Jazz music has its roots firmly planted in African American history, so what better way to honor the accomplishments of black female jazz singers than by showcasing our favorite artists that have immense talent and left a lasting legacy.
Best Black Female Jazz Singers You Will Enjoy
Let’s begin with Sweet Emma Barrett.
Sweet Emma Barrett
How do you not fall in love with someone named Sweet Emma Barrett? Her name alone offers a soothing sound, but it’s her music that will hook you even deeper.
Born 1897 in Louisiana, this talented jazz woman began performing in clubs across New Orleans at the early age of 12, even though she had no idea how to read music.
Known as a New Orleans jazz icon, her debut album New Orleans: The Living Legends released in 1961, landing Emma a spot with the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Emma would go on to tour the country and Europe after joining the Preservation Hall Band, however, despite her success as a jazz singer, her fame would stay primarily local to her hometown of New Orleans, which is what the Bell Gal preferred.
Emma’s coined for having a “pile-driver attack” piano style partnered with classy use of a double entendre or two. Check out her song “None Of My Jelly Roll” for that classic Sweet Emma Barrett sound of New Orleans.
Now if you’re looking for one of the best African American female jazz singers of all time, look no further than Ella Fitzgerald.
Known as the First Lady of Song, and the most popular female jazz singer in the US for the better part of 50 years, Ella’s musical success is undeniable. As successful as she was, however, Ella’s journey is riddled with devastating events that should have derailed her: poverty, hardship, loss of close family, and loneliness. Instead of letting those life chapters hinder her dreams, she went on to leverage her challenges and use them to fuel her musical dialogues.
With her intoxicating sweet, smooth voice, it’s no wonder she’s known as the First Lady of Song. Her range spans across octaves, with the ability to vocally mimic most jazz instruments. Whether she’s scat singing or belting out lyrics, her perfect pitch and infallible sense of time is prominently displayed in true Ella Fitzgerald fashion.
In June 1996, when Ella passed away, reactions sparked across the globe, honoring the life and legacy of this jazz music idol.
Check out the song “Smooth Sailing” for an exemplary demonstration of Ella’s scat abilities.
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Amongst some of the most notable black female jazz singers is Miss Lady Day. Billie Holiday is a name recognizable by many. Despite having a voice and style that so many people fell in love with, Billie wasn’t always received with the affections of today.
Born in 1915 Maryland, Billie’s childhood would revolve around financial desperation. Starting at a very young age, Billie ran errands for brothels, eventually earning her income in prostitution when she got older. The very same disparity for income that drove her to prostitution and jail time, would eventually lead her to a Harlem speakeasy, auditioning as a jazz singer, and blowing the minds of all who heard her.
Billie’s personal enjoyment of jazz and blues styles comes out in her music, maintaining that melancholy disposition of blues with a smooth jazz finish. Billie’s form transitioned jazz out of the traditional light, upbeat sound into a more melancholy, low rolling promenade.
Billie Holiday reshaped how jazz is sung, making her a very influential component of the genre. While Holiday endured the rough seas of life, her musical success would go on to influence big name singers like Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Etta Jones, and many more after her.
A great display of Billie’s abilities is found her in her song “Strange Fruit” released in 1939. “Strange Fruit” is a song about the abhorrent and vile act of lynching – a reality in the black community throughout the existence of America – delivered perfectly in Billie’s famous low and powerful voice. The subject matter, paired with her fantastic pipes, make this a truly haunting and powerful piece.
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Another Harlem jazz star that brought new components to jazz is a woman known as the most influential jazz vocalist of the 20th century, miss Carmen McRae.
Carmen began studying classical piano at just 8 years old in 1928, and grew up listening to some of the greatest names in jazz. Not long after dabbling in the jazz music industry, Carmen encountered a friendship with someone who would influence not only her life, but her music as well, Lady Day herself – Billie Holiday.
McRae’s knowledge in piano not only empowered her with the ability to perform as a soloist musician, but also allowed her to position a new feature of classic piano into the jazz genre. In doing so, she channeled her love of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, and developed a style original to herself, while holding space for the greats who inspired her.
Before being forced to retire in 1991 due to health complications, Carmen’s career was full of jazz festival performances across the globe, with many albums recorded.
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Carmen McRae. Check out her song “Isn’t It Romantic” for those sleepy, smitten vibes that are sure to capture your heart.
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Born Ruth Lee Jones in 1924, Dinah Washington is known as the most popular black female recording artist of the 1950s.
While Dinah was born in the South, her family brought her North when moving from Alabama to Chicago. Roots in church gospel, combined with an infatuation in Billie Holiday, Dinah went on to perform and play the blues in clubs around Chicago, gaining a lot of popularity with locals.
Dinah never originally considered herself a jazz singer. Her musical origins thrive in blues and R&B styles, but as her career grew so did her versatility, leading Dinah to record multiple jazz albums including Dinah Jams in 1955 and Compact Jazz in 1987.
If you want to hear that beautiful blues influence on her jazzy tunes, check out her song “Manhattan,” a sweet, slow love song that daydreams about spending time in Manhattan with a lover.
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Like her female jazz artist peers, Sarah Vaughan’s musical career begins at the early age of 7 with a baptist church and the beautiful sounds of a piano. Like her colleague Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah’s career kick started with an Apollo talent show in Harlem, and the rest is history.
Sarah’s voice is known for its extreme range and flexibility, touching anywhere between baritone to soprano levels. Her vibrato capabilities glide across the octaves with professional grade control, allowing her listeners to surf across the lyrics in her songs.
Sarah’s unique musical talents broadened the way jazz music is performed, and her style went on to influence many musicians after her.
As her career grew, so did her vocal range. While Sarah’s foundational abilities are impressive enough as is, her voice went on to deepen as her career pushed her into the 80s.
Check out Sarah’s song “Body and Soul” for a fantastic demonstration of what those pipes can do.
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What’s not to love about Etta Jones? Her stage presence was warm and powerful, while her off-stage presence preserved humility and grace with her fans.
Unlike many of the ladies who came before her, Etta did not pioneer any new jazz styles or introduce any fresh flavor into the genre. Rather, she kept life within the existing styles of jazz through her seamless performances.
Etta Jones maintained the better qualities of her jazz sisters by utilizing her foundation in blues, her natural skill of improvisation, and her appreciation for quality song lyrics. She accredited much of her inspiration from Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.
Hear where it all began with Etta’s song “Don’t Go To Strangers.”
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Miss independent Betty Carter is an undeniable name in jazz music, with a display of character any music lover can look to with admiration.
Not only was her 80s album Look What I Got the first independently produced album to win a Grammy, Carter is also known for sharing her knowledge with those willing to learn, hiring and mentoring young musicians throughout her career.
While Betty was loyal to the jazz genre throughout her personal career, Betty’s outreach touched all corners of the music industry, giving wings to the young newcomers to jazz all the way up to her death in 1998.
We love Nina Simone for her musical prowess, sure, but Simone earned the hearts of many with the way she used her talents. As many of the great female jazz singers before her, Nina Simone was musically fluent early in her life, learning piano as soon as age 6. Unlike her musical predecessors however, Nina received formal education, building a repertoire of classical collections such as Johann Sebastian Bach.
Nina attended a private integrated high school for girls, graduating in 1950 as valedictorian and moving on to Julliard in New York City (heck yeah, Miss Simone).
In a violently segregated American system, education, intelligence, and talent mean next to nothing if you’re black. Simone found herself at the receiving end of racist prejudice throughout her life and career, inspiring her to use her musical knowledge and abilities to work towards change.
Her involvement in equal rights for black Americans reflects in much of her music, and her songs have gone on to impact many Black Nationalist and Black Power movements. Her repertoire of releases address racism directly in songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
I highly recommend checking out the 3 songs mentioned above for a fantastic demonstration of how’s Nina’s musical intelligence played, and continues to play, a massive role in human rights issue still prevalent today.
An important thing to note: While Nina may be recognized for her jazz style in much of her music, Nina Simone personally rejects the title of jazz singer as she believed it to be a race-oriented title that overlooked her musical education. Instead, Nina prefers recognition as a folk singer, with an emphasis on her style of blues, gospel, and pop.
I’ve intentionally included her in my list of jazz singers to bring attention to Nina’s preferred identification. While a lot of Nina’s music does reflect many jazz characteristics, respecting artists’ wishes takes priority – one creative to another.
Step aside for the “Girl with the Honey-Coated Voice”—Nancy Wilson.
Nancy’s time in her childhood choirs paid off immensely, preparing her for her successful career with Capitol Records. After signing on in 1960, Nancy went on to record up to 70 albums, earning herself 3 Grammy awards in the process.
Nancy’s career was peppered with TV appearances, jazz festival performances, and public acknowledgements of sorts, and it’s no wonder why. Nancy’s style is classically jazz that insists on positive retort from anyone lucky enough to hear her.
Check out Nancy Wilson’s song “I Wish You Love” for a jazzy, upbeat song about wishing a loved one well, despite the relationship not working out.
Known as “Miss Rhythm,” Ruth Brown’s roots in gospel and R&B made her an exceptional jazz musician to know and love.
While her original career was based in R&B, Brown had to take a break from the music scene as she recovered from an automobile accident and multiple failed marriages. Brown made a sweeping comeback in 1990, winning a Grammy for best jazz vocals by a female.
The lovable Ruth Brown’s legacy lives on in her music, but not solely for her impressive music abilities. Ruth is known for her advocacy towards musician’s rights throughout her career, casting a bright spotlight on contract exploitation between labels and artists.
Check out Ruth’s song “Brown Sugar” for a classic, upbeat jazz take the love Ruth has for one very lucky fella.
Yet another jazz name influenced by the one and only Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln shaped her career with thought provoking song lyrics, paired perfectly with emotional smooth jazz vocals.
Beginning in 1956, Abbey’s musical works demonstrate awareness towards her social and political activism later in her career. In the co-release of We Insist! Freedom Now Suite in 1960, Lincoln teams up with Max Roach, and uses her jazz music persuasion to bring attention to racial inequality and unrest.
Additionally, Abbey’s awareness within the human existence play a large role in making her work so heart wrenching and impactful. Hard not to love a jazz icon using their powers for good.
Lincoln pairs powerful verbiage with impressive musical talent throughout her repertoire. Check out her song “Brother, Where Are You?” for an emotional, anti-war, depression era song.
Dakota Staton produced a handful of hit albums between the late 50s and early 60s. With that undeniable upbeat jazz vibe, Staton’s cross-over hit “The Late, Late Show” gained her international recognition, and soon her bold, punchy vocals were loved by many.
Another educated musician, Dakota jumped headfirst into the world of music, giving credit Dinah Washington’s jazz-blues influence.
Check out her impressive song “They All Laughed” for a song about going against what everyone else says for the sake of love.
Everyone loves a fighter, and a fighter is what you’d call jazz singer Ernestine Anderson. While her career spans 6 decades and 30 albums, her collection of music isn’t the only thing that makes this jazz musician impressive.
Ernestine starts her bold lifestyle and career by dropping out of school at 18 years old to pursue a career in the thing she loved most – music.
Her demonstration of courage and drive doesn’t end there. Anderson career took root outside of her home country first, releasing her debut album in Sweden. Her music wouldn’t even touch the US until 1958.
After reaching American radio, Ernestine soon became known as the “best kept secret in jazz,” gaining popularity throughout the states.
In the mid-60s, Anderson was forced to divide her time between America and Europe, due to the emergence of rock and roll snuffing out the jazz industry temporarily. This wouldn’t hold Anderson down for long, with a lasting reemergence in the American jazz music scene in the 70s.
As we push forward into the 21st century jazz singers, Dianne Reeves is a woman of many talents, capturing the hearts of many with her classic jazz sound combined with Africa, South African, and pop flavors.
The first woman to receive the Jazz Legends Award, Reeves cites fellow legends Holiday, Fitzgerald, and Vaughan, along with a few others, as some of her original influences
All of her songs on her 2013 album Beautiful Life are good, but one of my personal favorites is “Tango,” a jazz flavored lyric free song with an alluring latin feel that starts slow but packs a punch towards the end.
Newer to the jazz music scene is 24-year-old Bronx native Samara Joy.
While Samara’s musical career is still relatively green, you’d never tell based on her sound. With the release of her 2021 self-titled album, Samara graced the world with her deep baritone vocals.
At first listen, you’d never be able to tell those chords belong to a young woman in her early 20s. One might even mistake Joy for a young Sarah Vaughan, matching her in vocal depth and style.
Check out Joy’s song “Jim” and hear as her mature 20-something year old pipes demonstrate timeless sound.
Another impressive name in the modern jazz world is Esperanza Spalding.
Esperanza’s musical intellect shines not only in her instrumental and vocal capabilities, but also in her creative flow of jazz music. She incorporates poetic lyrics with a familiar jazz bass, giving her songs a very Spalding-specific sound that will capture you upon first listen.
As a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Esperanza went on to teach as early as 20 years old and was the first jazz identifying artist to win a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Esperanza’s music captures all the dimensions of jazz music, while incorporating Afro-Latin and Brazilian components in a handful of her albums. Her repertoire is truly flavorful and authentic to her soul.
As we’ve seen, black female jazz singers have been dominating the genre for years, showing off their versatile capabilities, while keeping musical cupid employed in the process.
Overcoming adversity, challenging traditional ways, and reinforcing complex jazz concepts with natural ease, each of these talented ladies deserve love and respect for their accomplishments – be it past, present, or future.