The vocal jazz lifeline

Quinn VanPaepeghem

The shortest distance between the schooled choral director and teaching a jazz choir is the A Cappella Jazz Ballad.

1. Tone quality
2. Harmonies: dissonance/consonance/tuning
3. Phrasing/Text considerations
4. Literature

Tone Quality

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina wrote some of my favorite choral music. My first “ah-ha” moment singing in a choir came while singing portions of his Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass) in my college choir. One of the many things that appealed to me at the time, was the lighter more focused tone quality, sans vibrato, that the style demanded. As I have continued my journey learning about teaching a vocal jazz choir, I have used this same approach to choral tone with my high school students when singing vocal jazz. There are several reasons for this:

The close harmonies found in the jazz style require little or no vibrato

This tonal approach allows lyric nuance suitable to the style

It is healthy tone production, unlike, an ‘airy’ approach

It is an approach used in my A Cappella Choir, therefore the students are familiar with it (all of my jazz students are in my A Cappella Choir)


The use and understanding of extended harmonies in vocal jazz is uncharted territory for many directors who are attempting to include this American Art Form in their programs. There are many ways to approach this. I will describe a few:

Remove the color tones (anything beyond the triad), then add them back in, one at a time.

Experiment with bright and dark tone when attempting to tune minor seconds and major sevenths. Top pitch bright, bottom pitch dark, and vice versa.

Develop warm-ups that include these extended harmonies. I like to start with a prime unison then slip the singers into a colorful progression (I-vi-ii-V7-I), possibly stolen from one of the charts we’re working on. I use solfege frequently for this.

Have each non-melody part sing with the melody (just the two parts)

Remember the Quality of the chord (maj/min/+11, 9, etc) is an expressive tool.


The jazz ballad is fertile ground for group involvement in the creative process. Interpretation of the jazz ballad is highly reliant on nuance and phrasing (sound familiar?). Learn the “ink” then, express the lyric in a spoken manner, emphasizing the important words (de-emphasizing others). Discover the phrasing in this manner, and you (and your group) will create your own unique expressive performance. Experiment.


Finding quality vocal jazz literature is no different than finding quality literature for your chamber ensemble. You must ‘weed-through’ quite a bit of material to find charts that will work with your particular ensemble. There are writers and arrangers that you should be looking for, such as Dave Cross, Dave Cazier, Dave Barduhn, Darmon Meader, Kirby Shaw, Kirk Marcy, Jennifer Shelton, Jeff Horenstien, Kerry Marsh and many more quality arrangers/composers. Sound Music Publications represents many of the finest contemporary arrangers and writers. Contact them for sample recordings as well.

Listening to recorded examples of outstanding vocal jazz groups is extremely valuable to your own understanding, and the enlightenment of your students.