By John C. Hughes
The myriad of approaches to vocal jazz is one of the genre’s best qualities. Whether you direct a vocal jazz ensemble or program a few jazz pieces for your choir, sing with or without microphones, or perform with a combo or unaccompanied, anything goes as long as it swings! In vocal jazz, the basics of good singing apply (breath support, intonation, musicianship, and so on); however, the genre does have its own jargon and culture. For a comprehensive overview with very practical insights, consult Steve Zegree’s The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz (Heritage 2002). Unfortunately, I can only include a limited number of compositions below. I heartily recommend all these composers/arrangers, including other pieces by them. Additionally, look into works by April Arabian-Tini, Tina Chinn, Roger Emerson, Greg Jasperse, Mac Huff, Jeremy Landig, Gene Puerling, Carl Strommen, Ward Swingle, and Michele Weir. Enjoy learning more about these pieces and consider programming works from America’s art form: jazz.
“Music Lies in the Heart”
arr. Vijay Singh
Sound Music Publications
Sound Music Publications is a wonderful publishing company with a unique business model. Rather than purchasing individual scores, you purchase the right to photocopy PDFs for your ensemble at a flat rate (usually around $60/piece). Although owning scores is nice, the convenience of replacing lost music by legally copying is unbeatable. Vijay Singh, a leading arranger of vocal jazz, has made a wonderful piece that can be performed by either a children’s choir or an adult choir combined with children. The piece has an uplifting text and opportunities for solos. A preview of the score and an audio example are available online.
arr. Kerry Marsh
Kerry Marsh is a fresh composer/arranger, who has quickly become one of the leaders in vocal jazz. Rather than selling his pieces through third parties, Marsh sells directly from his website and follows a similar model as Sound Music Publications (see above). As soon as you place your order, you receive PDFs via email of the piece(s) you ordered – quite simple. “Mr. P.C.” is an adaptation for vocal jazz ensemble of Jon Hendricks’s lyrics set to John Coltrane’s tune. The writing is straightforward and the tune can be quickly learned. The score comes with notated piano, bass, and drum parts. An audio recording is available online.
If you’re looking for a novelty piece to feature your ensemble’s men, take a look at this fun composition. Anders Edenroth, of the renowned Swedish vocal jazz ensemble, The Real Group, has composed a witty, tongue and cheek piece about what it means to be a modern man. Consider programming this before or after a women’s piece to feature both the men and women.
Introduce students to the tune made famous by the incomparable Nat King Cole with this clever arrangement. Deke Sharon is a prolific arranger of contemporary vocal music. As with his other pieces, Sharon’s “Orange Colored Sky” is well crafted and worth the challenge. The piece is structured as a tenor solo with choral support, so make sure you have a good soloist. The arrangement is also available in an SATB setting.
“Take the ‘A’ Train”
arr. Kirby Shaw
Few choral musicians are unaware of Kirby Shaw. His arrangements are plentiful and boast wide recognition. His arrangement of the classic Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington chart is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the history of jazz with students. Without over-intellectualizing the precise rhythm, make sure to teach and reinforce the swing style of this piece. The vocal ranges in this arrangement are comfortable for developing voices.
“I Love a Piano”
arr. Jennifer Barnes
Sound Music Publications
Jennifer Barnes, an accomplished jazz arranger, has made a wonderful swing arrangement of this familiar tune. Barnes’s writing balances straightforward lines and harmonies while offering a creative, new arrangement. After a brief piano solo, the choir reenters with a hip scat section. Students will respond well to this upbeat, fun piece. A preview of the score and an audio example are available online.
Steve Zegree, one of the worldwide leaders of vocal jazz, has made a beautiful ballad setting of this song by The Beatles. Inspire another generation to fall in love not only with interesting jazz harmonies, but also with the music of The Beatles. Jazz ballads are quite difficult because of their complex harmony, intricate tuning, and rubato phrasing; however, all these challenges truly serve as opportunities for singers to grow as musicians. Consider taking the challenge with this lovely work.
“April in Paris” is one of my favorite jazz standards. I first heard it as a high school student when I purchased a Kurt Elling CD, which I still listen to regularly. Jazz standards may not be well known to students, and it is important to introduce them to the legacy of American popular music. Paris Rutherford is a prolific vocal jazz arranger, whose work is synonymous with quality. Students will love singing this refined setting of a classic ballad.
Darmon Meader is one of four singers in the acclaimed New York Voices and an accomplished saxophone player. Additionally, he composes/arranges works of high musical quality. “Swingle Song” is an original wordless composition (full of “doos” and “bahs”) and is an homage to the famous Swingle Singers. Singers are quite exposed in this piece, so a true sense of ensemble is required.
Phil Mattson has made wonderful arrangements of jazz standards for decades. His harmonic language is full of colorful dissonances and lush sonorities. “September Song,” an arrangement of the jazz standard, is an unaccompanied ballad. It is undoubtedly beautiful, but requires a highly unified sound across the ensemble and expert intonation.
John C. Hughes is a versatile choral musician and pedagogue, drawing from experience as a K-12 teacher, collegiate conductor, and church musician. Presently, Hughes is pursuing the D.M.A. in Choral Conducting and Pedagogy at The University of Iowa, as well as serving as music director at The Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City. Please contact him directly via his website: www.johnchughes.com.