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Maybe it was your parents’ worn copy of Ella and Louis. Or maybe it was your older sister’s copy of Joni Mitchell’s Mingus. Or, possibly, it was the first time you heard Diana Krall or Norah Jones. But somewhere along the line, jazz singing crept into your consciousness and set up camp, leaving you hungry for more.
Jazz singers have intrigued listeners since the earliest days of recording. One could debate whether seminal artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were blues or jazz singers — the categories were certainly less prescribed back then — but unquestionably they set the template for what would follow. Louis Armstrong played cornet behind Smith and Rainey and other singers in the 1920s and developed a vocal style that would turn the jazz world on its ear. His innovations influenced Billie Holiday, who in turn influenced Frank Sinatra and on down the line.
Armstrong is often credited with inventing scat singing — he attributed it to his sheet music falling off the stand and having to improvise words he couldn’t remember — which opened yet another avenue for jazz singing. One of the paragons of scat, Ella Fitzgerald, raised the form to high art, more than holding her own alongside some of the greatest instrumental improvisers to ever grace a bandstand.
A cousin of scat, “vocalese,” inverted the concept by having singers fit words to previously recorded instrumental passages. One of the most popular examples was Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics to James Moody’s version of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” the resulting “Moody’s Mood for Love” becoming a hit for King Pleasure in the early 1950s. The great jazz lyricist and singer Jon Hendricks would similarly tinker with the jazz canon, his group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross presenting the apotheosis of the vocalese art as they reworked songs by Count Basie, Bobby Timmons, Horace Silver and John Coltrane, among others.
By the 1960s, jazz singing would head in bold new directions, with singers such as Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone powerfully addressing racial injustice in their words and music. Betty Carter and Leon Thomas also experimented with different modes of expression, once again expanding the realm of what jazz singing could be. Initially considered a folk singer, Joni Mitchell invested plenty of jazz phrasing in her performances, turning on yet another generation — even if they were unaware of it — to jazz. Fellow Canadian Diana Krall, a straightahead jazz phenom equally adept as a pianist and vocalist, has spoken of her devotion to Mitchell, and Norah Jones has likely taken a few pages from the Mitchell playbook with her genre-straddling songcraft.
Today’s jazz vocalists borrow from it all, as artists from Kurt Elling and Somi to Sara Serpa and Michael Mayo, each of whom appear in this issue, continue to refine the role of the jazz singer in the 21st Century. — Michael Fagien