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50 Greatest Female Jazz Vocalists

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Sarah Vaughan During NPR's Fall Membership Drive Jazz 88 presented: Voices of the Century: 50 Greatest Female Jazz Vocalists!

Chosen by our members, listeners and staff.

1. ELLA FITZGERALD

She grew up poor, and was homeless for a year before she got her big break in a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. While still a teenager, she became the vocalist for the Chick Webb band, where she sang such hits as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket." She matured into perhaps the most gifted jazz singer of all, excelling in bop-flavored scat singing , in ballads, and in recorded collections of the songs of America's greatest composers. Even though she's gone, she's still called “The First Lady of Song," and her recordings show that the title was well-earned.

2. BILLIE HOLIDAY

Her childhood was a nightmare, but in her teens she found that she could sing, and she made her first recordings when she was 18 with a group that included Benny Goodman. She developed a very personal and dramatic style, and worked with such stars as Lester Young, who gave her the nickname of “Lady Day." Even while battling racism and personal problems, she gave the world music that influenced countless later singers, and that is unrivalled for musicality and honesty of expression.

3. SARAH VAUGHAN

As a child, she sang and played piano for her church. While she was still in her teens, Earl Hines hired her for his big band. She made her recording debut when she joined Billy Eckstine's bebop big band, where she came under the musical spell of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In a long and distinguished career, she used her almost operatic voice to sing every style from bop to pop, showing a wide range and great musical ability equalled by few other singers.

4. DINAH WASHINGTON

Ruth Lee Jones got her start in Chicago as a gospel singer, but began performing in nightclubs in her teens. When she sang with Lionel Hampton, she took the name under which she became a star. She got the nickname “Queen of the Blues" for her many blues and R & B hits, but also made jazz albums with both small and large groups, and attained much success in mainstream pop as well. Her large, dramatic voice and musical versatility influenced such later jazz singers as Nancy Wilson and Diane Schuur.

5. CARMEN MCRAE

She was a prot�g� of Billie Holiday, and got her first big break as vocalist with Benny Carter's big band. She also learned the language of bebop while singing and playing piano in New York clubs. In 1954, “Down Beat" named her as best new female singer, and for the next four decades she was a legend of jazz. Her worldly-wise, earthy delivery has been an influence on younger singers like Vanessa Rubin, but will never be duplicated.

6. NANCY WILSON

Her musical influences included Dinah Washington and Little Jimmy Scott. While trying to break into singing, she worked days as a secretary. She soon gained a reputation in jazz circles, and recorded classic albums with such stars as Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing. She also ventured into mainstream pop and R & B music and had her own award-winning TV show, while continuing to sing jazz. She has also acted on such TV series as “Hawaii 5-0" and “The Cosby Show," and has hosted National Public Radio's “Jazz Profiles" series heard on many public radio stations.

7. ERNESTINE ANDERSON

She sang with Russell Jacquet's big band when she was only 12. In the 1950s, she caught the ear of the jazz world, and was dubbed “the toast of the nation's critics." When times grew hard for many jazz musicians in the 1960s, she moved to Europe, and then went into semi-retirement in America. She returned to singing in the 1970s at the urging of bassist Ray Brown, and has since recorded styles ranging from blues to ballads with strings.

8. SHIRLEY HORN

This Washington, D.C. native started singing and playing piano as a child. She developed a following among jazz musicians and fans for her sultry voice and economical style, but chose to stay in Washington while raising her daughter, and ran a popular jazz club there for years. In the 1980s, she started to perform more outside her hometown, and her recordings gained her a worldwide audience. Miles Davis once said that his friend was “long overdue" for recognition, and she won a Grammy Award for an album she did in his memory.

9. NINA SIMONE

She showed musical talent as a child in her church choir, and supporters in her hometown helped pay for her studies at the Juilliard School of Music. After she was rejected for a scholarship at another school due to her color, she worked as a singer-pianist to pay for her studies, and soon got her first record contract. She wrote and sang protest songs at the height of the civil rights movement, and left the United States for political and financial reasons, returning only occasionally to perform here. Her forthright musical style has influences from jazz, classical, soul, folk and world music.

10. ETTA JONES

After moving from her native South Carolina to New York, she worked with such great musicians as Buddy Johnson and Earl Hines. While still a young singer, she had a hit with the classic “Don't Go to Strangers." Her stylistic roots were in R & B, but she has had a distinguished jazz career, with many recordings and a long partnership with tenor saxophonist Houston Person. She continues to perform and to record, and in recent years she has combined her bluesy vocals with the backing of such colleagues as vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist Benny Green.

11. ABBEY LINCOLN

Anna Marie Wooldridge was her given name, and she is also known as Aminata Moseka after being given the name by an African leader. She started her career in nightclubs, and acquired more jazz knowledge by performing with many of the greats of her day. She also became a political artist during her marriage to drummer Max Roach, with whom she did the famous “Freedom Now Suite." Later, she recorded her own albums and started writing many of her own songs. In recent years, she has had a revival of her career, and still has much to say both musically and personally.

12. DIANE SCHUUR

She had her first professional gig at the age of 10 singing country music, but turned her talents to jazz, and her career took off after Stan Getz heard her remarkable voice at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Within a few years, she sang at the White House with Getz and got her first major recording contract. Her album with the Count Basie Orchestra is one of the biggest-selling jazz recordings of all time, and her recordings range from standards to blues and smooth jazz.

13. LENA HORNE

She made her debut at the Cotton Club at 16, where she learned much from Duke Ellington and other great musicians. She persevered despite prejudice in Hollywood and opposition to her support of civil rights, and became a legend thanks to her talent, beauty and courage. She has appeared in many films, in nightclubs, on TV, and on Broadway, where she won a Tony for her one-woman show. She won a Grammy at the age of 79, and is still performing in her 80s.

14. BETTY CARTER

Her real name was Lillie Mae Jones, but when she sang with Lionel Hampton's band, he nicknamed her “Betty Bebop." For years, she had problems finding work and record contracts because many in the music industry misunderstood her very individual style. She finally got the recognition she deserved when she won a Grammy award in 1988. She has been an influence on such younger singers as Cassandra Wilson, and such jazz stars as John Hicks and Benny Green learned much about their craft by playing for her.

15. ROSEMARY CLOONEY

She started in the music business by singing duets on the radio and in big bands with her sister, and became a solo star when singers were the rage after World War II. She hated singing the pop novelties forced on her in her recording career, but she also got to do classic albums with such greats as Duke Ellington and Nelson Riddle. She also became a star in TV and films. Her career and personal life collapsed in the 1960s, but she fought back, and today she is a greatly loved jazz veteran who is still drawing crowds and making recordings.

16. PEGGY LEE

She began life as Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her early years were bleak due to poverty and child abuse, but when she listened to Count Basie on the radio, she knew she wanted to sing, and escaped from her unhappy home to follow her dreams. She had her first hit with “Why Don't You Do Right?" with Benny Goodman, and later began a distinguished solo career in jazz and pop singing, often writing her own material. Her sultry sound and perfectionism in music and stagecraft have been giving listeners “Fever" for decades.

17. CASSANDRA WILSON

She started playing piano and guitar as a child, and began singing professionally in her late teens. After moving to New York, she began working with Dave Holland, Abbey Lincoln, and the M-Base collective led by Steve Coleman. She has matured into one of the most unique of today's jazz singers, using her smoky voice in music influenced by blues, folk and the pop music of her youth.

18. CAROL SLOANE

She started singing professionally at the age of 14, and after Jon Hendricks heard her, he chose her to sub for Annie Ross with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. When times were tough, she worked as a secretary in North Carolina and sang occasional gigs in the South. In the 1970s, her career picked up again after she acquired a following in Japan. Since then, she has also attained renewed fame in her own country for her warm and swinging style, and her insightful writings about jazz singing can be seen in magazines and on the Internet.

19. DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER

She got her love of jazz from her dad, who played trumpet for Dinah Washington and taught such jazz stars as George Coleman and Charles Lloyd. After singing rock and R & B as a teenager, she was discovered by the band director at the University of Michigan, and made a tour of the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, she made a reputation in jazz, appearing and recording with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Stanley Clarke. She has also been in such musicals as “The Wiz" and “Sophisticated Ladies." “Dear Ella," her 1997 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, won her a Grammy Award.

20. ANITA O'DAY

When she became a big band vocalist, she wore a band uniform instead of a gown because she wanted to be seen as a musician, and not as just a pretty face. Her 1955 album “Anita" was the first LP ever issued by Verve Records, and her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival was the highlight of the film “Jazz on a Summer's Day." She came back from a near-death experience, conquered a drug problem, founded her own record label, and wrote a candid memoir of her dramatic life. Despite serious health problems in recent years, she continues to perform, and her improvisation and sense of swing will always be her trademark.

21. DIANA KRALL

This Canadian studied classical piano, but also learned to love jazz when she heard Fats Waller records as a child. She has been performing since she was 15, and won a scholarship to Boston's famous Berklee College of Music. She also learned from such mentors as pianist Jimmy Rowles (pron: rolls) and bassist Ray Brown. By the mid-1990s, she was earning rave reviews for her singing and her piano playing. Her intimate singing style has made her into one of the most popular jazz singers of the new generation.

22. CHRIS CONNOR

She began as a clarinetist, but in her college days she sang with a big band, and at age 20 she went to New York to try her luck as a singer. After a stint with Claude Thornhill's band, which turned out many musicians of the cool school, she replaced June Christy in Stan Kenton's band, and had her first hit there before leaving to become a solo act. She became one of the most popular cool jazz singers of the 1950s, but later battled career and personal problems. After getting her life back on track, she found a new audience, and still performs around the world.

23. DIANNE REEVES

She began singing with her high school band, and performed with trumpeter Clark Terry while she was a student at the University of Colorado. She picked up world music influences from working with Sergio Mendes and Harry Belafonte. She has sung music ranging from Duke Ellington to Joni Mitchell, and has also written much of her own material. Her rich voice and eclectic approach make her one of the most individual of today's jazz singers.

24. JUNE CHRISTY

She wanted to be a big band singer from her earliest childhood, and began performing at the age of 13. By the time she was 20, she had sung with several bands, and became famous when she took Anita O'Day's place with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. She also made such legendary solo albums as “Something Cool," “Fair and Warmer," and “The Misty Miss Christy." Her husky vocal quality and expressive gifts especially suited her for the cool jazz of the 1950s, and a new generation of jazz fans has discovered her thanks to the reissue of her classic albums on CD.

25. ANNIE ROSS

She was born in England, and was the niece of entertainer Ella Logan. By the time she was five, she was in Hollywood, singing in “Our Gang" comedies. As a young jazz singer, she recorded with such stars as King Pleasure, helping to popularize the style known as vocalese. She was part of the legendary group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and became a solo star as well. She has acted in such films as “Short Cuts" and “Superman 3," and recently went back on tour with her former colleague Jon Hendricks.

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  1. HELEN MERRILL
  2. CLEO LAINE
  3. BETTY ROCHE
  4. MILDRED BAILEY
  5. NATALIE COLE
  6. CARMEN BRADFORD
  7. BESSIE SMITH
  8. KARRIN ALLYSON
  9. MAXINE SULLIVAN
  10. NNENNA FREELON
  11. MARLENA SHAW
  12. JERI SOUTHERN
  13. IRENE REID
  14. ETTA JAMES
  15. VANESSA RUBIN
  16. JEANIE BRYSON
  17. LAVERNE BUTLER
  18. BARBARA MORRISON
  19. JANIS SIEGEL
  20. MARY STALLINGS
  21. NANCY KELLY
  22. DELLA GRIFFIN
  23. GLORIA LYNNE
  24. RUTH BROWN
50. SUSANNAH MCCORKLE
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