Early Jazz Singing Greats!
Gail Sidonie Sobat
Good singing is, of course, paramount to vocal jazz. All About Jazz identifies several qualities that identify the jazz singer, including: "the ability to swing, the ability to interact in a creative and musical way with improvising musicians, and the ability to transform quality songs into something distinctive and personal....Jazz singing was the last of four interdependent American musical ideas to develop (the others being instrumental jazz, the blues, and Tin Pan Alley songwriting)."
Vocal jazz had its genesis in the Roaring Twenties of America (though its roots may be traced all the way back to Africa) when singers, like their fellow instrumentalists, began experimenting with phrasing, syncopation and rhythm, blue notes and slides, and improvisation. These artists--many of them vaudeville performers, some in black face--were certainly trying to make a living, but they were undoubtedly innovators of vocal music. The 1920s saw the rise of jazz stars (many of whom also sang the blues) such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Helen Humes, Alberta Hunter, Blanche Calloway and her brother Cab Calloway, Annette Hanshaw, Marion Harris, Cliff Edwards, Ethel Waters, Jack Teagarden, to name some of the most popular. While Billie Holiday is considered "the mother of jazz," she did not begin performing until the late 1920s and came to prominence in the 30s and 40s (we'll devote a future blog to her).
Jazz in America notes that "jazz vocalists have always been an important part of jazz's rich history. Today, vocal jazz is not only important, it is credited with introducing jazz to many who might not otherwise have given jazz a chance (because there are words, or lyrics, more people can relate to vocal jazz than instrumental jazz)."
According to The Guardian, "jazz had been evolving for almost a decade before it was recorded – and a white New Orleans band called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band beat all the superior Southland black bands to it [recording "Livery Stable Blues"]. The ODJB were a raucous but lively five-piece influenced by the sound of Louis Armstrong mentor King Oliver's New Orleans groups. In 1917, following a successful New York run, the band cut tracks in the Victor studios that sold massively and launched a global jazz craze." Here is the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, featuring vocalist Al Bernard singing W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" in 1921:
This week's jazz singing article from The Guardian offers jazz singing techniques.
Jazz & Life: "Music washes away the dust of every day life." - Art Blakey