Just read a brilliant post from jazz vocalist Carol Sloane that got me thinking again about jazz singers. Some of what I'm about to say could go for certain instrumentalists I've run across in my years behind the bass, but the worst offenders (it pains me to say) are singers.
As Ms. Sloane points out, learning to sing or play a well constructed melody is a skill that in and of itself takes plenty of time and devotion to master. Just because one knows the melody and lyric of a song does NOT mean one has the skills to improvise or scat (ugh, just writing the word makes my flesh crawl). Skilled jazz players (and the few singers who have taken the time to do so) spend YEARS learning the language of jazz improvisation in order to play meaningful solos in this style. It should be self-evident (but clearly isn't) that the necessary skills include practical knowledge of song form, theory, harmony, rhythm, jazz history and the many stylistic elements that comprise a convincing solo (melodic shape, use of space, density, inflection, etc).
It is true that many inexperienced singers (and the all too frequently heard "solo" pianist) improvise as if they've never heard this music before in their lives. Slightly less common but still epidemic is the soloist who thinks that improvising is "making up something that no one has ever thought of right in this moment". So this would mean that the only "true" improviser is the junior high kid who stands up for the very first time in "stage band" to play 16 bars on "Sing, Sing, Sing". I think we can all imagine just how that might sound.
Listening is the key. And it is not the kind of casual listening one does while making dinner. We're talking about formal, analytical listening. Why is it that good soloists spend a lot of time transcribing other people's solos? Are they trying to be copycats? No, they are learning a language. Singers: you are not born knowing how to scat. Listening to a few Ella recordings does not qualify you to shoo be do bah your way through a chorus of anything.
Recent events in my own career go right to the heart of this matter. I was trying to do a project for my jazz education website specifically for jazz singers. I went into the studio with a dear old vocalist friend of mine to record some examples of how it is supposed to be done. In the process I discovered that my (now former) friend was guilty of all of the things we were trying to help budding singers avoid! Very sad and discouraging. Our friendship ended over it.
Oh yeah, one more gripe. Sing the freakin' melody, will ya? In another wonderful post, Carol Sloane discusses learning this lesson from none other than Oscar Peterson himself.