A Brief History of Jazz Vocal Groups (1950's-70's)(considering your stylistic options)

The history of jazz music begins with the voice. Regardless of subsequent styles and varieties of approaches, the message of jazz music is the same: to communicate some individual reaction to life in that moment of time. To best learn how to communicate in any language, one must listen and model from the example of others. Thus, to inform our own concept of personality or to more authentically represent another's, we must be aware of how our ancestors communicated in their own day. This then becomes our working repertoire of approaches that we absorb and assimilate, and then becomes permanently integrated into our own aesthetic. The more ideas we absorb into our vocabulary, the more eclectic our possibilities! The following is a brief overview of trends and approaches in the language of jazz over the past 150 years:

  • Doo Wop/ Chamber Jazz: Following the war, the 1950's "Happy Days are Here Again" peaceful period, established suburban life and the rise of youthful rock music and doo wop. Playing in the jukeboxes for the sentimental teenagers in love were great groups like the Ink Spots, The Four Freshmen, and The Chordettes, where a lead singer would be backed by a chorus of oo's, ah's, and doo wopp's. Also, in this west-coast dominated cool jazz period was the chamber sounds of The Hi-Lo's (featuring the great Gene Puerling flexing his talented arranging chops!)


  • Bebop: The Beat, counter-culture icons were informed by the rambling, rapid tempo, avant-garde stylings of Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (saxophone), and Thelonius Monk (piano). The vocal world would then follow with a group taping into the same aesthetic: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Their decidedly un-vocal, instrumental approach was unlike any other vocal group around, paying direct homage to the bebop masters.


  • Vocalese: a technique in which lyrics are written for melodies that were originally part of an all-instrumental composition or improvisation. Eddie Jefferson was the accepted pioneer, but others such as King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks have also been prominent figures to employ vocalese. This video contains Jefferson's vocalese arrangement of the landmark 1959 recording of Miles Davis "So What", including a portion of Davis's trumpet solo. Ward Swingle assembled a vocal ensemble called the Swingle Singers that experimented with non-jazz works such as J.S. Bach's fugues, W.A. Mozart, P. Tchaikovsky, and others.


  • Multi-tracking/Jingles: In the late 1940's, the Ampex company developed technology that allowed for the separate recording of multiple sound sources to create a cohesive whole. Guitar legend Les Paul and his talented wife Mary Ford were among the earliest commercially successful artists to utilize this new technology. In coming years others such as the Beach Boys, ABBA, and Queen would make this technique a staple of their identifiable style. Gene Puerling also utilized the technology to create a series of studio albums under the name Singers Unlimited. This group contained the top session vocalists in Chicago's demanding jingle industry: Bonnie Herman, Don Shelton, and Len Dresslar (voice of "Jolly Green Giant"). Puerling's difficult and robustly voiced arrangements required each of the vocalists to overdub several tracks each to create dense textures.




  • Rock influence/ Theatrical Stage Productions/ Pop (Commercial considerations): By the 1970's, record companies firmly established their dominance in the promotion of artists, and FM radio formats influenced the manner in which artists recorded and composed material as they incorporated synthesizers, drum machines, rock grooves, minimal improvisation, and briefer tracks. Manhattan Transfer became one of the most popular acts of this era, as the members each used their theater background to create a stage show involving thematic costumes, choreography, and a standard set of material drawn from contemporary pop tunes and jazz-rock fusion groups such as Weather Reports "Birdland".


  • The University: Beginning in 1959, universities began installing formal jazz curricula, finally recognizing the legitimacy of this uniquely American musical style. In a short time there also was the inclusion of jazz choirs led by respected educators Paris Rutherford (North Texas State U.), Phil Mattson, Larry Lapin (U. of Miami, FL), and their students Michele Weir, Stephen Zegree (Western Michigan U.), and Jennifer Shelton Barnes. These institutions become the important training programs for students wishing to have a career in the industry, they often host the formation and launch of headlining groups such as New York Voices (all students of Ithica University, NY) and Take 6 (Oakwood College, Huntsville, AL), as well as spawning an underground movement of fresh a cappella approaches.