What Makes a Jazz Singer, Jazz?

Was Ella Fitzgerald a jazz singer? All of us must agree that indeed yes is the correct answer for this question. But how about Frank Sinatra, or Michael Bublé, are they jazz singers?

First of all I don’t think giving the label jazz to a singer is that important. I mean it doesn’t make a singer any less good just because he or she isn’t considered jazz enough. Singing is a lot more than just a label, right? But still, it’s fun to talk about this topic, at least for me, a jazz fan. So if you’re with me, continue reading.

Before we can say this is jazz and this is not, let’s agree on what jazz is. To me, jazz can’t be described merely as a form of music that has a lot of improvisation. It’s a lot more than that. The best way to define what jazz is, in my opinion, is to say that jazz is a tradition. Not just a musical tradition but a tradition that includes a lifestyle, a way of thinking, a legacy. So when we listen to enough jazz, we read about the musicians, we know about the things that were happening during the era where a piece of music was created, we can get a feel of what jazz is. We may not be able to describe it into words, but we can feel it. The more you dig deeper into it, the more and more you can differentiate that jazz feeling from the not so jazz ones.

Having said that, in order to categorize a singer, jazz, we cannot only consider the technical aspects such as how does a singer interpret a tune, does he or she has a swing feel or not, or does a singer use bebop lines in his scat improv, and so on. Yes those things are indeed critical information to help determine if a singer is jazz or not, but still it’s not enough.

Let’s take two legendary singers from the golden era, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. Ella scat a lot. Billie did not. Wass Ella more jazz than Billie? No, I really don’t think so. Both singers lived and breathe jazz. They hung out with jazz musicians, they performed in jazz clubs and concerts, they recorded jazz tunes, everything they did was jazz. So in my opinion, both singers were definitely jazz singers.

Was Frank SInatra a jazz singer? I personally would categorize him in the jazz singer category. Even though his music was popular music or pop of his era, but the music was consistent with the jazz feeling I wrote earlier. It has those little jazzy details, the sounds, the rhythm, the costume, etc. It’s different, when singers like Rod Stewart,  Robbie Williams, and Neyo sing a swinging tune accompanied by a jazz big band. They sound good, I can honestly enjoy their performance. But, they’re not jazz singers. We as jazz fans can tell the difference.

So, what do you think about this? What makes a jazz singer, jazz?

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