Vocal style: A beginner’s guide to singing jazz

Jazz singer, Billie Holiday

Jazz styling is a great way to get started in the wonderful – and challenging – world of jazz singing. Top vocal coach Louise Gibbs explains how.

Let me be brutally honest, I often try and warn singers off the idea of jazz singing. Yes, jazz is one of the most exciting and profound musical genres of the last century, but the journey to becoming a jazz singer is not an easy one.

If you want to be a jazz singer, prepare yourself to learn not just the tune and lyric to at least 100 songs of the Great American Songbook (such as My Funny Valentine or Night and Day) but their form, bass lines and harmonies too.

You’ll also be expected to improvise, of course, sing chromatically high and low, fast and slow. And since the singer usually calls the tune, you’ll need to be confident enough a musician to direct and make spontaneous arrangements on the bandstand.

All this just so you can submit yourself to the trial and error of the jazz jam session, sending your tender instrument into battle with trumpets and saxophones, guitars, bass and drums. Don’t be surprised if the key of the tune is not in your comfort zone. Bring your own lead sheets. Hope for an ally in the pianist, and a working PA system. Take your own microphone. This scenario may be extreme but not uncommon for the singer who’s after authentic jazz experience.

Jazz singer versus jazz stylist

But don’t let me put you off altogether. You can skip (or delay) this demanding musical journey to jazz singing by becoming a jazz song stylist. So what’s the difference between a jazz singer and a jazz stylist? You’re probably already aware of jazz stylists, like Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé or Lady Gaga. Peggy Lee, Harry Connick Jnr or Amy Winehouse are stylists who could also be jazz singers. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Mark Murphy, Al Jarreau and Dee Dee Bridgewater are definitely jazz singers. The difference is a jazz singer must speak (and live) jazz. The stylist just needs to sound like they speak jazz. If it’s convincingly done, few audiences can tell the difference. And you will get to experience one of the most incredible musical genres.

There is no shame in being a jazz stylist. Whether you’ve come from a pop or classical background, you have great “ears” (aural perception), and a flexible and sensitive voice. You understand how to interpret beautifully crafted and sophisticated repertoire, and you know to connect with your audience.

Through listening and imitating model jazz singers (it’s the way we all start) you’ll pick up: the swing rhythm of jazz, the earthy and inflected speech tone of the blues, or the smokiness of the “cool” and the conversational phrasing of lyrics. You don’t have to improvise. But you can always try it.

Memorising a few distinctive phrases is a good place to start to get your ears around the sound of jazz. What is important is that you imitate not just the notes but also the note bending, the rhythmic feel and phrasing, and the pronunciation of vowel sounds that make the distinctive vocal expression you’re copying. Sing along with artists and match them. Listen to jazz instrumentalists.

Get into the swing 

Swing rhythm feel is probably the strongest single feature that defines the sound of jazz, or at least jazz of the 1930s to the 1960s. Crack swing feel and you’ll not only sound more authentic but you’ll increase your rhythmic and physical coordination by managing the pulse, its off beat accent, and anticipated triplet feel. Listen to the artists below and note how differently they approach swing feel in the song Yesterdays (Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach, 1933).