If you’re looking for music that will speak to your soul, jazz is the right choice 365 days a year. Our favorite female jazz singers include legends from the 30s and 40s up to today’s French jazz-pop darlings. Start adding these soulful and sultry voices to a playlist and let them warm your little heart. We’ll give you our favorite songs and albums to start with and let you run with it!
Female Jazz Singers Past + Present
Our “jazzy + frenchy” playlist begins in the mid-30s with select songs from the great Billie Holiday. “Blue Turning Grey Over You“, “You Turned The Tables On Me“, and “Lover Man” convey the imagery of a woman unlucky in love. Her talent and success is incredible, considering she grew up in extreme poverty and never learned to read music. She always insisted on singing from her heart and was considered to be an improvisational genius. Billie Holiday inspired many of today’s female jazz singers; such as Madeleine Peyroux. Also coming from humble beginnings, Madeleine got her start on the streets of Paris singing vintage jazz with strolling players. Add your favorite songs from her Careless Love album for an after-hours, speak-easy vibe. (ed. All of our music links will be from Apple Music, which you can try for free.)
“My Skin is Black”
Our next few songs come from legend Nina Simone. Nina is one of many female jazz singers who is multi-talented and multi-faceted. Trained as a concert pianist, she also became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. Check out the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? for an in-depth look. Our favorite songs include: “My Baby Just Cares For Me“, “Mood Indigo“, and “Little Girl Blue“. Nina was sharply dramatic and pursued her art with a passion.
Love Needs No Words
Sometimes it’s wonderful to listen to a singer and not understand what she’s saying. You are left with the feeling of the music and the beauty of the voice without all of those words in your head. Listening to female jazz singers in French is just as enjoyable as scat. It gives your brain a rest and lets your heart do more of the listening. One such favorite is Stacey Kent, an American jazz singer who sings in French. Stacey “paid her dues” singing in local nightclubs and working on her graduate degree in singing. Pretty much every song on her album, Raconté-moi will lift your spirits and send you off to dreamy Paris paradise.
“The Divine One”
Like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn used her voice more like a musical instrument. Female jazz singers like Sarah have a talent for articulating particular lyrics with color. Her individuality still stands true today and she has very few imitators. Take a listen to “Nobody Else But Me“, “It’s Magic“, and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” to get a feel for her unique vocal style. She worked with countless jazz greats and held her own, gaining her the nickname, “Sassy”.
“First Lady of Song”
Thanks to our next lady, jazz singers have been popular for over half a century. The true pioneer of female jazz singers, Ella Fitzgerald was noted for her purity of tone and her ability to sing scat. One of our favorite albums is Ella & Louis, with Louis Armstrong. Another great Netflix documentary to watch is Ken Burns: Jazz. It takes you on a wonderful journey through Ella’s career and the evolution of jazz as a music genre. Ella transformed history with her improvisational ability and collaboration with other musical giants. Struggling to endure the Great Depression, she started entering talent shows and won every one. Greatly influenced by be-bop and scat (making your voice sound like a musical instrument), she sang upbeat songs and never took her success for granted.
“Queen of the Blues”
Fast-forward to the 1950’s, Dinah Washington became the most popular black female recording artist. Many female jazz singers sing a variety of different genres, including the blues, R&B, and traditional pop music. Dinah was also a talented pianist and began singing in clubs at the age of 15. She sang at the same club as Billie Holiday, with Billie singing upstairs and Dinah in the downstairs room. Her soulful voice hits you straight to the core. Our favorite album is The Singers Sessions With Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn And Helen Merrill: The EmArcy Master Takes (Vol. 2). (Many songs on the album also feature Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones & His Orchestra.)
Once you have your curated playlist, add it to the background of a dinner party or let it play low before bedtime. The best female jazz singers are definite crowd pleasers and leave you feeling uplifted. Even the more bluesy songs work as a spiritual uplift and soothe the soul. There are many other artists to discover, so hope this little list starts you on the right track!