5 Unforgettable Jazz Singers Who Led Big Bands

Ella Fitzgerald singing in front of a band.

Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) / Flickr / Public Domain

 Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan were all pioneering jazz performers. 

These five women distinguished themselves in the recording studio and concert halls for their ability to sing with passion. 

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Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues

Dinah Washington head shot, black and white photo.

Associated Booking Corporation/photo by James Kriegsmann, New York / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

During the 1950s, Dinah Washington was “the most popular Black female recording artist,” recording popular R&B and jazz tunes. Her biggest hit came in 1959 when she recorded “What a Difference a Day Makes.”

Working mostly as a jazz vocalist, Washington was known for her ability to sing blues, R&B, and even pop music. Early in her career, Washington gave herself the name “Queen of the Blues.” 

Born Ruth Lee Jones on August 29, 1924, in Alabama, Washington moved to Chicago as a young girl. She died on December 14, 1963. Washington was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. 

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Sarah Vaughan, The Divine One

Sarah Vaughan singing into a microphone, black and white photo.

William P. Gottlieb  (1917–2006) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Before Sarah Vaughn became a jazz vocalist, she performed with jazz bands. Vaughn began singing as a soloist in 1945 and is well known for her renditions of “Send in the Clowns” and “Broken-Hearted Melody.”

Given the nicknames “Sassy,” “The Divine One,” and “Sailor,” Vaughn is a Grammy Award winner. In 1989, Vaughn was the recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award.

Born on March 27, 1924, in New Jersey, Vaughn died on April 3, 1990, in Beverly Hills, California. 

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Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song

Black and white photo of Ella Fitzgerald smiling.

Carl Van Vechten  (1880–1964) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

 Known as the “First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella,” Ella Fitzgerald was known for her ability to redefine scat singing.

Best known for her rendition of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” as well as “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” Fitzgerald performed and recorded with jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Virginia. Throughout her career and after her death in 1996, Fitzgerald was the recipient of 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

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Billie Holiday, Lady Day

Billie Holiday singing, black and white photo.

FotoshopTofs / Pixabay

Early in her career, Billie Holiday was given the nickname “Lady Day” by her good friend and fellow musician, Lester Young. Throughout her career, Holiday had a strong influence on jazz and pop vocalists. Holiday’s style as a vocalist was revolutionary in its ability to manipulate word phrasing and musical tempos.

Some of Holiday’s most popular songs were “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Don’t Explain.”

Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, she died in New York City in 1959. Holiday’s autobiography was made into a film entitled "Lady Sings the Blues." In 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

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Lena Horne, The Triple Threat

Black and white photo of Lena Horne.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Lena Horne was a triple threat. Throughout her career, Horne worked as a dancer, singer, and actress.

At the age of 16, Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club. By her early 20s, Horne was singing with Nobel Sissle and his orchestra. More bookings in nightclubs came before Horne moved to Hollywood where she starred in numerous films, such as "Cabin in the Sky" and "Stormy Weather."

But as the McCarthy Era picked up steam, Horne was targeted for many of her political views. Like Paul Robeson, Horne found herself blacklisted in Hollywood. As a result, Horne returned to performing in nightclubs. She also became an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and participated in the March on Washington.

Horne retired from performing in 1980 but made a comeback with a one-woman show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," which ran on Broadway. Horne died in 2010. 


"Ella Fitzgerald — Dream A Little Dream Of Me Lyrics." Metro Lyrics, CBS Interactive, 2019.

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Lewis, Femi. "5 Unforgettable Jazz Singers Who Led Big Bands." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/unforgettable-big-band-jazz-singers-45320. Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 16). 5 Unforgettable Jazz Singers Who Led Big Bands. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/unforgettable-big-band-jazz-singers-45320 Lewis, Femi. "5 Unforgettable Jazz Singers Who Led Big Bands." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/unforgettable-big-band-jazz-singers-45320 (accessed March 24, 2023).