The Jazz.com Blog
April 22, 2008 · 1 comment
Jazz.com's recent series of articles on the current state of jazz singing continues to elicit interesting responses. (You can read the article that started it all here.) Ellen Johnson, of Sound Visions Media, offers her thoughts below. You can add your comments at the bottom of our blog page or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I read your most fascinating article about "The State of Jazz Vocals Today" and as a jazz vocalist and educator, I found it to be quite similar to my own impressions. One of my dear friends is Sheila Jordan and I am currently working with her on a book about her life. So I was really happy to hear you give her the credit she so well deserves from many perspectives. She is a woman who has lived jazz music and is always innovative in her approach, while honoring the musicians who have contributed to the history. I have had the opportunity of singing with her and recently recording my latest CD with her, and as a tribute to her contributions.
I'm not so much trying to write about myself as to express this concept of letting singers explore and find their own sound. Your comment about understatement and nuance is exactly what is missing in many vocals, even to the point where, if you do it, you are criticized. Also for choice of materials: if you don't do the "same old" standards people in the jazz world don't know what to do with you. Don't get me wrong, I love the standards and I have recorded them; but I prefer to find songs that have not been over done or songs I can deeply relate to and bring something hopefully fresh and unique.
However, the problem may well be in the education of these new singers because they don't have the same exposure to the mentors that instrumentalists seem to have been able to acquire. If it wasn't for people like Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton, Nancy King, Mark Murphy and a few others who spread themselves as generously as possible around workshops and summer programs the new singers would have a tough time. Most jazz college and high school programs don't have any place for a solo vocalists to really learn to sing jazz, work with a rhythm section or even understand the true jazz repertoire. I think that is why there is a shortage of really exceptional jazz singers. And yet there are singers who have very good voices and, as you so astutely pointed out, have relied on their beauty and charm to get the gig. Not that "beauty" has not been an issue in the rest of life -- where, of course, the more attractive you are, the more opportunities you enjoy. It just shouldn't be a point of discrimination either way, beauty or not. Our society has always been a bit silly in that way, and it's not any better now.
I have been offering jazz workshops in the LA area for the last 10 or more years, but not as a place to do karaoke as some singers would prefer, but as an opportunity to explore the music and bring an authentic sound to the songs. All jazz singers should know how to improvise on changes. It doesn't mean they have to "scat," but the nature of jazz is about the freedom to explore and be in the moment. That is why we love Ella, Sarah, Betty, Shirley, Mark, Jon and all the incredible voices that left us with such a rich history. The problem is that jazz is not a "drive though" mentality. It is a music of process, patience, endurance and soul searching significance that has been turned into a buzz word, just as you described. Jazz used to be the expression of voices coming together to communicate their deep passions, emotions and ideas. Today it is about getting personal attention more than the music.
There are some wonderful singers and young singers out there. I'm glad there is an independent revolution of sorts so that we can have a chance to hear them and they can still produce their music. But we still need people who can recognize these artists for the sincerity they bring to the state of jazz vocals.
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