Top Female Jazz Artists: Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald

This month, we celebrate the birthdays of two of the greatest vocalists in all popular music: Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.  It’s a good time to honor these two, who were so different from each other but were, with Louis Armstrong, the major influences on every popular music vocalist thereafter.


I recently got the 2-CD set Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years, which collects Billie Holiday recordings made between 1946 and 1959.  There are many, many classics here, including “I Cover the Waterfront,” “My Man,” and “Yesterdays.”  One song I think about a lot is “Don’t Explain.”  I couldn’t remember whether Billie Holiday had written the lyrics to this gorgeous, desperate song.  She did.  The person the words are directed to is asked not to explain who he’s been fooling around with.  “I’m glad you’re back–don’t explain.”  It seems incredibly revealing and tragic as I listen to it now.  The lack of respect she got from men and from wrong-headed American social mores and laws may have helped make her who she was as an artist.

The autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, written with William Dufty in 1956, is very frank and revealing for a bio of its time, with candid commentary on Billie’s addictions and brief stint in prostitution.  Shortly after the book’s publication, Billie declined precipitously till her death in 1959, and her last recordings display the ravages of her lifestyle. 

A great piece of fanciful writing about Billie Holiday and her best music buddy Lester Young appears in Geoff Dyer’s excellent book But Beautiful, which imagines episodes in the lives of various jazz musicians.


Ella Fitzgerald’s masterworks are her “American Songbooks,” 2-disc albums of songs by great songwriters like the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, and Ellington.  My favorite is the Cole Porter collection, but they are all worthwhile (unless, like my wife, you inexplicably can’t stand Ella).  I got to see the aging, almost-blind singer perform at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont in Dallas in the mid-seventies and she still sounded like a choir girl (a choir girl with a lot of soul).  From the Cole Porter collection, check out the musical questions: “Why Can’t You Behave?” or “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

I have one bio of Ella, Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, by Stuart Nicholson (1994).  It’s a well-written bio, but Ella’s life story isn’t quite as provocative as Lady Day’s.

Another interesting bio of Ella is a kid’s book that focuses on her pioneering scat singing: Skit Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (2010), written by Roxane Orgill and illustrated by Sean Qualls.  It’s a fun book for adults to read to kids.  (Along the same lines, don’t miss Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Christopher Raschka (1997).)

I collect books about jazz singers, and I think it’s fitting that two of the best of them feature one of these ladies on the cover: Will Friedwald’s Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond (Ella, with Nat King Cole) and Crowther and Pinfold’s Singing Jazz: The Singers and their Styles (Billie).

Celebrate these great jazz innovators by listening to some of their very special music.

Who’s your favorite jazz artist?

— Steve

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