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.