When I was 11, I was visiting a charming local sheet music store and saw a book and CD duo called "The Jazz Singer's Handbook" - I convinced my dad to buy it for me, on the condition that I would actually use it. I did not use it. Learning to sing jazz through reading this book has been on my to-do list for over a dozen years, always just far enough down the list to never do it, but never so far down that I'd toss it in the pile of abandoned dreams. At this point, I don't even know how I'd listen to the songs on the accompanying CD. Why do I want to learn to sing jazz, and why haven't I for all these years?
Jazz music is centered around improvisation. Some of my favourite singing memories are times when friends and I made up musical sounds together, "yes and"-ing each other's patterns by singing them back with new embellishments. Improvisation is a space of creativity and play, and these are things I would like more of in my life. I do think that creative and playful improvisation can be practiced in many ways - more formally in things like theater classes and partner dance, as well as more casually through things like banter and sex. However, I expect to continue to regularly make up music as I sing to myself and with others throughout my life, and learning about jazz feels like it would bring a greater toolbox of skills and techniques to those experiences.
Jazz also has a vague but strongly pleasant aesthetic in my mind. My memories of jazz music are scattered: my dad singing "Summertime" with his friends in our living room, listening to my friends playing in jazz band rehearsals from the couches in my high school's music room, a first date as a jazz group played in a vintage-newspaper-themed underground lounge. How could I know so little about a genre and yet feel such a strong attachment to the idea of it?
It's easy to fantasize about having skills to do something, and much harder to actually practice and develop those skills. The jazz scene is well known for having very complex theory and expecting a high degree of technical skill from its musicians. I scare myself away from jazz by imagining all the new scales and chord progressions I'll need to learn, all the ear training I'll have to practice (interval naming, melody playback, harmonic dictation, solfege singing) just to be able to accomplish anything fun.
I wish there were fewer glorified stories of musicians locking themselves in practice rooms and drilling skills for hours on end. This is not how I want to learn music, and this image of the "real" and "dedicated" student is holding me back. I've been thinking recently about ways I can develop skills while not forcing practice. Do the work, but do it playfully as much as possible.
I don't know if I'll ever get around to seriously pursuing jazz singing, but here are some fresh ideas for related practice:
If you're reading this and have advice on building jazz skills in a way that feels hands-on and regularly creative and playful, I'd love to hear from you! I'm willing to put in work learning theory and practicing technique, and I know that these skills expand my creative toolbox, but I want to get creative as soon as possible!