If you’ve never sung jazz, you’re missing out on the opportunity to learn some of the most important lessons a great singer can learn.
Our members at The Voice Club are getting ready for a Jazz vocal challenge. There’s a lot to learn from dipping into jazz. Hey, Lady Gaga did, so it must be worthwhile, right?
Jazz music has rubbed shoulders with the roaring 20’s/big band/swing era, sideswiped R&B and even skims along the lines of pop music. Just like ‘country’ can be honkytonk to pop, jazz covers a lot of territory.
Most people think of jazz as creative chord progressions with all those extra notes (how’s that for music theory). But for the singer, who can sing only one note at a time, jazz requires a special set of skills.
Feel the Music
When jazz was new it was the cutting edge, in your face music of the day. Yes, that means parents of then-teenagers hated jazz. One of it’s biggest appeals to the youngin’s was that the words were honest and raw compared to other popular styles of the day. It was casual, intimate, lazy, loud and a little over the top emotional. And what teenager doesn’t love music like that?
Singing jazz well goes far beyond singing some notes with words. It’s classic storytelling on a very personal scale. The greatest jazz singers didn’t sing songs, they told you their personal story or at least made you believe the story was their own.
Watch this classic example of jazz legend Carmen McRae and watch how she’s practically speaking a story. Watch how her styling is a result of her emotion. In current music, most emotion is contrived as a result of aiming for styling (trills, runs, singing breathy, power notes, etc.) Which seems more authentic?
Get Up Close
Jazz was the first official ‘genre’ to benefit from the creation of the microphone. For the first time, an audience could really hear the little nuances of the voice as singers learned to ‘work the mic’.
The first microphones required the voice to be right up to the mic to pic up sound. And while current microphones, including my super retro Shure Super 55 (the original ‘Elvis mic’) are more advanced, a great jazz singer still uses the microphone as a crucial tool in their performance.
‘Working the mic’ originally referred to staying close enough so that it could pick up the sound of your voice. Today ‘working the mic’ is much more about using the distance around the mic as a playground for expressing emotion and being a convincing story teller.
Getting super close on a soft note is like whispering directly in your audience’s ear. Backing up for a big power note allows you room to express huge emotions with appropriately cool body movements.
By the way, this is a picture of me and my Super 55. And while it looks super cool, is not a great live vocal mic. In fact, this photo shoot was the only time I used it. But I have to say, when you have a sexy looking mic it looks a lot cooler to ‘work’.
Make it Easy
One of the great benefits of most jazz songs is that the melodies generally sit in the ‘sweet spot’ for most singers. That means chances are great that you’ll find several more jazz songs you feel comfortable singing than you might find in other genres. And that means more success AND more chances to ‘color’ or style your songs, which means you’ll not only sound better, but you’ll have a lot more fun singing.
Don’t limit yourself to songs from your gender. Instead, think about which areas of notes (high, medium, low, etc.) you sing most easily and find singers that sing in that neighborhood. You’ll sing better and impress your friends more easily.
Let ‘er Rip Tater Chip
Singing jazz is not for the timid. Many times we use an illustration of ‘running naked in the streets’ to help our singers understand what a singer puts on the line every time they step in front of a mic. Being a great singer requires great vulnerability. Being a so-so singer does not.
To sing jazz well is to not only run naked (vocally & emotionally only, please) through the streets, but to do it while screaming all those things you never say out loud.
Many singers choose classic jazz songs like “At Last” for their power notes and swells of emotion but completely forget that those things don’t just automatically appear: they have to pour out of the singer.
Think about how many times you’ve heard a completely forgettable version of this song. And how few times you’ve heard an unforgettable version. The difference is more in the abandon of the singer than it is in the perfection of the notes themselves.
So if you’re gonna do jazz…let ‘er rip.
Search the Greats
Every great singer is influenced by other great singers. Every mediocre singer copies great singers.
Listen to some of these jazz singers and see what you like about them; is it the texture of their voice? Is it their power? Their emotion? Their ‘cool factor’?
Now ask yourself ‘which of these things come most natural for me?’ If you’re a power singer, just watching that quality in other great singers will give you ideas of things to try.
Identify what appeals to you in other great singers and try it out. But never stop there. That’s just copying, and anyone can do that.
A great singer uses the things other singers do as idea starters and builds pieces of them into their own unique styling.
Here are some classic jazz greats to Google to get the ideas going:
Nat King Cole
Sarah Vaughan (who btw, won an ‘amateur night’ contest, later opened for Ella and took her place on the charts)
Louie Armstrong (known more for his trumpet playing than singing, but all jazz)
Tony Bennett (who is THE best at merging old jazz with new artists with performances with pop stars like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga)
A few current jazz singers that are worth checking out:
Harry Connick Jr.
Jamie Cullum (don’t know him? Watch this:)
And two of today’s most promising up and coming jazz singers:
Whether you’ve been crooning for years or you’ve never tried to sing jazz, it’s time to mix it up. Try classic jazz, new jazz, dixieland or smooth jazz. Just step out of your box. Our vocal challenges are designed do that because that’s how great singers grow fastest. And you should be doing it too.
Because no singer wants to just be a good singer if they knew they had the option of being great.