The Singer’s Library: : All That Jazz

The Singer’s Library: : All That Jazz

Karen Hall understands all that goes into writing a book for the So You Want to Sing series. Besides serving as series editor for the first three books, she is also the author of the first volume, So You Want to Sing Music Theater. Therefore, it may cause a bit of alarm when she admits in the foreword of So You Want to Sing Jazz that author Jan Shapiro may not have fully appreciated the task ahead when agreeing to write her book. But Hall knew that Shapiro’s knowledge of the subject, as well as her dedication, made her an ideal candidate for the job, and the recently published book stands as proof.

As professor of voice at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she also served as chair of the Voice Department from 1997–2010, Shapiro’s eclectic musical tastes from an early age helped shape the performer and educator she would become. Growing up in Missouri, Shapiro sang everything, including pop, folk, soul, and Broadway musicals—and her parents’ love of the Big Band music of the 1940s provided her first exposure to legendary singers like Ella Fitzgerald. Shapiro admits, though, that at the time she was not truly aware of all the technical or stylistic elements that defined these genres.

In her early performing, Shapiro “just sang” without focusing too much on style. She was devoted to her classical voice training but had difficulties applying that sound to pop and jazz music and would tend to take a more classical approach by following the melodies and rhythms on the page as accurately as possible. With So You Want to Sing Jazz, Shapiro may help other singers avoid these same mistakes.

In the first chapter, the “History of Jazz and Elements of Jazz Singing,” Shapiro ties jazz to its blues heritage and the emotions associated with the tragedy and misery of the slave trade. To understand how this emotion is expressed through the music, Shapiro suggests “sharpening your ears” by listening to early blues singers like Ethel Waters and Ma Rainey.

The chapter also introduces the blues scale, the 12-bar blues chord progression, and other characteristics inherent to the style, like “leaning in” on particular words or “laying back” behind the beat. The chapter then surveys the Swing era, the Big Band era, and the Bebop era, recommending recordings from the pioneering artists who are among the central figures of each period.

In keeping with the format of the previous So You Want to Sing books, Scott McCoy contributed chapter two on voice science and Wendy DeLeo LeBorgne wrote chapter three dedicated to vocal health. McCoy’s chapter is the same version that was printed in the previous two volumes and, while the bulk of LeBorgne’s chapter is the same as well, there is additional information under the subheading “Specific Vocal Wellness Concerns for the Vocal Jazz Artist.”

In chapter four, “Jazz Vocal Characteristics,” Shapiro demonstrates the degree of liberties jazz singers are allowed in deviating from the original notes and rhythms of a song. Snippets of songs in their original versions are printed alongside transcriptions of the same songs as performed by well-known jazz singers. For instance, the original standard of “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Kahal and Fain is printed next to a transcription of Billie Holiday’s version as recorded in 1944. When placed side by side, the acceptable—or, rather, expected—differences are on full display.

The chapter ends with a discussion of jazz fusion accompanied by a listening list of artists who have brought elements of jazz into other genres.

Chapter five, “Developing Jazz Ears,” gets more specific about the stylistic elements that deserve the attention of discerning listeners. Shapiro explains that singers who are used to focusing solely on their own vocal line may need to expand their view to include the notes of the bass line and the jazz chord progressions since they may differ from classical expectations. Considering that jazz arrangements almost never have the vocal melody doubled in the piano, cues can also be difficult to discern since chord progressions are less traditional and cadences may seem less clear.

The chapter also includes a short series of exercises consisting of seventh chord arpeggios designed to help singers develop a sense of jazz tonality. It also suggests that singers listen to solos performed by jazz instrumentalists—not just vocalists—in order to pick up on the stylistic choices they make, especially when improvising.

In continuing to build a multidimensional approach, the next step is to understand the contributions of each member of the ensemble. Shapiro provides descriptions and listening examples to demonstrate the importance (and often prominence) of the rhythm section, the bassist, the drummer, the pianist, and the horn players and how they each contribute to the group sound, depending on the size of the ensemble.

This same chapter then discusses some of the most influential jazz singers and vocal groups. While some are recognized as authentic jazz singers, others are better identified as singers who were influenced by jazz or singers who incorporated elements of jazz in their performances.

An ongoing theme in the book underscores the opportunity singers have to use lyrics to interpret a song. Many of the great jazz singers are remembered and adored for their inflection, phrasing, and articulation of text as much as (if not more than) they are remembered for the beauty of their voices.

Taking this idea one step further, this chapter chronicles a lineage of influence that connects artists both stylistically and historically. For instance, to understand that Carmen McRae was deeply influenced by Billie Holiday provides a background for analyzing the elements of Holiday’s style that were incorporated into McRae’s singing as she developed her own approach.

The last section of chapter five, “Sounding Like a Jazz Singer: Technique and Delivery,” contains the most nitty-gritty technical content of the book. Tucked in the opening paragraph is an important three-point summary: singers learning the roots of blues and jazz should 1) listen to improvisational solos of great jazz vocalists, paying particular attention to phrasing; 2) pay attention to the voices of these singers, specifically their natural sense of singing, their vocal control, and the facility of their voices; and 3) develop a strong understanding of your own unique sound. Shapiro emphasizes that while singers can borrow elements of style from the jazz greats, these elements must be incorporated into an individualized style that honors those who came before while playing to personal vocal strengths.

The chapter concludes with descriptions of phraseology, melodic improvisation, and interpretation with a list of six bullet points of “the steps necessary for aspiring jazz singers to develop strong musicianship.”

Chapter six continues to explore history and style by delving into the Great American Songbook, while chapter seven, “Scat and Interpretation,” provides the bulk of the book’s vocal exercises, incorporating the blues scale, seventh and ninth chords, minor and diminished chords, and rhythmic and scat exercises.

Chapter eight explores elements of jazz performance, including descriptions of different microphones and how best to use them, reading lead sheets and jazz chord symbols, and understanding the lingo and terminology that is commonplace among jazz performers. Overall, professionalism is given special emphasis, including being well educated about the genre, extending courteousness to collaborative musicians, and being thoroughly prepared. While many associate jazz with a relaxed or carefree attitude, that is not a recommended approach to building success as a performer.

Lastly, chapter nine discusses “Jazz Singing as a Career.” Here Shapiro explains the need for passion, encourages a willingness to vocally experiment with different sounds, and discusses the benefits and downfalls of different performance venues. She also provides the much necessary “reality check” to give readers realistic expectations about building a career as a performer in the modern jazz climate.

Book Review

When the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) announced its partnership with Rowman & Littlefield for the So You Want to Sing series, part of their intention was to keep a similar format in each volume for the sake of consistency and ease of use. By creating a standardized template, each author could work within the given parameters of the series while adding his or her own voice to the assigned topic. While this may seem limiting for an author, each of the first three books have found a way to contribute something unique.

Since no one can address every single element of a given genre in one book, the authors had to be selective in choosing which topics to cover and how much space each would receive. For So You Want to Sing Jazz, this meant that singers and composers who are the subjects of extensive biographies are relegated to mere paragraphs, vocal exercises primarily appear in only one chapter, and the differences in vocal technique between jazz and other styles are not given in-depth exploration.

Favoring breadth over depth, however, makes the book accessible to a wider audience. Those new to jazz singing will not be overwhelmed and those seeking additional information can make use of the chapter bibliographies (when included), author-recommended listening examples, and resources suggested on the online supplement to the book.

Though the online resources are not as extensive for this volume as for the previous two, there are links to other books of exercises that receive the author’s seal of approval as well as links to Spotify and YouTube with musical examples for further listening. ( One of the advantages of having an online component to the book is so that it may be updated when warranted. Readers may check back to see what additions may be made in the future.

With So You Want to Sing Jazz, Jan Shapiro has continued the high standards and expectations readers have quickly developed for this burgeoning and ambitious series. Her multifarious background as a jazz performer, songwriter, recording artist, and teacher contribute to the uncommon expertise she shares in this informative volume. -Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /