The Big Five

Vocalists were influenced by the bands they sang with, so Billie Holiday learned from Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald from Chick Webb's orchestra, and Sarah Vaughan from Billie Eckstine's group, and that's how they learned to sing jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was a master at vocal riffing (scatting), but Billie Holiday did not scat at all. Anita O'Day used the technique but Saran and Carmen, very little. But they all improvised, the hallmark of jazz.

Image of BIllie HolidayBILLIE HOLIDAY (1915–1959), nicknamed "Lady Day," is synonymous with “jazz singer.” Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.

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Image of EllaELLA FITZGERALD (1917-1996) was known as "The First Lady of Song." Unquestionably the best all-around jazz singer, she had a purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing.

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Image of Sarah Vaughan

SARAH VAUGHAN (1924–1990), Nicknamed "Sassy" and "The Divine One", she had a four-octave range and complete control of her voice. Critic Scott Yanow wrote  she had "one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century."

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image of Carmen McRaeCARMEN MCRAE (1920–1994) is remembered for her behind-the-beat phrasing and her realistic interpretation of lyrics. Though greatly admired by jazz artists, she never acquired the mainstream status of Billie, Ella, and Sarah.

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Image of Anita O'DayANITA O'DAY(1919–2006) was a self-proclaimed “song stylist” widely admired for her sense of time. Her performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is one of jazz music's best known moments.

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In the early 1900's African-American musical traditions mixed with other musical forms in the melting pot of New Orleans. Gradually jazz emerged from a blend of ragtime, marches, blues, and other kinds of music played in this vibrant city. At first, jazz was mostly for dancing but then people began to listen to it.

Comments on the Big Five by Will Friedwald, esteemed jazz and pop singing historian and author of JM Jazz’s favorite resource book: “The Biographical Guide to Jazz and Pop Singing.”

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Billie Holiday - Don’t Explain, Arthur Herzog, Jr,-Billie Holiday

Ella Fitzgerald Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love

SARAH VAUGHAN The Shadow of Your Smile, Johnny Mandel-P.F. Webster
Oscar Winner 2004

Carmen McRae - Send in the Clowns, Stephen Sondheim

ANITA DAY - Tea For Two, Vincent Youmans-Irving Caesar - 1924