Jazz will always be a distinctly American art form. It’s caught on everywhere from Africa to South America, and even in Japan’s fusion jazz scene, you can hear the echoes of Duke Ellington in the playful keyboarding of Haruomi Hosono. The classic American jazz vocalists, especially, brought something special to the form. Not to disregard any other form of vocal performance, but there’s a difference between being a good singer and being a good jazz singer. So what is it that sets these performers apart?
The Roots of the Form
Jazz singing has its roots in American vocal traditions like “field holler.” The field holler was used in fields, on chain gangs, by levee workers, and other laborers, free and otherwise. Accompanying the chime of hammers on rocks and other sounds of physical effort, the field holler focused less on the literal meaning of the words than on the expression of the worker’s feelings.
From the freeform style of singing found in the fields, the early jazz vocalists treated the voice as an instrument. Not something to be backed up by a band, but a part of the band itself. Classic American jazz vocalists innovated a style wherein the voice was as versatile and fluid as the saxophone or the drums. Put simply: It’s not just hitting the right notes and singing the right words. A great jazz vocalist is able to improvise just as well as any trumpeter.
There’s something else to classic American jazz vocalists. It takes some talent to be able to improvise, it takes some courage to express yourself boldly through voice. But there’s something else to being on the level of classical American jazz vocalists. Something in the tone of the voice, the way the performer connects with the audience.
Whatever it is that makes a great jazz vocalist great, it can be learned, but it can’t be taught. It’s what Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole had that set them apart. There’s no name for it, no way to describe it, you just have to hear it.
Sylvia Brooks became an immediate name on the West Coast jazz scene with her 2009 debut, Dangerous Liaisons. Noted for her interplay with the band and commanding presence, her new album, The Arrangement, combines the dangerous, sexy vibes of film noir with the heartbreaking tone of classic jazz.
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