On this page, I am going to share my top five jazz vocalists, though with all the talented performers I have heard in the course of my exploration, it is a difficult proposition, reflective of my personal tastes and history with music. Over time, I may change a vocalist or two, but if any readers want to share something phenomenal that I have not included, I am certainly willing to add to this list. Please take the time to explore and enjoy the music on this page, and if possible, share your own favorites.
#1) Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday
Born Elenora Fagan in 1915, Billie Holliday was the daughter of a jazz guitarist who abandoned the family in Philadelphia early on, subjecting his child and her mother (who moved to Harlem) to difficult lives of brothels, prostitution, arrest and imprisonment—all before Elenora turned 14. She began singing in local Harlem clubs, where she was noticed by promoter John Hammond, who arranged for her first recordings. Over time, she worked with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Count Bassie and Arte Shaw. Her good friend/collaborator, saxophonist Lester Young gave her the name “Lady Day,” which endured throughout her two-decades long career.
During the late1940s/1950s, she was arrested in New York and San Francisco for drug possession, as she struggled with drug abuse, drinking and relationships and horrible marriages with abusive men. At the end in 1959, she died drug-addicted and emaciated, with cirrhosis of the liver, at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, and incredible talent and a tortured soul.
Strange Fruit, written as a poem by white teacher Abel Meeropol as a protest to the lynching of blacks in the South, was a song first sang and recorded by Billie in 1939. She was initially nervous about performing it, fearing the song would incite anger and violence. Performed first at Café Society in Greenwich Village, she closed nightly with this powerful song in a darkened room, seeming prayerful in tone, illuminated by a single spotlight. I tried to find the best approximation of the performance to include on this page. It remains one of the most haunting songs of all time, and her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
#2) Take Five by Al Jarreau
In terms of taking pure vocals to remarkable levels, there is no one better than Al Jarreau, born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Not surprising, he earned a Master’s Degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Iowa and worked as a rehabilitation counselor in San Francisco before moonlighting with a jazz trio headed by George Duke.
For those who were not around for the 1980s when he had several big albums and hits, including We’re In This Love Together and After All, it would be worth your time exploring what he can do with his voice. Below, he mesmerizes with Take Five, originally written by Dave Brubeck in 1959.
#3) Lovin You by Minnie Riperton
Minnie was born and raised in Chicago’s Southside and sang back-up for acts including Etta James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Ramsey Lewis, but it wasn’t until 1975 that she achieved international fame with this song. Incredibly, the high notes in this song are in the “whistle register,” which is the highest register of the human voice, above modal and falsetto, and she does it with apparent ease.
She was married to songwriter, Richard Rudolph, and the two had two children, Marc and Maya Rudolph, the latter of Saturday Night Live fame. In the video below, she ends the song, repeating, “Maya, Maya, Maya.” She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976 and died in 1979 at 31 years old.
#4) C’est Si Bon by Eartha Kitt
Perhaps it is because she sings in French, or perhaps it is because she purrs in song, but Eartha Mae Kitt possessed one of the most sultry, sexy voices in the industry—”The most exciting woman in the world!” according to Orson Welles. During the 1950s, she had over six US Top-30 hits, including Santa Baby (which she sings better than all who followed), Let’s Do It, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Love for Sale and Champagne Taste. She spoke four languages and sang in seven.
In addition to recording, she had a Broadway career spanning decades, starred as Helen of Troy in the movie Dr. Faustus and appeared in other movies and on television, in I Spy and Mission Impossible, but most notably as Catwoman in the 1960 Batman series. She won several Emmy and Annie awards over a six-decades long career and died on Christmas Day, 2008. Enjoy!
#5) Polyphonic Overtone Singing by Anna-Maria Hefele
Just in case you do not know what polyphonic, or overtone singing is, which basically allows a singer to sing more than one note, or one pitch, at the same time. It sounds alien and other-worldly, and it involves manipulating the sound wave by making use of resonant cavities, such as the mouth, larynx and pharynx. Over time and across many countries, singers have made use of the device, though most of you have never had the privilege of an actual performance… until now.
Anna-Maria Hefele is a German polyphonic overtone singer, and her work has been so incredible that the video below has received over ten million hits. Please take the time to listen. You will be amazed!