10 Great Ladies Of Jazz

From Fitzgerald to Vaughan...
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Ella Fitzgerald

Fondly referred to as ‘The First Lady of Song’, Fitzgerald is the quintessential vocalist with style and grace that propelled her from tough beginnings to a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that ensured her place as one of the greatest singers in history. She developed a unique singing style with a virtuosity that could out-scat and out-swing any bebop musician in effortless, perfect pitch. During a career that spanned almost 60 years with 13 Grammys and 40 million album sales, Fitzgerald dazzled audiences with a vocal timbre and technique that still remains unmatched.

Summertime (1968)

Dinah Washington

The self-styled ‘Queen of Blues’ began her career as Ruth Jones in the gospel church and loved a good wedding, marrying no less than seven times. Said to be one of Aretha Franklin’s biggest influences, Washington’s boisterous personality carried over into her performances with a penetrating voice that created phenomenal recordings in jazz, blues, R&B and pop. She dominated the R&B charts in the late '40s and '50s, but also did straight jazz sessions for EmArcy and Mercury, with horn accompanists including Clifford Brown, Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson and pianists Wynton Kelly, Joe Zawinul and Andrew Hill. Unfortunately she hit the booze and diet pills too hard and died at her musical peak, aged 39.

You Don’t Know What Love Is (1955)

Lena Horne

The voice that recorded ‘Stormy Weather’ more than all the others started out as a member of the chorus line at the Harlem Cotton Club before breaking new ground for black actresses in the ‘40s by landing a long-term Hollywood contract. Horne eventually broke away from the bigoted film industry that labeled her the ‘Negro Cinderella’ and cut out her shots for showings to a Southern audience. Her electrifying performances as a singer ensured she continued to smash racial boundaries, becoming one of the first black singers to tour with an all-white band before going on to conquer Broadway in 1981 with a Tony Award for her one woman show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” which ran for over 300 performances.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Ernestine Anderson

She learned how to win over an audience at a very young age, belting out Bessie Smith as a toddler before moving on to solos in the school choir. The Seattle teenager with the sultry voice started singing with jazz orchestras in the ‘40s and gained an international following with Mercury by the ‘50s, touring with Johnny Otis, Lionel Hampton and Eddie Heywood. Despite going out of fashion briefly when The Beatles hit town, with more than 30 albums and four Grammy nominations, Anderson’s five decade career has been nothing short of illustrious.

Moanin (1967)

Billie Holiday

Nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ by her loyal friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz. She came to attention with Benny Goodman’s group at 18 and despite having a limited vocal range, her raw expression and unique passion set her apart from her the rest. Her intimate and vulnerable vocals distilled despair like no other, reflecting her tumultuous life and pioneering a dark and personal approach to singing jazz. The liberties she took with structuring a melodic phrase set the standard for jazz singers and at her peak, Holiday was undeniably one of the best.

Fine and Mellow (1957)


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Sarah Vaughan

Sarah ‘Sassy’ Vaughan started out in the church choir and made her name in native Newark before joining Earl Hines’ band as singer and second pianist. Her impressive three octave range with perfect timing and melodic imagination earned her the nickname ‘Divine One’. She later joined singer Billy Eckstine’s band in which she developed a style influenced by bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie before going on to be a star in her own right.

Misty (1964)

Nancy Wilson

She worked as a secretary during the day, but Wilson enjoyed a quick rise to success as she sang on the side. Inspired by Dinah Washington, among others, Wilson moved to New York in 1956 where she met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and soon attracted the attention of his agent and Capitol records. In 1961 she recorded Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, on which her soulful voice was featured alongside Adderley’s brand of funky hard-bop. Besides her achievements in music, Wilson also scored several hits in TV, with an award-winning show and highly coveted appearances in programs like ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘Hawaii 5-0’.

The Very Thought of You (1964)

Etta Jones

Despite having a career that spanned five decades, Jones is still one of the industry’s better kept secrets. The South Carolina native was still a teenager when she was discovered in a contest at The Apollo Theater and hired to sing with the Buddy Johnson Band. She started recording in the ‘40s on Black & White records a year after her idol, Dinah Washington, but it was her 1960 Grammy nominated hit, ‘Don’t Go to Strangers’, that firmly entrenched her in the jazz community before working alongside other music legends like Oliver Nelson, Kenny Burrell, Cedar Walton and her longtime collaborator and producer, Houston Person.

Don’t Go To Strangers (1960)

Peggy Lee

She may be remembered by most for signature song, Fever, but Lee is also widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time, being cited as a mentor to artists including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Madonna and Dusty Springfield. The singer, songwriter, composer and actress first came to prominence in the 1940s with Somebody Is Taking Your Place and Manana and went on to have a string of successful albums and top ten hits over three consecutive decades. Lee was also an accomplished actress, starring in the hit movies The Jazz Singer, Disney's Lady and the Tramp and Pete Kelly's Blues, for which she received the Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Is That All There Is (1969)

Nina Simone

Born Eunice Waymon, The High Priestess of Soul defies classification, drawing from jazz, blues, RnB, gospel, classical and folk with a passion for civil rights and love of protest song. After being refused entry to Curtis Institute to become a concert pianist, Simone had a spell at Juilliard in New York, but left disheartened and too aware of the struggle she faced in the classical world. Using her piano skills to secure club work, she also needed to sing and used her deep, melancholic voice to emulate her idols. She had her first hit with George Gershwin’s, I Loves You, Porgy in 1958 and went on to have a stream more with a mixture of self-penned and rearranged covers  including ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, ‘Feeling Good’ and ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Widely remembered as being a major figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s with songs Mississippi Goddamand Old Jim Crow hitting a nerve across the States, Simone championed violent revolution and delivered civil rights messages at gigs as standard. She was also wasn’t shy of using gun, shooting her son’s neighbor for breaking her concentration and a record company executive for stealing royalties.

How It Feels To Be Free (1976)