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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.


The origins of jazz singing to 1950

The ‘roots’ of jazz music were very much vocal, with ‘field hollers’ and ceremonial chants, but whilst 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 instrumentalist, and establishing 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 whilst 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 and subsequent Armstrong recordings introduced scat singing to a wider audience and did much to popularize the style. Armstrong was an innovative singer who whilst 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,

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

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 Jazz’s popularity.

Around the same time, the ‘Long Playing’ Record was invented, ‘freeing’ musicians from the time constraints of the ‘Extended Player’ record. The LP, being more expensive, was aimed at the adult audience who could afford to spend the extra money on records.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald released some of the most popular early LP's recorded in a jazz vein.

Though she was constrained by her material, Ella Fitzgerald's 'Songbook' series introduced a great many people to jazz singing.

Many of the singers that 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, Mel Tormé, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Tony Bennett, Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, June Christy, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae all greatly advanced vocal jazz at this period.

1970 to future

Vocal Jazz, from 1970 onward, was, and is, led by several big names, including Maxine Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Al Jarreau, Carmen McRae, Flora Purim, George Benson, Carol Sloane and Bobby McFerrin, among many others. Some of the biggest influences on the Vocal Jazz style, all of whom approach the jazz voice in different ways, are Flora Purim, George Benson, The Manhattan Transfer,Take 6, The Real Group, New York Voices, Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Diane Schuur and Helen Merryll. What follows are chronological descriptions of each group / artist’s contribution to the development of Vocal Jazz, and a short record of their achievements.

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 Gil Evans, an important part of the Big Band Swing scene, 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 promptly 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’, as other singers do. 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.

Jazz Guitarist George Benson shocked his audience in 1976 by releasing an album, “This Masquerade”, on Warner Brothers Music, on which he sang- to winning effect. Having released his first album twelve years prior, a collaboration with Jack McDuff, entitled “The New Boss Guitar”, describable as “Soul-Tinged Bebop” , released through Riverside Records. Benson’s guitar overshadowed his skill as a vocalist, and he appeared for many years as a sideman for some great names in Jazz, including Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, before going into the Studio with Tony LiPuma as producer- making an album that proceeded to win him a Grammy award for making the “Record Of The Year”, probably attributable to the close relationship between his singing style and his guitar playing- melodic and chromatically fluent, with a touch of blues influence, the emphasis on sensuous, soft vocal lines. 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 eighteen solo albums, and appeared on twenty four 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 nineteen 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.

Take 6, a vocal harmony group comprising of a Bass, a Baritone and four Tenors , founded by Claude McKnight released their first, self-titled, album straight at the top, on Warner Brothers Music, combining gospel, R&B, soul and jazz arrangements, and setting the standard for contemporary male harmony groups. The group focuses on more ‘percussive’ elements in their music, going as far as to create ‘vocally produced instrumental jazz’ on a whim.

New York Voices formed through an Ithaca college alumni group and released their first, self-titled album on GRP Records in 1989, and won a Grammy award for their 1996 collaboration with the Count Basie Orchestra, “Count Basie Orchestra with New York Voices Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild”. Initially a sestet, the New York Voices have, through numerous member-changes become a quartet, who, aside from performing, give jazz clinics at schools and universities. The New York Voices have to date released six albums, all blends of classical, pop, R&B, Brazilian and American Jazz.


As noted above, the explosion of pop music in the 1960s was detrimental to Jazz’s development, leading to a supposed ‘ebb’ in the late 1960s / early 1970s, which was then seemingly followed by a resurgence and the ‘golden age’ of vocal jazz with numerous new artists developing the genre and pushing the standards consistently higher, all boding well for the future of vocal jazz.

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.

External links




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