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The Top 6 Jazz Singers of All Time

posted by Kevin Lannister

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The Top 6 Jazz Singers of all time
1. Nat King Cole
2. Michael Bublé
3. Ray Charles
4. Nina Simone
5. Dinah Washington
6. Ella Fitzgerald

“Good music doesn’t have an expiration date.”

The term“Jazz singer” used to be one of the most controversial terms in the jazz lexicon. Back in 1963, the British jazz historian Benny Green claimed that there was no such thing as a jazz singer, and as late as the 1980s, the argument was being advanced by none other than Mel Tormé! Of course, jazz itself defies definition, and that makes defining a jazz singer difficult as well.

The argument is rarely heard these days, mostly due to the large influx of talented, schooled vocalists who prove their right to be called jazz singers by the quality and content of their performances. As in any group of artists, there are some that have gained popularity, and others who are just as talented who are not as well-known.

So, without taking anything away from Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Madeline Peyroux, here are twelve other contemporary female jazz vocalists who you definitely should hear.

It is not essential to have an amazing vocal range or technique to sing jazz, which makes it great if you’ve never sung before. Singing jazz standards is about exploring the unique qualities of your voice and learning how to personalize a song. Your jazz singing voice should be a natural extension of your speaking voice.

The best way to begin is by immersing yourself in the music of the great singers. Some of the best females include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter and Peggy Lee. Male jazz singers to listen to include Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Louis Armstrong, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy.

Being a good jazz vocalist isn’t easy, and simply releasing a CD doesn’t prove competence. More than some genres, a voice that’s technically good is almost a requirement. There are exceptions, but in this particular genre you don’t find too many Captain Beefhearts or Leonard Cohens. (Well, you don’t find too many of them anywhere—but you can see my point.) Also, the idiom of jazz singing is demanding enough that some people never quite get a handle on it.

There’s also the question of material. When it comes to the Great American Songbook, it’s hard to give a fresh spin to tunes that were already popular in the first half of the 20th Century and never faded into obscurity.

On the other hand, singers have mixed results when they look elsewhere. Let’s face it, incorporating post-Beatles pop music has produced its fair share of train wrecks in both vocal and instrumental jazz.

Usually the fault lies in the interpretations rather than the choices, with musicians creating uninspired arrangements of obvious material in a sad effort to seem relevant. Writing your own songs also presents its own challenges, and my reject pile proves that not everyone is a songwriter. Even after a jazz singer has passed through all those hoops, challenges await her.

Let’s see the top 6 jazz singers of all time:


6. Ella Fitzgerald

A voice with so much range and personality infused in it, Ella Fitzgerald is perhaps the best known jazz singer out there. You ‘aint heard scat until you’ve heard Miss Ella letting her voice out, and let’s just be real, I think big bands were made for someone like her to sing in front of. Maybe that’s why fronting Chick Webb’s band brought her so much admiration.

However, like most of the women that will appear on this list, sistahs like Ella could do it for themselves. With over 50 years of entertaining under her belt, Fitzgerald left us with many masterpieces to remember her by, including “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” her work on “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “All The Things You Are.”


5. Dinah Washington

The church just breeds the best voices, wouldn’t you agree? If you are brave enough to disagree, allow the music of Dinah Washington to persuade you otherwise. Full of colorful character and smart lyrical content (“Man is a creature that has always been strange”), Washington had many a hit in her short career. Take a listen to “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” and her take on “Aint Misbehavin.” It really says something when the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, calls the “Queen of the Blues” one of her biggest influences.


4. Nina Simone

The high priestess! When you hear that voice, it sends chills down your spine and grabs your attention. I’ll never forget when I heard Simone say, “My name is….PEACHES!!!!” at the end of “Four Women.”  While I laughed, I was still inexplicably moved by the way Simone could pull together a rousing story that either made you want to dance around, or stop for a second with your deeper feelings.

You can hear poetry at its best in a Nina Simone record, maybe that’s why she had so many hits. From “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” to her take on “I Put a Spell On You.” Another participant in the Civil Rights Movement, Simone was as much about sending a message as she was about making simply great music.


3. Ray Charles

Ray Charles had the most unique voice in popular music. He would do these improvisational things, a little laugh or a “Huh-hey!” It was as if something struck him as he was singing and he just had to react to it. He was getting a kick out of what he was doing. And his joy was infectious. Ray started out wanting to be Nat “King” Cole.

When Nat went down low in a song, like “Mona Lisa“, there was a growl in there that was kind of sexy. Ray took that to a whole new level. He took the growl and turned it into singing. He took the yelp, the whoop, the grunt, the groan, and made them music. Also, he was a piano player. The piano is a percussion instrument. You put your body into it. Ray had a lot of unique body movements: his shoulder went up a little on the left side, the way he lifted himself off the stool.


2. Michael Bublé

He recorded a series of independently-released albums before Grammy winner David Foster, the owner of Canada’s 143 label, signed the young man and directed the production of his debut album in 2001. Included was what would become the typical mix of numbers on a Bublé album — some all-time standards (“For Once in My Life,” “The Way You Look Tonight”) plus newer titles (like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”). The Bee Gees even sang along on Bublé’s remake of their 1971 hit “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”.

“Michael hasn’t just learned this music, said Foster. “He’s lived it. He brings youthful energy to it — tough and tender at the same time — like nothing else I’ve ever heard. The great thing is, he’s tapped into a repertoire that can last him 50 years. He’s at the beginning of a very long career.” hat changed after a club patron insisted one night that he both play and sing a request. To Cole’s amazement, it was his voice that swept him to fame in 19.


1. Nat King Cole

His voice was as tender as a lover’s touch — warm, caressing, silky soft, as smooth as velvet — and over a 30-year recording career he became one of the best-loved romantic balladeers of all time. Nathaniel Adams Cole was born the son of a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama in 1917 and by age five was playing the piano. Fifteen years later, after “King” had been added to his name as a variation on the fairy tale figure Old King Cole (and the “s” in Coles dropped), Nat still thought of himself as strictly an instrumentalist.

That changed after a club patron requested him one night to both play and sing at the same time. To Cole’s amazement, it was his voice that swept him to fame in 1942 and kept him on top until his death at age 48 from lung cancer. Nat made movies, hosted his own TV show and scored more than 175 pop and rhythm ‘n’ blues (R&B) hits.

A quarter century after his death, Nat “King” Cole won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. The next year, an electronic “duet” between Nat and his now grown-up daughter, Natalie, became both a Grammy winner and million-selling sensation.

Thank you for reading. Our next article will be about the top 6 jazz pianists of all time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Lannister (see all articles)

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