Vocalese: A Vocalist’s Attribution to the Cats of Bebop

In Freedom Sounds, Ingrid Monson discusses how many jazz artists of the 50s and 60s were idolized as icons of the Civil Rights movement.  Cats like Hawkins, Coltrane, and Parker were given nicknames like “Bird” and were then lauded as the free, independent individuals many Black Americans wished to be.

The genre of vocalese is one such example of the sycophantic nature of many musical colleagues of the bebop jazzers.  Perhaps the originator of vocalese in 1940, Eddie Jefferson recorded many jazz hits such as Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  In the recording, Jefferson matches exactly Hawkins’ phrases but with added words.

The very first line of the track attributes the song to Hawkins.  “Don’t you know he is the king of saxophones?  Yes indeed he is….Hawkins is his name.”  Vocalese is an entirely different approach to jazz music than the bop stars of the era.  Instead of beginning with a “head” and trusting to the improvisatory skills of the musicians to solo over the chords, Jefferson obviously spent a lot of time carefully listening to Hawkins’ style and choosing the perfect words to correspond to the fragments of melody.  This genre of jazz is a great honor to the original performers, as it carefully matches their original solos while providing lyrics detailing their talents as well as contributing some important history.

Later on, The Manhattan Transfer recorded the same track, using Jefferson’s words, but in a four-part harmony.

This recording travels even further from the improvisatory nature of bebop.  The close harmonies necessitate prior arrangements.  But the group kept the sycophantic nature of vocalese, changing some lyrics to include attributions to Eddie Jefferson instead of Jefferson’s original praise of Hawkins.  They continue the evolution of vocal jazz while still keeping many of the same characteristics.

Then along came Eddie Jefferson

He sang the melody like Hawkins played it

He sang it true, he sang it blue

Made words for it too

The Manhattan Transfer exemplifies the sound of another earlier popular vocalese group: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.  A trio, the group was successful for their tight harmonies and accessible imitation of jazz instrumental artists.  One of their most commercially successful tracks, “Four Brothers,” was based on the Woody Herman orchestra’s hit of the same title.

Hendricks’ lyrics feature very instrument-specific verbs.  As in the vocalese style, much is based upon the original instruments.  “Blowin’ that horn” is sung often, as if in their imitation, the singers are becoming instruments themselves.

Vocalese was a way for vocalists to enter the musically complex bebop scene while still remaining commercially relevant.  Popular vocal groups followed the trend of lauding musicians like Hawkins and Coltrane while still exhibiting their own significant talents in imitation and lyrics, a front not accessible by instrumentalists.



(I’ve included youtube clips for convenience, but original recordings are from Alexander Street Press.)

Herman, Woody, performer. Woody Herman & His Orchestra 1956. Recorded February 20, 2000. Storyville, 2000, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/982437. 

Jefferson, Eddie, James Moody, Dave Burns, Barry Doyle Harris, Steve Davis, and Bill English, performers. Eddie Jefferson: Body and Soul. Recorded January 1, 1991. Prestige, 1991, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/543821

Lambert, Dave, John Carl Hendricks, Annie Ross, Freddie Green, Eddie Jones, Sonny Payne, and Nat Pierce, performers. Sing A Song Of Basie. Recorded March 13, 2001. Universal Classics & Jazz, 2001, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/690250. 

Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

Count Basie, a famed jazz pianist and jazz orchestra leader, wrote a tune called “A Study in Brown.” It sounds like the average big band tune, with ample time for piano solos. We can only make inferences about Basie’s reason for that title and tune, such as the fact that jazz’s roots are in improvisation styles popular in African American bands of New Orleans, African rhythms, and the blues. When Duke Ellington wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943, the connections and program were more obvious because places in the music clearly imitated the sound of hammers, African American spirituals, and included some lyrics. Listen to how “A Study in Brown” is more elusive to a statement like Ellington’s.[1] 

While the song was not Basie’s most popular and the intent behind Basie’s song is unknown, a few people have covered it. Below is a recording of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra in a recording from 1945. Notice, how the sound is smoother, less swung (except for the solo), and slower. Besides being a primarily white group, does the performance add another layer of meaning to the song? [2]

Furthermore, The Manhattan Transfer has made it popular by adding these lyrics.

Picture this: Rhythm n’ happiness
Souls in bliss ‘n havin’ fun
(Oh no)
If you can’t there’s nothin’ to it
(Oh no)
I’m thinkin’ I have t’ paint you one

I’m gonna paint a sepia panorama
So full of life the painting will come alive
Bathed in blues ‘n full of drama
An’ all the swing they needed so they’d survive
I’ll add some tans an’ yellow ocher
Such soul! So full of rhythm
An’ then some orange t’ tone up the black a bit
My goal is to be with ’em
Purple haze t’ lull the smoker
What swing! What syncopation
An cherry red t’ loosen the back a bit
That thing captured a nation

An’ then a mere patina of subtle green
Get down with me – you’ll dig my study in brown
To lighten up the purple n’ tone it down
Get down with me – tell about it all over town
A dancing glow to highlight the subtle scene
Get down with me – Dig how I’m paintin’ the town
An’ there you’ll have a study in brown
My study in brown

Well, git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
Well, git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Oh yeah, that’s some study

We’re puttin’ down “A Study In Brown”
Coda: (That’s why we’re callin’ it, “A Study In Brown!”)
Git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
N’ git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Oh yeah, that’s some study

Dig what I mean! It’s in the scene
Guitar solo
What cha’ talkin’ ’bout?
That’s my scene rhythm n’dancin’
You can add real romancin’
I’ll come clean,
That’s the way I like it
Why’ start real thin, then put some color in
Fuschia hues blended with subtones
Spread them blues, blarin’ trombones
Paint that scene
Just the way I like it
A dab or two, that’s how to do it.

Why’ talkin’ loud, hope people hear why’
Hey dad! Mama’s gonn git ‘cha soon as you git home!
That’s the ticket
But where’d why’fin’ th’ wicket?

Certainly, this adds a layer of meaning, and perhaps not a good layer….On one hand, performing covers gives the music more recognition and audiences. However, the lines add a meaning that wasn’t present in the original song, with words that insinuate a certain situation that brown is “bathed in blues and full of drama…all the swing they needed so they would survive.” The lyrics are a white perception of a black musical lifestyle, and the instrumentation, primarily vocal imitation of instruments, has a much different sound and connotation than the original. Additionally, as Dai Griffiths says in his chapter on cover songs and identity, when comparing white and black performances of a song we can’t “underestimate the asymmetry of power between black and white.”[3] We have to ask questions of power and exploitation when considering the Clinton and Manhattan Transfer covers of a Count Basie song. So, can covers be valuable? Perhaps we can’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t be allowed, but then how can we add layers of meaning with covers without exploiting/wrongly appropriating? How can we communicate the complexity of covers to the average person who will listen to the Manhattan Transfer cover and not even know Count Basie?

[1] Count Basie, performer, One Note Samba, Recorded May 11, 2009, Synergie OMP, 2009, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/1019835. 

[2] This Is Larry Clinton, Recorded June 1, 2010, Hallmark, 2010, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/li_upc_5050457974817. 

[3] Dai Griffiths, “Cover versions and the sound of identity in motion,” In Popular Music Studies, edited by David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 51-64, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.