Great Singers in Early Jazz

Though perhaps not as well-documented as the piano, for instance, vocal technique has always played a part in the development of jazz. It goes beyond scat singing, too.

For one, jazz singers often set the tone for future trends in jazz. Ray Charles, chief among them, incorporated the carefree attitude of boogie-woogie jazz with the soulfulness of gospel to create an attitude that would characterize rock and roll, bebop, and beyond. Anita O’Day bucked gender conventions and delivered her songs with a breezy demeanor that set the stage for West Coast cool jazz. And, of course, Ella Fitzgerald would prove fundamental in developing a punctuated, diction-heavy singing style that bebop would come to emulate with other instruments.

In fact, one of the chief characteristics of vocal jazz is melding the voice to fit in with other instruments. It, too, is used for improvisation and playing off other band members. Tony Bennett is particularly well-known for this. Vocal jazz isn’t known so much for range -- though singers like Sarah Vaughan had plenty -- as for delivery. More than many other jazz players, vocalists often aren’t formally trained. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dinah Washington topped the charts with their emotionally powerful delivery and thoroughly unique sound, not with technical precision.

Vocals were also fundamental to introducing jazz into the mainstream. While instrumentalist jazz often proved too avant-garde, pop tunes imbued with jazz from the likes of Mel Tormé, Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne were more palatable to the average listener. But that doesn’t mean these singers couldn’t be part of the avant garde. Chet Baker, a trumpeter and singer, was always at the forefront of bebop, despite a life marred by tragedy.

Jazz pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Fats Waller, and many, many others often worked with vocalists, either as a one-off collaboration or as a touring band. Sinatra sang with the Count Basie Orchestra as part of the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. Johnny Hartman got his start touring with Earl Hines. And Fitzgerald collaborated with nearly every jazz to come out of the ‘30s and ‘60s.

In many ways, jazz vocalists act as a sort of bridge between a casual appreciation of jazz and deeper trends within the genre. American classics like Sinatra’s “My Way,” Horne’s “Stormy Weather,” and Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” all come from a love of the jazz sound and a conscious effort on the part of the singer to incorporate it into their songs. So though we may not always recognize it, vocals play a huge part in the world of jazz.

Nat King Cole

As much a pop artist as a jazz musician, Nat King Cole was one of the most popular jazz musicians of his time. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show multiple times, and was the first black artist to host his own variety show, the Nat King Cole Show. Though mum on the issue of Civil Rights himself, his popularity made him a major factor in the fight for equal rights throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Nathaniel Adams Coles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 17, 1919. When he was four, his family moved to Chicago, where his father became a minister and Nat learned the church organ. He learned classical piano well... Read more >
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Anita O'Day

To this day, Anita O’Day personifies “cool.” As both a member of the West Coast style of cool jazz and a stage presence way ahead of the times, this singer was the It Girl of her era. O’Day, née Anita Belle Colton, was born in Chicago on October 18, 1919. Little is known about her early life and its influence on her career. According to O’Day, she had an unhappy childhood. And when she was young, a botched tonsillectomy left her unable to sing vibrato or sustain long notes. She left home at age 14 to join a traveling marathon dance troupe known as the Walk-a-thons. Though she would occasionally sing for extra money during... Read more >
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Chet Baker

Chet Baker may be one of jazz’s greatest tragedies. Known as much for his drug habit as his powerful bebop sound, critics and musicians alike are still trying to solve the enigma of Chet Baker. He was born in central Oklahoma in 1929, the son of a pianist and professional guitar player. His family moved to California in 1940, and later that year, Baker’s father had him learn music on the trombone, though he eventually switched to the trumpet. In addition to singing in the church choir, this would be Baker’s only substantial music education. Baker dropped out of high school at age 16 to join the Army. He played in a number of army... Read more >
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Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington, the Queen of the Jukebox, was revolutionary in many ways. For one, despite her skin color, she consistently topped the charts during a time of great prejudice. She also used seemingly endless ability to craft hit songs to spread jazz to the masses. She was born named Ruth Lee Jones in 1924. Though originally from Alabama, her family quickly moved to Chicago, which she always considered her true hometown. Washington grew up in the church, and began singing with her church choir from an early age. In her teens, she started showing potential for a singing career. She joined the touring group the Sallie Martin Gospel... Read more >
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Louis Armstrong

An American icon and jazz innovator, Louis Armstrong’s career spans an incredible five decades, and his influence on music is still felt to this day. Armstrong was born into poverty in 1901. He came from the “Back of the Town” in New Orleans, a notoriously rough neighborhood. Armstrong had an unstable childhood. His father abandoned his family when he was still an infant, and his mother left Armstrong and his younger sister with their grandmother for nearly five years. Precisely because of his rough upbringing, Armstrong developed an early education in music. He spent much of his childhood working to support his family by taking... Read more >
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