The Singing Epidemic

All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer—and a few are actually good at it

"Sexy," "sensual," and "seductive" are words being tossed around a lot in jazz these days, in praise of a number of comely female vocalists who must not be my type. In jazz criticism two full generations of musicians and styles are commonly referred to as "postbop," meaning subsequent to Charlie Parker's and Dizzy Gillespie's innovations of the late 1940s. Diana Krall, a perennial Grammy nominee and two-time winner, for her albums When I Look in Your Eyes (1999) and Live in Paris (2002), is the first jazz star who could be described as post-feminist. Until very recently a female singer's physical attributes were something a male journalist would pretend not to notice, for fear of appearing unenlightened. But that was before a popular culture cynically geared to adolescent males and their hair-trigger libidos wore down the resistance of adults, and before Sex and the City reglorified the girly girl. Reading about Krall, you'd think it was kowtowing to outdated political correctness not to gush about her "full and sensuous lips," "beautiful skin and straight blond hair," and "endless legs."

Musically, Krall's appeal is as a throwback. The Great American Songbook codified by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as a sensible adult alternative to rock-and-roll in the 1950s skews old today. So does jazz. Over forty herself now, Krall hasn't lured college-age audiences to jazz (she's often said to resemble the actress Kim Basinger, whose last significant role was in 8 Mile, as Eminem's mother). But riding the momentum created by Linda Ronstadt's LPs of standards with the arranger Nelson Riddle in the early 1980s; MTV's embrace of Tony Bennett a decade later; the tears for Sinatra following his death, in 1998; the graying of the Baby Boom; and somehow even the ubiquity of Starbucks, Krall has done as much as anyone to renegotiate "old" into chic, sophisticated, sexy.

For me, where she leaves the most to be desired is in the area of rhythm. This is curious in that her breakthrough album, a 1996 tribute to the Nat King Cole Trio of the 1940s, opened with a novelty song called "I'm an Errand Girl for Rhythm." But it's hardly surprising, because the supple swing that was practically a birthright for even the lesser singers of Sinatra and Fitzgerald's generation doesn't come naturally to singers born after the eruption of rock and soul. "If you wanted to pat your foot to [Krall's] singing, it would fall asleep," Nat Hentoff wrote a few years ago. My first reaction is to say that's an exaggeration; my second is to wish I'd said it. Krall's ballads drag something awful, and her habit of coyly bending and breaking notes and syllables as if that were all there is to singing jazz causes her to lose the beat on medium tempos, which are as fast as she ever gets. She has a small voice, which needn't be a problem—so did Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, and Shirley Horn (whose confidential delivery Krall often seems to be imitating). Unlike all theirs, Krall's voice gets trapped in her throat and jaw. She doesn't breathe properly, nor does she know to aim for what vocal coaches call "the mask"—the area comprising the hard palate, the sinus cavities, and the cheekbones, which allows even smaller voices to resonate. These technical deficiencies put tension in her voice, and it's not the sort of tension that can be resolved to yield the relaxed sensation of swing. Nor is it sexual tension, despite what so many of her male admirers think they hear.

Then there's Jane Monheit, a brunette Rapunzel about fifteen years younger than Krall. I happened to hear her in New York a couple of nights after the 2004 presidential election, when the midtown audience seemed in a blue state in more ways than one. It could have been an ideal situation for a performer: one form of heartbreak is similar to another, and almost any torch song convincingly delivered would have soothed us. Monheit's big opportunity was on Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Haunted Heart," a ballad immortalized by Jo Stafford in 1947. Monheit overembellished the melody, which might have been forgivable if she hadn't also overemoted, once even interjecting a theatrical sob. Stafford could have told her that the point isn't to show your audience you're feeling a lyric but to make them feel it. I don't think I was the only one unmoved.

W e expect more from singers than we do from instrumentalists, because words speak to us in a way no trumpet or saxophone can—and because their instrument is also ours. It's only natural that we're harder on them when they let us down. Sometimes, when my patience wears thin and my thoughts border on cruel, I worry that I sound like Simon Cowell, American Idol's dumbed-down Addison DeWitt. A few seasons ago Cowell told a teenaged finalist that she made him feel as if he were at a party being forced to listen to somebody's untalented child. Auditioning new vocal CDs, I often get the same feeling.

"Everybody wants to be famous," Cowell has commented. "It's the fastest-growing epidemic on earth." There's an epidemic in jazz, too: a singing epidemic. The "number and variety" of American singers is "astonishing and almost endless," Whitney Balliett began a New Yorker profile of Tony Bennett; in 1974 he went on to illustrate his point by naming 118 of them, famous and obscure, living and dead, from Russ Columbo to Roberta Flack. I swear I've received that many new CDs by aspiring jazz singers in just the past few months. I constantly get e-mails from publicists asking if I've had a chance to listen to this one or that one, and if so, what I think. More often than not the honest answer is, I can't remember.

All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer, or at least to sing standards. This includes middle-aged pop stars trying to age gracefully. I've lost count of how many of them have released collections of standards in the past few years, but the list starts with Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Cyndi Lauper, Rita Coolidge, Queen Latifah, and Debby Boone. Only the idiosyncratic Mitchell demonstrates much feeling for older songs. The one who's enjoyed the most success, and not undeservedly, is Stewart, whose rhythm is strictly follow-the-bouncing-ball, but who could give most of the new jazz singers I've heard lessons in how to put a song across. Even the country singer Ronnie Milsap has gotten into the act, as have the apoplectic talk-show host Regis Philbin, the red-haired American Idol finalist John Stevens, and the opera diva Renée Fleming (who lavishes so much attention on vocal coloration and so little on making sense of the words that you wish there were supertitles). A Christian singer named Mary Haskell chose an album of standards (albeit only uplifting ones) for her secular crossover. But the prize goes to Paul Anka and his "swinging" versions of such rock songs as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Eye of the Tiger"—pseudo-jazz for hepcats who can't tell the difference between Nirvana and Survivor, or between Anka and Bobby Darin.

The new singers don't necessarily all sound alike, but they tend to resemble one another in mistaking vocal calisthenics for improvisation. Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and the hopefuls on American Idol are ruining pop singing with their overuse of melisma, a style of ornamentation that Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and other soul singers brought with them from gospel in the 1950s and 1960s. For the great soul singers, holding on to a syllable and stretching it out over several notes was a way of suggesting that something had grabbed them and wouldn't let go; whether it was the Holy Ghost or lust depended on the song. Carey and the others are just showing off their pipes, even though they have much less to flaunt. The jazz version of this is riffing like a horn, and although this is supposedly the mark of the jazz singer, it's a problem, because delivering lyrics requires making literal as well as musical sense.

Simon Cowell occasionally gives useful advice, and in the same spirit I find myself wanting to caution younger singers that just because Charlie Parker improved on George Gershwin and Cole Porter doesn't mean they can—and that although Sinatra and Billie Holiday proved their musicianship by taking subtle liberties with melodies (the emphasis is on "subtle"), our identification with them resulted from their way with words. As long as I've appointed myself Simon Cowell, here are a few more tendencies I'd like to curb. Contrary to what most singers today seem to believe, scatting is as much about choosing the right harmonic intervals as it is about rhythm; so forget about it unless your pitch is as true as Fitzgerald's or Betty Carter's was. Don't do a song as a bossa nova unless it's a bossa nova. Don't write your own songs unless you have a knack for it. Don't try to woo aging Boomers by jazzing up soft-rock hits from the sixties and seventies.

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Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist on jazz for The Village Voice. His latest book is Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader. More

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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