Exploring Music's Complexities

What is a Jazz Singer

Jazz Singer

Hope Clayton 1

When the topic of jazz comes up the conversation most likely concentrates on who’s playing what instrument rather than who is the jazz singer.  If you are new to the subject you might be surprised to learn that jazz began with what is called a “field holler” (1). Slaves in the South used their voices to express feelings or to describe the work being done. With time, it developed into what we now recognize as Afro-American spirituals and African American music referred to as blues and rhythm and blues (4).

Early on, jazz bands used vocalists infrequently. It took Louis Armstrong to establish jazz singing as an art form. Working with Adelaide Hall they invented scat singing and, with the help of Don Redman, Cliff Edwards, and Red Nichols, introduced it to a wider audience (3 ).  Ella Fitzgerald is generally considered to be one of the greatest scatsingers in jazz history.  In vocal jazz, scat singing is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.

So what is a Jazz singer? According to dictionary.com, “A jazz a singer is a singer whose vocal technique is similar to that of a musical instrument, and whose singing has a strong jazz feeling, produced through phrasing, melodic improvisation, and rhythmic subtlety (4).”  Characteristic of a really good jazz  singer is the ability to set the tempo for the back-up group producing the rhythm.  A good sense of timing is needed to enable the singer to accommodate various tempos, from fast tunes to slow ballads.  Phrasing is also an important requirement.  This enables the singer to translate the meaning and emotional content of the lyrics.  And, of course, we have to  mention  “soul.”

Recently Lisem Enterprises had the good fortune to add a jazz vocalist to our catalog. Give a listen to a track from “Introducing Hope Clayton.”   as you read on.


Buy it Now

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 12.47.47 PM

See if you can identify bent notes (altering it’s pitch) and modes (building around one or two scales).

For those who are interested in identifying an artists improvisation and swing characteristics, check out the article Jazz or Ersatz: The Criteria of Authentic Jazz Singing (5 ).

This album is available from www.wonderofsound.com, Amazon, iTunes. and other retailers.


  1.  Culture and Change, Black history in America. History of Jazz. http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/history_of_jazz.htm.

2. Shaw, Arnold (1978). Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhthm & Blues (First ed.). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. p. 3.  ISBN0-02-061740-2 .

3.  Edwards, Brent Hayes.  Critical Inquiry.  Louis Armstrong and the Syntax of Scat. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1086/343233?.

4.  Dictionary.com.  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jazz+

5.  Saying it with Jazz..  http://www.sayingitwithjazz.com/AuthenticJazzSinging.htm

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Categorised in: Music Theory, Performers

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