How different can singing jazz be from singing pop? The answer is: very different. Get your average pop singer to take on a jazz standard and it just won’t be jazz any more. Jazz singing demands an entirely different sense of timing, rhythm, phrasing and an entirely different attitude, and there’s one final essential ingredient: improvisation. In this blog, we tackle the techniques that make jazz singing possible.

Jazz Vocals: Timing, Phrasing & Improvisation
The renowned American jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan

Different from Pop?

In terms of basic vocal technique (so breath support and so on) there’s very little difference between singing jazz and singing pop. Neither style puts any less or any more strain on vocal chords, but what does differ is the repertoire: one repertoire requires a little more energy than the other. “Jazz asks for a different approach to singing when compared to pop,” says Ronald Douglas, jazz singer and vocal coach. “Jazz has many musical hallmarks that aren’t only present in the instrumental sections, but sit deep in the vocal work.” Jazz, just like pop, describes a wide range of different genres and subgenres, but here we’re going to focus on mainstream jazz – that is to say – classic jazz, which at its peak included all the greats, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

While they’re an important element when looking at jazz vocals, we’re not going to delve into the harmony and chord theory involved in jazz, but we will look at rhythm and phrasing, and that all important ability to improvise.

That Swing

We’ll start by looking at timing. “Jazz has a swing to it, which is based on triplets and has a syncopated feel,” explains Ronald (if you need a crash course or a refresher when it comes to your timing, see our other blog about tightening up your timing, which includes an in-depth explanation of triplets). “In jazz, you can’t get away with just singing straightforward bars of eight. When you sing in bars of eight, you do it with a swinging feel. The swing is something you just have to develop a feel for, and takes a lot of listening and a lot of practise. Syncopated singing is something you have to teach yourself to ‘dare to do’ – it’s something you really have to develop.”

In pop, counts one and three are the most important in the measure, since that’s where the accents land. “In jazz, counts two and four are the important ones,” says Ronalds. “The drummer’s hi-hat plays an important role here, since it’s hit on the two and four. In faster numbers, there is no accenting hi-hat on the two and four since things are moving too fast, in which case, you get more emphasis on the one, and maybe the three. This kind of variation is why it’s so essential to develop a feel for the count and measure.”

Stand Above the Rhythm

Perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to singing jazz is being able to almost entirely let go and experiment with the rhythm. “You have to try, try, and try again. Sing something a hundred times and seek to do things differently every time. It’s the only way to loosen up and learn,” is Roland’s advice. “As the singer, you need to try to stand above the rhythm. Just watch a few clips of Ella Fitzgerald on YouTube and see how she does it. To do it, it’s important to have a good bass line that you can fully lean on, leaving you completely free to play with rhythm. The bass is like the engine of any jazz trio, and as the singer, you need to always listen to the band – and especially that engine.” Playing with rhythm is something you learn by doing it. “Don’t try to just copy other singers. Of course, you can start there, just to learn the basics, but what you want to develop is your own rhythmic freedom,” stresses Ronald.

In terms of timing, you have three options per note: on the beat (so on the count, like in pop), ahead (just before the count), or laid back (hanging just after the count). A classic example of a jazz song sung with timing that sits ‘ahead’ is ‘Girl from Ipanema’. This timing stems from Brazilian bossa nova. Laid back timing is very common in jazz: “It’s less about singing the note after the count and more about lingering on the count. Again, it’s something you have to learn and develop,” adds Ronald. “The laid back feel isn’t necessarily about where the note is placed either, but how the note is placed by the voice.”

Phrasing & Pronunciation

The next essential ingredient of any good jazz vocals is phrasing. Put simply, this is how the sentences are made, so how a vocal line is sung. “Phrasing is bound directly to the lyrics,” explains Ronald. “As the singer, you’re also the storyteller, so you need to understand the words that you’re singing, believe in what you’re singing, and try to communicate that belief to the audience. Phrasing plays a really important role in this exchange: where do the accents lie? Where do you place the pauses? Make conscious decisions and play with the lyrics but always make sure that the meaning remains clear. Listen to some of the greats. One of my personal heroes when it comes to phrasing is Mel Tormé, and a beautiful example of his phrasing can be heard in his rendition of ‘Blue Moon’.”

Since most classic jazz songs came from America, they are traditionally sung in American English – so with an accent. “For many singers it’s important that these songs are sung as if you were born in America,” notes Ronald. “This means that you really need to channel your inner American. Since I originally come from the Netherlands, I set the bar pretty high for myself. But having been mistaken for an American when I performed in America, I took that as a great compliment, and think I’m doing pretty well. If you’re not a native English speaker, it can be pretty tough to earn your stripes as a jazz singer when it comes to phrasing.”


Besides timing and phrasing, the ability to improvise is the next essential skill. In fact, improvisation is an absolute must if you want to have any chance at all when taking on jazz singing. “Step one is playing with the rhythm. Step two is playing with the melody, and step three is scatting.” We already covered rhythm in our section on timing so now we’ll look at step two: playing with the melody.

“Of course, this isn’t easy”, explains Ronald, “The variations that you add to the melody have to fit the harmony. This means that you need to learn about how harmonies work as a jazz singer. You also need to make them your own – learning from books won’t be enough. Learning to play an instrument is a big help. The piano is the best learning tool since it provides a full overview of how harmonies work and how you can find them, and you don’t need to be a virtuoso pianist to do it – with a little knowledge, your piano can become a really good friend.” Ronald himself has played the clarinet since he was young. “Being able to play an instrument contributes to the development of musical skills and knowledge in general. I continue to be grateful that I did that.”

For any jazz vocalist that wants to start playing the piano, Ronald recommends the book ‘Musicianship for the Jazz Vocalist’ by Nancy Marano.

But, back to improvisation itself: “When improvising the melody, there’s no need to change every note, of course. Anu ad-lib needs to fit and serve the story that you’re telling. So don’t make changes just for the sake of making changes – always make conscious decisions. Remember – you want to draw people in so you can share the story with them. And don’t just put your breathing on auto-pilot, but make it part of your interpretation.”


The third step of improvisation is scatting, meaning letting go of the lyrics entirely and playing with vocal sounds. “Scatting isn’t a must. It’s not for everyone and not all of the great jazz vocalists did or do it. Scat didn’t even originate in jazz vocals. It came from the trumpetist, Dizzy Gillespie who, when the moment came, would sometimes just ‘scat’ instead of solo. There’s a direct relationship between vocal scatting and trumpet or saxophone scatting, since you’re essentially mimicking a soloing brass instrument when you scat, so it’s a really good idea to study trumpet or sax solos if you want to learn to scat. For example, listen to the trumpetist Chet Baker. His solos are easy to sing once you’ve studied them.”

Tips & Pitfalls

So, what’s the biggest pitfall to look out for when singing jazz? “An obvious one is not counting at the right tempo,” says Ronald. “If it happens on stage, then you have no choice but to carry on, since you can’t just stop the show. The way to solve this is to spend time training your feel for the tempo. Make sure that you have a clear and solid picture of the tempo of every song you sing. The same applies to the key you’re singing in. Know the key of every song, so that when you step up during a jam session, you can let the musicians know.” Any final tips? “Make sure that you have all your affairs in order. And what I mean by that is, make sure that your lead sheets are clear – because this applies to singers as well. Write all of your parts out by hand. Simply by doing this you’ll gain a better understanding of the material you’re working with – it’ll also help you remember it.”

The Big Role Models

Below are some of Ronald’s biggest role models and inspirations:

Sarah Vaughan: She was the start of everything for me. Her sound, timing, and scat vocals were unique. Her vocals came the closest to the phrasing of brass musicians.

Mel Tormé: He was one of the greatest crooners, singers, and scatters of his time. He started out as a drummer and could also play the piano.

Mark Murphy: Mark took things further than Mel. His sound was deeper and his scat vocals were unique. He came closer to Sarah in that regard.

Blossom Dearie: I absolutely love her unique sound. She was both an amazing singer and pianist and was a standout performer because of her choice of repertoire and her ability to inject humour into it.

Shirley Horn: As a singer and pianist she was known for being able to play at a painfully slow tempo that still had swing. She was also able to make music from the silences – the rests and pauses within her singing and music.

Greetje Kauffeld: Because she is by far the best jazz singer that the Netherlands has ever produced. Full stop!

Kurt Elling: The best jazz singer of today. He’s heavily influenced by Mark Murphy, which you can definitely hear, but he’s also definitely contemporary. He sits way up there right now. Unique!

About Ronald Douglas

Ronald Douglas became a professional singer late in his career. He finished college having studied the social sciences and would only later study music at a conservatorium. He is now an internationally regarded jazz vocalist who teaches both at a conservatorium and gives workshops all over the world. In his youth, he would constantly make music playing his clarinet at the local music association, and it’s this ‘musical baggage’ that has fed into his work as a vocal coach. His approach to teaching doesn’t follow any specific method, although he admits that he feels most affinity with Jo Estill’s EVT method (Estill Voice Training). “It ultimately comes down to the development of the vocalist and not the method. No method will ever work if there is no artistic quality. For any singer that wants to improve, it’s best to find a teacher who is at home with the style they want to sing, and has masses of experience with it – so a teacher who has done much more than just take a course in vocal methods.”

See also…

» Microphones & Accessories
» Singing Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

» Vocal Harmonies: A Few Tips & Some Theory

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