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American Perspective Vocal Jazz (Part I: Easy-Medium)

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Jazz is one of the only truly American art forms. It has given us some of our greatest cultural treasures, has inspired composers in other idioms, and has become one of our best-received cultural exports. For this issue, I explore some arrangements of jazz standards for vocal ensemble that can help singer-students learn about this important and influential genre. Next issue, Part II of this topic will focus on arrangements for more experienced jazzers.

Now, I am by no means an expert in jazz or even vocal jazz. For me, vocal jazz is an area of interest (I have conducted vocal jazz at the middle school, high school, and collegiate levels), but I do not consider it a specialization. I hope these selections and resources will serve as a launching point for those who are new to this genre.

Typically, vocal jazz ensembles are chamber groups. However, you may decide that exposing your larger choir to this idiom has important educational benefits. Some arrangements will suit themselves to larger groups more than others.

– Drew Collins, forum editor

Younger Singers Other Beginners

  • Teacher Resources for Vocal Jazz

    In some ways, rehearsing vocal jazz is just like rehearsing any choral style. But there are several key differences that are important to note. Here are some ideas for resources that can help you get a start with teaching jazz to your choirs. Most discuss elements of jazz style, the various sub-genres, vocal techniques, vocal effects and ornaments, etc. And, most come with ancillaries such as companion CD’s, or have student copies available for classroom use. Don’t get overwhelmed…just pick one of the books

    Book: It’s Not On the Page by Stephanie Nakasian (Self-published, but available through any dealer)

    Book: The Vocal Jazz Ensemble by Paris Rutherford (Hel Leonard)

    Book: Vocal Jazz Style by Kirby Shaw (Hal Leonard)

    Book: The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz by Stephen Zegree (Heritage Music Press)

    Book: Vocal Improvisation by Michelle Weir (Advance Music)

    Warm-ups: Warm-ups for Pop, Jazz and Show Choirs by Kirby Shaw (Hal Leonard)

    Video: Vocal Jazz: The Art and the Technique by Phil Mattson (Southwestern Community College)

    Video: The “Primarily Acappella” Web site (www.singers.com) has a “Vocal Jazz Video Channel” that imbeds YouTube videos. The videos feature performances and are not instructional in nature.

    Video: YouTube has performances by just about every group you can imagine.

    Take the ‘A’ Train (arr. Kirby Shaw) Hal Leonard
    Kirby Shaw, one of the masters of vocal jazz arrangements for educational ensembles, has styled this Billy Strayhorn standard for 3-part mixed or 2-part voicing. Shaw has other titles arranged for younger singers, so keep an eye out.

  • Junior Jazz (Kirby Shaw) Hal Leonard
    Dr. Shaw wrote “Junior Jazz” (as well as “Junior Jazz II” and “Junior Jazz III”) as a way of introducing young singers to the basics of singing jazz. He uses original songs to illustrate concepts that can lead them to more advanced music in future years. Also includes explanatory notes and teaching suggestions.
  • Stompin’ at the Savoy (arr. Tom Anderson) Hal Leonard
    Here is a standard of the jazz repertory styled for singers new to the idiom (the voicing is 2-part). Your students will ask to rehearse this one!

2-Part (Slightly Harder)

  • It’s Only a Paper Moon (arr. Steve Zegree) Hal Leonard
    Steve Zegree literally wrote the book on vocal jazz style (see sidebar), and it is a gift to educators that he applies his expertise to arranging jazz standards for beginners. This one is 2-part. He also arranged “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” and other jazz standards in two parts for young singers.
  • Billy and Ming do the Bee-Bop Thing (Sunny Wilkinson Ron Newman) Santa Barbara
    This has been a popular selection for children’s choirs. It is an original composition in the jazz style with some fun challenges. A great introduction to syncopation, scat syllables, and vocal jazz techniques such as scoops and falls. It is basically 2-part, but does divide to SSAA. The drum set part is essential, but the bass part is optional.

Jazz Standards (Mixed; Easy-Medium)

  • Sweet Georgia Brown (arr. Kirby Shaw) Alfred
    Perhaps most frequently thought of as the Harlem Globetrotter’s Theme Song, this early jazz standard has withstood the test of time in its own right. Kirby Shaw’s fun and easy arrangement has been available in a variety of voicings, though the SATB version may be the only one still in print. It works for choirs of any size, and is a great choice if you are new to conducting vocal jazz or if your students are new to singing it.
  • Sing, Sing, Sing (arr. Philip Kern) Shawnee
    Kern’s arrangement of the Louis Prima classic is a perfect introduction to vocal jazz for young mixed ensembles. Also available for SAB. There is a more advanced version arranged for New York Voices by Darmon Meader (Shawnee).
  • Jump, Jive and Wail (arr. Mac Huff) Hal Leonard
    Here is another Louis Prima classic that is a blast to sing. Huff’s arrangement recreates the version recently recorded by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. It is tremendous fun and a good foray into singing jazz for neophytes.
  • Blue Skies (arr. Roger Emerson) Hal Leonard
    This has been a very popular seller for many years, partly because it is so accessible, partly because it can be done by any size choir, and partly because it’s so much fun to sing. It is also a great way to introduce your singers to that great American songwriter, Irving Berlin. If you’re looking for a slightly more advanced version, check out Steve Zegree’s arrangement (also pub. Hal Leonard).
  • It Had To Be You (arr. Steve Zegree) Alfred
    To our delight, Steve Zegree has been making magic with performances of his Gold Company for years. Because of this, it is easy to think of him as operating only at that advanced level. But Zegree is a consummate vocal jazz educator, and this shows in some of his arrangements. This one is a choral version of Harry Connick, Jr.’s recording of this tune. It is available for SATB or SAB, and both are fun and accessible. Use the original Connick recording in the classroom as a listening activity.
  • Puttin’ On the Ritz (Irving Berlin, arr. Kirby Shaw) Hal Leonard
    This old-timey chart (the original song came out in 1928) is fun and accessible, while providing a challenge. The challenges are the syncopated rhythms and the arpeggiated melody, which can be tricky to sing accurately.

For The Ladies

  • Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie (arr. Kirby Shaw) Hal Leonard
    This transcription of the Manhattan Transfer arrangement is available for SATB, SSA, and SAB. Even though it was originally for SATB, your girls will love singing the SSA version.
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ (arr. Larry Shackley) Alfred
    Here is another recent publication that is available for SATB, SSA, and SAB. Again, I think the SSA version works best.
  • Sisters (Irving Berlin, arr. Kirby Shaw) Hal Leonard
    My high school girls’ chorus ate this up. The harmonies are so fun to sing, your students will be singing it in the hallways. This is a great way to introduce your students to an American icon, Irving Berlin. Another Berlin classic arranged for SSA is the newly published arrangement by Joe Ambrosio of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (arr. Ed Lojeski) Hal Leonard
    There are a couple arrangements of this tune available that approximate the style of the Andrews Sisters. This may be the only one left in print, however. If you have a talented trumpet player in your department, consider a fun collaboration. Makes a rousing closer.

Holiday (Easy-Medium)

  • A Christmas Trio (arr. Michele Weir) Alfred
    Michele Weir is among the top tier vocal jazz composers operating today. This octavo has three charts: “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Winter Wonderland.” Do one, two, or all three. The difficulty level of the vocal parts is moderate and the voicing is SATB non divisi, but the scoring is unaccompanied throughout. Also, check out her similar “A Holiday Trio” that follows the same format, featuring “Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
  • Snowfall (arr. Roger Emerson) Hal Leonard
    This score, based on a Manhattan Transfer arrangement and recording, is lush and evocative. Its original voicing was SATB; it had originally also been available for SAB and SSAA, but those voicings are now out of print. A lush, gorgeous, unique addition to your holiday program.
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