Singing Jazz: Judy Niemack Master Class

Jessica Raimi By

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"Part of the fun of jazz is like seeing someone ski down a dangerous slope. When you improvise, you have to take a chance. If you fall, you fall," Judy Niemack was telling her master class on September 26. The nine women with her, most of them professional singers, in the studio of Second Floor Music on West 28th Street in New York City, had come to study with a musician who has been called "one of the best and purest jazz singers ever."
In learning to do solos, she said, "The first step is clapping the rhythm of the song. Later on, you write down your solos. When I was studying with the saxophonist Warne Marsh, for three months I had to compose a solo every week on 'All of Me.' But after thirty or forty songs, the same chord progressions come back. Also, when you transcribe your solos, you get a snapshot of your own musical mind."
Niemack, a Californian who lives in Berlin, has toured the globe, and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Gary Bartz, Cedar Walton, Bruno Castellucci, Eddie Gomez and Kenny Barron. A slender woman with arresting brown eyes, red-gold hair, and very straight posture, she was wearing a tie-dyed green and blue shirt, loose black pants, and a colorful necklace of large glass beads. Last summer she released her tenth album as a leader, In the Sundance (Bluejazz Productions), produced and arranged by her husband, the Belgian guitarist Jeanfrancois Prins, who was on hand as accompanist for the class. She is the first professor of vocal jazz in Germany, at the Jazz Institut Berlin; she also teaches at Musikene in San Sebastian, Spain, commuting there every two weeks.
"My generation is the first to teach vocal jazz, and I'm fifty-five years old," she said. Previously, most jazz singers had to learn wherever they could—teaching themselves, singing in church or just on the job. Niemack did her studies at the New England Conservatory, and as a classically trained singer, she said, "I'm a stickler for warming up." Before they sang, the vocalists had to reach to the ceiling while inhaling deeply. Then they hummed major scales, each time beginning a half-step lower—"Let the jaw drop. Itching lips are fine." Then they sang minor scales on "mi-mi-mi" starting a half-step higher each time.

Once warmed up, each produced her sheet music with the song she wanted to work on. The first volunteer was a young Korean woman, who sang "I Remember You," with a chorus of scatting.

When she finished, Niemack asked, "How do you feel about that?"

"Not that comfortable."

"You have a good sense of time. You leave space—you don't want to give it all away at once. In your scatting, I wish you would use less of the blues scale and more of the chords of the song." The singer did it again.

After a few more had done their songs, Niemack suggested that they work on syllables. "We'll take 'I Got Rhythm'—you all know that, right?" The singers gathered around her in a circle, passing the microphone, each scatting for eight or sixteen bars.

"What do you hear about syllables?" asked Niemack. "Everyone add a consonant sound." She sang a few— "dilly-a, zwee, dooby-a." The singers cooperated:

dida baba va bway

sha doo ya bum

ma ma may

diggita da dum

va va fa wa doo ba

It was time for another song. A thin blonde who had a regular gig as a pianist in a restaurant began "East of the Sun," then after a few bars interjected, "I'm nervous. I keep telling myself, It's just music. But you feel naked! You don't have the piano to hide behind! Can you suggest a more comfortable posture?"

"Put one foot forward. Let go of the microphone with one hand. Slightly turn your body. This is all from classical singing. Now, sing a whole phrase to one part of the room, then another to another part. When I have extreme nerves and I have to do a love song, I create a phantom lover man just above the heads of the audience and move him around. Try the old rule of cabaret singing: walk on the bridge."

A South African student did "Loads of Love," scatting expertly on the middle chorus. Niemack smiled and nodded as she listened. At the end, she asked, "How do you feel?"

"I want to go for the 'less is more' thing my dad drills into me. I get repetitive but I don't want to change it for the sake of changing it."

"You should learn the roots of the chords," said Niemack. "When I'm learning a song, I record myself singing the roots and chords and then sing over them. When you hear your own voice doing that, you internalize it more than hearing it on the piano."

After everyone had sung, Niemack said, "Let's do a blues trading twos." They used a Coltrane tune, "Mr. P.C." Each singer in turn invented a two-measure phrase, which the others had to repeat in chorus. They went around the circle a few times, and then it was time to trade e-mail addresses and promise to add each other to their mailing lists before going home.


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