Jazz singing

Vocal jazz or jazz singing is an instrumental approach to the voice, where the singer can match the instruments in their stylistic approach to the lyrics, improvised or otherwise, or through scat singing; that is, the use of non-morphemic syllables to imitate the sound of instruments.

The origins of jazz singing to 1950

The roots of jazz music were very much vocal, with field hollers and ceremonial chants, but while the blues maintained a strong vocal tradition, with singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith heavily influencing the progress of American popular music in general, early jazz bands only featured vocalists periodically, albeit those with a more "bluesy" tone of voice; one of the first "jazz" recordings, the 1917 Original Dixieland Jass Band recordings featured one Sarah Martin as vocalist.

It was Louis Armstrong who established singing as a distinct art form in jazz, realising that a singer could improvise in the same manner as an instrumentalist, and along with American vocalist Adelaide Hall they established scat singing as a central pillar of the jazz vocal art.

A frequently repeated legend alleges that Louis Armstrong invented scat singing when he dropped the lyric sheet while singing on his 1926 recording of "Heebie Jeebies". This story is false and Armstrong himself made no such claim. Jazz musicians Don Redman, Cliff Edwards, and Red Nichols all recorded examples of scat earlier than Armstrong. However, the record "Heebie Jeebies" in 1926 by Armstrong and "Creole Love Call" in 1927 by Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall subsequently introduced scat singing to a wider audience and did much to popularize the style. Armstrong was an innovative singer who while experimenting with all kinds of sound, improvised with his voice as he did on his instrument. In one famous example, Armstrong scatted a passage on "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas" – he sings "I've done forgot the words!" in the middle of recording before taking off in scat.

The entrance of Billie Holiday into the world of jazz singing in the early 1930s was a revelation. She approached the voice from a radical angle, explaining, in her own words,

I don't feel like I'm singing, I feel like I'm playing the horn.

Compared to other great jazz singers, Holiday had a rather limited vocal range of just over an octave. Where Holiday's genius lay, however, was to compensate for this shortcoming, with impeccable timing, nuanced phrasing, and emotional immediacy, qualities admired by a young Frank Sinatra.

With the end of prohibition in the United States, a more "danceable" form of jazz music arose, giving birth to the Swing era, and with it big bands such as those led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Chick Webb. Many of the great post war jazz singers sang with these bands in the infancy of their careers.

With the end of the Swing era, the great touring Big bands of the past decade were no longer a viable option, and the demise of the typical big band singer was further complicated by the advent of be-bop as a creative force in jazz.

The rise of be-bop saw a new style of jazz singer, one who could match instrumentalists for sheer technical skill, and this was evident in Ella Fitzgerald's rise to fame, the art of jazz singing was elevated to even higher rankings, allowing the notion of "free voice" to exist, giving instrumental qualities to the voice through timbres, registers and tessitura.

1950s and 1960s

The birth of rock & roll as a distinct genre, and a new generation of teenagers having different tastes than their previous adult audience caused a significant decline in the popularity of jazz.

Around the same time, the long-playing record (LP) was invented, freeing musicians from the time constraints of the extended play record (EP). The LP, being more expensive, was aimed at the adult audience who could afford to spend the extra money on records.

Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald released some of the most popular early LPs recorded in a jazz vein. Though constrained by the material, Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook series introduced a great many people to jazz singing.

Many of the singers who had worked with the great big bands of the swing era were now solo artists, in the prime of their careers and many had achieved fame internationally.

Sarah Vaughan,Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross,Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine,Dean Martin, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Anita O'Day, Julie London, Chris Connor, June Christy, Eartha Kitt and Carmen McRae all greatly advanced vocal jazz at this period.

1970 to future

Vocal jazz, since 1970, has been led by several big names, including Mark Murphy, Maxine Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Al Jarreau, Carmen McRae, Flora Purim, George Benson, Carol Sloane, Urszula Dudziak, Bobby McFerrin, among many others.

Other popular contemporary jazz vocalist would include Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Kurt Elling, Harry Connick, Jr., Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Jamie Cullum and Sylvia Brooks.

Vocal jazz has been mainly a mainstream, as opposed to avant-garde, phenomenon. However, some performers, such as Jeanne Lee and Patty Waters, have performed within an avant garde vein.

Contemporary jazz vocalists

Brazilian-born Flora Purim released her first solo album in 1973, entitled Butterfly Dreams, on LP through Milestone Records, and is most renowned for her remarkable vocal range. Her first exposure to mainstream audiences was through two recording collaborations with Chick Corea, an important pianist and composer, entitled Light as a Feather and Return to Forever, in 1972 and 1973, respectively, which stand to date as significant developments in the field of fusion jazz. Purim's approach to vocal jazz included Latin jazz, using a "percussive" element in her work.

Al Jarreau made his first impressions on the world through the 1975 release of his We Got By album on Reprise Records, which won him a German Grammy award, as did his following 1979 release Glow. Jarreau's music features elements of Pop, Jazz and R&B, and he is also the only person to hold Grammy awards for all three styles of music. Jarreau is renowned for being able to perfectly imitate the sound of guitars, electric basses, upright basses and percussion instruments, and tends to improvise performances using that talent rather than "sing songs". Jarreau's experience with performance and singing has its roots in his early childhood, where he and his brothers performed together in a close harmony group, later singing in the church choir.

In 1976, jazz guitarist George Benson introduced an unsuspecting public to his surprisingly polished vocal ability with the Warner Bros. Records release This Masquerade. Having worked for many years as a sideman for some of the greatest names in Jazz, including Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Benson's guitar playing had always overshadowed his skill as a vocalist until collaborating with producer Tony LiPuma, resulting in the Grammy for "Record Of The Year." The close relationship between his melodic and chromatically-fluent singing style and guitar work (with a touch of blues influence) highlight his sensuous, soft vocal lines to best effect. Describing his music, Benson says: "I really like when people kick up their heels and go crazy."

Dianne Reeves is well known for her fluent improvisational style that mixes Jazz with R&B Elements, for which she has won four Grammy awards since her first release in 1977, Welcome To My Love, on Alto Records. Born into a musical family, her father being a trumpet player and her mother a singer, Reeves has to date released 18 solo albums, and appeared on 24 other albums as a guest, and is best known as a live performer rather than a studio singer, having appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic, singing in her own smooth improvisational scat style. Dianne Reeves was featured prominently as the vocalist performing in the studio adjacent to that of Edward R. Murrow in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck.

Bobby McFerrin has released 19 albums, and has received ten Grammy awards, since his first self-titled release in 1982, and has the first a cappella song on Billboard Magazine's "Hot 100" chart, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (1988) to his credit. He has since 1994 held the position of creative chair at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the USA's largest chamber orchestra- McFerrin moves easily between the worlds of classical music and jazz, working as a conductor and releasing recordings of classical music, although it is his incredible four-octave vocal range that earns him sold out unaccompanied and fully improvised world tours; McFerrin has the remarkable ability to turn concerts into large-scale "workshops", where the audience plays an integral role.

Diane Schuur is renowned for her re-workings of popular music into jazz-style, as with her 2005 release, Schuur Fire, where, for instance, Duran Duran's "Ordinary World" is reworked into Latin jazz. Blinded shortly after birth by a hospital complication, Schuur's 3½ octave range has earned her a place playing with the Count Basie Orchestra, filling the shoes Billie Holiday left behind, for which she won a Grammy Award. Given her blindness, Schuur is forced to put all of her energy into her singing in order to communicate with her audience- which she, with her bluesy vibrato, manages to do better than most sighted singers.

Betty Carter, known for her total commitment to the art of jazz singing, a singer whom Carmen McRae called "the only real jazz singer,"[1] went outside the boundaries of accepted vocal jazz. Her improvisational skills allowed her the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct melodies in interesting and challenging ways. She was an innovator, a singer who constantly took risks.

Vocal jazz ensembles

Throughout most of jazz history, most vocal music was performed by either a soloist or a very small group of singers, usually one to a part. In the mid-1960s, a few brave directors decided to try transcribing Big band charts for voices. This idea was first tried by Hal Malcom at Mt. Hood Community College in 1967 with a group called Genesis. The group hosted the oldest vocal jazz festival in the United States, the Northwest Vocal Jazz Festival. Hal Malcom directed the group for 23 years until passing it to his former student, Dave Barduhn, who directed this group until his retirement in the Spring of 2012.

13 years later, in 1980, Lonnie Cline formed a sister group at Clackamas Community College eventually taking the name Mainstream, which it performs under today. Mainstream was a new type of ensemble, one that moved away from performing the big band arrangements and other jazz standards and began to learn and perform a wide variety of music, including jazz, rock, pop, funk, and fusion. The idea was looked down upon at first but eventually was adopted by many and is now popular in high schools across the country.

A vocal jazz ensemble usually consists of the choir, normally made up of 8-16 singers, and a Rhythm section most often consisting of a pianist, a bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer. Singers either each hold a microphone or sing with area microphones. Vocal jazz ensembles also often sing a cappella.


Further reading

  • Johnson, J. Wilfred. Ella Fitzgerald: An Annotated Discography : Including a Complete Discography of Chick Webb McFarland, 2001. ISBN 0-7864-0906-1
  • Gourse, Leslie. The Ella Fitzgerald Companion London: Omnibus Press, 1998. ISBN 0-7119-6916-7
  • Nicholson, Stuart. Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz. London: Indigo, 1996. ISBN 0-575-40032-3
  • Friedwald, Will. Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art. Da Capo Press, 1999.
  • Granata, Charles. Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording. Chicago Review Press, 1999.
  • Hamill, Pete. Why Sinatra Matters. Back Bay Books, 2003.
  • Julia Blackburn, With Billie. ISBN 0-375-40610-7
  • Donald Clarke, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. ISBN 0-306-81136-7
  • Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: its roots and musical development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C Jazz: A History of America's music New York: Knopf, 2000.
  • Williams, Iain Cameron. "Underneath A Harlem Moon ... the Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall". Continuum, 2003. ISBN 0826458939
  • Bauer, William R. Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002)

External links

  • Mathew Bahl, "Vocal Jazz: 1951-1968"
  • Mathew Bahl, "Vocal Jazz: 1969-2001"
  • Mathew Bahl, "Vocal Jazz: 1917-1950"
  • Jazz.com.
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