The history of jazz is long, storied, filled with drama, tragedy, comedy, love, and outstanding singers. Many black male jazz singers have graced our ears, performing their complex harmonies and improvised solos with a style that almost looks easy.
There is no performer quite as compelling as the jazz singer. There is something unique about their style and character, something strange yet fascinating. Let’s examine some male African American jazz singers who have made the genre so successful.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Getting his start at three years old, Sammy Davis Jr. worked on vaudeville with his father. He learned singing, dancing, and many other performance arts that benefitted him greatly as he transitioned into an entertainer.
Sammy Davis Jr. was known for his smooth moves, powerful voice, and small stature. Considered one of the best entertainers in the business, he tried a little bit of everything.
Nicknamed “Satchmo” and known for his sick trumpet solos, Louis Armstrong played jazz like none other. Considered one of the most influential figures in jazz and swing music, Armstrong’s career thrived for nearly fifty years.
Armstrong had a deep, full, gravelly voice and a big smile that made him instantly recognizable. When he wasn’t playing the trumpet, he was singing duets or scatting with the best of the best. His reputation lives on, even in the 21st century.
Nat King Cole
With over 100 hits and a successful Broadway career, Nat King Cole became one of the best-known jazz singers and pianists of the early 1900s. With hits like “Sweet Lorraine,” “Too Young,” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” Cole was a force to be reckoned with.
A professional through and through, Cole worked at his craft until he died in 1965. His last album, L-O-V-E, was released just a few days before he passed away.
A posthumous recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, Billy Eckstine got his start after winning an amateur talent contest in 1933. By 1944, he had his big band that would feature award-winning talents like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker.
Eckstine’s contributions to jazz were innumerable. Reviving classic songs like “Everything I Have Is Yours” and “I Apologize,” Eckstine was an instant hit. His orchestra was considered the first of its kind, a template for big bands that came after him.
Born John Birks Gillespie in 1917, Dizzy was a jazz singer, trumpeter, composer, bandleader, and master improviser. His big personality and his light-hearted style made him a quick favorite.
Dizzy played a key role in developing bebop and modern jazz. Not only is he considered one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, but his style was long considered impossible to recreate.
One of the few modern jazz singers who can hold his own against the genre’s heroes, Gregory Porter, is considered one of the next big stars in jazz vocals. His big baritone voice delivers style and conviction that is hard to replicate.
Porter is already an award-winning jazz musician, and his influence grows. Reminiscent of Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, Porter is bound to be around for a long time.
A veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Joe Williams started singing with gospel groups and performing in Chicago churches. His solo career bloomed in the late 1930s, and it wasn’t long before Count Basie heard him and wanted him.
His successful career included the hits “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Alright, Okay, You Win,” both recorded with Count Basie. His passion for music only thrived as time went by, and he worked right up until he died in 1999.
Born John Carl Hendricks in 1921, he became known professionally as Jon Hendricks, the poet of jazz. His style included adding lyrics to instrumentals, even replacing musical instrument parts with vocals and scat singing.
His skill as a scat singer and vocalist earned him an NEA Jazz Master award in 1993 and various Grammy Awards. Not only a skilled singer, but Hendricks was also an American hero, taking part in the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944.
Known as Little Jimmy Scott, the man gained fame and recognition for his powerful love songs, emotionally raw ballads, and naturally high voice. His unusual style and tone made him one of the more recognizable voices in jazz.
Scott’s career began as a child when he would sing in church choirs with his mother. He earned fame as the lead singer for Lionel Hampton’s band, recording hits like “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
A singer, songwriter, and guitar player, Benson began working in jazz at 19. Since then, he has seen a successful solo career with triple-platinum hits and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Though his career peaked in the 1980s, Benson still maintains a large following of avid fans who enjoy his funk, soul, and jazz sounds.
A 65-year career marked Calloway’s jazz, blues, and swing success. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the most popular musicians of the day. A big band leader, a dancer, and an actor were all fitting descriptions of the man.
Calloway was known for his energy and unique mix of jazz and vaudeville. He first gained recognition as the vocalist on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and produced hits of his own like “Minnie the Moocher.”
Few people have had the same level of influence as Ray Charles. His reputation reaches across decades, and his songs are still considered standards of the jazz genre. Sometimes called “Brother Ray,” he was a pioneer in the music industry.
Charles is considered one of the most important figures in music history. Though he had only three career number one hits, his lifetime of work contributes to the ever-expanding legacy of Ray Charles.
Born in 1950, McFerrin’s career is marked by his exceptionally fluid vocals, considerably wide range, and excellent harmonies. As a conductor, McFerrin is known for his unique arrangements and improvisational scat singing.
Bobby McFerrin has worked with big names in the business like Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. His hit song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” won the song of the year in 1989.
Lou Rawls has one of the most recognizable voices in the industry. His rich sound and deep baritone made him a staple of the jazz scene in the mid-1900s. Singing briefly with stars like Sam Cooke, Rawls started at a young age.
Rawls went from singing back-up vocals on Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” to producing his own hits like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Lady Love.”
Best known as the primary vocalist for Count Basie’s Orchestra, Jimmy Rushing had a wide range and powerful voice. His ballads were from the heart, and his blues riffs were fun and energetic. His mix of blues and jazz styles gave him a unique sound that had no equal.
Rushing never described his style. He considered himself a singer and left it at that. He was known for recording the hit tunes “Going to Chicago” and “Harvard blues.” Even after his death, Rushing was considered one of the best in business.
Best Black Male Jazz Singers, Final Thoughts
Jazz singers have long been the subject of exciting stories. Throughout the early 1900s, the best jazz singers the world had ever known came onto the scene and left an indelible mark on the genre’s legacy. Modern musicians have been striving to live up to those legacies ever since.