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Sirens of Jazz
KEXP Documentaries presents Sirens of Jazz! An inside look at KEXP’s favorite female jazz vocalists. Each short radio story in this 10-part series will profile the woman’s history and best music mixed with commentary from today’s authors, DJs, scholars and musicians. From top vintage soloists Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, to experimental singers Betty Carter and Cassandra Wilson, to crossover crooners Ernestine Anderson, Peggy Lee and Astrud Gilberto.


# 10 Billie Holiday

Perhaps the most famous female jazz singer of all, Billie Holiday's voice was both tragic and triumphant. This vocal quality mirrored Billie's rough upbringing and unstoppable spirit. And even though she had no formal musical training, and her voice ranged just about an octave, her delivery was unforgettable and her interpretations of the songs were genius.

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Billie Holiday

# 9 Cassandra Wilson

One of today's top female jazz singers is Cassandra Wilson. She brings her Mississippi roots to much of her music and as a leader in jazz fusion adds elements of all American styles to her songs.

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Cassandra Wilson

# 8 Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee was a singer with attitude. After high school, she left her home in Nebraska with 18 dollars in her pocket and worked until she was a celebrity. In a career that spanned 5 decades, Peggy not only sang, but starred on many TV shows and in movies. She refused to let anyone compromise the way she wanted to perform. Peggy experimented with pop and Latin sounds, and was a talented arranger, though she was never credited for it.

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Peggy Lee

# 7 Ernestine Anderson

Seattle singer Ernestine Anderson has traveled the world, internationally respected for her signature bluesy style that still somehow remains in the realm of jazz. When we interviewed her in her Central District home, Ernestine seemed a bit shy at first. But after a few minutes warmed up and shared a bit of her history with us. “I always knew I had to please the audience, or else find another profession.” She also talked about how music changes the world. “Music changes your attitude. For me, I can be down in spirit and I put on an uptempo record and I’m up again. It has to do with your moods.”

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Ernestine Anderson

# 6 Astrud Gilberto

Astrud Gilberto got her first big break in the US in the early 60s when her husband Joao Gilberto asked her to sing the English version of the Jobim song "Girl From Ipanema" during a Brazilian jazz concert. The recording made Astrud into an instant pop star. That version of "Girl From Ipanema" is still a classic.Since that famous session, Astrud continued to produce gorgeous hits in her shy, lush voice until 2002. Her work has been sampled often by today's DJs and producers, like Thievery Corporation, Cut Chemist and RJD2.

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Astrud Gilberto

# 5 Anita O'Day

Anita O'Day was not your typical girl singer. She thought ballads were "boring" and loved to heat up a room with more energetic big band numbers. She was the first Caucasian female to perform a hit song with an African-American artist (trumpeter Roy Eldridge) onstage. Carrying with her an indestructible sense of humor and a strong disposition, Anita drove a hard road, playing on the drug heroin for almost two decades, kicking the drug, then continuing to perform and release records up until her death at age 86.

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Anita O'Day

# 4 Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan's voice ranged 3 octaves, and her career lasted 5 decades. She is hailed as one of the most sophisticated musicians of all time, despite the fact that her main instrument was her voice. After all those years in the public eye, very little is known about the "real" Sarah Vaughan. KEXP Documentaries explores the mystery and the moments of this tough girl from Newark, New Jersey who made herself into a superstar.

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Sarah Vaughan

# 3 Betty Carter

Betty Carter's voice floated gorgeously through songs she sung with Mingus, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie and many other great masters of her time. She was also a composer who taught hundreds of young musicians in her Jazz Ahead program. She said, ‎"Be a leader, don't follow. Do things so others follow YOU. Never hold back. Be an individual, something somebody will never forget."

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Betty Carter

# 2 Nina Simone

Nina Simone was a storyteller with a point to make. And her songs ranged from ones of love, to ones that focused on the racism she faced every day. Like Billie Holiday, her work is so strong it’s played on non-jazz stations and is still very popular. During the Civil Rights Era, Nina risked her life by speaking up, but no one could silence Nina Simone.

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Nina Simone

# 1 Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald came up rough. Her mom died when she was just 14 and by her late teens she was living in the streets of New York City. She got her big break at 17 when she won an amateur talent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. During her lifetime, Ella Fitzgerald’s vocals won her 15 Grammy awards, performances with the greatest band leaders and performers of the day and the admiration of the fans who bought more than 40 million records.

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Ella Fitzgerald