Less Is More: Choosing Beginning Jazz Lit

by Charlotte Reese, R&S Chair for Vocal Jazz

reeseI grew up as a band kid and started singing jazz in college. I love the harmonies and singing those tight sax voicings. The trade off, however, is a load of time in the practice room pounding away at disjunct alto parts until they stick. When I started teaching high school I picked similar music, it was what I knew and loved. The end result was music that was over my kids’ heads. All their effort went into part pounding at the expense of concepts and musicality.

Over the summers I teach at our district summer music school where I have a jazz choir made up of primarily 5th-8th graders. Singing the soprano and alto parts of SATB charts doesn’t cut it because those harmony parts just don’t make any sense to them. Finally I’m starting to get it through my head that less is more. I’m finally realizing that everything I know about picking age appropriate concert literature applies to jazz.quotebox

1) Everyone loves to sing a great melody. Teach your students standards. Ask any of your students what their favorite songs to sing are and chances are they’ll name a song they’ve sung in choir. They know songs because you’ve exposed them to great music. Jazz standards are standards for a reason. They are our jazz curriculum and literature. Learn the melody, listen to recordings, talk about phrasing and personalizing the song. When I was student teaching we had our middle school choir sing “My Funny Valentine” in unison over a jazz band arrangement in place of a tenor sax solo. It was musically fulfilling and now they know a fantastic song. If you don’t have a full band at your disposal have a single instrument play a harmony line. It adds texture and harmony while keeping things simple for the singers.

2) Find a jazz partworkshopner song. Tom McVicker’s arrangement of “Bluesin’ Around” (SMP) is a great example. It’s a swinging melody with great lyrics and the partner melody snaps right in place. Not only does the melody outline all the great blue notes they need for solos (highlighting the third/lowered third contrast) but it’s chock full of great swing rhythms to be taught and played with. I’ve used this tune with all ages.

2) Duets. A few ago I did a two-part “Too Close for Comfort” that’s based on a duet recording by Rick Harris and Pam Bricker from Mad Romance. Everyone gets a chance to sing the melody and the background “oo’s” are really intuitive. “In A Mellow Tone” works great this way because the phrases are short and leave a little space for an answer as modeled in the Ellington and Buddy Rich recordings.

3) One of my favorite textures in jazz is tenor sax and trumpet as found on numerous recordings in the late 50’s-early 60’s. These two-part harmonies highlight the essential structure of the tune and start to train your students ears’ to hear progressions. A prime example of this is “Song For My Father”, a laid back bossa, primarily unison with a few harmonies which are easily learned by ear. It’s a short form with a limited number of chords which is great for improvisation and young rhythm players.

4) Easy charts. Your group is now ready for more harmony and entry level charts. One of my favorites is Nathan Lansing’s “All Grey” (SMP). Everyone gets some melody, the part leading is great, the changes are easy and it has a great breakdown section in the middle.

In choosing tunes with fewer notes to learn you have more time to make music. This is a blessing if you have a concept in mind and a curse if you’re uncomfortable in the genre and need things spelled out. Because so much of what makes a jazz chart great isn’t in the notation it’s up to you as the director to conceptualize the tune. So do your listening, sing the parts, find your vision and get swinging!

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