Male jazz singers have in many ways set the tone for jazz charisma since the music’s emergence in the 1920s. Both vocally and visually, these singers have taken the stage as the face of everything from explosive theatrics to irreverent experimentalism. So let’s pay homage to some of the best jazz singers to ever do it.
Best Male Jazz Singers You’ll Love
Let’s begin with the great Louis Armstrong.
Instantly recognizable across the globe, Louis Armstrong’s vocals set the earliest standard for male jazz singing even though he had risen to stardom on the strength of his brilliant trumpet playing. On his landmark recording “Heebie Jeebies”, Armstrong is credited with inventing the jazz practice of “scatting” after he forgot the song’s words mid-recording.
While Armstrong’s most well known vocal performances come from his late-career pop period in the 1960s, the vast majority of his vocals appeared on the jazz songs that he played around the world as an American cultural ambassador.
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Cab Calloway was one of the jazz world’s greatest stars in the 1930s. His big band-backed stage performances were swinging and reverous, combining floor-shaking dance numbers with Calloway’s howling vocals and theatrics.
His signature tune remains “Minnie the Moocher,” a number that he reprised as an elder statesman in one of the most prominent musician cameos in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
Jimmy Rushing’s warm, gravelly and exuberant vocal style was a perfect match for the groundbreaking Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s. The Basie band refreshed the increasingly overblown Northern big band scene with a lighter and tighter style that embraced a heavy dose of country roots. Rushing’s unapologetically bluesy bark on tunes like “Good Morning Blues” personified the band’s sound with abundant down-home flair.
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Billy Eckstine’s deep, suave voice and dashing good looks made him into a magnificently regal performer in the 1940s. A charming, handsome gentleman on stage and off, Eckstine delivered vocals for hits like “Kiss of Fire” that bordered on operatic. The band he led was also a training ground for a number of all-time jazz greats, including Miles Davis and Art Blakey.
Tragically, Eckstine’s career came to an abrupt impasse when a picture of him charming white women that appeared in LIFE magazine sparked a tidal wave of racist outrage.
Nat “King” Cole
Like Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole is most widely known today for his work as a pop singer. However, he began his career playing piano and singing as the leader of a jazz trio, recording suave hits like “When I Fall in Love.”
This body of work proved enormously influential on small group jazz in the 1950s, as well as on a variety of other crooner-friendly genres including country and rockabilly. Cole’s butter-smooth, gentlemanly voice made him one of the greatest stars of his era, both on radio and on television.
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Joe Williams possessed a lively, warm and charismatic voice, hitting a perfect balance that was energizing and fun but not over-the-top. He is best known as the premier vocalist for Count Basie’s “Second Testament” big band in the 50s and early 60s, and deserves much of the credit for the excitement that surrounded the Count’s comeback during this period.
On numbers like “OK, Alright, You Win”, Williams communicated a confident professionalism that was a perfect face for this band, which showcased tighter and more expansive arrangements than Basie’s earlier work, which had been more focused on blues and solos.
Chet Baker is most famous for his muted, sensitive trumpet playing, but at the peak of his career in the 1950s he was also a very popular singer. In almost a complete inverse from the loud, jovial and theatrical style of trumpet and vocals that Louis Armstrong had earlier perfected, Baker’s vocals were just like his horn playing: moody, forlorn, sensitive and meditative. Baker’s debut album as a vocalist, Chet Baker Sings, is a 50s touchstone, widely renowned as an all-time classic of the cool jazz style.
John Hendricks’ career as a jazz singer began all the way back in the late 20s when he was only seven years old, performing with legendary jazz pianist and fellow Ohio native Art Tatum by his early teens. He began to hit the creative stride that would lead to his recognition as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time later on in the 1950s.
During this period, Hendricks began writing lyrics to instrumental jazz tunes that previously had none, even going so far as to compose lyrics to solos, such as Ben Webster’s famous performance on Ellington’s “Cottontail.” Hendricks’ “vocalese” approach to defining a new creative role for jazz singers, his warm personality, and his virtuosic technique made him not only one of the best but one of the most influential mid-century jazz singers.
Johnny Hartman was another master of the hushed, thoughtful cool jazz style of singing. His gleaming baritone voice portrayed deep, complicated emotions in a seamlessly suave style. Hartman is best remembered for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, his singular collaboration with the John Coltrane Quartet, which features stunning takes on “Lush Life” and “Autumn Serenade.”
This improbable team-up, which took place during an increasingly experimental phase of Coltrane’s career when he was virtually never performing with vocalists, is an awe-inspiring testament to the power of universal musical language.
In the late 50s and into the 60s, Mose Allison adopted the established Nat “King” Cole piano trio style and reworked it with his own personal touch. Allison’s unique style of songwriting, particularly the lyrics, displayed a wry, witty sense of irony and humor that was a perfect fit for the beatnik arts and poetry culture that was proliferating in American cities at the time. Allison’s signature cleverness and quirky sense of cool is fully displayed on songs like “The Seventh Son” and “Parchman Farm.”
A student of John Hendricks’ approach who sought to sing with a tone like Miles Davis and a lyrical style like Jack Kerouac, Mark Murphy became an iconic jazz singer over the course of the 60s and 70s as one of the pre-eminent voices for bonding jazz singing with the era’s countercultural movements.
His voice was mellow and relaxed with a touch of grit. Like Hendricks, Murphy enjoyed writing lyrics for previously instrumental jazz pieces. His take on Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” became one of his biggest hits.
Al Jarreau reached his greatest popularity as a sensational 80s R&B singer, but by the time that happened he had been singing jazz since the late 60s – all the while taking jazz vocals in an exciting new direction. Jarreau’s voice was smooth and passionate, but truly came to life when he was showcasing his unique improvisational scatting abilities on songs like his phenomenal reworking of the Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five.” This exciting talent earned him the nickname “The Acrobat of Scat.”
In the 1980s, Bobby McFerrin picked up the trail that John Hendricks and Al Jarreau had blazed, introducing a jaw-dropping array of new vocal techniques to the world of mainstream jazz singing. In addition to scatting, McFerrin masterfully utilized polyphonic and multiphonic singing techniques that gave the impression of multiple singers vocalizing at once. McFerrin’s virtuosic abilities took the spotlight on The Voice, the first solo jazz vocals album to be recorded entirely without accompaniment or backup singers.
One of the most popular living jazz singers, Kurt Elling emerged on the jazz scene in the 90s as a recording artist for the storied Blue Note label. His debut album Close Your Eyes earned a congratulatory response from critics and a grammy nomination. Taking his tonal cue from cool jazz masters like Johnny Hartman, Elling is also a student of John Hendricks’ “vocalese” approach who embraces a diverse array of stylistic horizons for jazz singers.
As one of modern jazz vocals’ brightest shining stars, Gregory Porter has an enviable ability for commanding both traditional and modern vocal styles. While Porter pays tribute to influential heroes like Nat “King” Cole on his album Nat “King” Cole & Me, he just as easily releases pulsing modern pop tracks like “Revival.” When it comes to the jazz tradition of embracing the past in order to trail blaze the future, Gregory Porter carries the torch.
Many listeners fail to appreciate the diverse range of jazz vocals. This list of the best male jazz singers takes readers on a journey across the music’s entire history, celebrating the accomplishments and experiments of multiple musical generations. As these singers show, the magic of jazz lies in finding a dozen different ways to sing a single song.
This article was written by Nathan and edited by Michael.