Tag Archives: vocal jazz ensemble

Vocal Jazz Ensemble, anyone?

It’s Choral Cache Thursday @ Pender’s Music Co.! As we begin 2011, we also begin a new initiative — The Pender’s Buzz — an added way in bringing content, resources, teaching tidbits & strategies, social media and more to our loyal customers. And since our home base is in Texas, early 2011 is filled with preparations in getting ready for TMEA. So it’s quite fitting that one of our inaugural posts begins with just that! So, here we go…

Don’t miss all of the Alfred choral sessions at TMEA February 9-11! School choral reading sessions will feature incredibly popular clinician Sally K. Albrecht presenting new choral arrangements of pop titles that can be performed by both large and small choral ensembles! When you get a chance, check out Alfred’s clinic schedule!

The annual Jazz Education Network Conference was just last week, so while the genre is fresh on our minds, it’s a great time to evaluate the ins and outs of adding a vocal jazz ensemble to the choral curriculum. Small vocal groups are really popular right now, so take a look at this article, entitled How Do I Start a Vocal Jazz Ensemble by Darmon Meader, Arranger, Saxophonist, Conductor, Singer, and founder of New York Voices:

“The vocal jazz ensemble world has continued to grow and develop over the past few decades. Over the past 50 years, groups such as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Singers Unlimited, The Manhattan Transfer, and New York Voices have given this idiom significant exposure. Like instrumental jazz before it, vocal jazz has become more and more respected in the public school education system.

However, the vocal jazz ensemble is a bit of a “mutt” or hybrid, which can often confuse and frustrate choral enthusiasts and educators. Though an SATB style of music, the roots of the style are deeply ingrained in instrumental jazz. SATB vocal jazz voicings are often more related to jazz piano voicings or big band saxophone section writing than to traditional choral sensibilities.

Over the years, I have had many choral directors approach me, asking how to start a vocal jazz ensemble. Many of these directors had vast choral experience, but were new to the jazz idiom and found the whole thing a bit daunting. So, what does this mean for the choral instructor who is venturing into this for the first time? First of all, it is important to have a solid understanding of basic jazz harmony. Understanding and being able to recognize (both visually and aurally) common jazz chord progressions, song forms, chord symbols, and upper-structures such as 9, #11, & 13 are important steps to being able to develop a solid vocal jazz choir.


Most SATB vocal jazz writing uses a concept called “four-way close” writing. This means that the harmony is conceived from the melody note down, with all chord notes (including upper-structure notes) in play. What this means is that the vocalists will often be singing much more dense and challenging harmonies than found in their traditional choral repertoire. The Sopranos almost always sing the melody, which is usually the easiest part. The Altos may have some challenging harmony notes, but more often then not they are still singing in a comfortable relationship with the Soprano part. The Tenors and Basses usually have the most challenging parts, so it is safe to say that your vocal jazz ensemble will only be as solid as the men that sing in the ensemble. Your male vocalists will need extra attention to develop their ears for this type of challenging harmony. In addition to traditional warm-ups, give your men some warm-ups that develop their jazz harmony senses: hearing and singing tri-tone 7ths and 3rds between the two parts, singing major and minor 2nds between parts, and singing major and minor 7ths between parts. These are just a few ideas that reflect the types of harmonic relationships found in vocal jazz writing.

Even though the Alto, Tenor, and Bass parts are often less melodic, they are just as important as the Soprano part. So, encourage the lower voices to think of their parts not only as harmonic support, but as melodic entities unto themselves. In New York Voices, we often talk about thinking in two planes at once: the vertical plane involves tuning, matching vowels and tone, and dynamics, while the horizontal plane involves the melodic direction of all four parts.

Vibrato or no vibrato? As I mentioned earlier, vocal jazz is a direct off-shoot of instrumental jazz. Since the Bebop era and beyond, instrumental jazz has used vibrato sparingly, more as a color or device than as a natural part of the sound. This developed both for stylistic and harmonic reasons. By the nature of jazz writing, straight tone often is required to allow the harmonies to resonate properly, whether being played by a big band, or sung by a choir. With that said, there is room for some vibrato at times. Some songs may incorporate a looser style or gospel influences where vibrato is more appropriate. You also may find that longer chords may allow for vibrato to be added once the harmony has been established. Also, the larger your ensemble, the less room there is for vibrato.

A couple of closing thoughts:

• Listen, listen, and then listen some more. The more jazz your students listen to, the more comfortable they will become with the idiom.
• When picking repertoire, be realistic about the reach and abilities of your ensemble. We would all love to sing Gene Puerling arrangements, Take Six repertoire, or the entire New York Voices songbook, but most groups are not ready for that level of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Explore easier and medium level repertoire to find music that will challenge you and your ensemble, without overwhelming them.
• Lastly, if you have an instrumental jazz program in your school, try to connect with the instrumental jazz faculty and students. Your instrumental jazz instructor might be able to add valuable input, and you also might find a few instrumental students that would like to sing in your ensemble. Who knows, you might have a budding young singer sitting in the sax section of your school’s big band. Come to think of it, that’s how I got my start in all of this vocal jazz craziness!”

Choral Cache Thursdays, the series, will post to www.pendersbuzz.com a couple of times a month, with information from our staff, our publisher partners, guest bloggers and more. Come back to this site, or access it from our main Home Page, to find out the latest buzz!

(Article provided by Alfred Publishing, Co.)