What is a ‘jazz singer’ ?
June 30, 2016
Easy to forget, but not many years ago the term ‛jazz singer’ meant something very different from what it means today. Back then, such artists were admired by few, derided or dismissed by many. Many of these nay-sayers were not members of the general public (who were not the least bit interested), but people in or closely connected to the jazz world: instrumentalists, journalists, promoters, fans. Even some songwriters expressed outrage at the way jazz singers sang their songs. Yes; even the insiders didn’t like singers and what’s more, they didn’t care who knew it. A look at some of the early books on the history of jazz will quickly demonstrate that this is no exaggeration. Chapter upon chapter about instrumentalists, only a few paragraphs on singers.
As any singer will tell you there are still people in today’s jazz world who cling to those outdated (and unfair and unreasonable) ideas, but overall things are very different. Jazz singers of today can be numbered, quite literally, in thousands. Among the reasons for today’s picture is a matter of terminology. Quite simply, the definition of the term ‛jazz singer’ has been radically altered. In the past, the term’s definition was so narrow it is hard to stretch a list of those who fit the bill into double figures. During the past few years the term ‛jazz singer’ has been sanitized and artists so labelled have become admired, lauded even, and can sell millions of records. Among the results of this is that while artists of the past might have shied away from being labelled as a jazz singer, today many eager wannabes adopt the label regardless of their qualifications.
Looking behind the label, what is the reality? I suspect that if those few accepted jazz singers from long ago were brought back, the chances are they would not recognize many of these new singers as kindred artists and those newcomers they did recognize would be counted in similarly small numbers to those of far-off days. What they would recognize, those past mistresses of jazz song (then, as now, women greatly outnumber men), is that they themselves were seriously influential on the careers of the newcomers either directly or channeled through singers of the in-between generations.
It is not at all surprising that the term ‛jazz singer’ means something different today. After all, the same can be said of jazz itself. During the second half of its 100-year history the word jazz has stretched to cover an enormous range, one so wide that surely no one can like everything. Consider that range for a moment: Early jazz with its primitive style and technique yet shot through with the flawless musical jewels heard on the first records made by Louis Armstrong that remain as vivid today as they were ninety years ago; the swing era, when jazz first became commercial; the revolution of bebop; and then there is west coast cool, hard bop, mainstream, jazz-rock and other fusions, all the way through to today’s cutting edge improvised music. And then there are those many wonderful side turnings into the realms of gospel and soul and r&b. As for the blues, well that’s more than merely a side turning, it’s a highway. And in all of these roots and branches of jazz there have been and still are singers who are as stylistically different from one another as are the instrumentalists. Significantly though, many of today’s singers have succeeded in doing something achieved by only a handful of jazz musicians (singers and instrumentalists) of the past. They are commercial. And just as commercial success during the swing era was frowned upon by purists, popularity today is viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. It shouldn’t be this way. Popularity might not be a condition of quality but the two are not mutually exclusive. To steal a comment from Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music. Good and bad.”
These thoughts started with a question: What is a jazz singer? If that is what drew you in then it might irritate you if this piece ends without attempting an answer. That said, as should be clear by now, there will not be a categorical answer. Readers of the two books written many years ago by myself and Mike Pinfold are unlikely to have learned a hard and fast definition. In one of these books, The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986), we sought to recount the history of the form, while in the other, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we looked at the subject through the lives and careers and words of several singers. Definitions were not an objective, but reading them might cast a little light and maybe open a few doors. Although long out of print, second-hand copies can be found in dusty corners of cyberspace, while the most recent of these titles can now be bought as a Kindle e-book.
Through the vast resource of the Internet it is possible to see and hear musicians perform and get to know them through interviews or simply read the thoughts and opinions of others. Among many on-line sources, two excellent sites that have much to offer on jazz singers are those of Marc Meyers and Anton Garcia Fernandez. Marc writes for The Wall Street Journal and his countless interviews and essays can be seen on his JazzWax. Anton teaches Spanish at the University of Tennessee in Martin and his musical interests are pursued on two sites: Vintage Bandstand and Jazz Flashes. Both of these writers deal extensively and knowledgeably with singers and it is possible to learn a lot from their work.
But will you learn what it is that makes a jazz singer? Perhaps an answer is impossible. Enough of this prevarication. For me, a jazz singer is one who can improvise upon yet remain respectful of a composer’s conception, can reach into the heart of a lyricist’s message and convey this to a listener, can perform with rhythmical assurance, sings in tune, sings a song with honesty and integrity, who brings originality to the music, and, perhaps, leaves something of themselves therein. Any singer who does all (or most) of these things might well earn a place alongside those few unquestioned jazz singers of the past.
If you want to hear singers like this, where might you start? Well, here are a few names to start you off, but these are offered with some trepidation because five minutes after this list is done and up for all to see, other names will be remembered. Also, in listing jazz singers of today who sit comfortably in my reckoning with those giants of the past I am guilty of omitting a few of earlier generations still working admirably today. So, with these caveats in mind here they are, among them some reviewed either in Jazz Journal or elsewhere on this site. Listening to their work will delight and enlighten you: Tony Adamo, Karrin Allyson, April Barrows, Theo Bleckmann, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Leanne Carroll, Dena DeRose, Madeleine Eastman, Sinne Eeg, Connie Evingson, Roberta Gambarini, Allan Harris, Ellen Johnson, Nancy Kelly, Stacey Kent, Chris McNulty, Kitty Margolis, René Marie, Claire Martin, Tina May, Catherine Russell, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ian Shaw, Daryl Sherman, Judi Silvano, Carol Sloane, Clare Teal, Roseanne Vitro, Cassandra Wilson.
Albums by all of these artists can be found at Amazon.