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All that jazz

In Tuesday's Washington Post: Something to warble about: the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist Competition, by Anne Midgette.

Edited to add: I belatedly discovered that there is audio available on the Post's website of the performances of all three finalists: click here to listen.

As someone who spends a lot of time listening to classical singing, I not only enjoyed the heck out of this jazz gala performance, but wished that some of the principles displayed on Monday were more often evident in opera. Both classical and jazz singing, after all, are about the freedom that’s born from an intimate knowledge of history and tradition. Jazz just puts a more obvious premium on being yourself.

The most obvious superficial difference is in the quality of sound, and therein lies the biggest common fallacy about opera singing. Because of opera’s emphasis on vibrato and power, people think of it as artificial: you have to make a big, hooty sound. Young singers, especially, often approach it like a heavy mantle to be reverently donned -- leading to a kind of stiffness on stage.

The fact is, though, that a good singer always, without exception, sounds like him- or herself. The greatest opera singers, in fact, harness a freshness or directness that transcends the technique. Callas, Caruso, Pavarotti, Bergonzi, Ponselle: those voices are all as distinctive as thumbprints.

Tradition isn’t something to which you mold yourself. It’s something that you absorb in order to be able to express yourself more individually. It’s like a rhyme scheme for a poet: a framework, an organizing principle, or an inspiration rather than a straitjacket. Too often, I fear, the straitjacket is what ends up coming across from the opera stage. I wouldn't be so silly as to idealize jazz at classical singing's expense, but I wish that some of the values of jazz singing -- savoring the words, improvisation, and absorbing tradition in order to sound all the more like yourself -- were more widely understood as classical values, as well.

By Anne Midgette  | October 6, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington  
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Great musicians do not become indistinguishable from the music. They stamp the music with their own unique sound, technique, and interpretation while the music, in turn, stamps them with its creative essence. Whether classical, jazz, folk, or pop, all great musical performances share a nearly magical blending of the art and the artist, neither dissappearing completely into the other. Great actors embody a role without loosing themselves entirely. The ability to perform brilliantly while maintaining your personhood in the art is a gift to be celebrated.

Posted by: whiterhino | October 6, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree, completely. I love it when a singer completely connects to the text and makes it their own. When I was a young singer in college, my coach spoke to me about this very thing. He said, "If you want to sing art songs well, listen to the recordings of Ella Fitzgerals, Tammy Wynette and Sarah Vaughn." When I asked how they could possibly teach me anthing about classical music, he responded, "Because they use the text so completely to tell the story. The wrap their voice around the text to give it meaning. They are not merely making words to support their beautiful sound." I will tell you, those ladies did teach me to be a better singer.

Posted by: dkwoods | October 6, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

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