Salvant began studying voice at the age of eight with an interest in classical music. She began her transition into jazz while studying at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in 2007, and also studied composition and music theory at The New School. Salvant says that her main jazz influence is Sarah Vaughan, recalling childhood memories of listening to her songs repeatedly. While strongly influenced by Sarah Vaughan, she is also heavily influenced by vocalists such as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Betty Carter. She describes her sound as jazz, blues, with elements of folk and musical theatre. She composes music and lyrics which she also sings in French, her native language, as well as in Spanish. She enjoys popularity in Europe and in the United States, performing in clubs, concert halls, and festivals accompanied by renowned musicians. Salvant has performed at jazz venues and festivals including Ronnie Scott’s, the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, and the Village Vanguard.
In 2010, Salvant released her first self-titled album Cécile & the Jean-François Bonnel Paris Quintet. Soon thereafter, at the age of 21, she went on to win the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for vocalists. Her first-prize win included a recording contract with the label Mack Avenue Records, with whom she released her next two albums. Writing in The New York Times in 2012, Ben Ratliff said: “In front of a trio led by the pianist Aaron Diehl she sings clearly, with her full pitch range, from a pronounced low end to full and distinct high notes, used sparingly […] Her voice clamps into each song, performing careful variations on pitch, stretching words but generally not scatting; her face conveys meaning, representing sorrow or serenity like a silent-movie actor.”
In 2013 she released her second album WomanChild, which was nominated for a 2014 Grammy Award in the category of Best Vocal Jazz Album. The songs chosen for WomanChild include original compositions, as well as compositions that date back to the 19th century and progress into the 21st. Salvant chose the songs for this album based on songs she felt had a personal connection to her life.
In September 2015, Salvant released her second album with Mack Avenue Records, titled For One to Love. On this album, she chose songs that focus attention on strong women and independence. The album contains five original works and jazz standards. In 2016, the album won a Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Two years later, her third album with Mack Avenue, Dreams and Daggers, won a Grammy in the same category.
She has toured with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whose music director Wynton Marsalis was quoted in a 2017 New Yorker article as saying of Salvant: “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.”
Salvant has sung in advertisements for Chanel‘s “Chance” brand of products.