To scat or not to scat?
The time has come, folks, to consider scat singing! What does it mean to scat, who should do it, and why? I tend to improvise around the melody a bit, usually sticking to the words, but increasingly I want to express myself more and join in with the rest of the band, in order to keep things interesting. But what do you do when you have this yearning, yet *whispers* you don’t really enjoy listening to scat singing? Can you learn to love it?
If you ask the average person on the street to do an impression of a jazz singer, it’s likely that they’ll click their fingers and go “skwi-be-di-do-dop” tunelessly. In spite of the caricature, it’s no wonder a lot of jazz singers start defining themselves by this. Consider the old saying: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, if a jazz singer doesn’t scat… are
they jazz singing at all? And if you take yourself halfway seriously, are you even a REAL musician’s singer
if you don’t scat? (Sidenote: Never being referred to as a ‘musician’s singer’ is, for serious jazz singers, a fate worse than death. See also: never having played at Ronnie Scott’s. You might as well be the jazz version of that fading photograph in Back To The Future).
Scat singing is wordless vocal improvisation on syllables typically chosen to make a sound similar to that of an instrument – usually a sax or trumpet – in order to access its language. It’s also, let’s face it, faintly ridiculous. We’re given some of the finest lyrics ever from the wittiest and most urbane voices of the early 20th century, and what thanks do they get? We honour their works of art by taking another chorus and regressing into a kind of baby talk, with ‘ba’s and ‘do’s, ‘squawks’ and ‘squeaks’, hoping to sound like an instrument but ending up sounding like a broken cat. Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin et al are flâneuring stylishly around their graves.
For me, scat can be a bit of a car crash; I’m simultaneously repelled and fascinated by it. I want to unlock its secrets. Sometimes I can pull off some OK improvising, but it’s usually by accident. Psychologically, it’s a tightrope walk balancing the forces of being in control, and letting go. I consider my baby nephew, and his first speech-like sounds… ‘ba’ and ‘da’. I might have looked down on the ridiculous and babyish sounds of scat singing in the past, but perhaps it’s healthier to look at this obvious comparison as accessing a sense of playfulness and a lack of self-consciousness (like that of my nephew), allowing years of listening to jazz to percolate and produce one’s own unique sound.
If only it was as simple as that. As I mentioned in a previous column, if you haven’t worked at scat singing, it’s unlikely you’ll be any good at it. And, given how democratic the voice is – we all have one – when mixed with the kind of ego that leads one to become a singer in the first place, the chances that a singer will not resist the temptation to launch into a scat solo is frighteningly high. I suspect that this may contribute to the long- standing attitude of jazz fans who only like instrumentalists… perhaps to them there are two categories of jazz singer: Those that won’t improvise, and those that really shouldn’t.
But what does the general public think? It’s all very well taking long vocal solos to keep yourself amused and the band happy. But like me,
a lot of people find it a bit silly, inaccessible, or boring. We were given a voice to communicate, why not
use it? If we’re not singing words, why don’t we just pick up a sax? I needed to find examples of singers whose vocal improvisation adds something constructive to the overall sound, rather than existing only as an abrasive distraction.
A while back, I asked my friends for their thoughts on scat singing. In return, I was swamped with examples intended to illustrate how good scat singing can be. For the most part, this almost put me off it for life (if there are any military leaders reading this who are looking for new cruel and unusual methods to torture people, scat singing could work for you!). However, as I learned, you absolutely don’t have to love, or indeed like, all of it! Even when considering those I like, and those that everyone acknowledges are masters of vocal improvisation – Ella Fitzgerald, Jon Hendricks, Chet Baker, Betty Carter to name a few – listening to constant scat solos can get tiring. Notable exceptions in my opinion are Anita O’Day (highly rhythmic and sparingly applied) and the South Coast’s own Liane Carroll. Liane Carroll has a way of slipping you soulful scat singing without you registering, and before you know it, you’ve enjoyed scat singing. Curses!
Amongst the clips I was sent, there were some artists I felt that I could listen to all day. Young trumpeter Benny Benack III channels his instrumental chops when performing It Could Happen To You for an audition for The Gentlemen Sing Competition on YouTube. Leon Thomas eschews the usual ‘doo doobie do wops’ for something more guttural and earthy in Song For My Father. And, more recently, I heard about jazz vocalist Olivia Chiandamo who improvises like a champ and has the best high notes in the business. There really is no one way to do it.
Now I have the inspiration, I think I might take the plunge and start studying the artform properly. In the event of my scat singing in public, earplugs will drop from the compartment overhead, and you will find a voucher for a strong drink under your seat. Good luck everybody!