Great Singers in Early Jazz
Though perhaps not as well-documented as the piano, for instance, vocal technique has always played a part in the development of jazz. It goes beyond scat singing, too.
For one, jazz singers often set the tone for future trends in jazz. Ray Charles, chief among them, incorporated the carefree attitude of boogie-woogie jazz with the soulfulness of gospel to create an attitude that would characterize rock and roll, bebop, and beyond. Anita O’Day bucked gender conventions and delivered her songs with a breezy demeanor that set the stage for West Coast cool jazz. And, of course, Ella Fitzgerald would prove fundamental in developing a punctuated, diction-heavy singing style that bebop would come to emulate with other instruments.
In fact, one of the chief characteristics of vocal jazz is melding the voice to fit in with other instruments. It, too, is used for improvisation and playing off other band members. Tony Bennett is particularly well-known for this. Vocal jazz isn’t known so much for range -- though singers like Sarah Vaughan had plenty -- as for delivery. More than many other jazz players, vocalists often aren’t formally trained. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dinah Washington topped the charts with their emotionally powerful delivery and thoroughly unique sound, not with technical precision.
Vocals were also fundamental to introducing jazz into the mainstream. While instrumentalist jazz often proved too avant-garde, pop tunes imbued with jazz from the likes of Mel Tormé, Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne were more palatable to the average listener. But that doesn’t mean these singers couldn’t be part of the avant garde. Chet Baker, a trumpeter and singer, was always at the forefront of bebop, despite a life marred by tragedy.
Jazz pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Fats Waller, and many, many others often worked with vocalists, either as a one-off collaboration or as a touring band. Sinatra sang with the Count Basie Orchestra as part of the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. Johnny Hartman got his start touring with Earl Hines. And Fitzgerald collaborated with nearly every jazz to come out of the ‘30s and ‘60s.
In many ways, jazz vocalists act as a sort of bridge between a casual appreciation of jazz and deeper trends within the genre. American classics like Sinatra’s “My Way,” Horne’s “Stormy Weather,” and Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” all come from a love of the jazz sound and a conscious effort on the part of the singer to incorporate it into their songs. So though we may not always recognize it, vocals play a huge part in the world of jazz.