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                                                                      CHAPTER I

                                                           WHAT IS A JAZZ SINGER?

What makes a singer a Jazz singer? Is it the repertoire she chooses? Does she scat? Is it her swinging beat? A good sense of time? A Jazz singer is distinguished by all of these things. But the best are more accurately defined as Jazz musicians. Jazz musicians play Jazz - whether they do it with a trumpet, a tuba, a kazoo, or their voice. They speak a common musical language, learn the rules of theory and harmony, and, if they’re creative and far-sighted, break those rules to expand the Jazz universe for the rest of us.

Is a Jazz musician born or made? You may listen to Sarah or Ella grooving on one of their masterful scat solos and tell yourself, ‘No way could I ever do that’. You may not even be sure what ‘that’ is - you just like the sound or feel of their style of music. Maybe it’s the profound passion and intimate delivery of Billie or Bessie that moves you. You relate to their strong feelings but are not sure how to express them yourself.

Jazz musicians are born and made. Born in the sense that your cultural surroundings, aptitudes, and an attraction to music are
characteristics that you land on the planet with. But that is only the beginning. The journey from there to becoming a master musician is made by you. If, when people ask you why you picked music as your vocation, you reply, ‘I didn’t pick music. Music picked me’, you are a musician. Because you will do whatever it takes to reach your goals - artistic self-expression and the joy of sharing yourself and your gifts with other musicians and with the world.

                                                                         GENDER ISSUE

Whether in the academic arena or out in the trenches of the performing world, we are faced with the unfortunate fact that singers are often not treated with the same level of respect that instrumentalists accord each other. And since, at least so far, the majority of singers are female and the majority of instrumentalists are male, this could be construed as a gender issue. Once again, the patriarchy keeping women down? Not exactly.

Look at it this way: say a boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, picks up an instrument. He then proceeds to spend the bulk of his teen
years sitting in his bedroom learning how to play. Maybe in high school he starts a band with some other guys who have been sweating it out on their instruments as well. They realize that to compete in the marketplace, that is, to nab the senior prom gig, they need a singer. There’s a pretty girl who likes to sing and can carry a tune so they take her on. She memorizes the lyrics and the melody to a few of her favorite songs, cops her favorite singer’s licks, and she’s on her way.

They start to rehearse and it’s not long before the guys realize that they are conversing in a musical language of which she is
completely ignorant. So they talk around her, planning arrangements, choosing keys, and she become marginalized. Multiply that scenario by the thousands and you have the formative experience that ingrains in the player’s mind a prejudice, a prejudgment, that singers are not ‘real’ musicians. You guy singers out there may be given the benefit of the doubt because, well, let’s just call it a guy thing. But that benefit will only buy you about five minutes on the bandstand if you show yourself to be just another pretty voice.

Today, more and more girls are stepping out of the traditionally female circle of piano, flute or violin; picking up saxophones,
trumpets, and guitars. They’re playing in high school jazz bands and heading off to college to continue their musical studies. These young women are groundbreakers, tiny islands of femininity in a deep sea of maleness and when you ladies out there look unprofessional or just not serious about what you are doing, it makes it harder for them.

So it is a gender issue to some extent, but one with an easily remedied solution. How? By learning to read music and developing an understanding of basic theory and harmony. This allows you to step onto the bandstand as an equal partner, possessed of a musical training on a par with your colleagues.

                                                         JAZZ IN THE UNIVERSITY

The average vocalist enrolling in a university level Jazz Studies program enters woefully unprepared in comparison to his/her
fellow students majoring in piano, saxophone, or guitar. One exception may be drummers, who, like singers, can reach a certain level of skill and participate in a group playing situation without having to read music.

Entering university as a music student without a basic working knowledge of reading and writing music is like going to college
to study English literature and not being able to read and write English. How can you understand what the instructor is talking about? What they write on the blackboard? How can you do your homework?

Jazz in the academic world is a relative newcomer. Many Jazz Studies Departments still exist under the umbrella of a classically oriented music school or department. This ancillary status means that the Jazz major is required to study the core Classical curriculum - history, harmony, oral skills, etc., in addition to her Jazz studies. You’ll find yourself sitting next to whiz kids who have been playing their instruments and reading music for most of their lives, and the classes will move at their speed, not yours. It’s in your best interest to be prepared before you plunk down that hefty tuition payment.

                                            THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PIANO

Even if you have no plans to study Jazz in an academic setting, you’ll still need to learn your craft. A lot of people studied piano
when they were young. If you were one of the ‘fortunate’ kids dragged kicking and screaming to piano lessons while your friends played ball, call your parents right now and thank them! You’ve got basic music reading skills. If you’ve never taken a piano lesson in your life, start now. Sign up for private lessons or take a beginning class at your local community college or music store. Recycle grandma’s old upright, rent a spinet, or buy a used electronic keyboard. Do whatever it takes to get your hands on some keys and start practicing!

You don’t need to be a great pianist. After all, your practice time is limited and your main interest is singing. You just need to be able to read melody lines in order to learn new tunes, maybe play some basic chords to accompany yourself. If your piano skills are already in place, so much the better. In a short while you could find yourself doing solo work, singing and accompanying yourself in a small club or restaurant. It’s a great way to gain experience in front of an audience while you work out arrangements and develop your own personal style. Think of it as paid practice.

Most serious musicians, whether in Jazz, Classical, or Pop, play piano in addition to their primary instrument. Sarah Vaughan and Aretha Franklin played so well that they often sat down at the piano in the course of a concert to accompany themselves. Composers and arrangers write at the piano, music students use it for their harmony and ear training studies, singers use it to vocalize and learn new material. The piano is the musician’s desk; it’s where we do our work. Having the ability to practice, learn new songs or write your own charts gives you control over your musical growth. You’ll also save a lot of money by not having to hire rehearsal pianists or arrangers.

We’re going to discuss theory in this book. That’s how the instrumentalists learn improv and that’s how you can, too. Don’t be
afraid - if you can add, you can figure it out. But it’s one thing to understand it on the page; it’s another to be able to hear it. That’s where the piano comes in. The keyboard can guide you while you develop your ear.


There are two components that distinguish Jazz from other styles of music - rhythm and improvisation. Jazz rhythms have the
element of swing, a syncopated pulse that puts accents on the second and fourth beats of the bar, known as upbeats, rather than on the more traditional first, the downbeat (1), and third beats. This accent on ‘two and four’ shifts the rhythmic base, creating a sense of forward momentum that energizes the music.

                        Clap the accented beats while you sing the following example. How does the 'feel' of the rhythm change?

                                                                              Sing as you clap on beats one and three

Ex. 1.1

                                                              Row      row    row your boat                   Gently       down the   stream


                                                                                                Now clap on two and four

                                                           Row       row       row your      boat             Gently   down the stream

                                                                           Don’t feel a difference? Try it at a faster tempo.


                                                                                             SWING FEEL

Put identical pieces of music in front of a jazz player and a classical player and they will play the notes of the melody with different rhythms. The classical musician will play the rhythms as written, a precise division of the beat, while the Jazz player will alter the quarter and eighth notes in a triplet/rest fashion. This rhythmic alteration is what we call swing feel, also known as jazz eighths. See next example.

Ex. 1.2

                                                                                        Twinkle Twinkle Little Star


                                                                                        'Straight Eighths' - sung as written



                                                                                                             'Jazz Eighths'

Hint: Say the word "choc-o-late" slowly and evenly three times in a row. This is eighth note triplet rhythm. Now clap on the first and third syllables of "choc-o-late" in the pattern and you'll have this rhythmic figure.


The repertoire of material played by most Jazz musicians hastraditionally come from outside of the jazz world. Broadway show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, even pop and rock tunes have been appropriated to become what are called Jazz standards. But once in the hands of a Jazz musician they share one commonality. They swing.


Improvisation is the other key element that defines Jazz. In the early 20th century, when Jazz was born, no other style of music incorporatedimprov as an integral part of performance. In centuries past, European classical musicians learned to improvise and were expected to use that skill in their performances. Remember the famous 'cutting contest' between the young Mozart and the older Salieri in the movie "Amadeus"?
Over time, that ability declined in performance in deference to the composer’s vision. Musician-composers like Bach and Mozart wrote out their improvisations under the rubric of Theme and Variations. The implicit suggestion was that the performer play the composer’s ‘solo’, and refrain from making any additions of their own.

This ‘play it as written’ mentality continued into the nineteenth century when there was strong public opinion against ‘flashy’ soloists who veered off on their own flights of fancy. Thank goodness we have the outlet of Jazz with which to express ourselves. A Jazz musician is an instantaneous composer, writing on the spot and expressing the mood of the moment.

                                                                 JAZZ SINGING AND SINGERS

When Jazz was in its infancy, the distinct sounds created by horn players was due, in part, to the musicians’ attempts to replicate the phrasing and tones of the human voice, specifically the styles and sounds the early African Americans brought from their native lands. Blues intonations, field hollers, the church-centered testifying and shout choruses, all were incorporated into what we now identify as a jazz sound.

As singers began to appear in the late ‘20s and 30s, they turned the concept of singing around by replicating the sounds of the jazz horns. Thus was born a more ‘instrumental’ style of singing. Even if they never used scat syllables, they enhanced the melody, embellishing it with new notes, throwing others away. The rhythm of the melodic line was also an area of experimentation, delaying the start of a line and catching up later. This is called singing behind the beat, a technique that Billie Holiday developed to such an extent that every singer who follows her is in her debt when they play with the rhythm in their singing.

This melodic and rhythmic rephrasing of the original melody of a vocal song is called text-focused improvisation (2). Nat King Cole was a master of this subtle type of improvisation, as are more contemporary singers like Dianne Reeves and Diana Krall. Their smooth, swinging delivery adds excitement to the most mundane melodies and the creativity in their execution ensures that we never hear them sing the same way twice.

The storytelling, conversational aspects of the Blues add another dimension to Jazz singing, creating an intimate connection with the audience. This connection comes out in ad-libbed asides such as ‘hear me tellin’ ya’, interjections that add a sharp rhythmic excitement akin to a drummer’s rim shot. Joe Williams spiked his fluid, sophisticated delivery with many such shouts and cries, and the audience responded in kind to this heightened emotionalism.

Scat singing, creating a melodic line spontaneously with syllables and sounds, is more closely linked to the instrumental solo. This is called abstract improvisation*, the most challenging of vocal styles. Just as with instrumentalists, when it’s good, it’s magic, but when it’s bad, well, better not to hear it at all!

Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are the undisputed leaders of this type of improv, forging a style that is the gold standard of scat. Betty Carter, with her driving, hard bop approach, transformed every piece of music that she cast her talents on, stretching standard intonation and opening our ears to new possibilities. Tania Maria melds her sharp, percussive piano playing with an equally percussive scatting style. Among the men, Al Jarreau’s early albums show him to be one of the modern masters of abstract improv, along with Bobby McFerrin with his unique gift of instrumental mimicry. Mark Murphy’s muscular approach is aggressively masculine yet at the same time supremely sensitive.
The compendium of great Jazz singers is too long to list here, spanning as it does the breadth of the twentieth century. The important
thing is for you to get hold of their albums or CDs and wear them out! If you’re not already familiar with these singers, ask for referrals from Jazz-loving friends or musicians. Use the discography in the appendix of this book as a guide.

Remember, Jazz is an aurally transmitted art form. What you see on the page isn’t what comes out of the singer’s mouth and you won’t be able to speak this special language with authority without hearing the accent of the natives. A conscientious and wide-ranging study of established masters is probably the most important element of the young jazz musician’s education. You’ll get the theory, you’ll learn the tunes, and you’ll conquer your stage fright. But first, you need to get the sounds in your ears.

(1) The terms downbeat and upbeat refer to the conductor's arm movement as he describes a 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 rhythm. The conductor swings
the baton downward on beat one and back up on beat two.

(2)TEXT-FOCUSED IMPROV and ABSTRACT IMPROV were coined by Dr. Thom Mason of the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Of late, he has dropped abstract improv, replacing it with THROUGH-COMPOSED, a label conceived by his colleague, Professor Shelton Berg.

Jazz Vocal Techniques
Copyright 2013 JazzMedia Press
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       Jazz Vocal Techniques       


Copyright © 2013 JazzMediaPress.com