Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jazz Paradigm Re-adjustment

In a recent post, I talked about the rise of vocalists in jazz. The point being that vocalists are surviving better than instrumentalists the aging process of the jazz repertoire and the need for anyone to have follow Bird/Tatum/Any Other Jazz Giant's version of "All the Things You Are;" that at one time, jazz instrumentalists and audiences might have forged a strong emotional bond, but that singers are now better able to do that.

A neat theory, but one derived from my buying into the common wisdom: that jazz is intrinsically instrumental and that cyclically, vocals "crowd out" instrumentals for the public's attention. Reasons used to explain this are as useless as the bromides used to explain fluctuations in the stock market. So, to replace this flawed common wisdom, I hereby propose a new Unified Vocal/Instrumental Jazz Field Theory: 
Einstein could never come up with this

Instrumentalists have been responsible for the dynamic musical changes in jazz, but without the presence of singers, or hybrids (think Armstrong) absorbing and translating these changes into vocals, which then fed back to soloists (think Lady Day and Lester), jazz would have been listened to and respected, but it never would have inhabited the center of American musical culture. Rather than "crowding out" instrumentals, vocalists have actually sustained jazz as a popular force. 

The perceptive will note that this is actually the current status of jazz: respected, listened to by a relatively small group, ignored by most; essentially a niche music. For instrumentalists today, the vocal context is where jazz soloing is more likely to be heard, expanding audience exposure and possibly opening up employment possibilities for musicians in a non-vocal context.
Statistics on the percentages of recordings throughout jazz history that were instrumentals versus vocals, and sales stats on these would be very telling. I'm told that such data is scarce and unreliable, especially before the 1940's. I'm just a lowly blogger without a grant (aka "bomb thrower"), so I'll just toss a few skimpy internet-derived perspectives into the pot:
At this site you can find one person's notion of the "Top 25 Jazz albums of all time." They're all instrumentals and I bet vocals would be hard to find on anyone's list out there.
Here's another chart, of The Most Successful Artists of Each Decade. They're almost all vocalists.
This site, by a Swedish statistician, has something he calls The Top Songs of the Decade.
Take it as you like. In this nebulous statistical world, cases could be made to fit a great many theories (jazz crop circles outlining II-V changes?)
In any case, I don't think this breaks down to the Low versus High Music dichotomy. At least, it may not be a useful way to see it, as the musicians who made jazz happen are on record as preferring the "good vs bad" model of music, as opposed to the "high-low" one. Is Shaw's Begin the Beguine High or low? What about Armstrong's Dinah? 

Is the general misperception about the relationship between instrumentals and vocals in jazz the result of a yawning crevasse between the makers of jazz and the writers on jazz, with listeners wandering bewilderedly in critical limbo? Or-although this is almost unthinkable-am I just plain wrong?


Lorena Barba said...

I think your new Unified Vocal/Instrumental Jazz Field Theory is on the right track, but can be strengthened by including the symbiotic relationship of instrumentalists and vocalists in jazz history.

Many like to say that jazz singers emerged from the vocalizing of horn-like sounds. Although it cannot be denied that jazz vocalists listen to instruments and imitate their sound, we should not forget that at the origin of jazz, horn players developed a more interesting sound by imitating the human voice!

Steve Provizer said...


Thanks for reading and for your comment. There's no question that the voice came first and that symbiosis in jazz has been ongoing. My Prez/Lady allusion was meant to convey that.

I'd like to point you to a couple of previous posts along these lines-

Thanks again,


Lorena Barba said...

I enjoyed very much reading the two older blog posts that you linked up there. Thanks!
It's refreshing to "meet" a player who is not only aware but embraces the vocal inspirations of early jazz—perhaps I'm burdened by too many encounters with players that treat vocalists as non-musician (aka, "girl singer").

Steve Provizer said...

Thanks, Lorena. Yes, there has been bad blood between singers and instrumentalists through the years. It's an interesting phenomenon and worth writing about.