The Jazz.com Blog
October 23, 2008 · 0 comments
Some time back jazz.com published a series of articles on the current state of jazz vocals. We continue to get feedback on them (you can check them out here, here and here). Now Simon Lawrence sends an interesting letter (see below) with some additional perspectives on the current situation for aspiring jazz singers. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments on-line or emailing them to email@example.com. T.G.
I have just read both parts of your "State of Jazz Vocals Today" article. I found it a fascinating read, and dealing with issues I have written about myself in blogs. I am a young jazz crooner from the UK. It is about time someone wrote a good article on the state of jazz singing and I really enjoyed reading yours.
Since most of your article is mainly focused on the younger or new generation of jazz singers, I thought you might like the opinion of someone who is part of that generation, and what it is really like to be a young jazz singer today.
Although still in my twenties, I actually started out jazz singing before the jazz boom that happened around 2003, when artists such as Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones were bringing 'jazz' back into the charts. When I first started out, before the boom, I found it incredibly hard to get gigs in the UK. One manager of a bar said to me (in about 2000): "A young guy singing jazz songs? That won't work. People won't believe it, they only want to hear old people sing those songs." That was pretty much the response I got from most places.
It is interesting that as soon as Jamie Cullum became a hit star, those same bar managers couldn't book young acts fast enough. I knew that people would love to hear young people sing jazz, but the industry needed a 'star' before they could believe it.
In terms of jazz records, you make the point in your article about new jazz artists needing to create new material (something of which I am a true believer). However, I have to say that, certainly in the UK, most young jazz singers are promoting themselves by doing famous jazz covers on records and at gigs. Many new albums that come out may have the odd original song, but many still are full of 'crowd pleasing songs' like "Fly Me to the Moon." To get a record deal with purely original jazz songs is nearly impossible. Even Jamie Cullum had plenty of covers on his album Twentysomething and used 'What a Difference a Day Made' as his main promotional song for the album.
Even to get a gig at a proper jazz venue as a jazz singer in London, you pretty much have to perform jazz covers (unless you are established like Ian Shaw). Many of the venues have the same artists every week, the manager's favorites if you like. Every week I look in Time Out at the jazz listings. It's like Groundhog Day, same venue, same act. There is this illusion that London is a great place for 'new' or 'young' acts to break out. It is exactly that, an illusion. There is also a bit of a Catch 22 situation with gigs at top jazz venues. You can't play Ronnie Scott's, it seems, unless you are established, have management or a record deal. Yet, you won't be taken seriously by management or record companies until you've played somewhere like Ronnie Scott's.
The only other people who get to play the top jazz venues are what I have coined as the 'Jazzerati' or 'Jazz Mafia': artists that know and are friends with the management, and network themselves into the jazz scene like they are part of the furniture (regardless of their talent).
As far as record labels are concerned, you are completely right! They are very biased towards age. I am 28, and even I appear to be to old! Recently I went for an audition with the head of Jazz A&R for a major record label. I won't mention it by name other than to say it is a universally big company :-). The audition was held in London, and they said they were looking for the "next 'Jamie Cullum" or the "next Michael Buble." Well, I have never compared myself to them or are vaguely influenced by either of them (who I believe are both vastly overrated as singers). However, I went anyway as it is such a major label. I knew that most of the other guys at the audition would be singing covers like 'Fly Me to the Moon', which indeed they did. I stuck to my guns and sang one of my original jazz compositions, "I Don't Love You (But My Heart Does)."
I sang my song and the man said, "You have a great voice! A big voice!" He commended me on my singing 'a cappella' at the audition, saying I was a true jazz singer because all the other applicants had used cheap backing tracks on CD. All seemed to be going well... then he asked my age. "28," I said. His face dropped, it was like I had just told him I was a mass murderer. He then stumbled over his words and mumbled something about "letting me know," when moments earlier he had been praising my singing. As I walked out of the room, a young trendy haired guy walked in, who looked about 17. I could hear him destroying "Mr Bojangles" as I left the building. . . . I expect he got the record deal.
Finally a bit about myself. I am a jazz singer and composer. I sing because I love it, I adore jazz. I don't want to be a copycat singer. People tell me I sound like Frank Sinatra, a great compliment yes, but I tell them I want to be the first Simon Lawrence, not the next Sinatra, Buble etc. I also concentrate on performing and recording my original songs, rather than famous jazz covers.
For the last three years I have been collaborating and writing with the great American jazz lyricist Fran Landesman, and performing many of her songs such as "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." I have an album coming out (although without a label or management) in December, here in London. It will be a mixture of my songs and Fran's. Absolutely no "Fly Me to the Moon"!
I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.