Miles Davis, the trumpet player whose lyrical interpretation and ever-changing style made him a touchstone of 20th century music, has been voted the best jazz artist of all time. But there are many other singers who have made their mark in the jazz world and deserve recognition for their contributions. Shirley Horn, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Steve Coleman, Minnie Riperton, Donny Hathaway, Nat King Cole, George Benson, Denise Garrett, Al Jarreau, Mel Tormé, Kurt Elling, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing are just some of the great jazz singers who have left an indelible mark on the genre. Shirley Horn never achieved the fame of other jazz singers such as Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but over several decades she became one of the most respected artists of her generation and a firm favorite in the industry.
After winning DownBeat magazine's Most Promising Newcomer award in 1955, this Pennsylvania singer signed with Capitol Records and lived up to her early promise by delivering a classic LP in 1957, The Late, Late Show, which reached the Top 5 of the US pop charts. Cab Calloway was one of the creators of scat singing and is best remembered for his classic 1931 song “Minnie The Moocher”. In its chart-topping wake it followed a string of more swing-driven hits characterized by humorous lyrics peppered with witty puns and trendy street slang. Nancy Wilson was blessed with a warm and husky vocal timbre.
Mississippi-born Wilson began her career as part of saxophonist Steve Coleman's experimental collective M-Base in the 80s but it really flourished when she signed with Blue Note in 1993 where her unique style and striking reconfigurations of classic rock and pop songs brought her music for a wider audience. Aretea Franklin was born Denise Garrett in Memphis but grew up in Michigan and was exposed to jazz at a young age (her father was a trumpet player). Her first solo album was initially released only in Japan in 1974 but was followed by an alliance with the merger in the late 70s. With a series of acclaimed albums she was proclaimed one of the best jazz singers from the 90s onwards.
George Benson was a prodigiously talented instrumentalist (in his case on guitar) who found greater fame as a singer. He played largely guitar-driven jazz until 1976 when his album Breezin' produced the vocal hit “This Masquerade”. Although influenced by soul singers Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder Benson patented his own soft jazz vocal style and is famous for his ability to sing scat while doubling the melody of his guitar. Christy (born Shirley Luster) made her mark for the first time in the era of big band swing. In 1945 she successfully auditioned to replace Anita O'Day in the Stan Kenton orchestra and adorned several of the band's hits including the millionaire “Tampico” with Latin overtones.
She recorded her first solo album in 1947 and after that she never looked back. With her sonorous tone subtle vibrato and strong but nuanced phrasing Christy embodied the West Coast “cool school art” of jazz singing. Kurt Elling is one of the best jazz singers among contemporary jazz. Chicago-born Elling made his debut album for Blue Note in 1995 and quickly established himself as a name to be reckoned with. Able to spit and improvise with his voice like an instrumentalist Elling is also an astute interpreter of norms and a strong writer of original material. Jimmy Rushing was born in Oklahoma City and began singing professionally in the 1920s.
In 1935 he joined Count Basie's band where he stayed for 13 years before leaving to become a successful solo singer. Renowned for the breadth of his voice which could transform from a throated baritone to a very loud tenor Rushing possessed a rough textured tone and in terms of volume could sing with a great band without being choked. Julie London earned her place among the best jazz singers for her pitiful 1956 recording of Arthur Hamilton's “Cry Me A River Alone” which sold three million copies and made the 30-year-old a talent to consider. London's business card was her sultry voice which she used to great effect on songs like “Cry Me A River” “I'm In The Mood For Love” “Blue Moon” “Fly Me To The Moon” “My Funny Valentine” “The Nearness Of You” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” “The Very Thought Of You” “The Party's Over” “The End Of A Love Affair” “I'm Through With Love” “I'll Remember April” “You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To” “I'm A Fool To Want You” “Goodbye Sadness (Tristeza)” and many more. These are just some of the greatest jazz singers who have left an indelible mark on music history.
From Miles Davis to Julie London these artists have shaped what we know today as jazz music and will continue to inspire generations to come.