Lately The New York Times has asked jazz musicians, writers and scholars to share the favorites that would make a friend fall in love with Duke Ellington, Alice Coltrane, bebop and Ornette Coleman.
Now we’re putting the spotlight on jazz vocals. If you’re a listener to the latest jazz, you’ve probably noticed that vocalists are some of the beacons guiding this music toward new paths. It’s been decades since jazz singers played such an active and contemporary role, but for most of the mid-20th century it was hard to distinguish many jazz singers from pop stars. Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee — these were all Page 1 celebrities, and jazz musicians. Throughout jazz history, singers have also served the role of breaking up the bandstand’s closed circuit of masculinity: In the Jazz Age, they were often the only women on the bus with the all-male big bands.
This list’s aim is not to be comprehensive — if it were, we’d have to explain why there’s no Abbey Lincoln, Sarah Vaughan or Babs Gonzales, at the very least. We put a bigger emphasis on breadth, and encouraged contributors to give us their sincere favorites. Enjoy listening to these excerpts from songs chosen by a range of musicians, scholars and critics. You can find a playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.
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Luciana Souza, vocalist
If one arrives at this 1938 recording of Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” with fresh ears, the listener will immediately be taken by Billie Holiday’s unique sound and deeply personal phrasing — they embody vocal jazz. Billie sings in a relaxed, almost spoken way, as if she is telling each of us her story. The rhythm section plays quarter notes, laying a clear foundation for the swing feel that permeates this track. The busy piano commentary and the horn solos help create a state of conversation and storytelling, which is also essential to jazz.
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Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocalist
This 1933 performance of “Dinah” is a perfect example of how free and radical Louis Armstrong was. He grounds the time at the bridge, flies over the A sections, and sings exactly the way he plays: Every choice he makes is undeniable, feels casual, and is extremely attractive. There is so much life and happiness in his singing and his sound. There’s wisdom and playfulness at the same time. He gives us the lyrics and then takes them away as he sees fit; it’s almost like an erasure poem. It’s a party.
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Kurt Elling, vocalist
If there is one recording of one song that manifests every element of jazz singing at its highest elevation, it is that of Betty Carter singing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” from “The Audience With Betty Carter” (1980). Recorded live (with no studio “fixes”), Carter broadcasts her signature and unmistakable sonic identity from a single opening sigh. From there she goes on to spontaneously reinvent the song’s original melody in toto — not to “show off” or exclude the audience, but in service of the composition’s story and of the audience’s emotional experience. Her techniques allow her to be utterly transparent, emotionally, to her audience. She is a philosopher of love, a comedian, a heartbroken waif and an artist beyond her years. In one tour-de-force performance she shows herself to have mastered and metabolized every individual facet of jazz singing in such a way that her work has become seamless and solid-state. The intimate musical interaction with her rhythm section (John Hicks, piano; Curtis Lundy, bass; Kenny Washington, drums) — probably the finest in a career she populated with the best in the business — shows her to be a consummate bandleader. This performance makes a strong case for Betty Carter as the absolute most: the pinnacle virtuoso in a line of definitive musical masters.
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Tammy Kernodle, musicologist
This performance captures a side of Ella Fitzgerald’s artistry that isn’t always conveyed through her studio recordings. The complete “Live in Berlin” album is a hallmark of Fitzgerald’s catalog because of its documentation of the energy, creativity and intimacy that links audience and musician in the live setting. I think “How High the Moon” overshadows all of the other performances on this album as it strongly illuminates Ella’s role in shaping the modern vocal jazz idiom, especially her embrace of the harmonic approaches advanced through bebop. The impeccable timing, musical knowledge and vocal dexterity employed in this seven-plus-minute vocal improvisation exemplifies musical genius. Ella doesn’t just cover this standard, she owns it! Deconstructing its melodic identity and seamlessly fusing musical quotations drawn from a litany of sources, she creates an indisputable piece of art.
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Aaron Diehl, pianist
This song is poignant, as if a mother is consoling her child in the throes of heartbreak and despair. It is the melody which Maxine Sullivan sings in combination with the lyric that makes this message bittersweet — her simple treatment only embellished with an occasional scooped note and the supple feeling of swing. Bob Haggart’s band provides a subtle undercurrent in a performance both haunting and hopeful. It urges the ear (and the heart) to come back for more.
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Dee Alexander, vocalist
While on this journey through life and music I have encountered many artists that have influenced me. One such person is Urszula Dudziak, a phenomenal Polish jazz vocalist with a five-octave range that soars effortlessly and leaves me breathless. My introduction to her album “Midnight Rain” and her rendition of “Bluesette” showcased her courageous and creative approach to her music, especially her use of wordless sounds, which I also incorporate in my performance. Thank you, Ms. Dudziak, for sharing your gift with the world. You are one of my greatest inspirations.
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Melissa Weber (a.k.a. Soul Sister), D.J. and scholar
Unlike today, Black radio in the 1970s lacked silos for R&B and “jazz.” Many wonderful vocal artists fused those boundaries, like Patti Austin, George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jean Carn. Angela Bofill’s 1978 debut album, “Angie,” is one of the finest examples of a fusion of Black American music influences and the Nuyorican and Cuban roots that are also part of Bofill’s background. The album’s opening composition, the self-penned “Under the Moon and Over the Sky,” is a searing, ethereal work of beauty. And “Angie,” a Top 5 seller on the Jazz Albums chart, crossed over to R&B and pop, and was filled with more stunning moments.
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Will Friedwald, author
“Joe Turner’s Blues” climaxes Nat King Cole’s most famous concert album, “At the Sands,” taped in 1960 but not released until 1966, about a year after his tragically early death. Cole was a brilliant blues player as well as singer, and few artists have ever captured the sheer exuberance of the blues — the idea of confronting hard times with a smile — as well as he does here. Cole’s 1958 studio recording of this Dave Cavanaugh arrangement of a W.C. Handy song is exciting enough, but the live performance is positively ecstatic. Here’s the most vivid example imaginable of how hearing the blues makes you feel good.
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Catherine Russell, vocalist
Nancy Wilson demonstrates everything I look for in excellent jazz singing! “Never Will I Marry” is not an “easy” tune, yet Wilson is in full command of melody and lyric, using her voice as an instrument. Her point of view is clear, honest and playful. She achieves this by where she chooses to use straight tone and vibrato, and the push/pull and swing of her phrasing. Her delivery is strong and vulnerable simultaneously. Then she leaves us with a long, perfectly delivered last note while the band dances around her to bring the tune to a close. Absolutely brilliant!
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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic
Andy Bey’s four-octave baritone range and tightly controlled, emotive vocal instrument have covered a lot of ground in 83 years: jazz-pop harmony with his sisters, hard-bop alongside Horace Silver, avant-garde theater with Cecil Taylor. But like a true jazz vocalist, he’s never strayed too far from the blues. It’s there with him on “Experience and Judgment,” his 1974 debut album as a leader, an imperfectly made record that’s nonetheless full of broad-minded Bey compositions touching on love, lust and transcendental philosophy. This is jazz sailing into New Age, but staying grounded; Bey’s is a sound of earned truth. “Tune Up,” maybe the most slyly funky song he ever wrote, displays his gymnastic composure as he doubles with the bass’s two-note vamp then soars up to entreat us: “Get close to all that’s pure and beautiful.”
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Roxana Amed, vocalist
Esperanza Spalding represents, in my opinion, what a contemporary jazz vocalist is. Her flexible instrument — expressive and light — can follow the challenging requirements of her music, can flow alongside her bass, can tell the delicate stories in her poetry. Over the decades, the profile of a jazz vocalist has changed; we’ve had everything from virtuosic scatters to deep storytellers, from songwriters to vocalists and pianists. In every case, facing this repertoire requires a versatile instrument and mind, knowledge of the tradition and some skills to break it and create a new sound, a new vocal language. Esperanza has been exploring all the corners of this amazing music.
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