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Four Fantastic Female Jazz Singers

Jazz Singer Ella Fitzgerald

Throughout history, many female jazz singers have influenced jazz music. It's challenging to pick only four female jazz singers when there are so many fantastic performers throughout history, but we decided to go with a few of history's greats!

Ella Fitzgerald

In the 50s and 60s, Ella Fitzgerald earned the name "First Lady of Song" for her mainstream popularity and unparalleled vocal talents. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique. In 1938, she put out her first number-one hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," and recorded her second hit, "I Found My Yellow Basket," later that year. Ella made acting debut in 1942's comedy western Ride 'Em Cowboy with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello.

She made her last recording in 1989 and her final public performance in 1991 at New York's Carnegie Hall. She has recorded over 200 albums and around 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her vocal quality with lucid intonation and a broad range helped her become the first African-American woman to win a Grammy award in 1957. Ella would go on to win 13 Grammys and sell more than 40 million albums.

Billie Holiday

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday later coined her stage name after her favorite silent movie star, Billie Dove. Billie was discovered at 18 by producer John Hammond while performing in a Harlem jazz club. Hammond was instrumental in getting Billie to record work with up-and-coming artist Benny Goodman.

In 1936, she was coined "Lady Day" and broke ground in 1938 by working with Artie Shaw and his orchestra, becoming one of the first female African-American vocalists to perform with a white orchestra. In 1944, "Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)" was written FOR Billie by Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez, and James Sherman and climbed to the No. 5 spot on the R&B charts the following year. 

Billie struggled with substance abuse, which started to take a toll on her voice, but she continued to tour and record in the 1950s. Despite all her troubles, she gave impressive performances, giving her final performance in 1959 in New York City.

Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan grew up in the world of music with musically inclined parents. She studied the piano and organ, and you'd find her singing solo at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. In 1942, Vaughan took her first steps to becoming a professional singer when she won a talent contest with her rendition of "Body and Soul" held at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Vaughan caught the attention of Billy Eckstine, who convinced Earl Hines to hire Sarah to sing with his orchestra.

Sarah eventually brought bebop into her singing, which can be heard in the 1945 "Lover Man" recording that she made with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Vaughan was nicknamed "Sassy" because of her onstage commentary but was later dubbed "The Divine One" by a DJ in Chicago. She made some of her most famous recordings in the late 1940s, including "If You Could See Me Now" and "It's Magic."

Vaughan gave her final performance at New York's Blue Note Club in 1989 and passed away the following year from lung cancer. Vaughan was an extremely gifted singer and performer throughout her career. She was invited to perform at the White House and Carnegie Hall, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989, was selected to join the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Nina Simone

Simone studied classical piano at Juilliard but left early after running out of money. She turned her interest towards jazz, blues, and folk music and released her first album in 1957, scoring a Top 20 hit with the track "I Love You Porgy." Simone released various albums from the late '50s into the early '70s, including "Wild is the Wind" and "Silk and Soul." She made cover songs of popular music, such as the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun."

In the 1960s, Nina Simone became a leading voice in the Civil Rights Movement. She wrote "Four Women," chronicling the complex histories of a quartet of African-American female figures. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Simone's bassist Greg Taylor wrote "Why (The King of Love is Dead)," which was performed by her band at the Westbury Music Festival.

Towards the end of the '60s, Simone grew tired of the American music scene and the country's deeply divided racial issues and started traveling to countries including Switzerland, England, and Barbados before settling down in the South of France. One of her final performances was in 1999; she performed at the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin, Ireland, and was joined on stage by her daughter Lisa for a few songs. After years of battling breast cancer, she passed away in her South France home in 2003, leaving a lasting impression on the world of music, art, and activism.

Enjoy Live Music at Maxan Jazz!

We provide a delicious and upscale dining experience with the freshest sushi around while you can enjoy some of the best modern jazz artists LIVE! Check out our entertainment calendar and call today to book a reservation.

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