The best jazz singers of all time – classical music

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Armstrong’s unique scat voice brought a new dimension to improvisation: a track like ‘Heebie Jeebies’ seems an outpouring of pure joy, a song that doesn’t need words to convey its rhythmic, melodic enthusiasm. And on the magnificent ‘West End Blues’, his trumpet and vocal power combine to produce a masterpiece of searing emotion.

Unsurprisingly, we also named Louis Armstrong one of the best jazz trumpeters of all time.

Calloway cabin

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images2

Yesnger, dancer, jive talker and dresser, Cab Calloway was a real Jazz master of celebrations. His exuberant personality has eclipsed his reputation as the leader of one of the best bands of the swing era. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Calloway Orchestra accompanied his outrageous vocal displays and boasted an array of talents: tenorist Chu Berry, drummer Cozy Cole, bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeters Jonah Jones and bebop enfant terrible Gillespie dizzy.

Betty carter

Betty carter

Photo by Paul Bergen / Redferns

The title Betty Carter gave to one of her latest CDs embodied her approach to jazz singing: It’s not about the melody. For more than half a century, she has transformed standard popular songs into vehicles for her unique personal expression.

A live performance by Carter embraced joyful innocence, overwhelming insight, and musical virtuosity, both on the part of the singer and the young accompanists. In a Verve Finest Hour compilation it infuses its rhythm section with energy and invention as if it were a horn, a living reproach to those irreducible who secretly feel that the expression ‘jazz singer’ is a contradiction. But Betty Carter was a musician who sang by chance, a jazz voice whose accomplishments continue to amaze.

Darling flower

Darling flower

Photo by David Redfern / Redferns

When Blossom Dearie died, the obituaries began by stating that it was her first name. It seemed too good to be true, the alluring image suited so perfectly the doll-shaped delivery that had made it a unique presence on the international stage for over half a century.

Dearie’s personal territory was the jazz-cabaret frontier, a skillful blend of delicate swing and wit. As her fellow musicians well knew, she was a collector and connoisseur of good tunes, relishing intelligent lyrics and chord changes, which she projected with subtlety, insight and humor.

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling performs at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the London Jazz Festival (Photo by David Redfern / Redferns)

THElistening to Kurt Elling reminds me of the essential paradox of jazz – that it is art music whose purpose has been to sell alcohol. This is especially true of jazz vocals, that vague crossover zone in which hip artists sing standards with a bit of beat, indulge in a taste for sassy subversion or throw shooby-dooing scats. While this kind of amiable entertainment can keep customers happy, it’s not how Kurt Elling sees jazz. Intense, passionate, fearlessly ambitious, his vocal style spans the gamut of his imagination, from searing ballads and improvisations to his own vocal arrangements of classic instrumental solos, like the epic “Resolution” by John Coltrane.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

Photo by William Gottlieb / Redferns

Besides its contagious way with pop songs, Ella Fitzgerald revealed the kind of full-blown improvisational skill that was generally the domain of instrumentalists.
Her power as a scat singer exploded from her 1945 recording of “Flying Home”, and “Smooth Sailing” from 1951 showed her at home in rhythm and blues. Records like these make you understand why she was Norman Granz’s brightest jazz star on the Philharmonic tours, and the one to close the show.

Jazz fans loved Ella’s live performance, supported only by a rhythm section, storming impromptu masterpieces such as “Mack the Knife” and “How High the Moon”, recorded during the event. ‘a 1960 concert in Berlin. We are speechless at his energy, his invention and his exhilarating creativity; his songs dedicate a life committed to performance and the belief that joy is the essence of jazz.

Billie Vacation

Billie Vacation

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

BiIllie Holiday was a genius improviser. Her ability to give an ordinary pop tune a subtle new form and depth of meaning makes her the most elusive of all beings, a true jazz singer.

It remains, quite possibly, the best. His early 1930s records are still a benchmark for jazz singers. In them, Lady Day is the peer of the star actors around her – foremost among them her soul mate, the tenorman Lester Young. Together, she and Young shoot wonders as their impromptu duet on ‘Me, Myself and I’, which Holiday kicks off with a clever quote from her main influence, Louis Armstrong. But her phrasing, swing and confidence are hers, as in her assured entry on ‘Miss Brown to You’, slippery to the beat, but clear as a bell.

lead belly

flat belly

Regular Huddie Ledbetter, known as the “Leadbelly”. was not: born in rural Texas around 1888, majestic and strong as an ox, he claimed to be the world’s greatest cotton picker, trainer, lover, drinker and guitarist. His pride was matched by a temper and disposition to violence, which earned him prison terms for assault and murder. And it was in 1933, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, that he was discovered by folk song collectors John and Alan Lomax. Under the sponsorship of the Lomaxes, Leadbelly began his rise to stardom, benefiting from the growing vogue for traditional jazz and wild authenticity. He gave concerts across the United States and Europe, dying in New York City in 1949.

We also named Leadbelly one of the best jazz guitarists of all time.

Bobby McFerrin

Bobby McFerrin

Photo by Chris Weeks / WireImage)

This It was Emma Kirkby who first introduced me to Bobby McFerrin: she said in a radio interview that he had “the most incredible voice I have ever heard”, and as proof played “I ‘m My Own Walkman’. My McFerrin Epiphany followed soon after in a 90-minute live solo concert where her only accessories were a wireless mic and a water bottle. ‘Amazing’ barely described it: a four octave scale from basso deptho to falsetto; seemingly limitless inspiration, energy and spirit; a throbbing throb that came from the singer’s banged chest and rhythmic gasps; dazzling improvisations in which his bebop flights were accompanied by riffs from the public that he dictated on the spot.

Jimmy rushes

Jimmy rushes

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

NoThere aren’t many singers who inspire their own signature song, but Jimmy Rushing was the unmistakable role model for “Mr Five by Five”. A tribute to his roly-poly frame, the phrase was his nickname throughout his 50-year career and reflected his always good-humored style. He wasn’t cut out for tragedy, and his strength as a singer was contagious and gritty insurance. Although identified with the blues, he sang all kinds of songs, starting in his hometown of Oklahoma City, touring as a traveling artist and ending in the Kansas City precinct, where he joined the Count Basie group in 1935.

Bessie smith

Bessie smith

Photo by Frank Driggs Collection / Getty Images

HHistorically, you can’t have jazz without the Blues. To savor the essence of the blues, any listener must experience the majesty of Bessie Smith. Her first recording, in 1923, established her as a unique singer, with enormous sound and haunting presence. She maintained her eminence throughout the 1920s, her repertoire encompassing pop songs and novelties as well as her basic blues.

His genius for expression was forged over a lifetime of stage performances. A Smith show could seem almost religious, with the crowd moaning and shouting “Amen.” But his appeal was also sexual: a favorite trick was to “walk one”, singing directly to a male member of the audience until he stumbled like a trance towards the stage.

Sarah vaughan

Sarah Vaughan

Photo by Bob Parent / Getty Images

A true jazz diva, Sarah vaughan captivated listeners by its pure sonic beauty and its inventive flexibility. His blend of sensual tone and technical mastery has earned him the public nickname “The Divine One”; her fellow musicians, impressed by her confidence, nicknamed her “Sassy”.

A talented pianist and singer, she grew up with the bebop pioneers, recording with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who admired her deeply. But from the 1950s on, his sumptuous voice, with its four-octave range and opera agility, caught the attention of the pop industry. For much of her career, she veered between the two worlds, earning an intermediate suite for albums of dreamy ballads with strings, while charming jazz fans with her swing and artful phrasing.


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