HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogThe Failure and Potential Future of Vocal Jazz Harmony

DekeSharon's picture

Sitting on a flight from Beijing to ShenZhen, listening to Bill Evans on my iPod, I'm inspired to write about a topic that has long haunted me:

The marriage of group harmony singing and jazz

Let me preface my diatribe with a little context: I love jazz. Deeply. Jazz voice was my "instrument" at New England Conservatory. I listen to jazz almost every day. Although not as lucrative as pop charts, I publish jazz arrangements every year because I want to perpetuate the form. Vocal jazz harmony has great potential.

That said, I fear for it's future because I have deep reservations about its present course.

Jazz was born on the stage, in the club, on the streets. Musicians learned by ear and by experience, and went to the "woodshed" to hone their craft. It is not a music of ivory towers or rarified intellect, or at least it shouldn't be. You want intellectual music? Exhibit A: Schoenberg and his serial tone rows. The largest musical failure in the past century.

Jazz has existed in combos small and large. Bebop and swing. Individual lines fiercely intertwining as well as carefully orchestrated big band nuances. It welcomes all takers, so long as you respect its careful balance of technique and emotion.

Alas, It appears that balance has been destroyed. Frankly, I'm sick of the stiff, heartless, poorly rendered wax museum that passes for jazz vocal harmony nowadays:

1) Where is the feeling, the mood? Without emotion, jazz is a waste of time. Without emotion, all music is a waste of time... but a group rarely sings popular music without any heart, whereas many a Great American Songbook standard is delivered nowadays with blank expressions and no connection to the lyric or any mood at all.

2) It's as if the director put all the emphasis on precision, whether or not the final product is particularly precise. They appear focused on singing the correct notes, which of course results in the entire musical expression reduced to technical achievement, and few groups are capable of mustering a level of shimmering sonic brilliance such that the audience doesn't care about the mood, or a mood is created through their precision.

3) "Cool jazz" never meant "bored jazz"

4) Choruses often have "riser disease" when singing classical music, convinced they can hide behind their sheet music, or be lost in the sea of faces, but jazz is sung in smaller groups, and shouldn't have a conductor, which means the singers cannot hide. They must emote.

5) There is zero spontaneity. Jazz needs at least some element of fluidity, flexibility, spontaneity. Granted, scat singing is not easy and sometimes isn't appropriate, but there should still be something loose, something playful, something unhinged. In close harmony it comes in the form of significant rubato, to draw additional meaning and mood out of the natural rhythm of the lyrics. In a faster song there are many ways to interweave some improvisation, be it elements of circle singing, rhythmic variation, vocal percussion, simple scatting, and the like. Find a way to keep it fresh.

6) Group scat singing - where the whole group singing "schwee-bee doo-bee dah-ly-ah bee-boh" together, often in harmony, needs to stop. It is embarrassing. It does not sound good. Scat syllables came about because a singer either couldn't remember the lyrics or was intentionally singing off the grid... but to standardize them results in a wooden, silly performance that reinforces people's worst impressions of jazz music. Use existing lyrics, write lyrics, use a non-lyrical sound (like group vocal trumpets), or stick to one or two syllables: "ba ba da ba" and the like.

7) Ok, I accept that a certain percentage of everything is mediocre... but this is different. This is a train off its tracks. This is directors focusing on the wrong principles, and a generation of singers learning either to dislike jazz or misrepresent it.

Don't get me wrong. Instrumental jazz can fail as well. Miserably. But you still hear hear great jazz instrumentalists and solo singers. Groups, on the other hand... so rare.

I guess I can't rant without offering more solutions, can I? Wouldn't be productive. Alrighty, here's where I think we should go in the future:

A) Don't look to choral jazz for inspiration; look instead to instrumental jazz and the close harmony groups from 50 years ago, like the Double Six of Paris, where Ward Swingle cut his teeth, or groups like Lambert Hendrix and Ross. They knew how to swing and keep an intensity in their music. Yes, you will hear incorrect notes, moments out of tune and cracks, but so what? You'll hear plenty of imperfections on the best selling jazz album of all time: Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue".

B) Think about structuring your arrangements more vertically - based on each line - than horizontally - which is how much vocal jazz seems to be conceived now. No one cares if you find a way to work the b9 into each dominant chord. No one cares about your clever chord substitutions. Drop the intellectualism and go back to basics: the blues. You want to impress me, and impress the audience? Make some great jazz with something simple. If "All Blues" was good enough for miles, it should be good enough for you.

C) NO! Don't transcribe "All Blues." Don't reproduce it or any other song. Jazz is not about preservation. It wants to live, breathe and change. You're tempted to copy, but you can't. Once you understand jazz you have to find your own path. Take the blues, pick a different key, a different mood, some different lyrics...

D) Don't try to be the Real Group. You'll spend all of your time on precision. I know I mentioned this again, and I love the Real Group, but I have to say: why are you looking to Scandinavia for your jazz inspiration? How about New Orleans? Chicago? That's where the Real Group drew their inspiration. Go to the source. Listen to Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens. Nat Cole's exemplary early small combo work. Chet Baker's effortless phrasing and feel. Find your own way to take a great lead vocal and support it with voices.

E) Blend in other styles of music if it suits you. Stan Getz went to Brazil. Zap Mama marries Belgium with Africa and beyond. Ever heard Vocal Sampling?

F) Learn to scat. For real. From the greats. And make it your own. You have to hear the changes, understand how and why and where. And respect the need for space. This all takes time, but it's really fun and something you'll use not only when performing, but also when arranging (your voice and ear together will take you in new directions)

G) Want to sing a vocal trumpet or other instrument solo (as I like to)? The timbre is only a small part; the rest is phrasing, feel, mood and... scatting! Yup - the same principles apply: how to shape a solo, how to hear and follow changes, and develop an instinct you and trust and follow.

H) Did I mention emotion? Music is communication. Say something or go home. I don't care about your harmonies, your pretty voice, your music training, your ability to sing high or low, your dense chordal choices or anything else. Email me a resume. If you want me to sit in a seat and look at you and listen to you, you'd better make me care.

I'm gonna bring it home with this statement: I'd rather listen to a 2nd grade choir sing in unison than sit through a concert by most vocal jazz groups nowadays, because you know what? They bring more to the table. They bring more joy, more fear, more confusion, more personality, more honesty.

Imperfections are life. Imperfections are music. Take a chance. Be raw, be real. Put the jazz back in vocal jazz.