Divas for Beginners -- See what we think of albums by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald

The tradition of the jazz diva started in the 1920s, with Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith; it’s sustained today by such women as Carmen Lundy, Cassandra Wilson, and Mary Cleere Haran, who address good songs with wit and invention and without gimmickry. The divas’ greatest era lasted from the ’30s to the mid-’60s and produced such remarkable artists as Helen Humes, Anita O’Day, Carmen McRae, and Betty Carter, as well as Abbey Lincoln and the following monuments to style and swing:

Bessie Smith
The Collection
Her last session, in 1933, represented a change in emphasis from blues to jazz. This sampler of the Empress of the Blues’ 11-year recording career is marred by poor digital remastering. Keep an eye out for the complete Bessie on LP.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Too bad there isn’t a one-volume collection of her best jazz work, her early CBS records with Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. Still, this set of ballads is sublime, and includes her hair-raising account of a lynching, ”Strange Fruit.”

Ella Fitzgerald
For Love of Ella
This two-CD set addresses both aspects of the Fitzgerald magic — scat-crazed swingers on one disc, sumptuous ballads on the other.

Sarah Vaughan
The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury, Vol. 1
Six discs of beguiling virtuosity by one of the most accomplished singers of the century.

Dinah Washington
The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury, Vol. 3
The Queen of the Blues — yeah, Bessie’s heir — actually sang every kind of song. An irrepressible wit, she could soar as high as any instrumentalist.