Why Vocal Jazz?

What is it about the vocal jazz repertoire that merits a college ensemble or all-state high school honor choir devoted to it? What does it provide that wouldn’t be better provided in a pop a cappella group, or a show choir, or a madrigal ensemble?

For me, vocal jazz ensembles provide the following advantages better and more consistently than any other type of ensemble.

  • Exposure to American Popular Song. This music is among the greatest contributions of American composers to world culture. Alice Parker has referred to this repertoire as “The American Lied” and she’s not wrong. Vocal jazz uses this repertoire as its core.
  • Reading Skills. There is simply no better practical opportunity to develop musical reading skills (both aural and theoretical) than a vocal jazz ensemble. Becoming proficient at singing vocal jazz music provides you with the reading skills to interpret any type of vocal music, the ears to tune difficult chords and dissonances. Many of the best studio and performing musicians I know have vocal jazz ensemble experience as a common background.
  • Improvisation. On the flip side of ensemble skills, improvisation provides several big benefits, including theoretical fluency (understanding chord-scale relationships is vital to getting beyond beginning improvisation) and aural-vocal transfer (singing what you hear). These skills, while not applicable directly to all styles of music, build many fundamental skills that can be transferred.
  • Oral Tradition. Jazz is an oral tradition, and helping students to connect into that tradition can have many benefits, even beyond music. In our over-schooled and under-motivated contemporary education culture, it can be really eye-opening to finally understand that there are important things that can’t be learned from a textbook.
  • Microphone Skills. Vocal jazz isn’t the only style to use one-on-a-mic singing, but it is the one that does it best and has done it longest. Again, these skills have use far beyond jazz repertoire. Whether you’re singing opera arias with a symphony, leading a praise band, or fronting your garage rock band, good microphone technique will be essential.
  • Art Music With A Wide Stylistic Net. There are many other genres of vocal singing focused on contemporary or recent repertoire–show choir, pop a cappella, and Barbershop, to name a few–but for my ear, only vocal jazz transcends that repertoire to become art music, just as Alice Parker’s writing does with American folk songs, Beethoven did with street melodies, or Bartok did with Hungarian tunes. Vocal jazz has a wide stylistic net – you will hear rhythmic feels including swing, bossa nova, funk, even rock in a vocal jazz concert – but it consistently crosses the line between pop music and art music.

Of course, this is music I love deeply – and that’s why I’m delighted to take on a new role as director of Grand Rapids Community College’s vocal jazz ensemble, Shades of Blue, as well as help bring vocal jazz to a wider Michigan singing community with the MSVMA All-State Jazz Choir. But beyond my love, I believe there is solid and deep justification for increasing access to this genre of music.