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 some of the most famous jazz singers to ever grace a microphone.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald 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 his 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 consider her 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, he left us with over 30 albums and much more.
5. Nina Simone
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, 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 a professional singer, jazz pianist, and actor – and much more than a Christmas vocalist.
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 died of lung cancer.
7. Gregory Porter
Gregory Porter is a Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter, and actor.
The birth of his success 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.
To date, he’s released four successful albums and has gained great notoriety in jazz, blues, soul, and gospel.
8. Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughen 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 launched Vaughan’s career was her victory at Harlem’s Apollo Theater talent competition. She became a successful solo artist, encompassing sounds of jazz and pop.
Vaughan went on to win four Grammy awards during her lifetime, one of which was the Lifetime Achievement Award.
9. Michael Bublé
Michael Bublé is one of the few jazz singers who is well-known for his work across several genres.
The Canadian-born singer released his debut album in 2003 and completed his tenth album in 2018.
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, as Bublé 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.
10. Mel Tormé
Not only was Mel Tormé 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 40s 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.
His husky voice was one for the ages that awarded him the nickname “The Velvet Fog.”
11. Chet Baker
Chet Baker was both a jazz vocalist and a trumpeter.
This dually talented artist had a significant impact on the cool jazz subgenre, which landed him the nickname “Prince of Cool.”
It comes as no surprise that Baker 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 40s, partially due to his time in the Army, he certainly made his name known.
12. Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae was born in Harlem, New York City, and began studying music and the piano at the age of eight.
This 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.
Harry Connick Jr. is a wonderful performer and an award-winning artist. A New Orleans native, Harry 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 – the last of which was a bestseller.
Today, her remains a successful singer, actor, composer, television personality, and pianist.
15. Ray Charles
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.
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
Diana Krall is a Canadian jazz pianist and jazz singer who 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.
She has recorded over a dozen albums – one of which was dedicated to the Nat King Cole trio in 1996.
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.