Singer Pianists

Some of our greatest jazz singers never intended to sing; they were pianists. Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Dinah Washington were all capable pianists but still wanted to become vocalists. And though Carmen and Sarah occasionally sat down at the piano to accompany themselves, they are known as vocalists. But Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, and Diana Krall aspired only to be pianists. And Nat King Cole was initially a renowned jazz pianist before he took up singing. They were all told they would get more work if they sang, And the rest is history. Nat King Cole become one of America’s most popular vocalists. And Nina, Shirley, and Diana became singer-pianists. They accompany themselves, and it’s safe to say that their success rests on their singing, not on their piano skills -- as good as they are.

What is Ragtime?

Ragtime was America’s popular music from the late 1800s to 1920. It was composed for the piano for playing not dancing. It is in duple meter (2 heats to the bar) with a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. Scott Joplin is its best-known composer. Stride evolved from ragtime as exemplified by Fats Waller.

What Is Stride?

A jazz piano style that arose from ragtime players. Prominent stride pianists include James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts, Mrs Mills and Mary Lou Williams. Stride employed left hand techniques from ragtime, wider use of the piano's range, and quick tempos. Compositions were written but were also intended to be improvised. The term "stride" comes from the idea of the pianist's left hand leaping, or "striding", across the piano.
– Wikipedia

image Fats Waller"FATS" WALLER (1904-1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comedic entertainer. His innovations in the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. He was one of the few jazz musicians of his time to enjoy commercial success Some of his compositions became well-known standards, such as “Ain’t Misbehavin".


image of Blossom DearieBLOSSOM DEARIE (1924–2009) was a jazz pianist and singer with a recognizably light and girlish voice. She performed regular engagements over many years in London and New York cabaret clubs, having a devoted following and admired for her piano skills.


Image of Nina SImone

NINA SIMONE (1933-2003) was a singer, pianist, songwriter, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music spanned a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. She had a formidable presence.


image of Ray CharlesRAY CHARLES (1930-2004) was a brilliant, towering musical figure who, through his singing and piano playing, helped invent soul and R&B music. Charles won 17 Grammy Awards and was nominated 37 times.

Image of Shirley HornSHIRLEY HORN (1934–2005) was noted for her ability to accompany herself with nearly incomparable independence. Her singing style was both swinging and soulful.




Most musicologists consider the colorfully named Jelly Roll Morton to be the father of jazz piano. He skillfully blended blues and ragtime, in the process liberating the latter from its musical limitations, as personified in his 1915 “Jelly Roll Blues,” said to be the first published jazz composition. Morton was also one of the prime originators of the “swing” style, where selected notes are played in a laid-back fashion, slightly behind the beat, with the overall accenting shifted to the off-beats, giving more weight to the second and fourth beats instead of the first and third, as had been the custom previously.

The 1920s marked the golden age of jazz piano. Prominent practitioners of the era included Thomas “Fats” Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith, all of whom played important roles in the development of the punchy, ragtime-derived style called “stride.” Another key player was Earl Hines, a member of trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking groups of the era. Hines’ unique improvisations incorporated melodic phrasing that echoed the leaps and twists of Armstrong’s lead lines, thus propelling jazz piano to new heights.

In the late 1920s, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington rose to fame through his long residencies at (and radio broadcasts from) the renowned Cotton Club in Harlem. Though thought of primarily as a prolific and influential composer, Ellington was also a gifted pianist, and his sparse stylings as he comped in support of the soloist did much to further the role of piano in modern jazz.

Yamaha Music

(See Musician-Composers for two shows on Ellington)

To see the video in full screen, click the icon in the lower right-hand corner, and to get back, do the same. IMPORTANT:

"Aint Misbehaving"
Fats Waller

"I Loves You Porgy"
George Gershwin - Ira Gershwin from the opera
“Porgy and Bess”

"Georgia On My Mind"
Hoagy Carmichael-
Stuart Gorrell

"Just In Time"
Jule Styne-Comden/Green

"I'm Hip"
Bob Dorough-
Dave Frishberg