I sit at my desk wondering, how am I going to write a salty enough column about the jazz scene this December issue? I’ve been laid low with a nasty ear infection so have mostly been hibernating and, for the most part, avoiding too much audio stimulus.
I managed to catch some wonderful gigs this month, notably the Will Gregory Moog Orchestra at Brighton Dome and Tobie Carpenter’s Organ Trio at The Verdict, but for this issue I’ll leave a survey of the jazz scene and the wonderful/terrible state of things to my esteemed colleagues here at SJM, whilst I serve up some introspection in the mean time (no groans at the back please).
Approaching jazz from a different angle to a lot of my freelance musician colleagues who are alumnus from various jazz schools has made me hyper aware and slightly paranoid. I experience a chafing FIMO (Fear I’ve Missed Out) pretty much all the time about the whole thing… What have I missed? Will I ever be part of the club? I’ve been lucky enough to receive extensive one-to-one tuition from professional jazz singers but I am lacking in kinship, which is obviously very important to jazz. When I started out I needed to pick up on the things that make a jazz singer a jazz singer beyond the warm up exercises, song workshops and in-depth music theory, and pick them up on my own (mostly) and fast. Of course it could be argued that Ella Fitzgerald did perfectly fine without going to Chichester College to learn jazz but let’s face it *looks to camera* I’m no Ella Fitzgerald; I need all the help I can get.
I’ve thrown together a (by no means exhaustive) informal beginners’ guide to just about passing as a jazz singer, for fellow jazz education pariahs of the scene, with advice passed down from others, and some from myself. Without further ado, here’s my Jazz Singer Cheat Sheet, an early Christmas present from me to you that doesn’t cost anything to make because it is made with LOVE (ugh, the worst kind of present).
SAM’S JAZZ SINGER CHEAT SHEET
Know all your keys, have charts, know how you’re going to start and end a song, and crucially, don’t start singing in the middle of someone else’s solo (unless they let you). This is a super low barrier to entry but if you’re a singer that can do all these things at a jam session the instrumentalists in the band will look at you like you are a wondrous unicorn from the land of nice things.
Don’t point your mic at the amp. We are not Jimmy Page.
Jazz is not musical theatre.
Jazz is not not musical theatre.
Make it your life’s mission to embrace authenticity and avoid affectedness. It helps to remember that in many ways singing is not about you, it is about the listener; authenticity gives the listener something to connect with you about, affectation puts up a barrier. Affectation can creep up on a lot of us from time to time in varying degrees and can be a lifelong battle, particularly for white, middle-class ladies like myself whose few brushes with adversity include their cat dying of old age-related illnesses, or the time their local bar ran out of Patrón. These lines from Father John Misty’s song The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt. sums up this condition nicely:
We sang ‘Silent Night’ in three parts which was fun
‘Til she said that she sounds just like Sarah Vaughan
I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on
Why don’t you move to the Delta?
You don’t want to be the singer that makes people cringe. I was booked for a wedding recently and the groom told me I was booked because I didn’t make him cringe. To me, this compliment is worth more than a million “YOU WERE WONDERFUL, DAHHHLING!”s. I think being a passable jazz singer is sometimes more about what you don’t do. This lesson could also be summed up as ‘less is more’.
So how do you avoid affectedness?
Actually listen to and enjoy lots and lots of good jazz. This is really important and a step that lots of people miss out, god help us all. The practice of jazz singing is a bit like an iceberg; about 10% of your time is spent with one’s head above the parapet, and the remaining 90% listening to music in a darkened room, or in my case, the bath (sidenote – the freelance lifestyle has made me very clean). Although not amazing for achieving your daily recommended dose of vitamin D, this will help you with the following…
A wise man once said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. People like to be very sniffy about whether or not someone can swing or not. Arguably if you can’t and won’t swing you’re in the wrong game. So you’d better swing- and I mean properly and not just dip your proverbial toe in like Louis Theroux at a splosh party. You absolutely must swing in order to pass muster with jazz’s bitterest critics. #KeepJazzBitter
Scat with caution. If you want to express yourself, fine. But we don’t have to like it. A bad scat solo really is like pulling your pants down, evacuating your bowels all over the stage and then looking proud that you created something from nothing, regardless of the fact the air is now thick with the stench of effluvium. If you want to make good music, and you’re aware that you can’t scat, it’s OK to avoid it. A good scat is hard to find in my opinion, even amongst the most exalted jazz singers on the world stage (my thoughts on that in a later column perhaps). If you haven’t worked at scatting and improvisation, and/or listened to lots and lots of jazz solos, it is unlikely you will be good at it. If you are the exception and all of your beautiful melody lines arrive fully formed in your head with little exposure to jazz, you are Jazz Mozart and I, for one, welcome you, new jazz overlord. Voca me cum benedictus, oro supplex et acclinis, daddy-o.
Compliments from the audience are a bit like homeopathic remedies; nice to have but probably won’t make you better.
Whilst on the subject, listening to recordings of yourself is a really awful medicine you have to make yourself take every now and then. Over time you’ll hate yourself more and more, and question your life choices, but it’s just a sign your ear and your tastes are getting more refined- a good thing!
Every time you bitch about a fellow musician, you make Jeff Goldblum cry. Karma, uh, finds a way.
Tl;dr: Don’t do drugs, stay in school. Merry Christmas!