The Book Of Jazz - online reference book

Its Nature, Instruments, Sources, Sounds, Development & Performers

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The use of the human voice, though theoretically as much a part of jazz as of all music, has always been an anomaly. Jazz, to most of its students and performers, involves completely free improvisation; singing, on the other hand, implies adherence to a predetermined set of lyrics.
When and how, then, can jazz and singing be equated? The answer lies in two other postulates of the qualities of jazz. Indi­vidual tonal qualities have always been a part of the essential personality of the improvising musician; it is not merely the style but the personal sound of Pee-Wee Russell's clarinet, Bill Harris' trombone, Armstrong's or Gillespie's trumpet, that quali­fies their performances as jazz. Similarly the vocal timbres that we accept as part of the jazz heritage have had an edge, a distinctive personality that has rendered their possessors instantly distinguishable from the conventional singers of popular songs. Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday singing the national anthem would still sound like jazz to many ears, because of their unique tone quality and because of the second postulate: that phrasing, as much as improvisation, separates the jazz wheat from the "pop" chaff. Leonard Bernstein provided a cogent demonstration of the point by contrasting Empty Bed Blues as sung by Bessie Smith with an operatic soprano's treatment of the same melody. The notation in the latter is still that of the blues, the form identical, yet the results are ludicrous.1
The earliest jazz-related singing had both sacred and secular roots. The use in the jazz sense of the flatted third and seventh