Phil Schaap Jazz

The Origins of Vocalese

The vocalese tradition of setting lyrics to recorded Jazz improvisations is probably best known through Jon Hendricks’ masterworks during the halcyon years of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross - but the idea precedes the 1950s and is actually older than Jazz. Setting lyrics to known, but wordless, notes was first - and most simply - demonstrated by the setting of text to music that was originally only instrumental. Those aware of the January 10, 1929 Bee Palmer recording of “Singin’ The Blues”, where she sings text to Bix Beiderbecke’s then-two-year-old solo, make the argument that the vocalese tradition starts there. I doubt that Bee Palmer is the innovator, although her recording of “Singin’ The Blues”- using a wing of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra that included Frank Trumbauer and perhaps Bix himself,  a lost session for over 60 years - is the first illustration of setting fixed lyrics to a Jazz improvisation that I am aware of. It may be that the root of inspiration for the vocalese concept comes from the instrumental solos of Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. Superseding, as an illustration, the Palmer record is the 1934 recording by the legendary Marion Harris, in her last record date, singing text to both Bix & Tram solos from their (actually, Tram’s) famous February 4, 1927 recording of “Singin’ The Blues”. Almost always overlooked is the group - part skiffle, part Jazz, part vaudeville, part early R&B and/or early Doo Wop - The Cats And Fiddle, who, on their very first record, “Gang Busters”, in 1939, vocalized - wordlessly, but in harmony - an 8 bar Benny Carter solo from the October 10, 1933 Chocolate Dandies recording of the tune “I Never Knew”. [Truly an amazing double obscurity.] But their effort – without words and a storyline – is part of another branch of the vocalese tree. The breakthrough of textual vocalese, of course, was King Pleasure’s 1952 BIG HIT, “Moody’s Mood For Love”, that utilized Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics to a 1949 James Moody recording of “I’m In The Mood For Love”, on which Moody played alto sax. Previous to that, though, were unrecorded efforts by Duke’s singer, Joya Sherrill, and - especially - the young and still-unknown Jon Hendricks. Eddie Jefferson, who was born on August 3, 1918, felt that he was the originator of the style, basing his claim on his having set lyrics to a Lester Young solo on Count Basie’s “Taxi War Dance”, as well as to 4-bar bits by Buddy Tate (improvisations that Jefferson, until his death on May 9, 1979, always misidentified as played by Herschel Evans, who, himself, was deceased by March 19, 1939 when Basie cut “Taxi War Dance”). When Eddie wrote his lyrics to the tenor improvisations of the 1939 “Taxi War Dance’, however, is not known. It would have to be, however, well after the Palmer and Harris recordings.