In the fall of 2019, Juilliard will launch a new master’s degree program in vocal jazz. It’s an impressive list of singers’ names on the advisory committee: Carla Cook, Kurt Elling, Hilary Gardner, Lenora Helm, Carmen Lundy, Dianne Reeves, and Charenée Wade. And there’s a tough audition to get in—singers must perform from the same categories of required roots tunes as the instrumentalists (gospel/country, swing/songbook, jazz standard, and Afro-Hispanic/Latin) and improvise in each category, and the skill of all instrumentalist and vocal applicants will be judged by the same yardstick. (For what it’s worth, once they’re in, instrumentalists might have to sing as part of their juries, so that yardstick clearly has two sides.)

This approach to screening singers differs from that of opera or musical theater programs, where the audition material is based on the physical qualities of the singer’s voice (range, vocal quality) and how that voice fits in with a codified repertoire. In these auditions it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a male singer doing the same song as a female singer, and interpretation of a score as written trumps any sort of improvisatory skill the singer might have. In these two worlds, the job of the accompanist (almost always piano-only for auditions) is simply to support the singers, not to engage with them in expanding on what the written music provides.

What singers do professionally, regardless of their training, is anyone’s bet, though. Professional opera singers might cross over (Eileen Farrell) and operatically trained singers might be better known in jazz (Nicole Zuraitis). Broadway singers might quite legitimately perform opera (Kristin Chenoweth) or jazz (Julie Benko). Jazz singers rarely move in the opposite direction, but within the jazz genre they may scat hardly ever (Cassandra Wilson) or not at all (Diana Krall), follow the melody as written (Stacey Kent) or sing around it (Fay Victor), focus heavily on lyrics (Lorraine Feather) or find them optional (Bobbie McFerrin).  And opera, theater, and jazz singers perform, record, and love their traditional pop, the playing field where all three genres play nicely together (this would be a very long list). Point being, when it comes to the protocols that help to prepare young singers for careers in jazz, it’s a complicated business.

This month a slew of well-schooled jazz singers light up the holiday stages. At JALC, South African-born Fulbright Scholar Vuyo Sotashe will front the JALC Orchestra in its holiday tribute in the Rose Room on Dec. 19-23, joined by Veronica Swift, who placed in the 2015 Thelonious Monk Competition, no doubt on the strength of her precise, lightning-fast scats. In the Appel Room, crooner Sachal Vasandani will pay homage in “Nat King Cole at 100” Dec. 14-15, and Mary Stallings, who used to play with Dizzy himself, will headline in the room that bears his name on Nov. 29-Dec. 2.

Pianist/singer Champian Fulton brings her cheery 2017 release, Christmas with Champian (s/p) to the Blue Note on Dec. 9 and the Birdland Theater on Dec. 23 (with a short jaunt to France in between to perform the music of the American opera Porgy & Bess). But the auspicious event is the official NYC release of her new CD, The Stylings of Champian (s/p), a two-disc set of standards perfectly suited to her lilting voice and classic jazz sound, at Mezzrow on Dec. 30. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers & Hart never sounded happier.

Singer/composer Luciana Souza delves deep into the romanticism of the Brazilian saudede with her latest release on Sunnyside, The Book of Longing. Offset by simple guitar and bass, Souza’s voice seduces and soothes with these 10 originals based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen (the title is taken from his 2007 book of verse), Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, and Souza herself.  She releases the album at Jazz Standard Dec. 14-16.  

Kelly Green, pianist/singer/composer, brings a fresh understanding of standards to her sophomore album, Volume One (s/p). A talented, facile pianist, Green’s accompaniment is the optimal showcase for her fluid, expressive vocals. Green and her trio will be at Mezzrow on Dec. 5 to play from the newly launched record.

With 12 Little Spells (Concord), due out next March, singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding will shatter all notions of what jazz musicians do. This new work is poetic in feel, operatic in intensity, cinematic in scope—and solidly rooted in jazz musical idioms.  An epic game-changer. 

(Reprinted from the December 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)