Aug 22, 2012
The art of the vocal jazz group has a long history. Early singing groups that came out of the swing era like the Andrews Sisters or the Boswell Sisters pioneered the idea of close vocal harmony taking the lead over an instrumental jazz band. Male groups such as the Ink Spots (”Stompin’ at the Savoy, “That Cat is High”) and Mills Brothers (“Tiger Rag”, “Chinatown My Chinatown”) certainly had elements of jazz in their singing as far back as 1931. The Four Freshman were highly influenced by the Big Bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton and had a hit with “Tuxedo Junction.” Herman helped make widespread the use of vocal groups attached to Big Bands by creating the Blue Flames, a group that introduced singer Blossom Dearie.
The Blue Stars of France, composed in part of Michel Legrand's sister, Christiane Legrand, Bob Dorough and Ms. Dearie, hit the charts in 1954 with their version of George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland.” The Blue Stars would eventually become the Swingle Singers, the mostly acapella group that had a hit with their version of Bach’s "Air on the G String", recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet.
The most influential jazz vocal group would be the trio composed of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross. They pioneered modern vocalese, turning instrumental sounds into vocal arrangements, and even writing lyrics to classic tunes to further capture their sonic qualities. They topped the Downbeat Reader’s Poll as Best Vocal Group for six consecutive years before Ross left, to be replaced by Yolande Bavan. Lambert died just a few years later in a tragic car accident, ending the group’s collaborations. Check out their classic Sing a Song of Basie to see just how innovative and fresh they sound even today.
The past thirty years have been dominated by groups like the New York Voices, and the Manhattan Transfer, the latter of whom crossed over to the pop charts a number of times in the Eighties. However, this decade has found group recordings to be few and far between, to the point that Downbeat no longer lists the category in their polls.
But there is hope. The rise in the popularity of acapella groups (see Straight No Chaser and other groups that came out of colleges across America) may mean that more people will be singing and writing for, listening to, and - dare we hope – buying the music of jazz vocal groups.
The latest sign that all is not lost comes from the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet from the Washington, D.C. area. Currently composed of Ginny Carr (alto); Robert McBride (tenor); Holly Shockey (soprano); and Andre Enceneat (bass), the group has been together for over two decades, and they make the kind of swinging sound that recalls all the prior legends. Even more impressive are the original compositions on their latest CD, Hustlin’ For A Gig, written by Ms. Carr. That CD was released this Spring and hit the Jazz Charts with a bullet.
I spoke with Ginny Carr just a week after the group appeared on NPR‘s Weekend Edition, showcasing their vocal chops. We talked about the “overnight success” of a group that has been gigging for all these years, how she writes for the various singers in the group and the state of jazz in our nation’s capital. Click here to listen to Podcast 293, which includes musical selections from Hustlin’ For A Gig such as “Hustlin’ For A Gig”, “He Was the Cat” (a tribute to the great Eddie Jefferson, a pioneer of vocalese), “Java Junkie” and “Gone Gone Gone.”