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Singing for Our Supper

Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Peter Cincotti
Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Peter Cincotti
Cassandra Wilson
Aaron Neville
Kurt Elling
Nnenna Freelon
Peter Cincotti
Tierney Sutton
Richard Bona

Some two years ago, I moderated a panel at the International Association for Jazz Education convention in Long Beach, Calif., to discuss the tension between jazz’s vocal and instrumental camps. The panel was called “The Song Is Who?” and the topics ranged from the role of accompaniment and importance of musical literacy to sexism and what it takes to merit the status of a “true musician,” something singers are routinely denied.

Only in the meet-and-greet afterwards, however, did singer Nora York voice a bone of contention overlooked during the panel. “Nobody wanted to say it,” she told me under her breath. “But you know what? It’s really about the money.”

Commercial success is an important feature of the dominant image we have of singers today, especially given the prominence of Diana Krall, Peter Cincotti and Norah Jones. The friction success causes may spend more time brewing behind the scenes than in plain view, but it occasionally bubbles to the surface. Referring to the rift between vocalists and instrumentalists that this perception has caused, Jimmy Scott is matter-of-fact. “The record companies did that,” he says. “It’s about the money.”

It’s also presumed that singers have greater opportunities than their instrumental counterparts. As Kurt Elling has said on occasion, “I play the right instrument.” In an interview with journalist Kitty Grime, Al Jarreau explained, “Chances are if I’d been say a piano player, I’d have been passed over, just as oodles of them are passed over. It’s because of this instrument, the popularity of the voice and the lyric. It’s because of the voice they took that chance on me.” Or as trumpeter Tiny Davis lamented in the 1988 documentary Tiny & Ruby, “If I had been a singer instead of a horn player, maybe I’d still be cutting records. Be in magazines, in Vegas, on Broadway, playing nightly in the New York clubs. A professor. But it’s been one night stands since the war was over.”

More often than not there is truth in perception, but with the challenges of sustaining jazz as a commercially viable genre, it’s worth trying to quantify whether or not singers do fare better than instrumentalists in the marketplace. Is there a level playing field-at the record labels, in the stores, clubs, concert venues, media, and on the radio-or do these corporate structures currently place singers at an advantage?

When you ask most people working within the recording industry if singing sells, they will likely react as if you have asked them a very dumb question. Yes, of course, it does. You only need to look at the Billboard charts for ample proof.

Singers invariably dominate the traditional jazz charts, which rank the top 25 recordings according to sales. They are generally followed by various kinds of compilations, many of which may also contain vocals, as well as a select number of recent reissues or catalog items, and the occasional movie soundtrack. In fact, recordings by singers accounted for the entire Top 10 on Billboard’s 2002 year-end chart that tallies sales figures and included such familiar artists as Diana Krall, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Jane Monheit, Steve Tyrell and Cassandra Wilson. Of the Top 10 traditional jazz recording artists for the year, nine were singers while only one was an instrumentalist: John Coltrane.

In the past, while consumers were still replacing their record collections with freshly minted CDs and had comparatively fewer choices between past treasures, reissues sold well. Today, compilations have a stronger presence on the charts when it comes to the catalog recycling, ones with titles like Bossa Nova For Lovers (Verve), Essential Miles Davis (Columbia), and Platinum Glenn Miller (RCA/Victor), not to mention various remix albums.

In general, success on the charts for new instrumental releases is rare. In 2002, only two-saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Footprints Live! (Verve) and the collaboration by pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Michael Brecker and trumpeter Roy Hargrove titled Directions in Music (Verve)-made it onto the year-end chart. Billboard confirms that saxophonist David Sanborn’s timeagain (Verve)-which spent a total of 11 weeks at No. 1 during the past summer, nine of them consecutive-has had the longest run atop the traditional jazz chart since SoundScan began calculating the sales figures in December 1993.

The disparity between vocal and instrumental sales is thrown into even sharper focus by examining the actual number of copies sold or units that the chart positions represent. Although sales change weekly, the SoundScan figures tend to show dramatic increases in the level of sales for those who hold the top few chart positions. A release by Diana Krall, for example, will likely be the No. 1 recording on the chart, and might sell about 100,000 copies a week in the initial period after the release. But the next slot could very well be occupied by a performer who sells only 5,000 copies, some five percent of Krall’s sales.

Tallying year-end figures for the top 25 in 2002, singers generated 88.2 percent of sales. Compilations comprised 9.5 percent; of this figure, 5.3 percent were predominantly instrumental and 4.2 percent predominantly vocal. Current instrumental releases accounted for 2.2 percent. An album needed to sell 24,000 units to reach the top 25 and 9,000 units for the Top 50. 30,000 was a number widely cited as a strong showing for an instrumental artist.

What accounts for the chart dominance of singers? “The voice is a more popular instrument than almost everything else,” says EMI Jazz & Classics Senior VP Tom Evered, echoing a widely held belief. “Everybody’s got one. But I think it’s also a more personal way of performing. People identify with the singer a lot more strongly than they identify with the player because you hear the lyrics; you think you’re getting inside of the artist’s mind.”

Certainly, the voice is unique as an extension of the human body as well as in its gift for words. But for those who feel that instruments have equal communicative powers, Evered’s answer is less than satisfying. If the voice’s innate qualities could simply be converted into sales, then it would stand to reason that every singer would reap the financial rewards. This isn’t necessarily the case, whether we look to the comparatively modest paychecks of Nora York, Jimmy Scott or Kurt Elling. Of the singers currently recording, a majority are independent artists. Of those signed to major labels or established indies, a still smaller number achieves a place on the charts.

Even if we concede that singers have a naturally greater appeal than instrumentalists, history has shown time and time again that instrumental music can still thrive. In the swing era, the big bands played America’s popular music. Hard bop and soul-jazz hit the charts throughout the 1950s and ’60s, fusion in the 1970s. The contemporary jazz charts have always been dominated by instrumentalists, providing an example that is almost exactly the inverse of the traditional jazz charts. (Sanborn’s recent switch from the former chart to the latter casts his summer achievement in a somewhat different light.) Looking at the big picture, industry veteran Joe Fields, president of High Note records, says, “There’s no general equation, no general rule that singers will outsell instrumentalists. Not at all.”

Any number of variables affects an artist’s sales, including the economy, the state of the market, visibility, reputation and-one hopes-artistic quality. But the link between vocals and sales (and some might add the popularity of smooth jazz) points to a specific, overarching issue: accessibility. “Not everybody is into-let’s call it fine art,” Fields explains. “Or art that’s a little thick or hard to understand.”

If vocals with their accompanying lyrics have advantages over instrumental music beyond the realm of emotional connection, it is-as Evered implies-by making the repertory easier to interpret and more recognizable. Certainly, the general familiarity of the standard songbook and more recent pop fare that comprises the bulk of the current vocal repertory helps foster communication between artists and audiences. But the same holds true for instrumentalists, as can be witnessed in the recent success of the instrumental piano trio the Bad Plus. An emphasis on melody also makes repertory easy to remember.

Still, vocals have other purely practical advantages over instrumental music. As Rob Saslow, marketing director for Telarc, points out, “The listener has the ability to walk away from that song, immediately identify what it is and, sometimes, who sang it.” An untrained listener will find it more difficult to differentiate between two alto saxophonists or pianists than two singers. And it stands to reason that a consumer can’t buy a recording if he or she can’t correctly identify the artist, or at least the name of the tune.

Moreover, in the vocal arena, jazz tends to look like familiar territory to general audiences. Asked if the singers’ high sales might result from a built-in relationship with pop consumers, one simply based on the fact that jazz singing and pop are both types of vocal music, Verve President/CEO Ron Goldstein replies, “Absolutely. Totally. Who’s buying these records? It’s probably an adult audience. It may be people who at one time loved Steely Dan, Van Morrison and some other acts like that-the Baby Boomers. But if they’re moving on musically to some degree, they’re going to go right to jazz vocalists. That’s the next step in my mind.”

In fact, labels and some of their biggest selling artists have purposefully capitalized on the fuzzy boundaries between vocal jazz and vocal pop to make their music more approachable and have a broader commercial appeal. It’s hardly a recent phenomena: one only needs to looks as far as the string of novelty hits produced by Mitch Miller, Columbia’s head of A&R in the 1950s, or the manipulation of Jimmy Scott’s choice of material by Savoy and other labels that recorded him throughout the decades.

Does an Etta James ballads album belong on traditional jazz chart, where she also placed in last year’s Billboard Top 10? How about Michael Feinstein with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? Or Curtis Stigers covering Billy Joel tunes-not to mention other, better-known aging male pop icons, such as Rod Stewart, who have recently recorded albums of standards. This, of course, leads down the slippery slope of what should or should not be included under the rubric of “jazz singing,” words that can look very different from a musical perspective than they do through corporate eyes.

It’s telling that the term “crossover” has taken on an important secondary meaning in recent years. Although it has long been an industry catchall to refer to projects by an artist with roots in one genre who is momentarily exploring different terrain, it signifies little anymore from a musical standpoint; there has been too much blending of genres. “As a word, it’s been raped and left for dead,” one industry executive admits. “‘Crossover’ means what? You don’t please either side.” Instead, it has far greater currency today as an adjective that describes recordings that have crossed the great demographic divide between the core jazz audience and the mainstream public. (For instance, a release by Krall, Cincotti and precious few others is literally said to have “crossed over” when it moves from the traditional jazz chart to the Billboard Top 200, a chart that purely reflects sales apart from genre.) A term that once referenced repertory and stylistic conventions-in jazz singing, projects that generally leaned towards pop-has evolved into one routinely equated with market success and broader demographics.

If the general appeal of vocal music stems from its approachability, some believe it feeds an industry trend. “It’s very cyclical, of course,” says Mary Ann Topper, the artists’ manager who has perhaps best surfed these changing tides. Topper, whose former clients include bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Benny Green and trumpeter Wallace Roney, worked with Krall at the point of her mid-1990s breakthrough. Her current roster consists of Monheit, Cincotti, bassist-singer Richard Bona and New York Voices. “The ’80s was a time for legends,” she says. “The ’90s was a time for Young Lions. And today, vocalists reign.”

Even a cursory inspection of the Billboard charts back in the 1990s reveals a far greater balance between vocals and instrumentals than in evidence today. Within the labels, a combination of factors conspired for the singers’ rise to preeminence.

With the gradual rerelease of individual titles and, in particular, their 1994 Jazz Masters series, Verve helped introduce singers such as Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald-still their biggest selling catalog artist-to a new generation. They had a distinct advantage in their holdings over most other companies because of the legacy inherited from founder and concert impresario Norman Granz that dated back to the 1950s, a classic period for vocals.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Fields used High Note’s predecessor, the Muse label, to steadily record members of the older guard, such as Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy, as well as performers who blurred the lines between jazz and R&B: Dakota Staton, Etta Jones, Gloria Lynne and Ernie Andrews. At the same time, Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme? were paving the comeback trail at Concord.

Elder stateswomen Shirley Horn, Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln were signed to Verve in the late 1980s; Joe Williams worked for both Verve and Telarc. Lena Horne recorded for Blue Note. The tide had turned. Although it was close to Frank Sinatra’s farewell song, he crooned along with rocker Bono on the 1993 Duets album (Capitol). Tony Bennett appeared with Elvis Costello and k.d. lang before thousands of young, would-be fans in an unprecedented 1994 performance on MTV Unplugged.

Meanwhile, the field was open for younger talent. With the exception of Dee Dee Bridgewater, who attempted a career in pop before returning to jazz, a generation of singers had been lost to rock ‘n’ roll-whether they lacked interest in jazz or, like many of their elders, could not feasibly make a living in the field. Diane Schuur and Dianne Reeves garnered early attention, as did Cassandra Wilson, who most critics acknowledged as the musical leader. Linda Ronstadt and Harry Connick Jr., who became the biggest names of the 1980s with sentimental collections of standards, anticipated the later success of Krall, the pivotal figure in what Goldstein calls an “explosion of vocalists.”

It would be impossible to say exactly how many of them there are. “Changing the Beat,” a recent study of jazz musicians carried out by the Research Center for the Arts and Culture at Columbia University’s Teachers College, reports that singers comprise 11.3 percent of those surveyed and 14.4 percent specifically in New York City. (The sample was self-generated by its participants.) Still, that feels like a very conservative figure, at least with a more loosely construed definition of “jazz singing.”

Every time you turn around there seems to be another CD by a new singer. On a local level, perhaps that’s attributable in part to the fact that singers are rarely sidemen and CDs are now a prerequisite before one can even get a gig as a fledgling leader. Besides, the technology is now widely available and it is relatively inexpensive to record and manufacture your own album.

The labels, however, are actively capitalizing on the popularity of singers as they would any trend. The development and support of instrumental artists has generally become more selective-although the executives tend to cast themselves as apologists rather than wholehearted supporters of the policies that they implement as stewards for larger entertainment conglomerates.

Goldstein, Verve Music president since 1998, has made singers an even more significant presence at the label since he was promoted to president/CEO last January. He sees them as the essential force behind the label’s current direction and goal to capture a larger audience.

“I feel it’s important that we pretty much carry the torch for jazz instrumental music,” says Goldstein, “but I have certainly reduced the roster to the biggest names and the most important people: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, etc. The problem that I face is that it’s hard for me to sign some new acts and add to the roster when I know that not much is selling. The emphasis has to be on things that can have some commercial success. And that goes against my own personal ideas and feelings; I’ve always been associated with music that I personally have felt strongly about.” While McBride, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and guitarist Russell Malone have recently departed the label, the current roster offers an abundance of singers. The more traditional talents, which include Horn, Krall and Lincoln, are joined by such pop-leaning performers as Richard Bona, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, Linda Ronstadt, George Benson, Me’Shell Ndeg?Ocello, Aaron Neville and Kenny Rankin as well as newcomers Chiara Civello, Jamie Cullum and Lizz Wright.

Glen Barros, president of Concord Records-the former home to Clooney and Torm? whose roster similarly includes Cincotti, Feinstein, Schuur, Stigers, Karrin Allyson, Patti Austin, Regina Belle, Ray Charles, Nnenna Freelon, Monica Mancini, Barry Manilow, Cassandra Reed and Keely Smith-echoes Goldstein’s statement. “Naturally, the industry is going to devote more resources to that which is working,” he reasons. “All of that said, as an industry we continually try to promote instrumental jazz artists, but I have to say that it’s pretty alarming that there have been so few successes-particularly with traditional jazz records-despite their being some pretty aggressive campaigns behind them.”

With the emphasis on singers and their higher sales records, it should therefore come as no surprise that their recording projects often have bigger budgets, or what is referred to as P&L: projections and losses. “The general perception is that they have the potential to sell more,” Saslow admits. “That sometimes means more risk-taking along with the potential.” At Telarc, that translates to a big push for relative newcomer Tierney Sutton.

Fields kids about doing the math by the seat of his pants. “You have to start first with what you’re able to move,” he explains. Labels determine the P&L for a project, which comprises the budget to record, market, publicize and promote it, by working backwards from the perceived sales potential as estimated by the artist’s previous sales history, the sales figures for similar projects or-in the case of recording debuts-similar artists and projects.

Some executives do not explicitly weigh whether an artist is a singer or an instrumentalist in their calculations for a project’s P&L. “As a percentage of what we sell, we probably don’t spend that much more on vocalists than we do on instrumentalists,” states Evered. “We tend to sell more of vocalists than instrumentalists, so one would spend a little more. It’s not like we have a jazz vocalists budget and an instrumentalists budget, and this one’s full of gold and this one isn’t. Where would we go? We go to the same places all the time”-those places being marketing programs at retail, advertisements in the magazines, media placement through PR and radio promotion for airplay.

But others do think in those terms. According to Barros, “There is inherently a difference, because you have to budget according to what you’re going to reasonably project, what you’re going to get in sales. So given that the markets are radically different, you’re naturally going to assign different budget levels. That said, we’re always looking for the instrumental record that we think has potential to reach a bigger market, and you take chances sometimes.”

In the long run, the difference in how you look at it is largely clinical; singers tend to have more of the industry’s resources at their disposal than their instrumental counterparts. Like the resurgence of the singers themselves, this, too, appears to be cyclic: singers earn more, therefore they are given more to work with, therefore they earn more, giving them an edge at the labels. Yet the larger question still looms: Is the trend being driven by the labels as opposed to the preferences of consumers?

The answer depends on whether or not you believe in the power of marketing executives to create an interest and demand for certain products. “Well, what does really sell records?” quips Telarc’s Saslow, who majored in English literature in college and picked up all of his business skills on the fly. “Marketing is a lot more about asking questions than providing answers.”

You are not likely to encounter the Nielsen families in jazz marketing departments, although that company now owns SoundScan. Research frequently-and often solely-consists of club and festival-hopping in between careful chart-watching. Sometimes it takes place through label and artist Web sites, where people sign up for special offers and complete surveys, a relatively simple and inexpensive way to collect data. And there must be some return on those postcards that fall out of the liner notes for certain releases.

Most labels-even the majors-are not able to devote much in the way of resources to marketing research during these difficult economic times. It’s not an exact science, either, but rather one highly subject to interpretation. Asked at what sales figure it could safely be said that an artist had crossed over from the core jazz audience to reach mainstream consumers, executives gave estimates that ranged from 50,000 up to 250,000 units.

Furthermore, there is a deep skepticism and resistance to market research in jazz, where even major label executives exhibit an indie survivalist mentality. It probably works in their favor. “I think the beauty-and sort of the unbeauty-of the record business is that there’s a danger in going into situations with too much market research and saying this is the way it’s supposed to work,” says Saslow. “If it doesn’t work that way, you’re less likely to adapt in an open manner.”

Labels executives say that they often have to spend three or four times the promotional money to sell twice the amount of jazz product, and that advertising ultimately makes a very small impression. Labels take out ads to please artists, to direct listeners to the stores where they have spent money on marketing programs and to support the magazines that are likely to write about their products.

“I don’t know anybody that has ever seen an ad in a jazz publication-unless it’s for an artist that they already know-where they will run out to buy it,” Fields claims. “You don’t haphazardly buy JazzTimes. Dollars to donuts, the person who reads that is the same person who seeks out the radio station. You don’t haphazardly tune into WBGO. You don’t haphazardly go to a record store with the huge amount of merchandise that’s there, say ‘Nice cover,’ and pick up an Ernie Andrews record. You just don’t.”

It seems safe to say then that the industry alone-or rather this industry, the business of making jazz recordings-does not possess the resources needed to create trends, let alone make tastes. Discussing the runaway success of Norah Jones, Evered makes an entirely rational argument: “You can’t manufacture a reaction to a record. It strikes people, and you can’t hype it. They either feel it or they don’t. The only thing you can do is take that resonance and spread it and try to make it happen. If the resonance isn’t there, then you can flog the horse and it’s just not going to go that far.

“If you could make those happen all the time,” he continues, “we’d be cranking them out all the time. We could have had 50 other artists make 50 different records and sold them and put them out the same way we put out Norah, and it wouldn’t have clicked. I hate to use the word ‘magic,’ but there’s just an intangible when something like that begins to happen.”

Instead of starting from scratch, the labels stand a better chance at recognizing trends as they emerge and building their momentum, ultimately a much more problematic conclusion. On one level, it would be comforting to think that the industry could flip a switch and make Greg Osby a household name the way we all recognize Vanilla Coke, the “little purple pill” or Britney Spears.

The broader reality faced by the jazz industry is tougher to contemplate: Much of the power lies outside the control of the record labels, in the hands of other corporate entities like radio and TV. If jazz singing signifies anything to these forces, it is the more approachable face of the music, which makes it the industry’s best and brightest chance to sell more records, and thereby stay afloat. If the jazz community has a penchant for arguing about definitions and shows a resistance to singers, it is because this is the primary front on which the battle for jazz’s identity and economic survival is now waged-one in which instrumental music risks being squeezed out by mass-market homogenization.

An addendum. Hope springs eternal that singing-or any subgenre that can be grouped under the moniker of “jazz” and attracts consumers-is good for the health of the form overall, as it may win potential converts. “I think there’s a subset of the [singer’s audience] that then gets a little deeper into the music and becomes a fan of the instrumentalists who are accompanying them,” says Barros.

Evidence suggests, however, that this trickle-down theory doesn’t usually pan out. Saslow had been optimistic that using Marcus Miller’s affiliation as Luther Vandross’ producer would help the release of The Ozell Tapes (Telarc). “We got some love out there, but it wasn’t easy,” he recalls. “Basically I learned something from that experience: that is, if Marcus is going to go back and do another record, it would sure be great to have Luther Vandross on a track.”

In fact, the presence of vocal guests on an album generally amounts to no more than a quick fix. For example, trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Let’s Get Lost: The Songs of Jimmy McHugh (Sony), which featured Krall, Monheit, Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, did cause a significant increase in Blanchard’s sales. Still, Evered says, “As the company that put out his next instrumental record, we have seen that a lot of those fans did not come back. They merely bought [Let’s Get Lost] for the vocals.”

Even the biggest names of the pop world do not necessarily guarantee a boost for sales figures. James Taylor, who guested on Michael Brecker’s Nearness of You: The Ballad Book (Verve), did not cause a particular increase in U.S. sales, even after the album’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” won the 2001 Grammy for best pop vocal. Nor did the presence of Joni Mitchell boost sales for Brian Blade’s Fellowship album Perceptual, a title since deleted from the Blue Note catalog.

The type of music with which these guests are associated likely also plays a role. Audiences drawn to Taylor or Mitchell may be less inclined to purchase a jazz recording-or simply find these artists on a jazz recording-and typical jazz consumers may be less tempted by the presence of pop icons than their own heroes. The addition of Tony Bennett and Shirley Horn to Bill Charlap’s second album, Stardust (Blue Note), has proved a better match. According to Evered, the guests seem to be a factor helpful to sales, enabling Charlap to avoid the “sophomore slump.” So has the appearance of rapper Common, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu on Hargrove’s RH Factor CD, Hard Groove (Verve), which has seen an approximately 45 percent increase in sales over his last album, although it also cost substantially more to produce.

Attempts to use singers to help instrumental jazz can’t hurt, but they probably won’t help much in the long run either. Indeed, singers themselves say that their careers have impacted very little by the success of the big names like Norah Jones and Diana Krall. In jazz, audiences are built from the ground up.

“They come to me because their friends bring them,” Elling explains, “because they say, ‘I’ve heard this guy that nobody’s discovered yet and you’ve got to hear him.’ I get people who come out because they heard one of my cuts on the radio or they heard an interview. I get people who come out because they’ve come out the last five times when I’ve been in town. When I go to Seattle, I get kids who drive from Idaho. For our record release concert in Chicago, this woman flew down from British Columbia. I get people who believe in me. They discover me and what I do; there’s very little ricochet effect, because what I do is so radically different from what Norah does. I have my people. She’s got everybody else.” Originally Published