In a time when segregation was still very much a part of the American experience, jazz musicians were busting through barriers and breaking down prejudice, winning over crowds with their songs. Right on the front lines were a host of talented female American jazz vocalists who defied conventions of their time, earning their place in musical history as they entertained crowds throughout the country and abroad.
While the list of notable female American jazz vocalists continues to grow today, modern singers owe a debt of gratitude to those who paved the way for them. In the early days of jazz, such singers as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Blanche Calloway made their mark on the world, each facing their own set of hardships in order to bring song to the stage.
Calloway, the older sister of the famous Cab Calloway, broke history in her own regard. She was a singer who went on to be the very first woman to lead an all-male jazz orchestra. She is said to have been a major influence for Cab and her stage presence was one that served as a hallmark for the genre. Blanche Calloway captivated audiences with her bold style and was often described as “flamboyant” in a time when women simply weren’t.
Like Blanche Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald set the pace for female American jazz vocalists who followed her. Known as the Queen of Jazz, Fitzgerald had 40 million record sales to her credit and recorded more than 70 albums. Much of her career spanned the heydays of segregation, but her impeccable style made her a mainstream favorite nonetheless.
Holiday was a contemporary of both Fitzgerald and Calloway. She is best known for her raspy sound that made such tunes as “God Bless the Child” and “Lady Sings the Blues” such big hits. Although her story didn’t end as happily as Calloway’s or Fitzgerald’s, Holiday left her mark on the genre and served to inspire a generation of up-and-coming female American jazz vocalists.
The early singers of this distinctly American musical style paved the way for such notables as Diana Ross, Lena Horne and others. Because of those who walked before, female American jazz vocalists continue to captivate audiences today, making their own mark on the world by continuing to push boundaries while entertaining a whole new generation of jazz fans.
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