Jazz vocalists and scatting

Author: tshook

Me and Veronica lead a panel discussion at the Jazz Improv convention entitled, “Singers vs. Musicians – Is there a difference?”  It went great except that out of the 30 or so people in the room there wasn’t a single musician there.  It was all singers or vocal jazz fans.  You can read a review here. (you’ll have to scroll down – best to search for Travis Shook on the page)

We decided to run the panel as an open-forum type discussion, neither me nor Veronica are interested in pontificating for 50 minutes to a crowd – like most people do.  I mean, if you’re not McCoy Tyner or Abbey Lincoln I don’t want to hear you talk for 50 minutes, sorry. 

Anyway, The question came up: Does a singer have to scat in order to be a jazz singer?  There was a resounding, unanimous NO! from the crowd, followed by laughter, because this was one thing all jazz singers agree on and are maybe a little frustrated by:  Just because there were a few jazz singers in history that could scat well - Ella and Jon Hendricks being a couple examples – the musicians, critics, and record labels think that a singer has to scat in order to be singing jazz! This is wrong, it has always been wrong and will always be wrong.  Because of this kind of thinking, the jazz critics have helped elevate a number of singers to superstar level just because they open there mouths and sing “doop de do” never mind that they’re missing half the notes and that its corny. 

What makes a jazz singer is that they phrase like a horn player.  If you can’t scat like Ella, or at least hit all the notes and not be corny – don’t do it.  But if you can, then by all means go for it.

Bearing in mind the overwhelming majority of legendary jazz singers did not scat, here’s a very small listing of some of my favorites off the top of my head that (as far as I know) never scatted a single note:

Nat King Cole

Dinah Washington

Abbey Lincoln

Nina Simone

Billie Holiday

Joe Williams (maybe more blues than jazz but one of my favorites so I’m putting him on anyway!)

Irene Krall

Peggy Lee

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