Friday, June 29, 2012

What's your take?

An interesting conversation developed the other day at the weekly jazz musicians’ brunch in Sarasota FL, which has been an off-the-gig informal weekly gathering for area musicians for more than a dozen years.

Just what makes someone – male or female – a jazz singer?

Are you a jazz singer because:
  • you sing with a band that includes jazz musicians, even though you don’t improvise?
  • you stretch the rhythms, alter your phrasing and timing whenever you sing?
  • you never sing a song the same way twice, preferring to draw new inspiration from the audience – and the give-and-take between the other musicians to enhance the moment?
  • you like to scat?
  • you call yourself one?

I raise the question because I've seen or heard all of the above at various times. Clearly there is no simple answer. And there is a lot of grey area.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Jazz singing can be defined by the 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 nonsensical meaningless non-morphemic syllables to imitate the sound of instruments…. It was Louis Armstrong who established singing as a distinct art form in jazz, realizing that a singer could improvise in the same manner as instrumentalist, and establishing scat singing as a central pillar of the jazz vocal art.”

I encourage you to share your perspective on the question through the comment tool whether you’re a singer, an instrumentalist or an interested listener.


  1. I look forward to the comments and elucidation - heaven knows anyone can call him/herself anything, but It Ain't Necessarily So. "Balls!" said the Queen, "Had I two, I'd have been King!".

  2. Ken, Mike Parmelee chiming in here.

    Given the utter wasteland which is Southwest Florida when it comes to the jazz vocal art form I can only chuckle thinking about the tenor of conversation at the abovementioned gathering...populated as it is by a number of the most respected long-time dues-paying jazz artists around.

    I see two essential requirements before we call someone a jazz vocalist. One is there obviously must be technical skill. The fundamentals: breath control, an interesting timbre (or set of timbres)to the voice, intonation. The human voice when used to make music, is an instrument like any other. Too many singers here in southwest Florida lack the respect for this profession/art form to study their instrument.

    Secondly the one that's more difficult to define, a performer calling themselves a jazz singer must actually have listened extensively to other jazz singers, and be firmly anchored in the tradition. Not so much in merely immitating the masters but at the least understanding the idiom before carving out your own niche. Merely singing the usual assortment of broadway show tunes which have been performed by jazz artists is not enough, not even close. If the jazz tradition is a river you must have partaken somehow. Swum in it, drunk deeply, pick your metaphor.

    If I "put on the blindfold" and someone plays for me a cut of Coleman Hawkins or Clifford Brown playing the melody to any jazz tune, I don't need to hear them solo to know I'm hearing jazz(and of the most sublime sort I might add). Ditto for Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald.

    As to improvisation I'm inclined as an instrumentalist myself to be less judgemental of singers who choose not to scat. When I solo I must select notes (compose) and decide how to treat those notes as I play a wind instrument. But I don't have to select strange word fragments or whatever you want to call that, to compose a line. Obviously a vocalist who does this adds to their bag of tricks a valuable tool, but I won't hold it against folks that prefer not to do it or say they aren't jazz singers.

    I would separate those "qualifications" from all the vague and often tedious disagreements over folks who cross over between idioms in some fashion. Like the Texas tenors tradition, Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, Lockjaw Davis who often sounded more like bluesmen than jazzers. That's a different conversation for me.

    Should I care that so many singers with jazz chops like Lena Horne and Tony Bennett chose the path of being popular crooners? Let's be real folks, without people singing the lyrics to tunes we all love to perform the jazz tradition would be a lot on much shakier ground.

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  4. Ken: Don Mopsick here with my 2 cents:

    Mike is right on with his river analogy. Over the last 20 years I was in the fortunate position of swimming in its headwaters and deep main channels as a contributor to the "Riverwalk Jazz" public radio series. I find myself now stuck in some of its stagnant pools here in SWFL.

    Many singers (Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett to name 3) agree that Louis Armstrong was the fountainhead, the source of jazz singing. Before Louis caught on, Americans found the very straight-laced, European, operatic and slightly feminine male pop singing style to be perfectly acceptable.

    Listen to Louis' version of "You Are My Lucky Star" from 1935:

    All the elements of great jazz singing are there: playful rhythmic syncopation, sliding blue notes, and of course Louis' wonderfully "impure" vocal tone. Compare this with the conventional operatic approach still current then, and you have a good definition of what jazz singing is.

    However, the waters today are a bit muddied by the side stream of "cabaret" or Broadway-inspired pop singing, which leans more toward the dramatic and operatic in many cases. Of course there are Broadway/cabaret singers (Marilyn Maye comes to mind) who fully embrace jazz elements.

    From the late 1920s onward, Bing Crosby was the principal pop singer who transmitted blues and jazz sensibility (ala Armstrong, his friend and mentor) into mainstream white culture, where it further percolated on down to today. Gary Giddins wrote: "You've got to understand that Bing Crosby was the first hip white person in America."

    And it was a two-way street: Armstrong himself readily acknowledged Crosby's influence, particularly in Louis' ballad singing, previously unknown in jazz.

    So, if a singer is dramatizing a lyric with a huge, belting, wide-vibrato (think Anthony Newly) style devoid of syncopation, blue notes or improvisation, you're on safe ground saying that is not a jazz singer. If they've got some "dirt" in the sound and have the above elements of no-drama coolness, syncopation, rhythmic displacement and above all blue tonality, then you're through the door into jazz world.

  5. thanks to Mike and Don for sharing their excellent, thoughtful perspectives. Both get right to the heart of the matter.

  6. Ken...Morrie Trumble here. I'm nowhere near as qualified as Mike and Don on this subject, so I'll talk tangentially. Even a straightforward standard will stand out when a good jazz singer leads with a "customer chorus." I think it's unfortunate that this element is often ignored by instrumentalists and vocalists alike. Here's an example from a legend, and what some may consider an unlikely source:

    Think what might have been had the pristine-voiced Carpenter ever recorded The Great American Songbook, instead of her usual mundane pop.

  7. Morrie: thanks for posting this video; it's very much to the point of the discussion.

    The one thing that jumps right out at me about the difference between these two great artists is the rhythmic feel. Ella adds her own notes, phrasing, etc. but it is her bouncy, highly intentional (ala Armstrong) placement of the beat that defines her as a jazz singer. Karen kind of "floats" over the beat, reminiscent of a "bel canto" singer.

    Please take a look at this video:

    The Mitchell's Christian Singers rose to fame at the 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall produced by John Hammond. It was this performance that inspired a young Bob Haggart to create at least 2 immortal arrangements for the Bob Crosby Bob Cats that year, "I'm Prayin' Humble," itself a spiritual, and "Dog Town Blues," a Haggart original. Keep in mind that the Bob Crosby outfit came in at #2 in the Down Beat poll of those years, right behind Benny Goodman.

    In the Gospel quartet genre, of which MCS is but one example, one can readily hear the voice being used as a drum. To me, this is what is meant by the term "swing" in jazz. In fact, one can say that the degree to which a vocalist or instrumentalist can swing drum-like this way is what determines his or her degree of "jazziness."

  8. For me personally (and I've listened to jazz almost exclusively for many years), I consider Frank Sinatra to be a jazz singer, or maybe jazz-influenced singer as much as I know Sarah Vaughan was one of the greatest jazz singers to walk the planet (and Ella, too)! One of the times I (and my opinion only) disqualify someone from being called a jazz singer is if they have no sense of time, no ability to make a ballad his or her own, and can't sing in tune or have a sense of a song's structure/changes.

  9. Making a ballad his or her own is important to the discussion... though some songs have been so overdone that it is hard to be unique with most of them. Still, they should make an attempt to do it differently than other singers, or even different than the way he or she sang it previously.

    That said, I feel the other qualifications you cite - a sense of time, a sense of song structure and changes, and singing in tune - aren't limited to jazz singing. They are something one ought to have in order to be considered a singer in any genre.