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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Vocal Music - Jazz & Improvisation

Jazz can be instrumental or vocal, or both. As this is a vocal series of blogs I’m going to write about the use of the voice in jazz.

Jazz vocal is a style of singing that emerged alongside the development of jazz music in the early 20th century. It involves the interpretation and improvisation of melodies, often accompanied by a jazz ensemble or a small combo of musicians. Jazz vocalists use their voices as instruments, employing techniques such as scat singing, melodic embellishments, and rhythmic variations.

Here are some characteristics of jazz vocal:

Improvisation: Jazz vocalists often improvise melodies, lyrics, and phrasing during their performances. They may embellish the melody with vocal runs, slides, and other ornaments, adding their unique interpretation to the song. Improvisation is a skill that is developed over time but because they were doing it always the jazz singers of the day were able to feel the improvisation fairly easily. See below for some tips.

Swing feel: Jazz vocalists typically sing with a "swing" feel, characterised by syncopation and a distinct rhythmic groove. This swinging rhythm creates a lively and infectious energy in the music. The swing feel is described more simply as a long note followed by a short note. A lot of jazz uses swing. Very often the music will be written in “straight” quavers with a metric modulation to indicate it’s swung. A metric modulation would be two beamed quavers followed by an equals sign followed by a dotted quaver and semi-quaver, or a triplet made up of a crotchet and a quaver. However, the word “swing” or “swung” will often be used to indicate the same thing.

two quavers equals triplet crotchet and quaver
An example of metric modulation

Scat singing: Jazz vocalists often engage in scat singing, where they use syllables to create improvised vocal melodies and rhythms. Scatting allows singers to mimic the improvisatory nature of instrumental jazz solos. Ella Fitzgerald was an expert at performing jazz scat, and a lot of her songs are brought to life even more with her exciting instrument mimicry.

Interpretation: Jazz vocalists are known for their ability to convey emotion and tell stories through their interpretations of lyrics. They bring their personal style and phrasing to the songs they perform, often adding subtle nuances and dynamics to convey the intended mood. It is often said that no two performances of a jazz song are the same. This is because the improvisation will often be different, and the interpretation will change too. The essence of the song will mostly remain the same (but not always) but the route the song takes will be different each time.

Collaboration: Jazz vocalists frequently collaborate with instrumentalists, such as pianists, saxophonists, and guitarists. They interact with the band, engaging in call-and-response exchanges and improvisational dialogues, creating a dynamic and interactive performance. Cab Calloway was famous for call-and-response in his songs, Bothe with the audience and members of the band

Notable jazz vocalists include Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra. Each of these artists has made significant contributions to the genre, and their recordings are a great starting point to explore and appreciate the art of jazz vocal.


Although this is a vocal series I felt it would be useful to give some tips about improvising. These can be used in any musical situation and are not exclusive to vocal work. Music improvisation is the process of spontaneously creating music in real-time without prior planning or written notation. It allows musicians to express their creativity, interact with other musicians, and explore different musical ideas. Here are some basics to keep in mind when approaching music improvisation:

  • Scales and Chords: Familiarise yourself with scales and chords that are commonly used in the style of music you're improvising in. Understanding the relationships between different scales and chords will provide you with a foundation for creating melodies and harmonies during improvisation.

  • Ear Training: Developing your ear is crucial for improvisation. Train your ears to recognise intervals, melodies, and chord progressions. This will help you play or sing what you hear in your mind and respond to what other musicians are playing.

  • Rhythm and Timing: Pay attention to rhythm and timing when improvising. Experiment with different rhythmic patterns, syncopations, and accents. Practice playing or singing along with a metronome or backing tracks to improve your sense of timing and groove.

  • Call and Response: One common improvisational technique is call and response. Listen to what other musicians are playing and respond with your own musical ideas. This interaction creates a musical conversation and adds depth and spontaneity to the performance.

  • Dynamics and Expression: Use dynamics (volume) and expression (tone and articulation) to shape your improvisation. Explore a range of dynamics, from soft and intimate to loud and powerful. Experiment with different techniques, such as bends, slides, vibrato, and staccato, to add expressiveness to your playing.

  • Repetition and Variation: Repeating melodic or rhythmic motifs can provide coherence and structure in your improvisation. However, don't be afraid to vary and develop these motifs to keep your improvisation interesting and evolving.

  • Listen and Learn: Actively listen to recordings and live performances of other improvising musicians. Pay attention to their phrasing, note choices, and overall musicality. Studying the work of experienced improvisers can help expand your musical vocabulary and inspire new ideas.

  • Practice Regularly: Improvisation, like any other skill, requires practice. Set aside dedicated time for improvisation practice, whether alone or with other musicians. Start with simple musical ideas and gradually build your confidence and complexity over time.

Improvisation is about exploring and expressing your musical voice. Embrace “mistakes” and take risks as they often lead to new discoveries. Enjoy the process of creating music in the moment and allow your creativity to flourish.

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