Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
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Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Krall

Vocal Jazz

Vocal jazz artists first flourished with the large swing orchestras that were at the forefront of the music scene in the 1930s. Legends such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald elevated vocal jazz to the level of an art form, and brilliant singers like Al Jarreau, Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall have continued to advance the genre.

From Blues to Vocal Jazz

Paving the way for the emergence of vocal jazz were the great blues vocalists of the early 20th century - Ma Rainey, Bettie Smith and Ida Cox among them. These blues divas performed in minstrel shows (itinerant caravans) and collaborated with the best jazzmen of the period - from Tampa Red to Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong - thus helping to thrust vocal jazz to the front of the stage.

With the song Heebie Jeebies, released in the 1920s, the incomparable trumpeter and improviser Louis Armstrong popularized scat, an improvisational vocal technique whereby lyrics gave way to onomatopoeia - the singing of nonsense syllables, generally to an improvised tune. With his exceptional sense of tempo, unique vocal inflections and offbeat phrasing, Armstrong set the tone, becoming the model that so many others would try to follow.

During the same period, singer Ethel Waters provided a bridge between popular music, blues and jazz with her hit 1933 song, Stormy Weather. In the course of her career, Waters collaborated with several jazzmen, including Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. She was among the first Afro-American vocalists to achieve enormous popularity with a broad spectrum of audiences.

Initial Stirrings

In the early 1930s, big band music was all the rage across the United States. Accompanied by the large jazz orchestras of the day, crooners and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Jimmy Rushing and Louis Jordan were enormously popular. The 1940s were dominated by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, both of whom have an unchallenged place atop the vocal jazz pantheon. Sinatra, for his part, enjoyed a string of hits, including Strangers in the Night and My Way, and he continued to record and perform throughout his life.

Ella Fitzgerald Also popular during this period were all-women vocal groups like The Andrews Sisters and The Boswell Sisters. The leading jazz divas, however, all began their careers with swing orchestras, overcoming the prevailing chauvinist attitudes that made it difficult for a woman - let alone a black woman - to earn her place alongside the men. But Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan did just that, and today they're considered the finest female jazz vocalists of all time.   

The Holy Trinity

The first and perhaps the greatest of all jazz singers, Billie Holiday was discovered in a Harlem nightclub in 1932. Within a year she made her first recording with Benny Goodman, and before long she was performing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson and Count Basie. After a childhood fraught with hardship, Lady Day led an equally tumultuous career, dimmed and cut short by alcohol and drugs. In 1958, she released the album Lady in Satin, and in 1959, she was gone at the age of 44.

A versatile artist blessed with a pure, warm voice and unmatched vocal dexterity, Ella Fitzgerald moved seamlessly from jazz to bebop and bossa nova, but she really cut her teeth in the 1940s as an incomparable jazz improviser and scat master. In the course of her brilliant career, the First Lady of Song sang alongside the Ellington and Basie orchestras. In 1958, she recorded Gershwin's Porgy & Bess with Louis Armstrong. Her supreme vocal talents continued to burn bright well into the 1980s.

Sarah Vaughan, the third in the triumvirate of great female jazz singers, began her career as a pianist and singer with the Earl Hines big band. In 1945, she released her classic song Lover Man, immediately drawing notice with her full and lustrous voice. As well as explore the rhythmic and harmonic gymnastics of bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Vaughan made the transition from jazz to musical variety with ease, also performing alongside Basie, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones.

Tony Bennett A number of fabulous singers emerged in the mid-1950s, among them Betty Carter (one of the last of the great bebop singers), Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Anita O'Day and Carmen McRae. The 1950s also saw the American vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, perfect the technique known as vocalese - the setting of lyrics to melodies originally written for jazz orchestral instruments. The 1957 release of I Loves You Porgy by singer and pianist Nina Simone signalled the arrival of a different kind of female voice: Simone, a contralto, had the flexibility to dabble in jazz, soul, blues and variety.

Decline and Renaissance

With the advent of rock & roll and disco in the 1960s and 1970s, vocal jazz entered a prolonged downswing before re-emerging in the early 1980s, thanks in part to New York-based vocal quartet The Manhattan Transfer, American singer and guitarist George Benson, and fellow American jazz, soul and R&B singer, Al Jarreau. The stunning Bobby McFerrin has since broken new ground with his "vocal percussion."

Karen Young A new generation of talented female jazz vocalists has also come along. Leading the charge in Quebec is accomplished singer Karen Young. South of the border, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diane Schuur and Cassandra Wilson have helped to nourish and redefine contemporary vocal jazz by integrating elements of soul, funk, pop and R&B.

In 1996, Diana Krall vaulted to stardom with the album All for You, and a number of young female vocalists have since followed her lead. Among them are Coral Egan, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux and Melody Gardot. Canadian Michael Bublé has proven to be a worthy heir to the crooner tradition, though his music, many would argue, is more pop than jazz.

Vocal Jazz at the Festival

A number of household names in vocal jazz have taken the stage at the Festival. The 1983 vintage opened with a performance by Sarah Vaughan and closed with an appearance by Ella Fitzgerald. In 1987, Diane Schuur and Holly Cole appeared at the Festival, and in 1988, Carmen McRae paid a moving tribute to Thelonius Monk. American singer Dianne Reeves made her Festival debut in 1991, and 11 years later she was presented with the Ella Fitzgerald Award. In 1993, audiences had a chance to discover the powerful voice of Dee Dee Bridgewater. On the men's side, the great Tony Bennett has made several Festival appearances, none more memorable than his 1985 show at the opening gala. In 2005, Bobby McFerrin brought his unique vocal wizardry to the Festival, and fans were once again able to appreciate the talents of Canadian Michael Bublé.

The 2009 Festival

Patricia Barber In 2009, Montrealer Ranee Lee again brought down the house with her nimble yet powerful scat, and Madeleine Peyroux, fresh off her success covering songs by Leonard Cohen and Hank Williams, presented material from her new album, Bare Bones. Also performing at the 2009 Festival were Patricia Barber and Melody Gardot. Seated at the piano, Barber delivered an inspired performance of The Cole Porter Mix, giving fans a taste of her deep and compelling voice, while the mysterious and charismatic Gardot returned to charm audiences, after her successful Festival debut in 2008.

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