Why the lack of attention to Jazz Vocalists?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by jazzbo, Aug 7, 2001.

  1. jazzbo

    jazzbo Guest

    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    We all know great vocalists in jazz: Ella Fitgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, etc. etc. But it seems to me that jazz vocals often take a back seat to every other instrument in the band. An overwhelming amount of jazz is performed without a vocalist. Since a major component of jazz is improvisation, why hasn't their been more empshasis on scatting and other vocal improvisational techniques?

    Personally, I'm not necessarily a huge fan of vocals, per se. (I just wanted to say "per se"). However, a talented jazz vocalist is an awesome thing, arguably as pleasurable as a talented trumpet player, or saxophonist.

    I'm certainly not saying that jazz vocalists don't exist, and that they're isn't contemporary representation of that skill, but much of the jazz that makes it to the radio and mainstream (unless we're talking about "smooth jazz," but that's a different argument) is instrumental.

    Why have jazz vocals never been emphasized as much as the other instruments?
  2. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    This is something that comes up from time to time at the Jazz classes I attend and tutors I have worked with can often be very scathing about "Jazz" vocalists. I think what rankles for experienced Jazz pros who have dedicated their whole lives to studying the music and put in the time learning about it, is where you get somebody coming along who looks the part and has a fairly nice voice, but doesn't know the first thing about harmony, music theory or how to improvise. They get lots of plaudits, attention, record deals etc. But is it really Jazz if you have learned a few standard tunes and can carry a tune - what makes it Jazz rather than just MOR or Easy Listening?

    I must say that I have also met quite a few wouldbe "Jazz singers" who couldn't even count a band in or tell you what a chord is, but think they should more or less take over the workshop or class, from people who come along each week and work at improvising over sequences and developing their playing. I think that singers want to be treated as a "special category" and in some sense this is justified, but very few singers seem to want to be taken on the same terms as say a tenor sax or trumpet player. In fact I think that they can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, while the uneducated "prima donnas" proliferate unchecked!

    I must say that I do admire someone who can get up in front of an audience and put themselves forward as the focus of the audience's attention - I'm just not sure that this has got anything to do with Jazz.
  3. Anyone who's scathing about jazz vocalists obviously has'nt listened to Sheila Jordan. Anyone who's listened to Harvey Swartz without Sheila Jordan, has'nt really listened to Harvey Swartz.
  4. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Personally, I don't like jazz vocals that much.

    One local NPR station is an all-jazz format but does about 50% vocals which drives me totally insane :)

    I have heard Sheila and Harvey, both duo and in a quartet with Steve Kuhn and Bob Moses and it's pretty mind blowing. Still I don't spin my Sheila and Harvey CDs that often.

    As far as scatting and vocalese, I think it sounds too weird if done too much. Take the old King Pleasure record "Moody's Mood For Love", it's an incredible adaptation of a sax solo but when SUNG it sounds, uh, strange :)

    What really gets me burned is that where I live in the burbs, the majority of local "jazz" performance is vocalists backed by piano or maybe a trio. You can forget about hearing any bebop never mind any Archie Shepp tunes :eek:

    I also don't like operatic singing. I guess my personal taste is that singing that is highly technical is just boring. Why that is, I dunno!!!

    Jazz singing I do like: all the singers with Ellington were great, ditto for Basie, Johnny Hartman, Ella, Dinah Washington, Billie, Boswell Sisters, Louis, Cassandra Wilson

    Jazz vocal CD that I like to use for clearing out guests at the end of parties: "Patty Waters Sings"
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Well I must admit that personally I have never heard these names before in my life; but I think the point is that everybody has their favourite 4 or 5 Jazz vocalists and really loves hearing them. What I was referring to was that Jazz pros are scathing towards the singers who have no musical knowledge and are basically nothing more than MOR or Easy Listening artists who think it might be "cool" to be known as a Jazz singer! :rolleyes:

    I also agree with Brian that scat singing and vocalese often sounds "corny" or strange to the general public and can often induce fits of the giggles. I've been to classes with Clare Martin who is a very good UK Jazz singer (she also played drums in one workshop!)and she mentioned how you have to be careful that you don't unintentionally say something by running words together - she demonstrated how "dildo" is one that trips off the tongue! ;)

    Good singers/musicians like Clare are loved by Jazzers, but I have actually heard her be scathing in Jazz workshops about singers who can't improvise. Another one who is admired by the Jazz pros locally is Anita Wardell, who will sing bebop and scat solos just like a trumpet or sax player would over fast changes. I have great admiration for people who can do this; but as I was saying, I can probably count the number doing this who are gigging regularly in the UK, on the fingers of one hand - while the "Easy Listening", slow ballad singers are everywhere!
  6. jazzbo

    jazzbo Guest

    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    In any group you're going to have imitators. Even with all of the posers, why is there still not a more recognized base of jazz singers?

    Jazz-pop (whatever that is) certainly has it's share of people. I think of Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong's later work. All it really takes is one great vocalist to renew interest by people. Why has this yet to catch on?

    Bruce, you make a good point about the fact that scat singing is generally a novelty to the masses, but so is an Ornette Coleman solo or the nuances of a Christian McBride solo. The masses have generally had this reaction to much of jazz's more bold recordings. Why are definitive jazz albums, like KOB, Blue Train, generally albums sans vocals? There was certainly a generation that saw it with Billie, Sarah, and Ella, what has become of the next generation?
  7. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Yeah but they don't laugh at a bass solo - they might go to the bar, but generally they appreciate that a lot of effort is required and that the soloist knows about Jazz, even if it might not be riveting stuff. But with scat singing they just see it as : bizarre, old-fashioned, a "pose" or a waste of time - let's hear the song!

    I think there is a feeling that great Jazz players check out what each other are doing and apply this in their playing - so you had like "cool" school, hard bop, modal etc. etc. But singers generally seem to stand apart from this and are seen as individuals - whereas musicians are playing in many different bands - one night leading, another supporting - they have mutual respect and have similar aims/ambitions and ways of relating. But a singer is always going to be out front and the centre of attention and not really supporting or guesting with other bands - they generally aren't thinking about modes/scales to improvise over, constructing solos - muso-type things, which musicians can share and teach/learn from each other.

    The other thing for me at Jazz gigs is that generally I and most of the audience are waiting to hear a soloist really let rip on a long extended solo - to show us what they've got, in terms of ideas, musicianship, musical invention, virtuosity etc.

    But if it's a gig with a singer, then inevitably the focus shifts to the song and maybe being told a story - the solos are just interludes between songs and not the "meat" of the perfromance as they are in an instrumental gig. So I can imagine most great soloists avoiding these sorts of gigs in favour of ones where they can "stretch out".
  8. dhosek


    May 25, 2000
    Oak Park, IL
    If you want to catch some very cool jazz vocals, try and find any of the King & Moore albums. The first one, "Impending Bloom", I think is the best and is mostly just Nancy King on vocals and Glenn Moore on bass. A melody line, a bass line, who needs more than that?

    I had a chance to see the two of them perform live back in '92 and am still glad for the chance.


    NP: Beethoven 3 Barenboim/Berliner Staatskapelle
  9. jazzbo

    jazzbo Guest

    Aug 25, 2000
    San Francisco, CA
    Maybe this is the root of the problem. The stereotypically more complex musical forms, art music and jazz, usually do not have vocals, where the less technically complex forms, like rock and roll, have much more emphasis on the vocals.

    So, is it that those music forms that rely more on the theory of the music, are less prone to having vocalists because vocalists tend to neglect theory? As Bruce said, "[vocalists] aren't thinking about modes/scales to improvise over, constructing solos - muso-type things, which musicians can share and teach/learn from each other."