21st Century Oral Tradition

Jazz singing is still, above all, an oral tradition. This is despite excellent educational books and online materials published over the last quarter-century.

With many of my voice students, we tackle a few standards in the course of a school year – My Funny Valentine, All of Me, Autumn Leaves. Enough to know a bit about the genre.

And with all of them, the first thing I say is, the lead sheet is almost worthless. Far more beneficial is the archive of recordings now immediately available to you.

Unlike folk songs, jazz standards all have a credited composer and lyricist. But like folk songs, over the last century or so, these songs have been subtly altered and improved by generations of interpreters. So the lead sheet might tell you the original idea, but it tells you nothing of how the song has evolved over countless performances.

Listen to ten recordings of All The Things You Are and you will hear Jerome Kern, but you will also learn what those ten interpreters consider the core of the song. If most or all of them choose a certain alteration, or a certain place to be faithful, then you have learned what is really the heart of the song.

There almost isn’t a page of The Real Book that doesn’t contain a chord a question; it’s not because the chords aren’t accurate to the original, though – it’s more likely that subsequent interpreters have decided on a different chord and that has entered the vernacular. Because this is an oral tradition, that can happen!

The easiest way to tell that a young jazz singer hasn’t done their listening is when they make a performance choice that is accurate to the lead sheet but not to the oral tradition. And the easiest way to become a better jazz singer is to dig deep into that oral tradition.