Reed Gratz ~ Professor, Pianist, Composer

Reed Gratz ~ pianist/keyboardist/composer/professor

Reed's Blog

Jazz Singers

Posted on August 16, 2012 at 1:50 PM

Jazz singers have been an unruly lot.They defy voice teachers; connect to and inspire their fans; infuriate, amuse,and stimulate the musicians who accompany them; take the popular songs we knowand redesign, reshape, sometimes disfigure, reinvent, and improvise upon them.Jazz singers sometimes imitate trumpets, saxophones, guitars, and trombones,and sometimes are imitated by the musicians who play those instruments. Theyscat, slide, warble, yodel, sing in falsetto and with ranges that cover thewidest of intervals. They interpret, compose, spontaneously divert and react,remember countless lyrics to countless numbers of songs, traditionally havesmoked too much, stayed up too late, and told the stories of our Americansong-writing story tellers who have explained our romances, our dreams, ourfears, and our culture to us and millions worldwide who know the songs ofGeorge and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein,Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and dozens more of our culture’s musicalpoets.


In order to understand the nature ofthe jazz singer it is important to begin with the people who helped to inventthe genre - the innovators of the style. As jazz music has reached and passedits 100th anniversary as the vital and artistic expression of America, we canlook at how it has changed and adapted, integrated and influenced other stylesof music, and who those major proponents of the styles have been. We can,through the history of recording which developed simultaneously with jazz,compare and contrast the improvisation, phrasing, intonation, timbre or soundcolor, musicality and emotion, and effectiveness of performances of masterssuch as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, andFrank Sinatra. As musicians, we learn from them, copy and steal from them,emulate their stances, expression, and dress.


Jazz singing is derived from the soundsof the American Slave culture - the songs of the fields and enforced labor, anddreams of freedom. This is a culture who relied on its music for strength,communication, and unifying confirmation of life during 244 years of legalslavery in America and another 140 years since of effort to become equal,educated, and accepted in an oftentimes unfriendly and historically violentsociety. For many generations of that culture, music was the only way to find abreath of freedom, the only way to survive a horrible ordeal. And it is a musicthat for the past several decades can be heard across the Americas, in Europeancafes and conservatories, in the African market places, and in concert inJapan. It has become a world wide music.


It would be an omission if I did notdiscuss for a moment, the tremendous input Black music has had on the mentalityof Americans, how we view one another, how the African American has traveledthe path between shackled slave and secretary of state, supreme court justice,and silver screen star. Musicianship and the ability to deliver its powerfulmessage of hope, joy, dance, and spirit, was consistently the way in which theAfrican American made inroads into the rigid, steel wall of racism.


Jazz singers are musical children ofthe post Civil War Blues singers who sang for the first time of the freedom ofmobility, losing a job or a woman or both, and about the hope for arelationship dependent on one’s own fortunes and not the possible sale of thelovers involved. It comes from the embellished hymns of the late 19th and early20th century African American church; from the weekly New Orleans street parades,brothels, and saloons; and from the instrumental music that took America, thenEurope by storm, called Ragtime, with it’s steady, relentless beat and dancingsyncopated melodies. Jazz emerged as the party and dance music of pre-World WarI America, and quickly migrated throughout the country, from New Orleans toChicago, New York to Los Angeles. The music, at its best, was a mixture of thedance rhythms of a country that, while spitefully racist at best, had an openear to the music of the Black culture, Iberian and West African tinged music ofthe Caribbean, the form and sophistication of the very popular wind andpercussion marches of John Philip Sousa, the syncopated melodies of Ragtime,and the harmonic language of Protestant hymns, French opera, and British folkmusic; all embellished and ornamented by the improvisations of performers whotwisted it to suit their immediate state of mind.


Any art form, to unfold, to evolve,succeed in a culture, and become an expression that describes that culture,needs a messenger, the one who integrates, amalgamates, shapes, and coalescesthe diverse characteristics of that form. In jazz that person was LouisArmstrong (1901-71). His unique voice is doubly extraordinary because he notonly was the defining factor for instrumentalists, but for singers as well. Hispowerful, perfect rhythm and pitch; his seemingly limitless sense of nuance;inventiveness; and technique have served to inspire musicians and listenerssince his first recordings 80 years ago. In many ways Armstrong invented theway that American music is performed - syncopated, stretching and jerkingrhythms over rhythm sections that move in a steady, unchanging, dance-orientedpulse. His passionate storytelling and ultimate musical timing have served as amodel directly to Billie Holiday, to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, toElvis Presley, to Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, to Nora Jones andAni DeFranco, and countless other singers and performers.


It was Armstrong who, in the words ofStanley Crouch,” ... bent and twisted popular songs with his horn and his voiceuntil they were shorn of sentimentality and elevated to serious art.” His“herky-jerky” placement of the lyric, dangerously and effortlessly in betweenthe already syncopated beats of jazz-oriented melodies has become the “way wedo it.”


Louis Armstrong had a great love forchildren, was always willing to help out fellow musicians, enjoyed partaking incannabis, and passed out laxatives to royalty and heads of state. His infectiousstyle is heard in the voice of Billie Holiday (1915-59), the defining balladand Blues singer of the 30’s and 40’s. She not only has left her indelible markon the music as a singer but her contributions to the Civil Rights movementthrough her persona, musical accomplishments, and recording of the eerie andfrightening ballad Strange Fruit mark her as one of the most important jazzmusicians. Her strange and tragic life has been chronicled extensively over thepast 50 years through research and recordings. The status she attained amongthe most innovative musicians of the 30’s and 40’s is unparalleled amongsingers in the history of jazz and her recordings, particularly with mastertenor saxophonist Lester Young and other members of the Count Basie Orchestraare legendary.  


Billie Holiday is heard at her bluesybest with members of the Count Basie Orchestra and others, including BenWebster, a young Gerry Mulligan, and the inimitable Lester Young in “Fine andMellow” ...and a bit of the two masters - Armstrong and Holiday together in YouCan’t Lose a Broken Heart Armstrong and Holiday.


Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), ranksamong the best and most popular singers in jazz history. She became known forher pure and beautiful tone, extended range, flawless intonation, and strongsense of jazz feeling. She is famous for her ability to improvise through scatsinging. In this style, rhythmic wordless syllables are sung instead of lyrics.Fitzgerald defied the image of the pretty girl singer and won over the masseswith her elegant performance sense and wonderful voice.


In 1935, she won an amateur talentcontest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. This led to an engagement with the bigband of drummer Chick Webb. She became the band's featured vocalist and recordedher first hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," with the band in 1938. Upon theswinging power of the band, Webb’s dynamic playing and leadership, andFitzgerald’s superior singing, the band became one of the most popular bands ofthe late 1930’s scoring hit after hit with light, uplifting novelty songsfeaturing Ella Fitzgerald.


Upon Webb's death in 1939, and at theincredibly young age of 22, Fitzgerald took over the band, the first of itskind to be led by a woman, leading the Ella Fitzgerald Orchestra until 1942,when she began a career as a soloist and with various vocal groups. Sheincreased her fame while working with the "Jazz at the Philharmonic"touring group beginning in 1948.


For the next 45 years Ella Fitzgeraldsolidified her position in jazz as one of the most innovative and identifiablescat singers, a woman of impeccable musical taste and enviable musicianship,and an innovative and honored musical master of jazz.  


While many do not think of FrankSinatra as a jazz singer, those who are involved with jazz as performers oravid listeners, list Sinatra as an extremely important member of this list ofmost noteworthy in the music. And though Sinatra had many popular hits thatmost listeners would not think of as jazz, one of the biggest sellers of thatcollection, My Way, describes what jazz writer Gary Giddens was saying when hewrote, “Jazz is the ultimate in rugged individualism. It’s going out there onthat stage and saying: It doesn’t matter how anybody else did it. This is theway I’m going to do it.”


In many ways, Sinatra was theembodiment of the jazz musician in his musical self-confidence, the priority hegave to telling the story at hand, and in his individual approach toperformance. He surrounded himself with jazz musicians, recorded and performedwith them, employed them and idolized them. Sinatra used arrangements writtenby the best of the jazz writers and left plenty of space for the improvisationsof great instrumentalists, edited out of the next example.


Jazz singers continue to thrill, cajole,and entertain us. Contemporary singers like Nora Jones, Diana Krall, KurtElling, Peter Cincotti, Michelle N’Degeocello, Dianne Reeves, Barbara Morrison,Sunny Wilkinson, and Cassandra Wilson keep the music alive and growing throughtheir connection to the traditional and explorations of the modern. Theirperformances continue the lineage of singers from the aforementioned Armstrongand Billie Holiday, through Jimmy Rushing, Ivy Anderson, Nat King Cole, andAnita O’Day, to Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, AlJarreau, and Bobby McFerren.


I’ve thought several times during mylife why these musicians have had such an impact on me and I think that it wasthe unspoken interaction between the musicians, the sheer joy that they seemed tohave, and the ability to communicate that feeling through a tradition andpractice of improvisation with roots in the oral tradition of black people inAmerica. What I think I connected to was the possibility of someone performinga music artistically, deeply, and communicatively, always on the verge oftrying something new, taking musical risks.


As I studied the music and the musicians who make it, I began to hear and then understand something abouttheir individuality, their musical personalities, and the level of personalcommitment to disciplined study and practice required to do what these peoplewere doing, stepping through the music gracefully and self-expressively,sometimes in very robust ways, sometimes beautifully reserved, cool, like a sparseMiles Davis solo, like a Billie Holiday and Lester Young duet. I am alsoinspired by their musically spiritual messages, its deeply integrated oraltradition, and its life affirming resiliency. I began to understand how thesemusicians touch us, help us connect to our spirituality and sometimes, to oneanother.


Jazz continues to defy and avoid themany predictions of its demise. Its hungry musical essence swallows, digests,and integrates music of every genre from the Blues and Bluegrass , to Classicaland Country, from Ragtime to Rap to Reggae. The music continues to attract someof the most talented, tantalizes the intellect and prods the emotions,perplexes the occasional listener, captivates and uniquely embodies aspectsthat make American culture what it, at its best, is - individual selfexpression; the absorption and integration of diverse, and sometimes, seeminglyconflicting ideas; development and expansion through cohesive ensemble whileallowing for the individuality of its members; self-expression throughimprovisation and experimentation; the juxtaposition and elision of differentethnic/cultural expressions; and a pronounced connection to rhythm of life.Jazz can show us creativity at its highest level; the ability to expressourselves in verbal and nonverbal ways; and skills needed for a successful andhappy life in whatever life endeavor one chooses. 


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