Transforming Jazz Bands into Versatile Ensembles with Vocalists

As a professional vocal coach who has worked closely with jazz bands, I invite band directors to consider integrating vocalists into their ensembles. This decision can transform your band’s musical journey, enriching your student’s educational experience and enhancing your performances’ overall impact.

Over a decade ago, I was approached to consult with a junior high and high school instrumental program seeking to incorporate vocalists with performance training. Witnessing the growth of that program, from just three singers to over 60 vocalists across 20 groups, was nothing short of inspiring. It’s a testament to the potential and benefits of integrating vocalists into jazz bands.

Jazz bands have long been celebrated as hubs of instrumental learning and performance. However, adding vocalists can open a world of musical and educational possibilities. Here’s why you should consider taking the plunge:

Enriching the Repertoire: Jazz boasts diverse stylistic branches and vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole have left an indelible mark on its history. By incorporating vocalists, your band can explore a broader range of jazz standards, delving into nuanced phrasing and uniquely vocal expression.

Educational Opportunities Beyond Instruments: Vocalists bring a fresh perspective to the ensemble, challenging instrumentalists to listen and interact in new ways. For vocalists, singing within a jazz band setting cultivates invaluable skills in timing, phrasing, improvisation, and microphone technique.

Developing Ensemble Skills: Playing alongside vocalists demands a heightened sensitivity to dynamics and timing, fostering a deeper sense of musical cohesion and responsiveness among band members. These skills are essential for jazz performance and transferable to other musical genres.

Fostering Community and Collaboration: Music is inherently collaborative, and integrating vocalists into your ensemble can foster a stronger sense of community among your students. The shared experiences of rehearsals and performances forge lasting bonds, enriching students’ social networks and professional prospects.

Enhancing Performance Appeal and Audience Engagement: Vocal pieces add a familiar and engaging element to jazz performances, drawing in audiences and making concerts more accessible. The visual impact of solo vocal performances can also elevate the overall concert experience, leaving a lasting impression on listeners.

Incorporating vocalists into high school jazz bands is about expanding musical horizons and fostering innovation, collaboration, and growth. It’s about honoring jazz’s tradition while pushing its boundaries forward, ensuring its continued evolution and inspiration for future generations.

Many resources are available to help you in this journey.  In his book, The Real Jazz Pedagogy Book: How to Build a Superior Jazz Ensemble, I collaborated with Dr. Ray Smith on his chapter, Helping the Vocalist in Your Band. We cover such topics as finding charts that can work or be adapted to work with a vocalist, finding the right vocalist through auditions, vocal improvisation, microphone technique, and learning the art of fronting the band. 

So, to all the band directors considering integrating vocalists into their jazz bands, I encourage you to take that leap of faith. The rewards are boundless, and the impact on your students’ musical journey will be immeasurable. Together, let’s embark on a musical adventure that transcends boundaries and celebrates the transformative power of jazz.

Jennifer Madsen, a luminary in vocal jazz, boasts over 45+ years of experience as an award-winning vocalist, instructor, musical director, and education committee member of the Jazz Education Network.

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