By Linda Rosenkrantz
The connection to the haunting voice of a well known jazz or blues singer definitely adds an element of –well—rhythm and blues—to a name’s image, an extra infusion of richness and pizzazz. Boyish Billie takes on new depth when listening to Lady Day, Etta goes from fusty to soulful via the “At Last” singer James. Here then, the Nameberry Picks of the jazziest ‘girl’ jazz singer names.
Billie Holiday, one of the greatest and most tragic jazz singers of all time, was born with the name Eleanora and took her professional name from an actress she admired called Billie Dove—who was originally Bertha. Billie is a tomboyish nickname name that was in the Top 100 from 1928 to 1935, and now seems to be making a return—Rebecca Gayheart and Eric Dane have a young daughter named Billie Beatrice.
Carmen McRae is considered one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century. Her operatic name has been associated with two bombshells—Carmens Miranda and Electra—neither of whom were born with the name. Now at Number 331—down from its high of 142 in 1968, Carmen was recently chosen by Alec Baldwin for his baby daughter.
Cassandra Wilson is a contemporary jazz singer and songwriter, credited with reconnecting vocal jazz with its blues roots. Cassandra, associated with the tragic mythological Trojan woman cursed by Apollo to never have her prophecies believed, hit a high of Number 49 in 1990, and still makes a rich, evocative option.
The name Dakota entered the popularity list in 1990, exactly six decades after the birth of jazz singer Dakota Staton, and one year after Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson chose it for their now-grown actress daughter. A trendy nineties western place name with a bit of cowboy/girl swagger, Dakota is still well used for both girls and boys.
Dinah Washington, born Ruth Lu, was a popular jazz singer of the 1950’s. Dinah has been off the Most Popular list since 1966, but with its biblical and literary cred, sweet southern accent and readymade theme song, (“Dinah, is there anyone finer?”) we’d like to start a movement lobbying for her return.
Ella Fitzgerald was known as the “Queen of Jazz,” acclaimed for her remarkable range and unique scat singing. Her name has been a twenty-first century success story, rising this year to its highest point ever—Number 12. Also a starbabe fave for the past decade, Ella has been chosen by such celebs as Ben Stiller and Mark Wahlberg.
Esperanza Spalding is a young (born 1984) jazz vocalist, cellist and bass player who was the first jazz artist to win the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011. The meaning of her classic Spanish name connotes hope which, combined with a rhythmic sound, makes it a cool crossover candidate.
Ethel Waters, who later became a distinguished Oscar-nominated character actress, started her career as a jazz and blues artist. Her name has been making a surprise comeback, all but erasing her middle-aged Ethel Mertz image; Lily Allen chose it for her daughter last year.
Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins, performed in a variety of styles, including jazz and blues, R&B and rock and roll. She was the direct inspiration for the name of Carson Daly’s daughter Etta Jones and, though it hasn’t quite happened yet, could be seen a possible successor to Emma and Ella.
Spelled variously as Ivie and Ivy Anderson, she was best known as the vocalist with the Duke Ellington band in the 1930’s and early forties. Ivy has been leaping up the charts, now at its highest point ever, Number 187. Beyonce and Jay-Z naming their daughter Blue Ivy has undoubtedly been a factor.
A Jazz Age singer-dancer-actress-activist, Josephine Baker (born Freda) performed in both Paris and the U.S., and became the personification of ‘le jazz hot.’ Josephine was one of the first old lady names to become unbuttoned—partly because of her range of great nicknames, from Josie to Posey to Fifi.
June Christy is a representative of the cool jazz contingent, long a vocalist with the Stan Kenton band. She went through two name changes—from Shirley Luster to Sharon Leslie–before she hit on her final stage name. June has been popping up on lots of name lists lately, particularly in middle place.
An international favorite, British-born Mabel Mercer spent a lot of her singing career performing in Paris clubs. Saucy, spunky Mabel may be on the path to follow cousin Sadie—she’s already a celebrisphere darling, chosen by Dermot Mulroney, Bruce Willis and others.
Julliard-trained jazz singer, pianist and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen. In 1954 she adopted the stage name Nina Simone—Nina was a nickname a boyfriend had given her, Simone was taken from the French actress Simone Signoret. The appealing Russian-derived Nina is now widely cross-cultural, ranking at Number 291 in the U.S.
Would you name your child after a musical favorite? Any of the ones here?
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