Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Art of Scatting

Well before the spoken word, early humans were singing (using their vocal cords to create musical tones) and to that extent, the human voice was the first musical instrument. Since language hadn’t yet evolved, it is speculated that the human voice was used to recreate the sounds heard in nature. What is certain is that singing is a universal human endeavor, found in all cultures and locations no matter how remote. As language evolved over the millennia, “singers” began to use words to tell musical stories, initially performed without instrumental accompaniment (a capella). As musical instruments evolved, the voice and instrumental music were combined.

The general consensus is that the first organized use of the voice was to sing and chant as part of religious ceremonies and rituals, but that over time singing became a form of entertainment. Informally, “folk music” was orally transmitted among the people of a region, but over time a more formal process evolved, with the lyrics and music of a song being written down and “published.” It was of course the recording industry and radio in the early 20th century that propelled singing into a mega world-wide business.

Howard Stone

At the heart of vocal music is the use of the human voice to deliver the lyrics, the words that tell the story, but that is not always the case as there are many vocal techniques used to create sounds, but not words, that aren’t therefore truly lyrics – humming, whistling and yodeling come to mind and very recently, beatboxing. In addition, there are many songs where the lyrics aren’t recognizable words. Musicologists referred to these as “non-lexical vocables” and many songs have been written with such “lyrics.” Whether it is “fa-la-la, la-la, la-la-la” of “Deck The Halls” or “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey Jude,” the lyricist has written the text of what is to be sung.

What happens when the vocalist decides to stray from the lyrics of the composer? In jazz there is a long tradition of doing exactly that. Known as “scatting,” the vocalist improvises by singing nonsense syllables creating his own melody and rhythm, much like an instrumental soloist does. But in this case, the voice is the musical instrument. Scatting can take the form of mimicking the sound of other instruments or the scatter can harmonize with his own instrument, such as a guitarist or bassist that scats along with his own solo.

The origin of scatting has been lost in history, although Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong has long been credited with having been the inventor of the technique. As the story goes, Satchmo and his Hot Five were in a recording session in Chicago on Feb. 26, 1926, when his music stand toppled over “scattering” the music and lyrics of the song he was singing, “The Heebie Jeebies.” Instead of stopping the recording, Satchmo sang an improvised passage of nonsense syllables, comparable to a “riff” he might have played on his trumpet, and legend suggests that is how scat singing was born. (Listen on YouTube: Heebie Jeebies-Louis Armstong and his Hot Five). In fact, jazz historians can point to earlier examples of scatting and probably what best explains the origin of scatting is the old New Orleans’ adage: “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” So even though Satchmo didn’t invent scatting, he made it extremely popular and ever since, legions of jazz singers have adopted the technique and taken it to new and exciting places.

Like foodies who have their favorite dishes, every jazz fan has his favorite scat solos. I could list dozens of my favorites, but space and the reader’s patience must be taken into consideration, so I’ll focus on two. Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” is considered to have been one of the greatest jazz singers of all time and a master of scat. Ella’s performance of “How High the Moon,” recorded live in Berlin in 1960, is one of the definitive examples of the art of scatting and some would say the greatest scat solo ever. During the course of her almost-seven-minute rendition of this standard, she spontaneously quotes the melodies of over a dozen tunes, with humor and technical command of her voice, combining different nonsense syllables to imitate the sounds of various instruments, while she artfully weaves together scat phrases and lyrics in a way that makes perfect sense to the listener (Listen on YouTube: Ella Fitzgerald How High The Moon Live in Berlin 1960).

The epitome of combining scat and humor is the performance of “Mumbles” by the legendary NEA Jazz Master, flugelhorn player and vocalist Clark Terry. Slurring words, Clark appears to be “speaking in tongues” using a vocabulary that sounds as if he is singing in a dialect of a long-forgotten Scandinavian language. His voice inflection, rhythmic conversational tone and mixture of an occasional recognizable word makes the listener believe that he is close to breaking the code of an almost comprehensible swinging language. “Mumbles” is the perfect example of how words and music can interact to lift the listen to a level of pure pleasure (Listen on YouTube: Clark Terry does “Mumbles” on Legends of Jazz).

Satchmo, Ella and Clark are no longer with us, but the art of scatting is very much alive today. It has been embraced by young jazz singers who are now adding their creativity to this unique vocal technique, one of whom is 24-year-old Veronica Swift, who scats like a seasoned pro, while combining perfect pitch and phrasing to her interpretations of the Great American Songbook and bebop classics. Veronica acknowledges being inspired by the great vocalists who preceded her, but is clear about her approach when she sings, “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.”

Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio in concert at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.