Bob Stoloff: Scat!

Roseanna Vitro interviews the master vocal teacher about his books and his instrumentalist approach to scat singing

I have been in love with great singers since I was a little girl in Arkansas. When I learn the history and experiences that shaped my favorite artists and teachers, I gain knowledge for my own artistry and teaching. Bob Stoloff is at the top of my list as a vocal improvisation teacher. He possesses a warm tone with perfect intonation, plus he is a multi-instrumentalist who has patiently applied his vast knowledge to create the hippest books in today’s market place. He also possesses a warm personality and great sense of humor.

Bob__bobby__joeyphil_farnsworth_-_dsc_8639_span9
Phil Farnsworth

Vocalists Joey Blake, Bob Stoloff and Bobby McFerrin sharing the stage

Bob recently made New York City his permanent address and has released a new book titled, Vocal Improvisation. He is currently Voice Department Chair for the Institute of Contemporary Music at San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador. He is an internationally recognized adjudicator, clinician, and jazz choir consultant. Bob’s publications include Scat! Vocal Improvisation Techniques, Blues Scatitudes (Gerard/Sarzin), Body Beats (Advance Music) and the brand new Vocal Improvisation: An Instru-Vocal Approach for Soloists, Groups, and Choirs (Hal Leonard/Berklee Press).

Roseanna Vitro: When did you start singing and what did you love to sing?

Bob Stoloff: I began singing while attending Berklee College of Music during the years 1974-76. At that time I was a percussion principle but eventually switched to flute because it was more challenging for me. The only reason I started singing was because the cover band I was playing drums in needed additional background vocal parts. But I also started “jamming” with 2 other Berklee musicians who were into the music of Lambert Hendricks and Ross.

Did your parents push you to study different instruments or was it your idea?

Totally my idea. The minute I heard Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik” at age 10 I was hooked. My folks arranged violin lessons for me but I soon discovered the instrument was uncomfortable to hold and just didn’t resonate with me. Shortly after, I made a much better physical connection with the trumpet and took private lessons with a master player when I was 11. Over the next 5 years I developed a penchant for other musical instruments and discovered a natural ability to play drums, acoustic bass and flute, all without any training. Fortunately my parents recognized and supported my diverse musical proclivities by providing the instruments and sending me to a music camp every summer during my teen-age years (12-17).

During those summers I performed with a variety of mostly instrumental ensembles including jazz big band, concert band, symphony orchestra, woodwind quintet, brass ensemble, small jazz ensemble, string quartet, concert choir and a musical theatre production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” which was my rather tenuous but amusing operatic singing debut. I was a natural for the part of the incredibly pedantic Grand “Poobah, Lord High Everything,” who was a perfect match for my teenage arrogance. While attending the H.S. of Music & Art from 1967-69, I was performing professionally in the New York/New Jersey areas on a regular basis, playing trumpet with various small opera companies, a 10-piece soul band, several musical theatre “pit” orchestras, drums in a wonderful jazz quartet, acoustic bass in a studio rehearsal big band and flute for a 5-piece folk group. I have to say that as a multi-instrumentalist I was master of none, a pretty darn good trumpet player but a total natural on the drum set. Drums and rhythm will always be the heart of my musical passion, the core of musical expression for me….

Were you extremely disciplined in your practice habits? Can you share suggestions regarding practice time?

As a multi-instrumentalist my practice day was a long and tedious one and absolutely necessary to support my diversified musical interests which led me to become a studio musician when I moved to Boston and attended Berklee. At that time people were still producing their song demos in professional recording studios so there was always plenty of work, especially for musicians who doubled or tripled on rhythm instruments, horns and voice. When I wasn’t doing studio sessions my time was devoted to practicing.

I was very self-disciplined, methodical and dedicated since my income depended solely on my musical proficiency during that time.

When did you start singing jazz and improvising and did you always want to be a teacher?

I began listening to jazz at a very young age—the same time I started listening to classical music. My parents had some pretty good stuff on the shelf including Dave Brubeck’s famous album, Time Out, which featured the hit “Take Five.” I was also very influenced by the Stan Getz album they had (Jazz Samba) and soon graduated to Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and countless drummers. Oddly I never listened much to vocalists but once Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Ella hit my ears, the idea of using my voice as a musical instrument took hold of my soul. With all the technical training I had it was very easy for me to articulate all the improvisation I had absorbed listening to all those recordings during my formative years. Scat singing came naturally to me but I still give credit for most of my musical ideas to those great jazz players.

Yes, I always wanted to teach. I knew when I was studying trumpet at age 12. Saturday mornings were devoted to watching my teacher give lessons most of the day after my own hour of instruction. He was a wonderful man and inspiration.

As long as I have listened to you, I’ve never heard you sing an old or new standard.

I have recorded a few but I don’t do them justice. I rarely relate to the lyrics—perhaps a habit from being an instrumentalist most of my life.

Do you have any recordings singing lyrics and telling the story?

Yes, I have a Bob’s Greatest Hits CD that I distribute to all my workshop students as a door-prize. I took a shot at a few standards and even co-wrote lyrics to “Scrapple.” I recorded the CD, however, to demonstrate the importance of playing musical instruments and how it can improve instru-vocal articulation skills for scat singing, vocal percussion and vocal bass.

Do you scat on everything in your performance programs?

My performances are informal demonstrations of vocal improvisation techniques as opposed to concert presentations. My comfort level begins and ends with the art of teaching; center spotlight doesn’t really interest me. During my instrumental years I always enjoyed the more supportive musical roles like playing drums in a piano trio or sectional trumpet in a jazz or concert band or symphonic orchestra. Currently a vocalist, I still lean more toward offering my skills on vocal percussion/bass when I’m invited to perform.

But my adventures as a studio musician were optimal as I could perform a variety of musical styles, play several instruments, retake, overdub, layer or manicure parts as needed and remain invisible, concentrating only on perfecting the music. An OCD musician’s dream! The icing-on-the-cake for rhythm/horn players who also sing is having the opportunity to create the initial scaffold and then be part of each layer of the final structure…..a different kind of performing…..

How do you feel about improvisation using the lyrics to solo with? Sometimes I feel that this is becoming a lost art.

Vocalese? If the words are audible I think it’s a very expressive way to improvise. What better way to tell a story! One of the most brilliant “scatalese” artists I’ve ever heard, Joan Hill, wrote personal accounts of her entire life using everything from prescribed jazz solos by Horace Silver to classical melodies like Debussy’s Claire deLune. Adding spontaneous words to one’s own improvised lines is a superb form of musical expression and a supreme challenge to those who can already multi-task!

I understand you are a family man with a young daughter. Do you think about making a new recording and touring behind it or are you waiting for your daughter to grow up before you hit the road?

I’m on-the-road pretty much all the time now with my new position at IMC in Ecuador and on-going travel abroad. Last season I gave workshops in Cuneo, Milan, Bologna, Ferrara, Paris, Bogota, Vienna, Krakow, Helsinki and my New York City teaching debut thanks to you! No plans at the moment to make a new recording but I always look forward to traveling and meeting new scat enthusiasts all over the world.

What would you like to impart to all of the singers who read this interview? What wisdom on jazz singing would you like to convey?

Expectations are high for vocalists in particular; especially in jazz and contemporary groups where the lead singer is the center of attention. Historically, however, lead singers have unfortunately demonstrated less musical training compared to their comrade instrumentalists, thereby creating a less than desirable reputation of being “singers-not musicians.” For this reason I would like to encourage all voice principles, regardless of style, to get the most comprehensive and diverse musicianship training available through private or institutional study.

Besides the many demanding constituents of vocal technique, style interpretation and stage presence, vocalist training should also include ear training, notation literacy, knowledge of harmony, arranging, ability to write a lead sheet, familiarity with jazz and contemporary styles of music, practical knowledge of core rhythm section instruments- particularly grooves, time feels and comping patterns for keyboard, bass, drums, guitar, effective rehearsal techniques (counting/cutting off tunes, cues, intros and endings, etc.) and excellent communication skills using correct and appropriate music vocabulary. All these things will make you a complete musician.

Becoming a great jazz singer is a long process that takes dedication, love for the music and many hours of practice. My advice is to 1) listen, 2) absorb, 3) imitate and 4) create. Keep an open mind and ear to all types of music and nurture your musical perspective with both vocal and instrumental seasonings.

I would like to thank Bob Stoloff for taking time out of his busy touring and teaching schedule to do this interview. You can buy Bob's books from amazon.com, and study with him on-line at (www.studyjazzonline.com) or contact him via Facebook. Students doing college searches will be interested to know that starting this fall 2012, Bob will be teaching private lessons, group improvisation, jazz choir and ensemble fundamentals for vocalists at San Francisco University. IMC is a partner school with Berklee College of Music that offers an undergraduate program with the option of matriculating to Berklee Boston or Valencia, Spain after successfully completing 2 years.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!