The instrumentalist as a vocalist is one of the most fascinating aspects of Jazz. Be it a logical outgrowth of their musical abilities, as in the case of Louis Armstrong, or Jack Teagarden, or incidentally, as with Benny Goodman, or Benny Carter, it’s interesting to hear how an artist handles their voice versus an instrument. From the 1920s to 40s, a variety of circumstances and events propelled leaders to put down their horn, and “sing a chorus,” with the results ranging from groundbreaking, to comical, but unusually somewhere in between.
The first group would be those instrumentalist-leaders, who intentionally put down their horn in order to sing. Louis Armstrong should be the first one to come to mind as Satchmo, essentially, invented Jazz singing. Singing is really the root of Pops’ style and genius, Armstrong sang from an early age. Learning and perfecting a capability on trumpet provided Louis with a magnificent way to expand upon singing style and to further express himself in ways that singing could not provide.
After forming his own recording group, The Hot Fives, he singing finally made it onto records in 1926, including the groundbreaking “Heebie Jeebies” and the overlooked “Lonesome Blues” as well as 8 other singing specialty numbers in that first year. By the late 20s Armstrong’s vocal style had been perfected, and using a Big Band - which he would do for the next almost two decades - performed everything from tin-pan-alley tunes, evergreen ballads, Blues, pseudo-spirituals, spirituals, and sometimes, impressively, his own compositions. His rhythmic incomparability, swing, and bravura, are preeminent, on everything from ballads, “Blue, Turning Grey Over You,” and “Just A Gigolo,” to hot numbers, “That Rhythm Man,” “Swing That Music,” and classics like “Love Walked In,” and “Stardust.”
The case of Jack Teagarden and Woody Herman, (and some others), is similar to that of Armstrong, but slightly different, in that their singing is a logical and natural outgrowth of their instrumental talents, but not as integral part of their performances as Pops’ vocals were.
Teagarden, modeled himself on Armstrong, and began singing in the late 20s, with his first recorded vocals with leader Ben Pollack. Teagarden sings on a handful of recordings with Pollack, “If I Could Be With You,” “Beale St. Blues,” etc…with his polished-yet-swinging drawl. [Teagarden is also a refreshing break from Pollack, who, although an outstanding drummer was not a very good vocalist, and as time went on, insisted on singing on more and more records.] Big T continued to sing with bands he was playing with: Paul Whiteman in the mid thirties, and his own orchestra following that, into the 1940s. “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and “Fare-Thee-Well To Harlem,” recorded with Whiteman, are noteworthy. Under his own name, “Loveless Love,” “Stars Fell On Alabama,” and “A Hundred Years From Today,” are quite fetching.
Woody Herman, who was never primarily a vocalist, was, nevertheless, natural. Herman was thorough, confident, rhythmically assured, and comfortable in everything from pop tunes, to Blues, and hot numbers. Herman is undoubtedly the most prolific example of the singing leader-instrumentalist, vocalizing on well over 100 recordings between 1936 and 1942 alone! In Herman’s case it would be easier to note which recordings he doesn’t sing on. “Better Get Off Your High Horse,” “The Sky Fell Down,” and “Blues In The Night,” are three of many outstanding recordings featuring Herman.
The second type of singing leader would be the incidental, or as Benny Goodman put it “apologetically.” In good nature, and for a bit of novelty, Goodman sang occasionally, be it on record, “’Taint No Use,” or live, “’Taint What You Do,” at the October 2, 1939 ASCAP Carnegie Hall concert. The King of Swing was smart and left the singing to others. The incomparable Coleman Hawkins spoke mostly through his tenor, although does sing on one recording, 1936’s “Love Cries.” He does a fairly good job of handling the lyrics, with more than a bit of influence from Armstrong, but isn’t quite able to translate his facility on tenor to his voice. None-the-less, it’s interesting to hear Hawkins sing, though we can be glad it’s an isolated incident. “The King”, Benny Carter, is a much better and more frequent singer than Hawk or BG, but Carter’s singing is not where his genius or virtuosity lies. Singing is a very minor aspect of his multi-faceted musical skills.
It is intriguing to hear how each individual instrumentalist approaches and handles singing. In some instances it’s natural; yet another way of expressing themselves, with finesse and assurance. For others; it’s done for novelty and interest, these singers know their best abilities come through their instruments.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]