The voice is one of the oldest instruments in human history. The explorations and expressions of the voice are as endless as the styles that have been developed over the years. Vocal jazz specifically, was developed from field hollers during slavery, the blues–largely due to singers who carried it over like Bessie Smith–and the advances from instrumental jazz ensembles that informed the new explorations of improvisations for jazz vocalists like Louis Armstrong, who we noted weeks earlier for his revolutionary work as a jazz trumpeter. Some vocalists had voices that were more subdued, contained and produced dreamy ballads like Nat King Cole; whereas others had dynamic, staccato, uniquely explosive, and unorthodox styles like Cab Calloway, who would generations after influence a whole movement of freestyle rap. Billie Holiday’s fragile voice made the topics in her songs about heartbreak and struggle all the more haunting and real, whereas Peggy Lee’s take on the same topics exuded a more playful and flirtatious feel. The quality of the voice coupled with the emotional content of the individual behind it creates, each time, a unique product. With the help of one of our favorite contemporary vocalists at The Revivalist, here is a list of jazz singers born before 1920 as part of our 1st installment of vocalists in “Evolution of The Instrument,” curated by Gretchen Parlato.
Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937)
(Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson…)
* Smith was one of the highest paid black performers of her time. Her vocal stylings, as a master practitioner of the blues, would pave way for generations of jazz vocalists for years to come, who would try to emulate her same smoky and emotive voice.
Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)
(King Oliver, Kid Ory, Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald…)
* One of the first “cross-over” jazz artists who made marks in popular culture, both as a trumpeter and singer. Armstrong is also attributed with popularizing the style of singing called scatting.
Cab Calloway (1907 – 1994)
(Louis Armstrong, Doc Cheatham, Milt Hinton, Dizzie Gillespie…)
* Cab Calloway was an explosive and animated performer who mastered the call-and -response relationship between performer and audience. He utilized his entire being, and sang not only from his voice, but his body. Calloway was a powerful band leader who greatly popularized in New York’s Cotton Club. Calloway was one of the great practitioners of improvisation in vocal jazz, paving the way for freestyle rap generations after.
Billy Eckstine (1914 – 1993)
(Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon…)
* Eckstine was a strong band leader during the time where swing was met with the popularization of bop after. Eckstine would mostly be remembered for being a singer of love ballads.
Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
(Lester Young, Artie Shaw, Count Basie…)
* “Lady Day” as Lester Young would call her was one of the most tenacious performers of jazz, despite her very short career. Her imprint on jazz is unparalled, as many of her songs have become jazz standards, and her vocal manipulations with melody and tempo was reminiscent of a horn.
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998)
(Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Gene Kelly…)
* Sinatra was a cross over sensation in both music recordings, film, and television. From playing with swing bands to being a solo artist, Sinatra probably has won some of the most achievements and awards in the history of jazz vocalists.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996)
(Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington…)
Fitzgerald is one of the jazz heros in history. She had one of the most remarkable vocal ranges–two octaves–which brought her 13 Grammy’s and recognized as one of the most influential jazz vocalists in history.
Lena Horne (1917 – 2010)
(Harry Belafonte, Joe Williams, Sammy Davis Jr…)
* Like many other jazz singers of her time, Lena Horne was also an actress and stage performer. She would later also be known largely for her voice in another sense, as she stood up for Civil Rights with many other African-American stars like Paul Robeson.
Eddie Jefferson (1918 – 1979)
(Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Rashied Ali…)
* Credited with coining the term and developing the style of vocalese, a style where lyrics are matched to a instrumental solo or a composition meant originally for an instrumental. Jefferson was a great practitioner of vocalese and was a greatly celebrated singer.
Joe Williams (1918 – 1999)
(Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller…)
* Williams was a dynamic and versatile singer who meandered through the blues, ballads, pop music, and jazz standards. He has the impressive repertoire of playing with names as big as Count Basie, and Fats Waller, and a host of others throughout his career.
Nat King Cole (1919 – 1965)
(Eubie Blake, Wesley Prince…)
* Cole also began his career as an instrumentalist, a pianist to be exact, but ultimately became a great love ballad singer. He is the prototypical singer of the love ballad, still til this day.
Carmen McRae (1920 – 1994)
(Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr, Benny Carter…)
* Known for her wit, her humor, and her behind-the-beat phrasing, McRae was one of the best and most innovative singers of jazz history.
Peggy Lee (1920 – 2002)
(Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones…)
* Peggy Lee had one of the longest running careers that lasted over 6 decades. Lee was a brilliant song writer, composer, as well as singer and actress. She incorporated a multi-media approach to her music, and utilized the idea of concept albums early on.
As always, we welcome your feedback, and additions to our list.