Top 10 Black Singers of the Last (Almost) 100 Years
Written by Alexandra Lang on June 27, 2018
African American artists have undoubtedly contributed to music for generations. Without these great talents, music as we have known it for decades would be completely different. So, in honor of African American Music Appreciation Month, we have compiled a four-part list of black artists who we think defined music in their respective decades, from the 1920s to today.
Part I: The Jazz Years
1920’s: Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana, rising to fame in the ‘20s as one of the best trumpet players and singers of the decade. With such timeless hits as “What a Wonderful World” and “La Vie En Rose”, his music had a large impact on the jazz world that endures to this day. He was also very outspoken about civil rights, as the only black Jazz musician at the time to publicly denounce school segregation. Dubbed “Ambassador Satch” after his touring took him all over the globe, Armstrong’s legacy as one of the most prominent Jazz musicians has lasted long after his death in 1971.
1930’s: Duke Ellington
Born in Washington D.C. as Edward Kennedy Ellington, Duke Ellington was one of the pioneers of big-band jazz, which refers to a group of at least ten musicians. Beginning to play music at age 17, he developed a band of such noted musicians as Cootie Williams (trumpeter) and Johnny Hodges (saxophonist), among many others. He was a major figurehead in the swing era, and he used his talents to compose music for albums, ballets, movies, and the theater. He had a talent for using different combinations of instruments to create a certain mood, making him a huge influence on jazz musicians that followed him.
1940s: Dizzy Gillespie
John Birks Gillespie, known as Dizzy Gillespie, was a founder of the bebop jazz movement of the ‘40s, along with Charlie Parker. Bebop jazz was a style of jazz that used all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, rather than using only 7-note scales as was common in jazz at the time. Essentially, it broke with the traditional jazz by introducing improvised, irregular beats and rhythms. Gillespie’s nickname, Dizzy, came from his tendency to be a jokester on and off stage. He formed his own orchestra, which was seen as one of the best at the time. Towards the end of his life, he toured internationally as the leader of the United Nations Orchestra, bringing his innovative music to the international spotlight. Many believe his trumpet skills rivaled that of Louis Armstrong, and his improvisational music style earned him his rightful place in music history.
1950’s: Miles Davis
Davis was one of the most prominent trumpet players and bandleaders of the 1950s. He began playing the trumpet at age 13; at age 17, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to play with them on stage to substitute when one of their trumpet players became sick. He eventually joined Parker’s band and formed the Miles Davis Sextet, which recorded many albums. One of these was Kind of Blue, which is the highest selling jazz album of all time, selling over 2 million copies. However, he eventually saw the dark side of fame. Davis struggled with an addiction to heroin, alcohol, and cocaine at various points in his career, taking sporadic breaks from music throughout his life to recover. Despite his addiction, Davis was one of the most successful jazz musicians of all time.
Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll reveal the next set of some of the best African American artists in music history.