.

2. Ella Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, and Timme Rosenkrantz in NYC, 1947
Fitzgerald with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, and Timme Rosenkrantz in NYC, 1947

In full Ella Jane Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Virginia, United States, and died in California on June 15, 1996.

She was a world-famous American jazz vocalist known for her vast vocal range and uncommon tenderness. During her six-decade career, she became a worldwide icon.

As a child, Fitzgerald aspired to be a dancer. Despite this, she won first place in an amateur competition at New York City’s Apollo Theatre in 1934, when she frightened and performed in the style of jazz vocalist Connee Boswell.

Fitzgerald joins the Chick Webb Band the following year after her mother died, and Webb became her guardian.

Her first album, “Love and Kisses,” was released in 1935, and her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” was released in 1938. She commanded Webb’s band after he died in 1939 until it disbanded in 1942.

She subsequently performed alone in cabarets and theaters and toured internationally with pop and jazz stars such as Benny Goodman, the Ink Spots, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

She was also a prolific recorder. She was known for singing and producing novelty songs during her early career.

Fitzgerald’s clean tone and broad vocal range were enhanced by her command of rhythm, harmony, style, and diction. She was an outstanding ballad singer, exuding a kind, genuine demeanor.

Her beautiful scat singing energized live recordings such as Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin and was quickly emulated by others.

She won 14 Grammys, including for lifetime achievement. She was also awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime accomplishment in 1979 and the National Medal of Arts.

1. Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae was born in New York on April 8, 1920, and died in California on November 10, 1994.

She is regarded as one of the essential jazz vocalists of the twentieth century, well known for her off-beat phrasing and sardonic interpretation of songs. Her vocal improvisations were inventive, intricate, and graceful.

McRae studied classical piano as a child, then went on to work with bandleaders Benny Carter and Count Basie in the mid-1940s, making her recording debut as Carmen Clarke.

She worked as an interval pianist and singer at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City for several years before recording in 1953 and 1954.

Early in the mid-1950s, she toured extensively, recorded frequently, and performed in a range of musical settings.

McRae collaborated with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Joe Pass, and George Shearing. Here to Stay, a collection of late 1950s sides; Lover Man (1962); The Great American Songbook are her most significant albums.

Later in his career, McRae released a string of critically acclaimed CDs in which he paid respect to other jazz greats such as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Sarah Vaughan.

McRae is remembered for her grace and ability to immerse herself passionately and logically in the lyrics of a song.


The female jazz vocalists named above are exceptional talents who deserve recognition. Their musicianship will cause listeners to reconsider jazz in novel and exciting ways.

Aside from these musicians, here are a few jazz spirits to look out for, such as:

Etta James is the artist known for “At Last.” At the age of five, Etta James acquired a reputation for her voice, singing for her church’s choirs and singing for the radio audience.

Diana Krall from Nanaimo, British Columbia, is a jazz vocalist and pianist who has received three Grammy awards. Her album All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio helped her acquire success among audiences.

June Christy was born in Springfield, Illinois, and is well-known for her sweet voice. Christy began singing with a jazz band when she was 13 years old, gaining experience before graduating. Christy’s solo career began in 1951 when she signed with Capitol Records.

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