Last week I wrote that it seems like singers are often trained at the high school level in ways that emphasize their role as performers, while their instrumentalist counterparts are taught more comprehensive overall musicianship. One part of the solution to this problem is for more schools to offer a Vocal Jazz Ensemble, which is basically the singing equivalent of a jazz band. Both groups have a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) and they perform similar musical styles. In vocal jazz, singers act like the horns of a big band. Here’s what it looks like:
A great jazz choir will become a destination ensemble within a music program. Students like it because they get to sing popular songs in a small group on individual microphones. More importantly, they have to get comfortable with close and complex harmony, syncopation, and improvisation. Learning to sing these characteristic elements of jazz style is a guaranteed musicianship boost. Having vocal jazz as part of a choral program means producing more complete singing musicians who have great ears and can sight-read (how is this sounding, choir directors?). And, of course, singing jazz is worth doing for its own sake.
In Nebraska, where I live/teach/compose/conduct, there are over 400 high schools, and by my count, there are exactly 10 (ten!) high school jazz choirs in the state. That’s a real bad batting average. If a school has the resources to field a jazz band, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t have a corresponding vocal jazz ensemble. Instead, many vocal music departments choose to pour resources into ensembles that sing much less challenging music, devoting large sections of rehearsal time to organized movement, costuming, and other things that aren't music.
Of course, musical IQ and performing ability are not natural enemies. Singers do need to be performers as well as musicians. Even in vocal jazz, we talk about stage presence, moving naturally with the music, connecting with the audience, and, of course, how to deliver a lyric effectively. But this is all tied together in a context where developing comprehensive ensemble musicianship is the top priority. If the singers in my jazz choir can’t hear hard intervals, sing complex chords in tune, and maintain good time feel, their Performing ability means absolutely nothing. Music is for ears. The Show is only as good as it sounds through headphones.
RESPONDING TO OBJECTIONS
Here are the concerns I usually hear from directors about why their school doesn't offer a vocal jazz ensemble:
"IT'S TOO HARD" / "I'VE NEVER DONE JAZZ"
Steve Zegree's book The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz says:
"The current evolution of vocal jazz programs in schools is similar to the development of instrumental jazz programs during the late 1970s. Due in large part to the popularity of touring and recording bands led by Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman during the 1970s and early 80s, many high school and college students were very interested in playing this style of music. Almost overnight, band directors with little or no jazz experience found themselves responsible for a stage band or jazz ensemble. Over the years, with the help of jazz education advocates such as Jamey Aebersold, David Baker and Jerry Coker, excellent performance standards and repertoire were developed for instrumental jazz groups of all ability levels. Today, most high schools and colleges include instrumental jazz as an integral part of their overall music program. A similar situation is emerging in vocal jazz education, with more and more teachers and administrators acknowledging the importance of including this music as a part of a total choral program…"
It has to start somewhere. Jazz is an aural tradition; the more you listen to it, the better you get. Introduce your students to Frank Sinatra, New York Voices, Take 6, and Kurt Elling. Listen to recordings of the charts you're rehearsing and have your singers try to mimic what they hear. Also, learning some basic jazz piano isn’t hard and will make a big difference in your ability to understand and teach the harmony you’ll encounter in jazz literature. Start with this book, or this one. You can also check out Steve Zegree’s book (see above) and Paris Rutherford’s book - both good resources for a beginning vocal jazz director.
One final note about the difficulty of teaching jazz: I don’t know many choir directors who have significant backgrounds and formal training in choreography, staging, costuming, lighting, etc., but I know many who have made extraordinary efforts to learn these things, or hired people who can do them well. We put effort into what we value, and results generally follow.
"MICROPHONES AND SOUND EQUIPMENT ARE EXPENSIVE"
Not as expensive as putting on a musical, buying 50 dresses and tuxedos, or fielding a football team! Again, we put resources into what we value. The one-time expense of a PA system for your jazz choir will pay off for years down the road.
However, if the cost of sound equipment is truly a deal-breaker in the short term, I will say that it is entirely possible to do vocal jazz without sound reinforcement (not ideal, but better than nothing). 12-20 voices will blend very well with unamplified acoustic bass, piano, and light percussion (not drum set - try shaker or cajón with brushes).
"I DON'T HAVE ACCESS TO RHYTHM SECTION PLAYERS"
Are you sure? You don’t need them at every rehearsal. The singers will take up most of your attention. I only bring in rhythm section to rehearse with my group 1-2 times before the concert (usually with one rhythm-only rehearsal before they join the singers).
Start by asking the rhythm section of your school’s jazz band. If that’s not an option, check with your instrumental director and singers to see if they know other students who play a rhythm instrument. You can hire local professional players, or players from a local college jazz program. If there’s no money to hire them, ask if they would donate their time for one concert per semester.
"I DON'T KNOW WHERE TO FIND VOCAL JAZZ MUSIC"
It is your lucky day.
GIVE IT A TRY
If you direct a high school or college choir, try starting vocal jazz on a trial basis and see how it goes. I would love to personally talk you through any concerns you have about getting started. Use the Contact page of this website to send me an email.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
Instrumental jazz directors, you're not off the hook here. The sound and style of jazz singing has much more in common with the instrumental jazz tradition than it does with traditional concert choir. In fact, some schools have vocal jazz as part of the instrumental jazz studies curriculum, not the choral program! You don’t need to be an expert in vocal production to coach singers on jazz style and time feel. Talk to them exactly how you would talk to the horns in your band, put a great rhythm section behind them, and watch the magic happen.