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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Singer and the Song

There’s a very brilliantly observed and funny moment in the American series ‘Modern Family’ when one of the characters goes to see the ‘Four Seasons’, thinking it’s the vocal group, and is horrified to discover that he’s bought tickets for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. ‘Just instruments!?’, he wails despairingly. I found this line particularly funny because it nails a truism about the general public and music – people love singers and are less drawn as a general rule to purely instrumental music. This is not to say that there isn’t an audience for instrumental music, but it’s dwarfed by the popularity of vocal music.

Again, people love singers – but can the same be said about contemporary jazz musicians - do they love singers?

In nearly every genre of music around the world, the voice is the primary ‘instrument’, and the singers are the biggest stars. Classical music, pop and rock music, Indian classical music, Arabic classical music, Brazilian music – the biggest stars in those different firmaments are singers, and are arguably the most respected artists – Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, Om Kalthoum, Caetano Veloso etc. etc.

(Om Kalthoum)

While a similar argument could be made in jazz for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it’s worth noticing that both of those artists, and the other giants in that field, were at the height of their powers as contemporary artists over sixty years ago. But where, in the contemporary jazz world, are the vocal artists who are both the biggest stars in that world, and universally respected by all jazz musicians?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say at this point that this not a criticism of jazz singers; on the contrary, I believe that contemporary jazz has what might be called a dysfunctional relationship with singers, and it is to the music’s artistic and commercial detriment that this is the case. While there are great vocal artists in contemporary jazz, there is a jaundiced view of singers among many jazz instrumentalists, one that places singers in the role of second-class jazz citizens.

If you’re a jazz musician, you’ll have heard the ‘singer jokes’, there are many of them, and all of them represent singers as lesser musicians than everyone else - and Prima Donnas into the bargain. OK, they’re jokes, and every instrument has a set of jokes assigned to the foibles of the players of those instruments. But underneath these singer jokes lurks a definite prejudice coming from instrumentalists against singers.  Where does this come from? Why in jazz does the instrument most lauded in every other music get landed with a bad rep?

I think there are a combination of factors here. Up to the late 1950s, most jazz harmony followed fairly conventional cyclical movements – II-V-I/IV-V-I/III-VI-II-V, cycle of fifths etc. This kind of harmony is relatively easy to hear your way through – these kinds of harmonic movements have been around for hundreds of years and are very familiar to the listener. In jazz, singers as improvisers have been around since its inception – Louis Armstrong being one of the earliest recorded artists to do this, and one of the greatest singing improvisers in all of jazz. As jazz developed, singers were part and parcel of that development, and right into the bebop era, there were singers who could improvise in a very convincing way in this new language. The singers were an integral part of the contemporary scene, and it’s good to remember that singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter – giant icons of the past as they appear now - were contemporary singers of their time. And they were respected as such by the instrumentalists.

(Betty Carter)

Coming to the end of the 50s, the music began to change, especially in the harmonic sphere. Melodic Minor harmony became more common, chromatic harmony techniques and practices began to be used extensively, root movements of chords became more oblique. Add to this the great complexity of the rhythmic language that was popularized by Miles and Coltrane, and the ‘free’ experiments of Ornette and Cecil Taylor, and the result is a jazz landscape that is much harder to navigate through for the improvising singer. The kind of harmony that developed, and started to become mainstream in the jazz world at this time is generally not intuitive to the ear. You have to learn it in an intellectual and tactile way - study it and practice it on your instrument for a long time before it becomes in any way familiar as a sound. Instrumentalists definitely have an advantage here - they can play it on their instruments and help themselves to negotiate very difficult harmony by a combination of intellectual process and consequent tactile connection. This can lead, after a long time, to being able to hear this kind of harmony. 

For a singer however, unless they are really good pianists or players of some other instrument, (good enough to able to take solos), it's terribly difficult to get a handle on this kind of harmony by ear alone. Often the root movements are unpredictable, and the harmony on top is complex. Melodies often contain wide-interval leaps and a lot of non-sequential note patterns. With jazz composers trying to outdo each other in 'originality', and less and less songs based on standard formulas with familiar melodies, the jazz landscape, post-1960, became ever more impenetrable for singers. 

This had the effect of gradually marginalizing the singers from the contemporary jazz mainstream. Instead of being an integral part of the contemporary scene as Ella etc had been in an earlier time, they became outsiders - unable for the most part to jump into any musical situation, and often derided and seen as being a brake on creativity by instrumentalists. In previous eras singers and instrumentalists were performing pretty much the same material, the singers would sing the lyrics to the same songs the instrumentalists were playing. As the 60s and 70s passed, the instrumentalists and singers began to inhabit worlds that were further and further apart. Heightened instrumental virtuosity, more complex harmony and rhythms, and less naturally singable melodies drove a wedge between former comrades, creating two different musical worlds. Jazz became primarily an instrumental medium, with singers on the periphery, only grudgingly included, (if at all), by many musicians.

The singer was often seen by instrumentalists as virtually a cabaret artist rather than a creative improviser. Singers for their part often gravitated towards standards with both singable melodies and good lyrics, rather than the gnarly world of contemporary instrumental jazz - and who can blame them? So a divide opened up that, despite the work of some great contemporary singers, is still there and still felt by both singers and instrumentalists.

And I don't think any discussion of singers in jazz can ignore gender issues either. Most singers in jazz are women - I don't know what the percentage would be typically, but in my school we have nineteen singers and only one of those is male. Without getting into the whole 'women in jazz' thing which is way too big a subject for this post, I think it's fair to say that women in jazz have to negotiate social issues that their male colleagues don't have to, and in my opinion when it comes to developing as an artist in the jazz world, women have more difficulties placed in their path than men do.

If you add these difficulties to the prejudicial singer stereotypes mentioned above, you have a combination that can make jazz singing a very difficult and sometimes forbidding environment for an aspirant jazz singer. For example, if a male bandleader is very specific about what he wants from his band, he is seen as decisive. If the bandleader is a female singer and makes the same kinds of demands she can often be seen by the band as fulfilling the stereotype of the pampered Prima Donna singer who doesn't know as much about music as the male colleagues she's ordering around. When you add the fact that most of the public focuses on the singer first, and the instrumentalists second in live performances, the resentment of the instrumentalists is often even more keenly felt.

Of course there are exceptions to this scenario and no two situations are the same, but I think it's safe to say that in general the singer in contemporary jazz operates on a less level playing field than an instrumentalist does.

And I think the music is the poorer for this. I am an instrumentalist, not a singer, but I have to admit that the human voice is the ultimate instrument, coming as it does without the intervention of the instrumental middle-man, emanating from the person themselves. At its best there is nothing more profound than listening to a great singer. And in jazz, the instrumentalists who are most revered - Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Trane etc. - all have a celebrated vocal quality to their playing. I've been very lucky to play with several great singers - Norma Winstone, Kristina Fuchs, Maria Pia De Vito, Sarah Buechi, R. A. Ramamani, Marie Seférian - and with all of them it was a very different experience than playing in an instrumental group. Working with a great singer is unique - the human voice, especially when used by a top of the line artist, is so powerful and fundamental. Of course with a singer you get the option of lyrics as well, which can be fantastic, (as long as the lyrics are good!). 

Some contemporary singers have developed the kind of phenomenal technique that allows them to negotiate the shark infested waters of contemporary jazz performance, and it is amazing when you hear that. These are singers who seem to relish every technical challenge, every non-idiomatic impediment placed in front of them, and really are pioneers in the 'voice as improvising instrument' approach to singing. The brilliant Lauren Newton is a pioneer in this area, and has done some extraordinary work which really stretches the boundaries of the what the voice can do in an improvising context. Theo Bleckmann is another one who springs to mind in this area.

Here's a great example of a singer taking on something that one would think would be off-limits because of the technical challenges - this is Sarah Buechi, with Izumi Kimura on the piano, singing a piece of mine that was originally written for the soprano saxophone, and negotiating the ferocious vocal technical difficulties with ease

Artists in Residence (I) by jazzer4

There are several of these kinds of singers on the contemporary jazz scene today and what they are doing for voice is really admirable and takes tremendous work. But is this the only answer for contemporary jazz singers in order to be included in the same world as instrumentalists? For all the singers to develop the kind of hyper-techniques that would enable them to be as agile as a saxophone or a guitar? For me the answer has to be no, this is not the only way. First of all not everyone is born with the kind of innate physical facility to develop this kind of technique, and secondly the jazz world needs to embrace the idea that singing a song well, and deeply, is in itself worthy of inclusion at the top table of the music.

And this is not about the welcoming of a clichéd standard jazz approach into the ranks, just for its own sake. We really don't need any more faux-jazz cabaret versions of ' Summertime' and 'My Funny Valentine', (though let's face it, the contemporary improv, voice-as-instrument, has its own clichés; that stuttering repetition of a word, as if the singer gets stuck, like an old-school damaged LP, is as clichéd and as exasperating to listen to as any doobie-doobie-do scat singing), but we need to find a way to include song as being an organic part of contemporary jazz.

And there is valuable work being done in this area - Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Susanne Abbuehl, Christine Tobin, Cassandra Wilson, and in a more traditional format, Diane Reeves and Kurt Elling. All of these place the song front and centre of the music, but have arrangements and use improvisation - either themselves or other band members - that are an indispensable part of the whole and stamp their music as clearly being part of contemporary jazz. Here's Gretchen Parlato in what I think is a particularly good example of this approach

I believe that if jazz could find a more consistently positive engagement with the voice and with singers it would be good for the music both aesthetically and commercially. Jazz education has a role to play in this. There's no doubt that through institutionalised jazz education jazz singers are better all-round musicians than they ever were before, and it's right in my opinion that singers should be expected to have the same high level craft and knowledge that instrumentalists do. But does insisting that they should be able to improvise over 'ESP', in the same way that a saxophonist would, really make sense? Of course if a singer wants to do that they should be encouraged, but shouldn't we find a way to encourage high level improvising that is maybe more idiomatic for voice, rather than making them do exactly the same as the instrumentalists? There's definitely a discussion to be had here for jazz schools.

And isn't it about time many instrumentalists gave up their long-held prejudices against singers and, (for example), stopped seeing the appearance of a singer at a jam session as being automatically a drag, (all that whining from the instrumentalists about weird keys and having to play a ballad....)? It's definitely time for jazz to wake up to the possibilities of making the music a more welcoming and inclusive environment for singers, and to really explore the possibilities of what can be done when the beauty and power of the human voice meets the sophistication and creativity of contemporary jazz. There's a brave new world of vocal jazz out there, we just need to have the imagination to explore and enjoy it to the full.


  1. This should be read at every jazz/non-classical programme in the world.


  2. The Parlato example was perfect. Her solo-ing at the end was over a pedal, not complex chord changes. Rhythm rules!

  3. Hi Ronan, thank you for writing this wonderful piece. I found it linked on JazzBreakfast. I really appreciate the points you make toward the end about soloing techniques that are idiomatic to the voice being used/praised/accepted at least in contrast to trying to do something that is natural on a saxophone with the voice. I experiment with some of each and it's an interesting challenge and exercise to try to create something that's both satisfying melodically and descriptive harmonically with each "style".

  4. This is great. My angle is that the instrumentalists should be striving to 'hear' what they play as well, just as the singers need to. Perhaps there wouldn't be so much whingeing at jams about 'weird' keys if the players used their ears more!

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful approach to this important topic. In the jazz studies program at the University of North Texas we promote inclusiveness and collaboration among vocalists and instrumentalists. The repertoire in curricular work and student-led projects includes both vocal styles you describe, one modeled on instrumental lines, the other more lyrical. To affirm the importance of the voice as an instrument, one jazz vocal departmental recital each year is devoted to a "faculty sing," in which instrumentalists on the faculty take turns singing a tune for an audience of vocal jazz majors.
    John Murphy, Chair, Division of Jazz Studies, UNT College of Music

  6. Thanks John, that sounds like a very innovative and enlightened approach. I'd love to learn more!