The Jazz.com Blog
March 24, 2008 · 3 comments
My recent two-part essay on "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" received more comments, pro and con, than any other article published to date on the jazz.com site. We have several related pieces planned for the coming weeks which feature rebuttals or different perspectives on this subject.
Below is the first part of Thierry Quénum commentary on jazz singing. Quénum covers the jazz scene from his home base in Paris, and is a frequent contributor to these pages. Here he offers a distinctively European perspective on the vocal tradition and its current manifestations. For part two of this article, click here. T.G.
I’d like to add a European perspective to the essay Ted Gioia wrote on vocal jazz a couple of weeks ago, putting the emphasis on its European aspects and how jazz singers – whether American or European – are often viewed on the Old Continent.
The first thing to be taken into account is that European listeners – except in the UK – usually don’t understand the words to the US standards. This helps explain why there were so few European jazz singers before the sixties. Before that time, the words of the standards were translated and sung by pop singers or entertainers, but in the jazz world these songs were mostly played by instrumentalists.
Interestingly enough, in France, “Autumn Leaves” – originally “Les Feuilles Mortes” – was and still is interpreted as a jazz tune with its English title by jazz musicians, and sung with its French title and words as a chanson by French pop singers. Except for a few exceptions like Cleo Laine in the UK or Rita Reys in the Netherlands, proper jazz singing started out in Europe in the post-Free period of the early seventies, when swinging, phrasing and singing words in whatever language meant less than before. The role models for new singers, such as Tiziana Ghiglioni in Italy, Urszula Dudziak in Poland, Tamia in Switzerland, or Annick Nozati in France were Jeanne Lee or Abbey Lincoln (as she appears in We Insist. Freedom Now Suite) rather than the vocal jazz tradition. In fact, some so-called jazz singers among this generation had very little connection with the older heritage, with its emphasis on popular standards.
The jazz vocal tradition began to be taken into greater account among European jazz singers when a generation of potential vocalists, who had studied English in high school and college and had loved international pop music sung in English, started to turn towards jazz for a more sophisticated approach to singing. The rise of jazz schools on the Old Continent obviously emphasized this tendency. This may explain why Scandinavia – more proficient than other European countries as far as speaking English and as far as jazz teaching jazz is concerned – has produced so many jazz singers over the last decade, from post free Sidsel Endresen to popish Alexandra Tolstoy, and why it was home to one of Europe’s first leading exponents of vocal jazz: Norwegian singer Karin Krog.
But Europe’s very short experience in traditional jazz singing more or less prevents the emergence of a large number of rooted vocalists, who could compete and emulate in singing standards and blues and achieve a really personal approach of phrasing and diction. The tradition of Ella and Billie, Sassy and Carmen, Dinah and Dianne still remains somewhat exotic on the soil of continental Europe. And the large European audience – for lack of understanding of the words – can’t be very responsive to the sophistication of the singer’s vocal art . . . in English, anyway. That’s why, now that the great historical figures of vocal jazz are only accessible trough records and videos, the marketed image has become so important in promoting the new generation of singers, at least in Europe.
Let’s start with the ladies. Female vocal jazz’s big boom in Europe started more or less 10 years ago with the rise of Diana Krall, then Lisa Ekdahl and others, and reached a climax with Norah Jones, as far as sales and fame are concerned. These singers have tended to over-shadow the leading African-American singers on the scene, such as Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon or Cassandra Wilson.
I have nothing against Norah Jones, nor against her success. I have something against her records being found in the jazz section of records shops, and against her being called a jazz singer, because she is not. And if she is, then Carole King is too, and Joni Mitchell, etc. If you distort the reality of a minority music like jazz (around 2% of the record market) and if you allow listeners – and above all young or new listeners – to mistake it for something else, then what of its identity? Meat and fish both contain a high proportion of protein. But who’d say that meat is fish or vice versa?
The only reason I can see for calling non-jazz singers jazz singers or for calling young beginning jazz singers “jazz divas” is that female vocal jazz sell much better than the average 2%. It stands out as a profitable market and is treated more as such than as art. The audience is therefore asked to respond to marketing rather than to aesthetic stimuli, and one of the strongest marketing stimulus is the codified image. Hence the necessary youth, the angelic faces, the sophisticated look… whereas Carmen McRae or Blossom Dearie, besides their vocal qualities, might rely on wit or humor rather than high couture and make-up to promote their art.
The result is a global loss of diversity for vocal jazz, and a global loss of role models for potential jazz singers. A few vocalists with basically similar qualities compete to sell their records to the same huge audience that’s looking for a type of emotion that’s controlled by marketing. Those who propose other type of emotions and stylistic approaches stay in the margins.
A good example is Dianne Reeves. She is not young, she’s been performing for several decades, and she is widely acknowledged as the present day heiress of the long Ella/Sassy/Carmen/Betty lineage of top notch jazz singers. True, she has never sold as much as Diana Krall or Norah Jones. In spite of that, now that she starred in George Clooney’s movie Good Night & Good Luck, her audience has increased considerably and her new listeners get to discover the full dimension of her real self, unchanged and unsweetened . . . and they seem to like it. Reeves doesn’t indulge for them in the type of vintage vocal jazz that she played in Clooney’s film. She did that onscreen because it was relevant to the period concerned, and because she also likes it. These new listeners then have to go all the way from the largely exposed vintage image that made them discover Reeves in the movie to the genuine art that she’s been practicing and refining ever since she became a professional.
Black versus white should not be the issue here, of course. But since marketing is so focused on image and appearance, it inevitably becomes a factor. How could it be otherwise? This matter cuts both ways. Specifically in Europe, and particularly in France, a reverse phenomenon can be observed, but it touches more mature female singers, and still has to do with image and marketing. Dee Dee Bridgewater has built a very successful career, and has sustained - and even increased - her visibility with the passing years. Being African-American is no doubt part of her aura and her marketability. Of course, the more you come play on the continent, the better it is. If you live there and speak the local language with a lovely exotic accent, it’s even better. Because of these non-musical aspects, and regardless of her universally recognized talent, Dee Dee Bridgewater became the jazz singer who is invited on popular TV shows, who sang when the Pope came to Paris, etc. But Bridgewater’s pre-eminence didn’t prevent Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux or Lisa Ekdahl to score high as far as records sales and concerts are concerned.
How have other older female jazz vocalists responded to this new generation of glamorous singers? Look at the recent record covers of elder lady singers, especially when they are on major labels: they often look like their own daughters after Photoshop has done its job on their pictures. Abbey Lincoln and Helen Merrill, among others, are good examples of that. So, if seasoned voices, that should be best advertised by their fame, their body of work, and years of word of mouth are considered by the marketing department at their labels as needing that much trimming of their image, what about the up-and-coming young lady singer? Of course, image is even more important with the younger singer; it sells her voice, and not the other way around.
When Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy and others fronted a band, more than half a century ago, it was primarily their great voices that made them into stars. The big band singers often had to compete or alternate with other male or female singers on the stand, and the best vocalist would often steal the show. But all this has changed. Nowadays, in vocal jazz, vocal quality is not the main focus (and sometimes neither is jazz). Why?
First the culture of the audience has changed: the jazz standards are not the popular songs that everybody whistles and remembers the words. So, who can judge the quality of a specific rendering by comparing it with another version in terms of emotional delivery or originality of phrasing?
Also, the status of the voice itself has declined. From the invention of the transistor radio to the launching of the mp3 player, singing for oneself or for others has dramatically decreased, in spite of persisting local traditions in various rural parts of the world, and in spite of the karaoke fad in various locales. If members of the audience never sing, it becomes harder for them to appreciate a vocalist – certainly they can’t measure it by their own vocal abilities. Of course, they can refer to recordings or radio, but everything there has been so enhanced by studio technology, that this no longer provides a useful basis of comparison. As a result, jazz singing is evaluated by much of the audience on appearance, rather than by the inherent standards of this demanding art form.
Last but not least, the timbre of the voice is a fragile and personal emanation from the soul, but also from the body, a bit like your gait. And it so happens that the place and function of the body have changed in modern societies. People live and work less and less outdoors. They work more and more with the tips of their fingers on a computer keyboard, and less and less with their whole body in the fields, or over a truck engine, singing, swearing, hollering as they work… How many gaits can you identify as sailors’, farmers’, construction workers’… in the streets of modern cities? On the radio, how many present day voices can conjure up the strong personality and life experiences we hear in the singing of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Anita O’Day? How many listeners today would appreciate (or even put up with) that degree of personality and individuality in a singer?
Because of all this, average listeners in western society today have to make some effort to go towards the vocal jazz tradition, except when it’s validated by vintage fame. In a technically homogenized world, where playback, editing and lip-synching reign, jazz is one of the last musical styles to maintain an element of chance, to preserve the unpredictability of improvisation. Just the opposite of pop singing! Just the opposite of life in our computer-controlled age!
Italian movie director Federico Fellini’s phrase about cinema applies perfectly to art in general, hence to jazz, hence to jazz singing. He said that the difference between cinema and TV is that in the former the screen is bigger than you. Jazz – with its 100 some years of age – is bigger than all of us. And vocal jazz, with its refined approach to the voice, is bigger than our voices. And it’s exhilarating – unless you don’t like to have something larger than you to look up to and admire.
END OF PART ONE: This blog posting was written by Thierry Quénum. For part two of this article, click here.