The June/July 2015 issue of Choral Journal is a focus on Vocal Jazz, guest edited by Patrice Madura Ward-Steinman. The Rehearsal Break column contains an article by Roger Emerson titled “Starting a Vocal Jazz Ensemble.” Below is an excerpt of the article, and you can read it in its entirety in the June/July 2015 issue! Go to acda.org/choraljournal and click “Search Archives.”
Choose June/July 2015 from the dropdown menu.
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A Brief History of Vocal Jazz Ensembles
The vocal jazz ensemble has its roots in professional groups such as The Mills Brothers, who popularized close-voiced harmony in the 1930s and 1940s; the more complex harmonies of Ward Swingle’s “Double Six of Paris” in the 1950s; the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los in the 1960s; and the Singers Unlimited, Manhattan Transfer, Take Six, The Real Group, and New York Voices in the years to follow. The collegiate movement began in the Pacifi c Northwest in 1967 with Hal Malcom’s group, Genesis, and its talented arranger and subsequent director, Dave Barduhn. All of these ensembles drew their influence from instrumental jazz bands and the style, inflections, and harmonies that they popularized. This tradition continues today and is the foundation of most school-based vocal jazz ensembles.
The First Step
The most important first step to starting a vocal jazz ensemble is: listen.
There is no better teacher than our ears. So much of our choral tradition is aural; we have developed our concept of choral tone and style by listening and imitating and probably by a good deal of instruction in college. Unfortunately, with few exceptions we did not get much training in vocal jazz as part of our traditional choral curriculum, so we must play catch-up, and the best way to start is to use our intuitive musical nature and imitate the archetype. Familiarizing yourself with the groups mentioned above is the place to start.
My favorite “one-stop” CD is the New York Voices album Sing, Sing, Sing, which represents an excellent model for the high school vocal jazz ensemble. Darmon Meader’s SATB arrangements are beautiful and well crafted. The material is drawn from the best of The Great American Songbook, and the vocal instruments of Darmon, Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, and Peter Eldridge are stunning, natural, and healthy. Take 6, The Real Group, Manhattan Transfer, Singers Unlimited, Hi-Lo’s, and the Four Freshmen also provide wonderful style models. After you listen… listen more to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Tierney Sutton, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, Chet Baker, and Jamie Cullum, to name a few vocal soloists. Don’t forget instrumentalists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Joe Pass, and the big bands of Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Gordon Goodwin (his “Phat Band”).
Consider adding one or two vocal jazz selections to your fall or spring concerts. Your madrigal, chamber, or concert choir will love the challenge and the sonic freshness of this new medium, and the experience will allow you to experiment with the genre. After this experience, simply ask how many would like to try the recently learned selection as part of a small group. This will create the nucleus of your new ensemble and is a relatively painless way to begin.
Keep in mind that although SATB is the standard voicing for vocal jazz, SAB, SSA(A), and TTB(B) arrangements are also available. There are some challenges with diving right into the twelve-voice, individually miked ensemble; instead, keep it simple. A little larger group, say sixteen to twenty-four members, is a good place to start. Have them sing in a half-circle around the piano. Pick charts (arrangements) with little or no divisi, fairly traditional jazz harmonies, and written out solos. There are a few listed at the conclusion of this article. Sing small venues that don’t require amplification. We will talk more about the challenges of amplification later…
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