Jazz 101: Jazz Singing

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Today we’ve got one more discussion to get through of  John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“.

I know, I know, last week was supposed to be the last one, but I just couldn’t resist. After finishing up the last article, I perused through the appendices out of curiosity. Turns out, there was some pretty good material hiding back there. Good enough to warrant another article or two.

While it may seem as if we’ve covered nearly every sub topic of jazz over the past few months, we haven’t. Take me at my word here. What makes it into these articles is only a fraction of what lies in John. F. Szwed’s book.

Last week, we looked at what was next for the future of jazz as a genre. The answer, we found, was that it will continue as it has for the past few decades. While it may stay out of the mainstream, there will always be players who push the tradition of jazz forward.

Today, our discussion takes a different turn, as we turn our attention to the world of jazz singing.

Jazz Singing

When most people think of jazz, it can be safe to say that singing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Unless, of course that comes in the form of Louis Armstrong’s scatting, which is perhaps one of the most recognizable uses of vocalizations in the genre.

While singing is somewhat of an afterthought in jazz, some within the genre consider it a concession to popular tastes. “Ever since pop singers took the spotlights away from the bands at the end of the swing era, and pop tunes became less important to jazz, there has been something of a tension between singing and playing” (p. 293). Nevertheless, there have still been a number of great jazz singers over the years.

It both does and doesn’t make sense that this tension between singing and playing in jazz persisted. On the one hand, the rise of pop singers overshadowing traditional jazz music at the time would cause a backlash, where jazz players began defining themselves by what pop music was not.

On the other hand, saying that singing doesn’t belong in jazz is sort of like saying a saxophone doesn’t belong in rock. The voice is simply another instrument. And those who chose to utilize it in jazz stood out. Additionally, the history of jazz is tied to vocalization.

“Jazz has many of its roots in vocal music: work songs, the blues, spirituals, game songs, all sorts of American vernacular music, but it also has links to Africa’s tonal languages, which allowed instruments to serve as substitutes for human voices when it was desirable to communicate by other means” (p. 294).

Jazz Singers

Jazz musicians, like any artist or writer, seek their own sound, their own voice. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that some jazz musicians can and do sing. But exactly who or what a jazz singer is, is a difficult question to answer. “Given jazz’s links to pop music and blues, mutual borrowing between them blurs whatever distinctions might be more easily made in instrumental music” (p. 295).

The first problem singers in jazz face, is in the lyrics of popular songs. “If singers work with these songs and stick close to the original words, they are limited in what they can do with both melody and rhythm. If they go to the other extreme and abandon the words to existing songs by scatting or by vocalese, they lose the recognizability and drama of the original song” (p. 295).

Frank Sinatra, one of the most popular jazz singers,worked within a more nuanced area. He would retain the original words to most songs. At the same time, however, he felt free to alter the melodic rhythm by adding or subtracting words. “Billy Eckstine, on the other hand, stuck even closer to the words than Sinatra, but used greater variations in pitch and vibrato” (p. 296).

Final Thoughts

We could go on and on with example after example of jazz singing, but in the end, I don’t think there’s any reason to not consider it a part of jazz. It’s present in jazz’s history, was used by some of the greats, and at the end of the day, is another instrument. And not only another instrument, but one that is capable of infusing songs with more meaning if lyrics are used like poetry. Whether you like it or not, jazz singing is a part of jazz.

Next week, we may return with one more article in this series. Let me check the appendices once more, and I’ll get back to you.

Who are some of your favorite jazz singers? Can you think of any music that would qualify as jazz singing today?

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