Carrie Smith, who has died aged 86 of cancer, was a blues diva and distinctive jazz singer who straddled both worlds with commendable aplomb. Although her early career was largely small-scale, her breakthrough came when she played the role of Bessie Smith in a well-received performance at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1974, kickstarting a lengthy association with the pianist Dick Hyman's projects and frequent visits to Europe, including the UK. Even so, her greatest success came when she starred in the hit Broadway musical Black and Blue, a revue celebrating black jazz, blues and dance, from 1989 to 1991.
Once described by Scott Yanow as a "blues belter in the classic tradition", Smith was born in Fort Gaines, in rural Georgia, but raised in the bustling city of Newark, New Jersey, where her African-American family relocated when she was seven. Her father was a Baptist minister, her mother a keen choir singer, and Smith herself was steeped in gospel music from an early age. "From my childhood I was brought up in the church," she told the writer Chip Deffaa, also recalling a favourite aunt as "a barrelhouse mama who used to have all Bessie Smith's records. I really got into Bessie because I loved her voice."
Inevitably, Smith started singing in church, progressing from the children's choir to the main Greater Harvest Baptist church choir. Invited to perform as a gospel soloist at Town Hall in New York in 1961, for what she deemed her first professional engagement, she earned a rave review from the New York Times's Robert Shelton, who admired her "full-bodied, robust contralto voice".
Having had to juggle factory work with her gospel engagements, Shelton's appreciative comments emboldened Smith to give up her sewing job and to make for Los Angeles. Appearing on the Art Linkletter House Party TV show, she attracted the attention of ragtime pianist Big Tiny Little and joined his popular combo, touring nationally and learning to sing blues. Arriving in New Orleans, she stayed on as featured singer with trumpeter Al Hirt's group, eventually heading to New York, where she performed with the jazz trombonist Tyree Glenn's sextet in the Americana hotel in 1970, later taking jazz jobs with the pianist Hank Jones and the saxophonist Buddy Tate.
When the promoter George Wein selected her to portray Bessie Smith in his 1974 Carnegie Hall presentation Satchmo Remembered, Smith felt well and truly ready. "That's when people really began to know who I was," she said. Thereafter she travelled regularly with Hyman's New York Jazz Repertory Company orchestra, playing the Nice festival often and touring in the USSR, recording with jazz musicians of high calibre, her vocal richness and on-stage zest a welcome calling card. She appeared at Ronnie Scott's several times in the 1970s and was constantly busy in France, her "no-nonsense, swinging style", in the words of Max Jones, and cheery, stage presence pleasing audiences everywhere.
Given her mastery of the classic blues idiom and delight in performing old vaudeville songs, she was a natural choice for the two-year run of Black and Blue, a valuable experience even if she did find the backstage bickering among her co-stars something of a pain. After that, Smith toured with her own group, headed by the pianist Bross Townsend, making her final UK appearance in 1997 at the Brecon jazz festival and continuing to appear in US clubs and at festivals until illness forced her to retire in 2004.
Briefly married to a "small-time hustler" identified only as Swindler Joe, Smith was confined in recent years by a series of mini-strokes to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey.
• Carrie Louise Smith, jazz and blues singer, born 25 August 1925; died 20 May 2012
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