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Vocal jazz or jazz singing is an instrumental approach to the voice, where the singer can match the instruments in their stylistic approach to the lyrics, improvised or otherwise, or through scat singing; that is, the use of non-morphemic syllables to imitate the sound of instruments.
The roots of jazz music were very much vocal, with field hollers and ceremonial chants, but while the blues maintained a strong vocal tradition, with singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith heavily influencing the progress of American popular music in general, early jazz bands only featured vocalists periodically, albeit those with a more "bluesy" tone of voice; one of the first "jazz" recordings, the 1917 Original Dixieland Jass Band recordings featured Sara Martin as vocalist.
It was Louis Armstrong who established singing as a distinct art form in jazz, realising that a singer could improvise in the same manner as an instrumentalist, and along with American vocalist Adelaide Hall they established scat singing as a central pillar of the jazz vocal art.
A frequently repeated legend alleges that Louis Armstrong invented scat singing when he dropped the lyric sheet while singing on his 1926 recording of "Heebie Jeebies". This story is false and Armstrong himself made no such claim. Jazz musicians Don Redman, Cliff Edwards, and Red Nichols all recorded examples of scat earlier than Armstrong. However, the record "Heebie Jeebies" in 1926 by Armstrong and "Creole Love Call" in 1927 by Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall subsequently introduced scat singing to a wider audience and did much to popularize the style. Armstrong was an innovative singer who while experimenting with all kinds of sound, improvised with his voice as he did on his instrument. In one famous example, Armstrong scatted a passage on "I'm A Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas" - he sings "I've done forgot the words!" in the middle of recording before taking off in scat.
Billie Holiday entered into the world of jazz singing in the early 1930s, explaining: I don't feel like I'm singing, I feel like I'm playing the horn. Holiday had a comparatively limited vocal range of just over an octave, and compensated for this shortcoming with nuanced phrasing and emotional immediacy, qualities admired by a young Frank Sinatra.
With the end of Prohibition in the United States, a more "danceable" form of jazz music arose, giving birth to the Swing era, and with it big bands such as those led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Chick Webb. Many notable post war jazz singers sang with these bands in the infancy of their careers.
With the end of the Swing era, the touring Big bands of the past decade were no longer a viable option, and the demise of the typical big band singer was further complicated by the advent of be-bop as a creative force in jazz.
The rise of be-bop saw new jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald rise to fame, furthering the notion of "free voice" - giving instrumental qualities to the voice through timbres, registers and tessitura.
The birth of rock & roll as a distinct genre, and a new generation of teenagers having different tastes than their previous adult audience, caused a significant decline in the popularity of jazz.
Around the same time, the long-playing record (LP) was invented, freeing musicians from the time constraints of the extended play record (EP). The LP, being more expensive, was aimed at the adult audience who could afford to spend the extra money on records.
Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald released some of the most popular early LPs recorded in a jazz vein. Though constrained by the material, Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook series introduced a great many people to jazz singing.
Many of the singers who had worked with the big bands of the swing era were now solo artists, in the prime of their careers and many had achieved fame internationally.
Sarah Vaughan, Vic Damone, Mel Tormé, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, Joe Williams, Dinah Washington, Anita O'Day, Julie London, Chris Connor, June Christy, Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, and Carmen McRae all advanced vocal jazz during this period.
Vocal jazz, since 1970, has been led by notable artists including Mark Murphy, Maxine Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Al Jarreau, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Flora Purim, George Benson, Carol Sloane, Urszula Dudziak, Bobby McFerrin, among others.
Other popular contemporary jazz vocalist include Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Kurt Elling, Harry Connick, Jr., young Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Jamie Cullum and Sylvia Brooks.
Throughout most of jazz history, most vocal music was performed by either a soloist or a very small group of singers, usually one to a part. In the mid-1960s, a few directors decided to try transcribing Big band charts for voices. This idea was first tried by Hal Malcom at Mt. Hood Community College in 1967 with a group called Genesis. The group hosted the oldest vocal jazz festival in the United States, the Northwest Vocal Jazz Festival. Hal Malcom directed the group for 23 years until passing it to his former student, Dave Barduhn, who directed this group until his retirement in the Spring of 2012.
11 years later, in 1978, Lonnie Cline brought the jazz ensemble format to a small Idaho town and high school named Mountain Home (Which won the Mt. Hood and Reno Jazz Festivals in 78, 79, and 80) before forming a sister group to Hal's at Clackamas Community College. This group eventually took the name Mainstream, which it performs under today. Mainstream was a new type of ensemble, one that moved away from performing the big band arrangements and other jazz standards and began to learn and perform a wide variety of music, including jazz, rock, pop, funk, and fusion. The idea was looked down upon at first but eventually was adopted by many and is now popular in high schools across the United States.
A vocal jazz ensemble usually consists of the choir, normally made up of 8-16 singers, and a Rhythm section most often consisting of a pianist, a bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer. Singers either each hold a microphone or sing with area microphones. Vocal jazz ensembles also often sing a cappella.