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Jazz Vocals 101

Since 1990 Toronto-based Rita di Ghent has enjoyed a professional career as a jazz bandleader, vocalist, composer and teacher. She made her New York performance debut in 1993 as a special guest with Verve recording artist Mark Ledford; she formed her indie label, Groove, in 1995 and released her debut CD, Mindin' the Shop. Her new release on the Groove label, The Birth of Sprawl, was produced by Nick Blagona (Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Cleo Laine, Barbara Streisand and others).

Rita has studied with many great musicians at several highly distinguished institutions and holds BFA and MA degrees. She regularly produces and performs in large-scale shows. Some of her recent productions include Two Generations of Jazz, a double-bill with bebop great, Sheila Jordan, The Great Jazz Piano and Voice Series, and The Canadian Independent Jazz Vocal Artists (CIJVA) Showcase. In the summer of 1998 Rita toured with the self-written and -produced show Great Ladies of Jazz. In 1999 Rita undertook a 10-city Canadian jazz festival tour and was nominated for the prestigious Montreal Jazz Festival's Prix de Jazz.

In the summer of 2000, Rita will be touring nationally with Sheila Jordan. In the fall, the two singers will be touring Asia.

As a teacher of Jazz vocals Rita have collected some interesting questions from her jazz students over the past couple of years. She felt that these questions would make an interesting Q and A column for anyone interested in jazz vocals.

Listening is obviously a great way to learn. Would you say a singer has as much to learn by listening to really great instrumentalists (as they do listening to other singers?)?

Every great singer listened closely to great instrumentalists. All the big-name singers - Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Carmen McRae, etc. - sang with big bands. Doing so provided a training ground in rhythm, phrasing and improvising. I know as singers we're magnetized to the sound of the voice, and we often prefer music that has singing in it, but listening to what the other instruments are doing will greatly enhance your own musicality as a singer. Take a jazz recording that you really love (with or without singing on it) and listen to it a number of times, disciplining yourself to listen to only the drums. Then listen a few more times, focusing only on the piano, eventually trying to sing the rhythmic patterns ("comping") that are being played. On the next few passes, focus on the bass (singing the bass player's part is great for your ears). Carry on with any horn parts. The order of this exercise isn't important; the exercise itself is invaluable, whether you're a singer or an instrumentalist.

Just to round out this discussion, many instrumentalists have learned from great vocalists, particularly with regards to interpretation, timbre and dynamics.

Does a singer usually have one particular key that they are most comfortable in? Wouldn't that be a good starting place when learning a tune or sitting in? ("Try it in G, that's my key.")

Singers don't sing in a particular key. The key they sing in depends on the range of the melody (what the lowest note and the highest note of the song are.) As a singer, it's not a question of being able to hit all the notes, as most of you have ranges that go far beyond that of most tunes. Rather, it's a question of putting a song in a key that will give you a desired effect. If you're an alto, for example, you might sing Lover Man in Bb and How Long Has This Been Going On in G. If you're singing close to the mike, you might want to put tunes in lower keys than if you were belting or not using a mike at all. A word about keys and published music: most singers end up transposing (changing the keys of) fakebook tunes, as published melodies tend to be too high. Be aware that there's an unwritten law about keys to transpose to. In jazz, players don't commonly choose the keys A, B, or E, for example.

How do you run a rehearsal when you're not sure what you want?

There's no such thing as running a rehearsal when you're not sure what you want! Whereas some rehearsal bands like to create arrangements together, it isn't wise for singers to go into rehearsal without a plan or a keen sense of musical direction. As a singer, if you're not able to do this, collaborate with someone who'll act as your musical director and help run the rehearsal. Running rehearsals is one of those skills that you need to develop if you want to be a singer/bandleader (as opposed to a singer/sideperson.) And there's nothing wrong with being a singer who doesn't lead a band. Many great singers weren't bandleaders (but I'll bet most of them could play piano! But that's another topic.)

What exactly is meant by the "form" of a tune?

The term "form" refers to "structure". The majority of jazz standards have a 32-bar, AABA form (e.g. "These Foolish Things"); that is:

A, an 8-bar section that states the musical theme
A, a repeat of the first 8 bars (bars 7 and 8 may vary from those in the first A)
B, 8 bars in which the melody and key centre change
A, an 8-bar restatement of the first 8 bars.

Sometimes players call the last section C if it varies harmonically or melodically from the other A sections. Others refer to this as A' (pronounced "A prime").

Another popular jazz standard form is the 16-bar AB tune (for example, "Gone With the Wind"). The A section is 16 bars long. This is followed by a 16-bar B-section. Harmonically, the A and B sections are often similar for the first 8 bars and different for the second 8 bars.

Are there any other forms that charts often take (or should we try to make them fit into the usual AABA, AABC and AB forms?)

Most jazz charts will comply to these 32-bar song forms (apparently pioneered and made widely popular by Stephen Foster of "Swanee River" fame.) My guess as to why, is that working within standard 32-bar forms frees jazz musicians up to create without having to put too much mental energy into remembering what the form is. Of course, there are a lot of great songs/arrangements that don't adhere to this 32-bar convention. Your best bet, though, unless you have a band that rehearses, is to not throw too many curve balls at the players.

Traditionally, jazz players have borrowed songs from the popular arena (e.g. The Beatles) and the musical theatre, and adapted them to 32-bar forms. As a singer, you can either use the original form (including the verse of a Gershwin tune, for example) or you can condense the music into a repeating, less complex form. When arranging tunes, you can also add bars to the conventional form to give the tune a fresh sound (for example, my version of "God Bless the Child" on The Birth of Sprawl.)

P.S. Don't forget the 12-bar blues as an important standard form.

How can I get a deeper, more mature-sounding voice?

Well, to a large degree, your voice is genetic-just as your bone structure or eye colour is. Some people are born with deep voices; some with high, brighter-sounding voices-and as long as they're healthy, they're all beautiful. Lowering your keys and cultivating the notes in your lower range by learning how to maximize their production healthily will help give you a more mature sound. You can also experiment with timbre or colour (degrees of breathiness and high or low overtones). Whereas there is some modifying of your voice that you can do, it would be the rare 18-year-old woman who could make herself sound like Shirley Horne--there's only so much sculpting you can do to your natural sound. Certain factors tend to make voices huskier or deeper: age, smoke, alcohol, and vocal strain (tensing the throat, over-using the chest register). The first factor is unavoidable; the others, as a means of acquiring a more mature sound, should be avoided.

There are certain songwriters (George & Ira) that I feel so strongly about - messing with the melody or lyrics would be like going against every fibre of my being! Is it a crime worthy of "jazz jail" to choose to sing certain tunes "straight"?

Absolutely not. We need great singers to keep the beauty of these songs alive. Although in doing so, you would necessarily sacrifice some points for originality. You could compensate for this by using unusual accompaniment or unusual scoring, however. When Ella Fitzgerald recorded her songbooks, she sang the melodies pretty much straight (although in lower keys than the original music.) I love listening to these recordings-- they're beautiful documentations of great songwriters' works. When the songbooks came out, however, Ella was criticized for being too shallow in her interpretation of the lyrics, and her status as a "jazz singer" was called into question. Mind you, the recordings had (and have) massive appeal with the general music-loving population, and how can you argue with that?

Does having the right "feel" and the right kind of instrumental back-up help constitute a jazz version of a tune?

Well, this is a great question. Yes, singing with jazz back-up will constitute a jazz version of a song sung straight. However, you have to accept that this type of treatment will appeal mostly to non-jazz audiences. You might think that this sounds snobby, but just imagine the reverse: I decide that I'm going to do an album of Puccini tunes. I can't hit the high notes, so I lower the music down to my range. I don't have a sense of classical phrasing; neither do I have the typical classical singer's sostenuto, so I just do my Rita thing, but I use a great classical orchestra. Some people-especially my fans-might eat this album up. On the other hand, I shouldn't expect to get on the Met or La Scala roster. Their audiences are cultivated to appreciate-and they want to hear-a certain classical aesthetic. Their attitude (if everything else about my act was classical except my singing) would be, "I would rather hear this music being interpreted by a great classical singer", and I can't say I would blame them!

When singing a fast musical phrase, what's the best method of achieving clarity, smoothness and consistency in terms of the sound of the different notes?

Well, I don't know if there's a best method, but this is what I'd recommend. The most important aspect of your method is to learn the phrase slowly. Avoid speeding up the tempo until you can sing every note with accurate pitch and placement. If at this slow-tempo stage, there are certain spots that you keep missing, rehearse the spot (e.g. leaping from C to G#) that is giving you problems. Once you can accurately navigate this trouble spot, begin rehearsing the phrase from the beginning again. Once you've mastered the phrase at the slow tempo (my personal litmus test is if I can perform something 3 times in a row with no mistakes), increase the tempo. At this point it is essential to use a metronome. When you've mastered the phrase-rhythmically and melodically-at the new tempo, you can increase the tempo yet again. Master the phrase at each new faster tempo until you've reached your target speed.

If you are a student of jazz vocals and would like to as Rita a few questions, feel free to email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or stop by her website. © 2000, Rita di Ghent

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  • Artist / Group Name: Rita di Ghent
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