Parlato was born in Los Angeles, California, the daughter of Dave Parlato bass player for Frank Zappa on many albums. Parlato attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, then earned a bachelor's degree in ethnomusicology at University of California, Los Angeles.
In 2001 she was accepted into the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance by a panel of judges including Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter. Parlato was the first vocalist ever admitted into the program. In 2004, she won the first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition (Judges included Quincy Jones, Flora Purim, Jimmy Scott, Al Jarreau, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling )
In 2005 she released her self-titled first album, Gretchen Parlato. It was named No. 5 Best Progressive Jazz CDs of 2005 by Jazz Nation and got 5 stars in Down Beat.
In 2007 she was named No. 3 Rising Star Female Vocalist in DownBeat's 55th Annual Critics Poll. In September 2007 she performed with jazz legend Wayne Shorter at La Villette Jazz Festival in Paris.
In August 2009 she released her second CD, In a Dream. The album was named No. 1 Best Vocal Jazz Album of 2009 by the Village Voice Critics Poll and was listed in the Top 10 Albums of 2009 in JazzTimes, Boston Globe, Washington City Paper, Hot House and NPR.
In¬† 2010 she was nominated for Female Singer of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association and she was voted No. 2 Rising Star Vocalist in Downbeat's Annual Critics Poll.
In 2011 she released her 2nd album for Obliqsound, "The Lost and Found". The album shows that Parlato possesses the ability to alter and compose songs into something meaningful and interesting. In August 2011 she was named No. 1 Rising Star Female Vocalist in DownBeat's Annual Critics Poll.
‚ÄúIn an inconspicuous way, Gretchen Parlato knows how to play¬† the same instrument that Frank Sinatra played.There‚Äôs no one out there like Gretchen.‚ÄĚ Wayne Shorter
"Her approach so unique she stands to create a jazz vocal genre unto herself."¬† Michael Bailey, All About Jazz