Greatest female jazz musicians: 16 of the best
Meet some of the greatest female jazz musicians of all time
We guide you through some of the greatest and most influential female jazz artists and musicians of all time, all of whom have shaped and impacted the genre in their own individual way
Best female jazz musicians
With a unique satirical style, Bley found herself at the forefront of avant-garde jazz.
Though Carla Bley was once proclaimed ‘the Queen of the avant-garde’, she’s too much of a free spirit to be defined by a label. Born in California in May 1936, she learned piano from her choirmaster father and accompanied services from an early age, before dropping out of church and school to concentrate on competition roller skating.
At 17, jazz seized her attention and she went to New York, waiting on tables at Birdland and absorbing the musical ferment. In 1959 she married pianist Paul Bley, who encouraged her talent for composition, and tuneful originals such as ‘Sing Me Softly of the Blues’ became contemporary standards.
Carla Bley: Selected Recordings
(1937 – 2007)
After her husband, John Coltrane, died in 1967, Alice Coltrane began her career in earnest, combining her search for cosmic consciousness with the jazz music she loved. As well as playing piano, Alice was one of the very few jazz harpist, and her series of albums for Impulse from 1968-73 saw her journey to the outer reaches of spiritual jazz.
Dubbed ‘Betty Bebop’, Carter proved herself a master of improvisation
The title that Betty Carter gave one of her last CDs epitomised her approach to jazz singing: It’s Not About the Melody. For over half a century she transformed standard popular songs into vehicles for her unique personal expression.
Carter treated a song as an emotional whole, spontaneously recasting melody and lyrics into a new dramatic shape. Like all the best jazz, her art combined palpable freedom with subtle, intuitive structure: she once described what she did as ‘a learning craft’. Possessing an essentially bluesy timbre, her smoky voice swooped and crooned through words and pitches in what might seem a kind of stream of consciousness, without losing potent focus and expressive point.
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Betty Carter’s finest hour
Combining a distinctive name and a girl-like voice proved a winning formula
When Blossom Dearie died the obituaries began by declaring that that really was her given name. It seemed too good to be true, the winsome image so perfectly suited the doll-like delivery which had made her a unique presence on the international scene for over half a century.
Such aplomb explains the cult following she enjoyed over the years. She was never slow to castigate audiences for rudeness, and some of her best songs have a satiric bite. If you can find it, one of her own favourite discs was the live Blossom Time at Ronnie Scott’s, containing ‘I’m Hip’, a portrait of a jazz pseud. But she herself was the real thing, a jazz musician to the bone. And, despite appearances, no evanescent little flower either, but quietly steely and enduring.
Blossom Dearie: Four Classic Albums Plus
1917 – 1996
As the ‘First Lady’ of jazz, Fitzgerald had an unrivalled mastery of improvisation
Even when Ella Fitzgerald sang sad songs, cheerfulness seemed on the verge of breaking in. Fans who preferred the moody splendour of Billie Holiday sometimes held this against her: it was said that when Billie sang ‘my man’s gone’, you knew he’d departed for good, while a similar line from Ella brought to mind somebody just popping out for a loaf of bread. Though the comparison is distorted and unfair, it’s true that the root of Fitzgerald’s art was a boundless joie de vivre. Coupled with her vocal virtuosity, it touched millions of people around the world and made her a queen both of jazz and pop.
But jazz lovers would always prefer the spectacle of Ella live, backed just with a rhythm section, storming through such impromptu masterpieces as ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘How High the Moon’, recorded at a 1960 concert in Berlin. We’re left gasping at her energy, invention and exhilarating creativity; her songs enshrine a life committed to performing and a conviction that joy is the essence of jazz.
Ella Fitzgerald: Ken Burns Jazz
Known as Lady Day, the remarkable singer inspired a generation of jazz vocalists
She remains, very likely, the best. Her youthful records from the ’30s still constitute a benchmark for jazz vocalists. In them, Lady Day is the peer of the all-star casts who surround her – chief among them her soulmate, tenorman Lester Young. Together, she and Young spin wonders like their impromptu duet on ‘Me, Myself and I’, which Holiday launches with a deft quotation from her main influence, Louis Armstrong. But her phrasing, swing and confidence are her own, as in her assured entrance on ‘Miss Brown to You’, sliding across the beat, yet clear as a bell.
Musicians thought her a marvel. As an accompanist put it, ‘To me her greatest quality was not the one everybody fixes on – the expression and feeling – but her innately and absolutely perfect timing.’
The Canadian singer and piano player Diana Krall is one of the most successful crossover jazz artists of all time, selling some 15 million albums and scooping three Grammy Awards along the way.
All For You, her 1996 tribute to the Nat Cole Trio, was her first major success in a career that has seen her work with everyone from Ray Charles to Paul McCartney, as well as husband Elvis Costello.
(1920 – 2002)
Following a traumatic childhood in North Dakota, Peggy Lee was discovered by Benny Goodman, with whom she performed in the early 1940s. Stepping out on her own, she found huge success through the 1950s and beyond, both as a writer, singer and actor.
Her 1958 hit single Fever was the perfect vehicle to show off her delicate, light voice, which would often contrast perfectly with her usually large orchestral backing. Despite being plagued by ill health, she still performed live into the 1990s, and her legacy includes over 1,000 recordings.
In 1951, one of the brightest young bandleaders on the British scene was looking for a singer.
After a weary trawl through some 30 candidates, he heard a voice that gave him a little frisson
of goosebumps. It belonged to Clementine Langridge, a frustrated young housewife yearning to be a
star, and he offered her a job virtually there and then.
In short order, John Dankworth’s new vocalist was renamed Cleo Laine, and a legendary jazz couple was born. In the more than half a century since, Dankworth and Laine created some of the most distinguished and varied music to come out of the UK, attaining a massive global following.
Despite their long alliance, Dankworth and Laine always pursued solo careers as well. Laine established her own formidable reputation as an actress – acclaimed in both straight plays and musicals – and a singer commanding almost cult status, particularly in the States. Her dramatic sense, coupled with her extraordinary vocal range, have enabled her to excel in recordings from Porgy and Bess to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and with such varied partners as Duke Ellington, James Galway and Ray Charles.
In 2005, a rare London concert by Maria Schneider attracted an audience so packed with top-flight jazz professionals that a cataclysm would have decimated the British scene. But it was no more than fitting for a musician hailed in America as ‘the most significant big-band jazz composer of our time’.
Chief among the Schneider hallmarks is a gift for sonorities that are rich and transparent, with a piquancy that comes from unexpected voicings, using brass and reeds in combinations that make them sound altogether new. They’re the perfect setting for her soaring melodies and harmonies, quickened by a rhythmic feeling which links momentum and metrical subtlety.
The essential medium for these virtues is the Schneider orchestra, a group of virtuoso individuals whose personalities, she says, are ‘burned in my brain’. She writes with them in mind, making her pieces organic rather than abstract. Schneider and her players don’t see a barrier between composition and improvisation, and that view of a shared musical reality suits the nature of her work – meditative, optimistic, reflecting memories of her native Midwest.
Maria Schneider Sky Blue
Born Eunice Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina in 1933, Nina Simone was that rarest of things: a master of all trades, with her music infused with influences from Bach to the Blues.
She began her life at the piano playing gospel music at her local church from as young as three years old. After training as a classical pianist at Julliard Music School in New York, she was refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music, which she always attributed to her being a black woman.
Her career as a recording artist took off with the 1958 release of I Loves You, Porgy. She devoted herself to the Civil Rights movement for much of her professional life, and recorded a great many albums fusing jazz with blues, gospel, soul and pop, primarily for Colpix, Philips and RCA. She maintained a reputation as an uncompromising live performer until not love before her death in France in 2003.
1894 – 1937
As an iconic blues singer, Smith influenced the great jazz vocalists who followed
To savour the essence of the blues, any listener should experience the majesty of Bessie Smith. Her first recording, in 1923, established her as a unique vocalist, with a huge sound and mesmerising presence. She maintained her eminence throughout the ’20s, her repertoire encompassing pop songs and novelties as well as her staple blues.
Her unequalled power still comes across in her recordings and a double-CD, The Essential Bessie Smith, offers a good chronological survey of her achievement, including such classics as ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘Careless Love’, in which she’s brilliantly accompanied by the young Louis Armstrong.
That mixture of elements was the story both of Smith’s music and her life. Her career was undermined by the Depression and her devil-may-care hedonism, then cut short by a car accident in 1937. But her records present her art in all its magnificence:the once and future ‘Empress of the Blues’.
The Essential Bessie Smith
The British swing and big band singer Clare Teal has enjoyed a hugely successful career since signing the biggest-ever deal for a British jazz singer – her debut LP for Sony Don’t Talk was a top 20 album in 2004, as well as topping the jazz charts. Teal has enjoyed a dual career as a presenter, primarily for BBC Radio, for whom she has hosted a number of jazz series.
1924 – 1990
Known as ‘Sassy’, Sarah Vaughan embraced both the worlds of jazz and pop
A true jazz diva, she bewitched listeners with her sheer beauty of sound and supple invention. Her blend of sensual sonority and technical command earned her the public sobriquet of ‘The Divine One’; her fellow musicians, impressed by her confidence, dubbed her ‘Sassy’.
A capable pianist as well as a singer, she came of age with the bebop pioneers, recording with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who admired her deeply. But from the ’50s, her sumptuous voice, with its four-octave range and operatic agility, attracted the attention of the pop industry. For much of her career, she veered between the two worlds, winning a middle-of-the-road following for albums of dreamy ballads with strings, while charming jazz fans with her swing and artful phrasing.
Whatever her material, Vaughan conveyed a sense of the tantalising potential of music and lyrics, which she could release through the power of her voice. She shares that quality with the great singers of any genre, and it makes her status in jazz unique.
Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown
(1924 – 1963)
One of the most versatile of the major jazz voices, Dinah Washington lived fast and died young. But in her 39 years, the Alabama singer got her break singing with Lionel Hampton’s band in the 1940s, before scoring a string of hits on the R&B and Pop charts, including What a Diff'rence a Day Made (1959) and Baby, You've Got What It Takes, a 1960 duet with Brook Benton.
1948 – 2022
With a solid sense of swing, the virtuoso player demonstrates deep jazz roots
Audiences and musicians have been impressed with what Jessica Williams can do for over 40 years, although Williams pursued her career in her own way. She’s always rejected categories, believing in ‘letting my conservatory training sing through me in a language not jazz, not classical, but mine alone’. But her jazz roots go deep, the result of years of gigging with the biggest names in the business. Her great distinction is the way she has distilled the whole spectrum of jazz piano into a richly inclusive personal style. She reveres the quirky, splayed, wrong-footing attack of Thelonious Monk, but also the sensitivity of Bill Evans, the harmonies of McCoy Tyner, the prestidigitation of Art Tatum. And she admires Glenn Gould.
Born in Michigan, USA in 1943 Geoffrey Smith grew up to the diverse sounds of Schubert, jazz and Gilbert & Sullivan. Today he is based in the UK and is a freelance writer and lecturer, contributing articles and reviews to a variety of publications, including BBC Music Magazine, Country Life, New Society and The Spectator. He was also previously the presenter of Jazz Record Requests and Geoffrey Smith's Jazz on BBC Radio 3.
Paul McGuinness is a journalist with over 25 years’ experience. He has written about music of all styles for a variety of publications and labels. He has interviewed legendary musicians from five continents, and travelled the world to experience the music he loves in its natural setting.