The ten best male jazz vocalists of all time
While Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme made singing jazz standards part of their repertoire, some consider them to be more from the crooners school. Here we've put together a list of the ten of the best male singers who excelled in jazz, whether it be scat singing, vocalese or just having an incredibly distinguishable voice. Keep reading for the ten best male jazz vocalists of all time.
10. Mose Allison
There wasn't a whole lot of singing on Mose Allison's 1957 debut, Back Country Suite, but it gives a good idea of his burgeoning relaxed vocal delivery, as well as his strong piano skills. While Allison clearly has a deep affinity for bop on the disc, he also shows his love for the blues, especially on "One Room Country Shack." Since then, Allison has released some great recordings where he delves into both jazz and blues realms.
9. Jimmy Scott
One of the most intriguing voices in jazz, Jimmy Scott -- sometimes know as Little Jimmy Scott -- has a peculiarly high voice due to Kallmann syndrome, a condition that stunted his growth and prevented him from experiencing puberty. His '60s Savoy releases, in particular, are great, especially The Fabulous Songs of Jimmy Scott. While his singing career took a back seat to various jobs for the next few decades, his career had something of a re-birth after singing at the funeral of his friend, the legendary Doc Pomus in 1991, and Scott went on to release some outstanding albums since then, like Holding Back the Years and The Source.
8. Mark Murphy
While he was born when some of the singers on this list were just starting out their careers, Mark Murphy got his start as a pop singer during the '50s and soon delved into jazz, taking a few cues from Jon Hendricks, and Murphy developed his own brand of vocalese. He released a number of albums under his own name, including his 1956 Verve debut, Meet Mark Murphy, and one of his finest recordings, 1978's Stolen Moments. Along the way, he picked up six Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
7. Cab Calloway
While a lot were hipped to Cab Calloway from his appearance in The Blues Brothers and his trademark tune, "Minnie the Moocher," the singer's professional career started decades before, and he appeared in quite a few other films before that 1980 film was released. A mainstay at Harlem's Cotton Club starting in the '30s, Calloway was a master of scat singing and an amazingly animated bandleader.
6. Johnny Hartman
If there's only Johnny Hartman album in your collection, it should be the extraordinary 1963 album he did for Impulse! with John Coltrane. There are only six tunes on the disc, and it clocks in at about thirty minutes. But it's seriously a half hour of ballad bliss between Hartman's velvety baritone and Coltrane's lush sax work, especially on "My One and Only Love" and "Lush Life." While he's known for that classic recording, Hartman also released some first-rate albums throughout the '60s, including I Just Dropped By to Say Hello.
5. Kurt Elling
With numerous Grammys under his belt and quite a few other awards like being named "Male Singer of the Year" by the Jazz Journalists Association, Kurt Elling is one of the world's top jazz vocalists. The guy's got skills: In addition to stretching his warm baritone over four octaves, he's a mad scatter who's also deft in vocalese; Elling honed his chops listening to Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks and other jazz singers before him. He's released some stellar discs over the last two decades, including 2007's Nightmoves and 2011's The Gate.
4. Billy Eckstine
While there have been a number of outstanding male jazz baritone singers, the fluid Billy Eckstine had a damn near magical vibrato, especially on ballads like "Stella By Starlight" or "You Don't Know What Love Is," which are both on the 1958 Mercury release Billy's Best! Earlier in his career, Eckstine worked with Earl Hines in the late '30s and during the next decade he brought some heavies in his own orchestra, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Art Blakey.
3. Joe Williams
With his smoky baritone, Joe Williams got an early start in his career during the late '30s and early '40s with bands led by Jimmie Noone, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. Williams gained wider fame in '50s during a stint with the Count Basie Orchestra and thanks to hit "Every Day I Have the Blues," which is on the great 1956 disc, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings. Williams also released some good albums under his own name, including his lush ballad album, A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry.
2. Louis Armstrong
While we voted Louis Armstrong the best jazz trumpeter of all time, Satchmo had one of the most distinguishing voices in the genre. Sure, everybody's most likely heard unmistakable gravelly delivery on the insanely famous "What a Wonderful World," but his singing could sometimes be in the same vein as his trumpet phrasing, especially when he scatted. In fact, some folks say that his 1926 recording of "Heebie Jeebies" was the first to feature his vocal improvisations.
1. Jon Hendricks
When describing the first Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross album, 1957's Sing a Song of Basie, critic Leonard Feather supposedly coined the term "vocalese," essentially a type of jazz singing where lyrics are set to melodies of jazz instrumentals. With that album, Jon Hendricks, who was also an amazing scat singer, basically became the Father of Vocalese. While Hendricks, now 92, went on to release a number of recordings with Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, he also put out some fine discs under his own name, including 1990's Freddie Freeloader, which also featured Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau and George Benson.
BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.