According to most sources, she was born Joan Elizabeth Shaw in Newport News, Virginia, though some sources give the name Joan DeCarlo. Her uncle was a vaudeville comedian, dancer and singer, Bootsie Swan. After first singing in her church and school, she started performing in clubs by the age of fifteen. She won a talent contest in New York's Apollo Theater, singing "September Song", and after making demonstration records for Peggy Lee and Lena Horne, acquired her own contract as Joan Shaw. Her first disc was 1949's "He Knows How to Hucklebuck", with the Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams Orchestra, for the Savoy label. In the early 1950s, she recorded for various labels including MGM (1950), Regal, Abbey (both 1951), and Coral (1952), often working with vocal group The Five Keys and the Billy Ford Orchestra. After some time performing in clubs in Florida and elsewhere as a nightclub singer, she began touring with an R&B band, the Blues Express, appearing with Johnnie Ray, Arthur Prysock, Varetta Dillard, Peppermint Harris, and others. She recorded in various styles, including R&B on recordings such as "You Drive Me Crazy" on the Gem label in 1953.
In 1954, she had a club residency in Bermuda, where she performed with saxophonist "King" Curtis Ousley, before returning to New York and recording for the Jaguar label. She continued to tour, and sang on bills with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker and others. She recorded later in the decade for ABC-Paramount and the small U-C label, but mainstream success eluded her and she was bypassed by the growth of rock and roll. In 1960, she began recording for Epic Records, releasing several singles and, in 1961, the LP Joan Shaw Sings For Swingers, recorded with the Bellino Ramaglia Orchestra and with liner notes by Leonard Feather. Her second LP, Joan Shaw In Person, was released by Sue Records in 1963.
Faced with diminishing success and racism in the USA, Joan Shaw reinvented herself in the mid-1960s as Salena Jones. She said, "I loved Sarah Vaughan so much and adored Lena Horne's elegance; I put them together as ‘Salena.’ It looked good. And I kept Joan in ‘Jones.’” And that's how Salena Jones was born."
She toured in Spain (1965) and Britain (1966), where she appeared for an extended season at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. Since then she has appeared at most leading concert halls and clubs in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, and appeared regularly on radio and TV, with her own series in the United Kingdom. Since visiting Japan for the first time (1978) she appeared there annually, memorably in the Unesco Save The Children Telethon (1988), and on a concert tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1992). In 1964, Down Beat jazz critic Leonard Feather chose Salena Jones as one of the female vocalists of the year, alongside Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald (also from Newport News) and Nancy Wilson.
Salena has also appeared throughout Britain, touring with the Million Airs Orchestra, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Turkey, Austria and Bulgaria. She has also made numerous television and radio broadcasts in Britain, and throughout Europe, often supported by the BBC Big Band. Also performed in Australia, Africa, South America, China, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. Since her first visit to Japan in 1978 she has returned at least annually, appearing in concert halls, on television, radio and regularly at the Blue Note Jazz Clubs in Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.