American Choral Directors Association

Vocal Jazz Repertoire & Standards Resources

Vocal Jazz Repertoire & Standards Resources

Jazz Singing (Developing Artistry and Authenticity) Diana R. Spradling Sound Music Publications 978-0-9802104-0-8
Jazz and Show Choir Handbook II Doug Anderson Hinshaw Music 978-0-9372761-4-3
There Is No Such Thing As A Mistake Barney McClure Sound Music Publications 978-0-9679807-0-6
Vocal Improvisation Michele Weir Advance Music ASIN: B000N5DAHW
Scat (Vocal Improvisation Techniques) Bob Stoloff Music Sales America 978-0-9628467-5-5
Vocal Jazz Ensemble (The) Paris Rutherford Hal Leonard 978-1-4234550-5-9
Sound Reinforcement Handbook Gary Davis & Ralph Jones Yamaha 978-0-8818890-0-0
Jazz Singer's Handbook Michele Weir Alfred Music Publications 978-0-7390338-7-6
Hear It and Sing It (Exploring Modal Singing) Judy Neimack Second Floor Music 978-0-6340809-9-9
Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz Stephen Zegree Heritage Music Press 978-0-8932815-3-3
Jazz Theory Book Mark Levine Sher Music Company 978-1-8832170-4-4
New Real Book (The) Volume 1 Chuck Sher Sher Music Company 978-0-9614701-4-2
New Real Book (The) Volume 2 Chuck Sher Sher Music Company 978-0-9614701-7-3
New Real Book (The) Volume 3 Chuck Sher Sher Music Company 978-1-8832170-3-7
Standards Real Book (The) Chuck Sher Sher Music Company 978-1-8832170-9-9
Inner Game of Music (The) Barry Green & Timothy Gallwey Doubleday 978-0-3852312-6-8
Music Lesson (The) Victor Wooten Berkley Trade 978-0-4252209-3-1
21 Bebop Exercises Steve Rawlins Hal Leonard 978-0-6340339-0-2
Jazz Piano for Singers (Volume 1) (DVD) Matt Falker Sound Music Publications 37101 40658
Live Sound Reinforcement Scott Hunter Stark Artistpro 978-0-9183710-7-2
Getting Started with Vocal Improvisation Patrice D. Madura Reston, VA: NAfME 1-56545-116-3
Becoming a Choral Music Teacher Patrice Ward-Steinman Routledge 0-415-99841-7
Phil Mattson: The Art & the Technique Phil Mattson Phil Mattson  
Thinking in Jazz Paul Berliner Univ. of Chicago Press 0-226-04380
Jazz Style and Improvisation for Choirs Russell Robinson Alfred Music Publications SVBM05001
The Wow Factor Steve Zegree Hal Leonard 978-1-42346-813-4

Vocal Jazz Concepts for Young Choirs 2013


Presented by:  Natalie J. Wilson: Grass Valley Elementary; Camas, WA


Thank you for attending this session today!


Whether you direct an elementary choir or a choir with elementary vocal jazz experience, this session will give you tools to help you feel comfortable preparing and presenting vocal jazz: our American cultural music.  The concepts that will be shared today will help you create a personal relationship with the music that you can easily share with your students. 


The mere concept of singing vocal jazz creates some discomfort for many choral educators.  Some common choral concerns in preparing and performing vocal jazz are:


·         Appropriate stylization

·         The rhythm section

·         Improvisation

·         Use of straight tone

·         Intricate harmonies

·         Personalizing the chart – granting yourself permission to alter the original score


Give yourself some credit!  You are an educated conductor with a profound music background.  Truly, you can learn to do anything with music!  Because you are here, you must have an interest in learning about vocal jazz.  I hope my expertise and my words of encouragement will inspire you to share the joy of teaching vocal jazz to your choirs – elementary or otherwise.

This session packet includes a brief outline of Jazz History and some Jazz Terms and Definitions.  Although I will not be presenting them today, I thought they may be valuable to you as you consider teaching vocal jazz.  Additionally, many points that will be shared during the course of the session may not be included in this packet, however; together they will form a foundation of understanding for you to create a stronger relationship with the music.

Learning and performing vocal jazz is important to our American culture and musical heritage.  As choral educators we should provide the most diverse choral education through programming pieces of multiple genres.  As we strive to provide multi-cultural music in our choral programs, please remember to include our own American cultural music in the mix!

Brief Jazz History Lesson


What is “JAZZ?”

Simply speaking, it is ‘America’s Music.’  Born in America and blended with our rich cultural history, all of ‘today’s music’ evolved from jazz.


The Beginnings

Prior to 1890, jazz was known as urban music with its origins in the slave fields in the south.  Workers were not allowed to speak but they could sing and they would create rhythmic sounds on their tools.  Call and response, chants and field hollers were common forms of communication.  The traditional musical influences came from West Africa: melodies and rhythms; and Europe: melodies and harmonies. 


The Development (Dates are approximate)

As the slaves traveled following their freedom, so did their music.  It was later referred to as blues – a form of personal expression.  Their songs were learned via the aural tradition.   Vocal blues, ragtime, stride and Boogie Woogie solo piano and instrumental music influenced by New Orleans and Chicago musicians all played roles in the development of jazz music.  Later influences evolved from Caribbean and Latin American Music.

There are periods of jazz music which has allowed the art form to continually evolve as it still does.  Prior to 1890 is Pre-jazz with slave work songs.  Early jazz is 1890-1910 with vocal blues and solo-piano.  1910-1930 was the Dixieland era with small bands and ‘happy’ music.  The big band Swing era was 1930-1945.  1945-1950 was the bebop era featuring fast, aggressive music and edgy solos.  1949-1955 was the Cool Jazz period – a return to more relaxed playing.   The 1960’s brought the Latin American influence with the straight eighth notes, a greater vocal influence and Free Jazz; followed by fusion, jazz rock, smooth jazz and combinations.

The Now

Jazz music is popular today with thanks to the thousands of musicians who have played and still play the music.  Jazz musicians celebrate their freedom to create and re-create the music spontaneously.  This is called improvisation.  Vocal and instrumental solos are played from the melody of the tune.  Vocalists may sing nonsense words and syllables called scatting.  These sounds are meant to imitate the sounds of instruments that may have played them.  The big band, vocal jazz, trios and all forms of jazz are still played today in many variations of style.

The Future

Believe it or not, YOU decide the future of jazz music.  Because jazz is continually evolving, it is up to the trained musicians and educated listeners to determine how jazz music will develop.  The jazz influence is evidenced in all styles of contemporary music through form, rhythms, harmonies and improvised solos.

Jazz History Lesson Terms and Definitions

Call and response: Musical communication where one voice or instrument makes a statement  and another answers it.  Often used in solo sections and known as “trading  fours:” singing four bars/measures each.


Chant:             Unison, free singing. 

Field holler:       An African American work song usually sung solo yet sometimes echoed.  “Holler” means “cry.” 

Aural tradition:   Learned via listening and repeating.  Not written. 

Blues:              A style of jazz music developed during the mid-1800’s in the  south; a common form of music. 

Ragtime:               An early style of jazz incorporating syncopated rhythms. 

Stride:                 A style of playing piano in which the left hand plays in big steps or distances.  Common in the 1920’s. 

Boogie Woogie:     A style of piano playing.  Also known as “8 to the bar” where eight chords are played in each bar.   

Dixieland:          1910-1930’s instrumental music that is upbeat and danceable.

 Latin Jazz:        Characterized by the straight eighth note and syncopated percussive rhythms.  

Free Jazz:        A musical style where tonality, meter, beat and symmetry may disappear.


Fusion:             A mixing or “fusing” of funk, R&B rhythms along with electronic and/or amplified effects


Improvisation:     Spontaneous creativity; creating immediately on the spot.


Scat:              Vocal improvisation using nonsense words or syllables to imitate instruments.


Bar                 Another word for “measure.”

Bebop              A complex style of jazz from the early 1940’s:

Generally fast, aggressive and edgy.

Blues               A style of jazz music developed during the mid-1800’s in the south; a common form of music.

Cool                       A relaxed style of playing.

Gig                        A music job or performance. 

Groove                  The ‘feel’ of the music or the time in rehearsal or performance when all musical parts fit together smoothly.

Head                     The beginning of a tune; the melody of a tune.

Hip                        Something that is really “cool” or “neat.”

Hot                       Fast, exciting, intense music.

Improvisation        Spontaneous creativity; creating immediately on the spot.

Jam                      When musicians gather together to play music on an informal basis.

Jazz                     American cultural music.

Lick                       A jazz phrase.

Offbeat                The un-emphasized beat between two counts of music; the “and” of the beat.

Ragtime                An early style of jazz incorporating syncopated or “ragged” rhythms.

Riff                       A short, repeated musical sentence often performed behind a soloist.

Scat                      Vocal improvisation using nonsense words or syllables to imitate instruments.

Shout Chorus        The loud, climactic chorus of a piece of music.

Shuffle                 A rhythm of swing music where the second half of the beat is emphasized:  “shuf-fle, shuf-fle, shuf-fle, shuf-fle.”

Stride             A 1920’s style of piano playing in which the left hand plays in big steps or distances.

Swing              The basic rhythmic attitude of jazz; a style of jazz in the 1930’s:

            “dang-danga-dang-danga” or “gum-bubble-gum-bubble.” 

Syncopation        A rhythmic accent on an unexpected beat.

The trio           The piano, bass and drums in the rhythm section.  Guitar is often added.

Tune               A jazz song.

Vocal Jazz Concepts for Young Choirs 2013


Jazz Style

Jazz embodies a wide variety of stylizations.  Many terms define jazz styles:  swing, shuffle, bop, ballad, Latin grooves, solo feature, etc.  Jazz is mostly noted for its syncopations and swing beat where the eighth notes are uneven- as in a dotted eighth/sixteenth note.  This is even though they may be written as straight eighth notes in the music.  The swing beat is understood or may be indicated near the tempo marking.  Additionally to support the swing feel, a dotted quarter note would add an extra ‘kick’ or breath accent on the dot.


Jazz vocals imitate instrumental tones and phrases.  This is done in unison singing or with vocal harmonies.  The vocalist is able to ‘play’ with a variety of tone qualities to imitate trumpets and/or saxophones, for example.  A straight tone may be used in a phrase and ‘colored’ with a vibrato at the end of the line.  Phrasing is important, calling special attention to accents and syncopated rhythms, which are hallmarks of jazz.  Use dynamics to create musical contrast within the phrases rhythmically and lyrically.


The relationship of the vocals to the rhythm section must always be acknowledged.  They should work to complement each other within the context of the tune.  The trio carries the focus when the vocals are silent- such as the introduction, phrase breaks and ending of a tune.  If the vocals have a fast lyric, the trio should take great care to allow the lyric to be heard by playing quietly or playing a ‘hit’ on a beat and then rest for the remainder of the measure.  The greatest attention must always be given to the lyric of the tune to tell the musical story.


Consider this …

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to choral directors in performing vocal jazz is a fear of the rhythm section.  Please – I implore you – approach your discomfort of the rhythm section as you would approach learning any multi-cultural piece. 


Consider the following questions:

Ø  How did you learn to pronounce foreign languages?

Ø  Where did you learn to stylistically perform a Brahms piece accurately?

Ø  What inspiration did you have to tackle African rhythms and languages?

Ø  How did you teach that Asian piece with the proper tone?


The answers to these questions can be the same as how to approach a rhythm section or jazz music in general.  Listen to the music, ask colleagues, attend workshops/classes, practice, bring in guest conductors or artists, and try!  As conductors and educators, we should teach and promote our own American cultural music- jazz.

Vocal Jazz Concepts for Young Choirs 2013


Rhythm Section

The traditional trio includes a piano, bass guitar and drums.  Guitar is also often included.  They play a supportive, yet equal role in the ensemble and should not be overpowering.  When the vocals are silent, the rhythm section plays strongly and should create movement (introductions, endings, rests, breaks.)  There should be a harmonious relationship between vocals and the rhythm section.  Always maintain a dynamic balance between the vocals and the rhythm section.



·                           The piano provides the ‘color’ of the chord.  The intricate jazz harmonies can be provided here if you have young vocalists singing unison.

·                           Chord punches/rhythms are played to support the style of the song making sure to give priority to the vocals and lyrics.

·                           Perform from the printed chart, with right hand only, split chords or with right hand chords and a left hand walking bass line. 

·                           The piano may also play musical fills.  


·                           The bass is the time keeper of the trio. It is imperative that this person has an excellent sense of time! 

·                           Use a bass guitar, double bass or a keyboard bass.

·                           Begin playing the root of the chord on quarter notes.  Work your way to “walking” quarter notes from one chord to the next.

·                           Emphasize beats 2 and 4.

·                           The left hand piano part may be played but not duplicated.


·                           The drummer creates the ‘feel’ or ‘groove’ of the song.

·                           Close the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4 with the left foot. This is the pulse in vocal jazz.  Use the bass pedal for kicks and hits only:  not for time.

·                           Using the right hand on the ride cymbal, play the pattern:

“dang-danga-dang-danga” or “gum-bubble-gum-bubble.” 

·                           Change the playing pattern at the end of verses to create variety.

·                           The snare is used for accents.   Using the left hand, play on the “and” of beat 1, then 2, then 3, then 4 for added effect.

·                           Sticks should not be too heavy.  Try size 7A sticks with a wooden tip.  Brushes, mallets and dowels are additional tools to use.

·                           Mallet rolls on the crash cymbal are great to use on ballads. 


·                           Guitar can play lead solos or comp in quarter notes.

·                           The guitar chord voicings should match the piano chords.

·                           The guitar should rhythmically complement the role of the piano.

Vocal Jazz Concepts for Young Choirs 2013



Simply stated, improvisation is spontaneous composition.  Every person on the planet has improvised.  Have you ever been singing along with a song, forgotten the words and continued singing?  Congratulations! You too, have improvised!!   


Try these general concepts when teaching beginning improvisers.


  • Sing unison melody lines from songs you are rehearsing.  Replace the lyrics with neutral syllables such as “Doo-doo-doo” or “Doo-va-doo-va-doo.” 
  • Give permission for students to use other syllables that fall out of their mouths.
  • Practice cacophony!  Allow the entire choir to practice improvisation simultaneously.  This takes the attention off of the individual while developing confidence.
  • Sing and know the roots of the chords.  (I-IV-V-I)  Listen to the bass line. 
  • Know when to start and to stop!  Know the form:  12-bar, 16-bar, AABA.
  • Use space.  Avoid continual run-on sentences!
  • Think variety to creature solo texture:  high/low, fast/slow, loud/soft
  • Say it.  Say it again.  Say it like you’ve never said it before.
  • Practice singing with instrumental solos.  This helps the vocalist create a personal vocabulary of long and short sounds to imitate the instruments.
  • Guide all students to improvisational success.  Some may be able to sing 12-bars.  Some will be able to trade fours (play twice through a 12-bar form.)  Others will only be able to trade twos.  Give them all a chance!
  • Allow rehearsal time to practice improv solos.
  • Incorporate blues scales and theory when appropriate.
  • Use a microphone in class.  It’s amazing what a student will do when offered a microphone!  Teach mic technique and etiquette, as well!


Literature Resources

Vocal Jazz Educators, Choral Publishers, Fake books, Jazz Recordings, YouTube


Get Started

I am certain that you are able to perform some jazz with your vocal ensemble given these suggestions.  Know that the art form grants you permission and encourages you to alter and personalize the chart to fit your choir.  Jazz is very giving and forgiving.  It is a living art which requires us as directors and educators to keep it evolving.  When you return to your ensemble, share some of America’s cultural music – jazz.


Thank you for coming! 

Please contact me with any questions!