In 1987, Congress passed H. Con. Res. 57 (aka “HR-57”), an official act to declare Jazz a uniquely American musical art form and to protect and preserve its significance, cultural importance, and international influence. As much as I would enjoy writing a dissertation on our great American music, I take the opportunity here to address Jazz — that is, singing Jazz, as a singer, and as a voice teacher.
The importance of singing Jazz for me personally started when I was an adolescent, listening to recordings of Ella Fitzgerald. I was struck by her sunny, buoyant voice and her natural ease to travel in and around a tune and never get lost. She caused me to first dream of standing on a stage in an elegant dress, behind an old fashioned microphone, in front of sprawling Big Band. I would knock off Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael tunes one after the other as if they were in my blood, little realizing at the time just how much they were, literally, in my blood (more on that in a moment). But I was always a high and light soprano, and bird-like sopranos didn’t sing Jazz.
Unless a soprano wanted to challenge herself.
While I specialize in the bel canto technique of singing, and I like to throw around Italian terminology in my lessons, I am not, in fact, Italian. I did not grow up with Italian opera (or any opera, really) blaring in the background (sadly). I do not come from a long line of European singers or musicians (at least not in the last 200 years), and I’ve only attended a handful of opera performances in European countries. When I first started singing Italian opera, it took me a few years to get those shoes to stretch to my size, so to speak. That is, I loved opera, but I didn’t completely relate to it immediately.
Jazz, on the other hand, is my heritage. My ancestors have been in America for a long time, and my own great-great uncle on my father’s maternal side is songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”). I don’t mean to be dropping names here, but it is claim-to-fame of which I am proud, especially as a musician. Point being, not only are many of the “classic Jazz” songs written with English words, but the musical style springs from the essence of American culture. This is our music, people! We should be singing it.
I identify myself as a “classical singer,” or “classical soprano.” My voice is suited to lyric coloratura roles written by the likes of Donizetti, Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, and Massenet. However, I could not have plumbed the depths of these composers’ works if I had not dabbled and played around with Jazz. I would not have the secure middle voice I have now if I had not sung Jazz. I would not understand rubato or how to bring a refined silliness to a character if I didn’t know Jazz. I am living proof that singing Jazz can strengthen your voice, musicality, and interpretation. To be continued.
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