There have been as many variations on the definition of vocal jazz as there have been people with opinions. Over the years, the consensus within the jazz community has shifted frequently as critics and fans have wrestled with the often-competing imperatives of improvisation and interpretation. For some people, vocal jazz should be exactly that - voices improvising solos in the manner of jazz instrumentalists. For others, that view disregards a singer's unique relationship to lyrics.
At the turn of the 21st century, most jazz fans have come to accept a broad definition of vocal jazz. While the improvisers will always occupy the vanguard of this music, singers with more of an interpretive approach to their material have also found a home in the jazz community. Still, however expansive the idea of vocal jazz has become, there are identifiable traits that make this a unique art form. Those qualities include the ability to swing, the ability to interact in a creative and musical way with improvising musicians, and the ability to transform quality songs into something distinctive and personal.
The vocal jazz tradition extends back to the early decades of the 20th century. Jazz singing was the last of four interdependent American musical ideas to develop (the others being instrumental jazz, the blues, and Tin Pan Alley songwriting). Almost from the very beginning, vocal jazz incorporated a wide variety of stylistic devices and approaches. Of course, these early singers were not really trying to do anything more than earn a living. Yet, through their innate creativity and commitment to self-improvement, they managed to elevate a form of entertainment to the level of art. What makes that achievement so remarkable is that these early singers were making up the rules as they went along.
Many of the early vocal jazz legends remain relatively unknown to today's fans. Like film buffs that avoid black and white movies, jazz aficionados that allow themselves to be scared off by the at-times poor quality audio of some of these early recordings are missing a wealth of great music.
From the dawn of the wireless through those 78 rpm records right up to the birth of the ten-inch EP, these are the pioneers that blazed trails in the musical wilderness.
Louis Armstrong: This Is Jazz, Vol. 23: Louis Armstrong Sings (1927-55) If you're thinking "What a Wonderful World" or "Hello Dolly," you're missing the point. Pops brought an instrumentalist's musicianship to the art of singing while steering clear of pseudo-classical pretensions. He was the first singer to swing, the first to improvise and the first to scat. He instilled as a first principle the idea that it is not the quality of your voice that matters but what you do with it. His early sides are not as polished as his '50s work, but they crackle with his boundless energy.
Bessie Smith : The Essential Bessie Smith (1923-1933) Every record the "Empress of the Blues" made is worth owning, but this 2-CD set is a good place to start. Bessie was the first singer to make a real emotional connection with her material, which ranged from classic blues to popular songs. All these years later, her deep, mournful voice has lost of none of its power to stir the soul.
Ethel Waters: 1931-1934 The first black performer to achieve massive popularity with both white and black audiences, Ethel Waters built bridges between jazz, pop music and musical theater. She was also the first singer to approach song lyrics the way a serious actress would. Although she sounds a bit stylized by today's standards, Waters's work served as the foundation of everything that was to follow both in popular and jazz singing. With backing from musicians like Duke Ellington, the Dorsey brothers, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan and others, these sides capture Waters at her peak.
Bing Crosby: Bing! His Legendary Years (1931-1957) Crosby picked up on the innovations of Armstrong and Waters and wedded them to an appreciation for the possibilities offered by the microphone. He cemented the idea that popular singing should be intimate, conversational and communicative. Unfortunately, Crosby lacked artistic discipline and some of his recordings will be of only tangential interest to jazz fans. Crosby's CD discography is voluminous, chaotic and duplicative so finding the good stuff is no easy task. Fortunately, MCA has released this 4-CD set gathering together some of the singer's most interesting work. If you only know Crosby as the middle-aged crooner of White Christmas, you're in for a surprise.
Mildred Bailey: The Complete Columbia Mildred Bailey Sessions (1929-1942) The single most under appreciated singer in the entire history of jazz. In addition to her distinctive moonbeam voice, sharp ear and unerring sense of rhythm, Bailey was among the finest improvisers of the era. She also knew how to deliver a lyric. Her best sides are those she cut with her husband, vibraphonist Red Norvo, but there were also memorable encounters with Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams and others. If a 10-CD set seems like a lot, remember that these records stand with finest work of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. In other words, this is as good as vocal jazz gets.
The Boswell Sisters: It's You (1931-1937) Don't let the funny hats or the girl group thing fool you. These women were serious musicians who made music that is still astonishingly creative. Connee, Helvetia and Martha were classically trained multi-instrumentalists who soaked up the jazz and blues of their hometown of New Orleans. They didn't sing songs so much as recompose them with shifting harmonies and unexpected key changes. There are numerous compilations of their work available, but this CD gives you the added bonus of a few of Connee's solo recordings.
Billie Holiday: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944) This 10-CD set finally brings together in one place and in beautifully restored sound one of the 20th Century's most important series of records. Young, vibrant and working in the company of some the greatest jazz musicians that have ever lived, this is Lady Day before the addictions and arrests. The originality of her phrasing and her unique conception of time made her the equal or the better of every instrumentalist with whom she sang. She internalized songs in a way that had never been done before, and her approach to lyrics on these sides is by turns irreverent, ironic, intense and insightful. Sure you could buy a single disc Holiday compilation, but why? This is music that will last a lifetime. One word of caution - skip the track-by-track liner notes written by producer Michael Brooks. They are obnoxious and self-indulgent. Besides, you don't need them. This music speaks for itself.
Jimmy Rushing: 1938-1945 Arguably the finest male jazz cum blues singer ever, Rushing built his legend during his 15-year stint (1935-1950) with the Count Basie Orchestra. This compilation gathers many of the Rushing-Basie sides together and they are a joy to hear. "Mr. Five By Five" continued to make great records after leaving the Basie band including the must-hear LPs Rushing Lullabies (1959) and The You And Me That Used To Be (1971), but this CD captures Rushing's original mojo at work.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Legendary Decca Recordings (1938-1955) There has been a tendency to judge the first 20 years of Ella's recording career by the worst of her material. This intelligently organized, somewhat cumbersomely packaged 4-CD set reminds us why that is a serious mistake. After all, Ella was one of the most admired and influential jazz singers long before she began her unforgettable tenure at Verve. Disc One is devoted to "The Very Best of Ella" and includes a couple of the best sides from her big band days as well as some of her most important early scat performances. Disc Two is a collection of duets highlighted by unmissable takes of "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" with the Mills Brothers and "Dream a Little Dream of Me" with Louis Armstrong. Disc Three combines two 10" EPs Ella made with pianist Ellis Larkins, Ella Sings Gershwin (1950) and (1954). These two records are masterpieces that hold up even when measured against the best of Ella's work on Verve. The fourth CD gathers together sessions of standards Ella did with various "name" arrangers including Benny Carter and Gordon Jenkins. Altogether a more impressive body of work than most singers can manage over a lifetime, but for the First Lady of Song, only a prelude of what was to come.
Nat Cole: The Best of Nat King Cole Trio - The Vocal Classics Vol. 1 (1942-1946) Nat had the distinction of being one of the most gifted pianists and one of the most gifted singers of his time. After 1949, his piano playing took a backseat to his singing. In some respects, that focus paid off and not just in commercial terms. Nat's voice on these early sides lacks the depth and beauty heard on his later vocal records. However, these records with his trio have a playfulness and freedom that was often missing from the mature Cole. As successful or as good (rarely both) as some of his later albums were, it is Nat's work on these early records, where he plays as well as sings, that had the biggest impact on the development of jazz singing.
Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings (1944-1950) Lady Day's voice never sounded stronger or more ravishing than on these recordings. When she signed with Decca, the label replaced the small, informal jazz groups of her Columbia years with larger ensembles and strings. This beautifully packaged 2-CD set gathers together all of her Decca sides which include the original classic recordings of "Lover Man," "That Ole Devil Called Love," "Good Morning Heartache" and "Don't Explain" among many others. And if "I Loves You, Porgy" doesn't break your heart, well, then you probably don't have one.
Lee Wiley: Night in Manhattan (1950) This is the quintessential album from the woman widely regarded as the first great cult singer in vocal jazz. Unlike her wonderful and groundbreaking series of songbook 78s of a decade earlier, this 10" EP was carefully recorded to capture Wiley's unique vocal timbre in clear sound. Unlike the sublime, Ralph Burns orchestrated West of the Moon that was still to come, this album features Wiley singing her signature songs in the company of some of her favorite jazz musicians. The latest CD incarnation preserves the original EP's 8-song line up and then adds some Irving Berlin and Vincent Youmans material Wiley recorded for Columbia. These additional tracks feature good songs and terrific singing smothered by awful dual piano accompaniment. However, the first 8 tracks, the original Night in Manhattan EP, are reason enough to buy this CD.