I tend to shy away from any blanket statements about how to sing a particular style, since each one has so many variations that are all valid. But in the interest of not rambling on forever, I’m going to give you some suggestions about how to sing jazz. None of these are hard and fast rules. There are many, many ways to make a genre work for you, but if you’re struggling or have a background in a different style of singing, then these tips are for you.
1. Play With the Phrasing and Rhythm
If you come from a classical, or even a musical theatre background, you’re probably used to pretty closely adhering to the notated rhythm. Try to be a little more playful with it. Hold a syllable out longer than you normally would and then play catch up by doing the next part a little faster; speed part of a line up and then draw out the rest of it; take breaths in places you might not have considered. In other words, just make the phrasing your own, and don’t feel like you have to stick to the way it was done in the past.
2. Have Fun With the Melody
Don’t feel like you have to stick to the written melody (although you should learn the original melody well before altering it). Try replacing some notes with others, not enough that the melody is no longer recognizable, but enough that it catches a listener’s attention, even after they’ve heard 300 different covers of the song. This is especially true if you’re repeating a section of the song.
3. Ornament It
Along similar lines as altering the melody, add some ornamentation. If this is daunting to you, don’t worry about starting with long terrifying runs. Just throw in a note bend or very short run. Instead of just ending a phrase on a note, throw in the note right above it for a quick flourish. Listen to this example:
4. Experiment with Amplification
A classical singer might need to fill the Met with her voice with no need for amplification, but this isn’t the case for a jazz singer, and you can make your vocals reflect that. Lean into your mic and try letting more air out through your notes than you’re used to. You may not want to sing everything this way, but because of mics, you have a wider range of sound colors that are available to you that you may not have worked with before.
5. Lose the Crystal Clarity
If you’re used to singing with pristine clarity and perfectly timed ringing vibrato, try to loosen up. Instead of holding that bell-like high note out, consider doing something new with it. Pour air into it, do a run off of it, make it brassier, or even change the note altogether. For sustained notes, try a straight tone into a relaxed, maybe even slower-than-usual vibrato.
6. Play With the Key
Unlike when you audition for a musical or opera, you have way more leeway with your key. Play around with different keys, until you get the vocal quality you’re looking for, whether that be low and world-weary, high and brassy, or mid-range and conversational.
7. Have Fun With Diphthongs and Consonants
Because you have the benefit of amplification, you don’t have to shape your vowels in a way that will make the sound carry as far. Instead of feeling like you have to draw out every vowel, play with drawing out a nasal consonant once in a while: “hommmmme” instead of “hoooome.” Or emphasize your dipthongs by lingering on both consonants: If you have to sustain the word, I, for example, try “aaaaaaheeee.”
8. Learn to Syncopate
If you’ve grown up on classical singing or even a lot of musical theatre and pop, you’re probably used to the strong beats being on 1, and to a lesser extent 3, if you’re in 4/4 time. Try clapping along with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” You may find yourself clapping on the syllables when, saints, march, and in– beats 1 and 3. Instead, try clapping on the, go, and ing. Experiment with singing on these weaker beats as well.
9. Learn to Scat
You don’t need to scat to sing jazz, so don’t let this intimidate you. But if you’re so inclined, start imitating different instruments: the “wah wah” of brass, or the “bip-bop” of percussion and improvise on these syllables. Learning to scat is definitely its own beast, so if that’s further than you want to go with your jazz singing, there’s no shame in that.