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The Gig: What Is Jazz Singing, Anyway?

Nate Chinen muses on the current state of jazz vocals

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Theo Bleckmann

The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, held the first week of October in Washington, D.C., introduced the world to at least one promising new talent: Cécile McLorin Salvant, a 21-year-old Floridian who has spent the last several years honing her craft in Aix-en-Provence, France. As winner of the competition, the most prestigious of its kind, Salvant won a $20,000 scholarship and the potentially more valuable prize of a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. We’ll be hearing more from her.

Meanwhile, the competition and its attendant coverage invites a conversation about what really constitutes “jazz vocals” today. It’s a timely question, in light of the new book by Will Friedwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon), reviewed in this issue. At a time when jazz itself slips past so many stylistic checkpoints, what distinguishes jazz singing from the other vocal arts? What are the criteria, and what do they reward? What, for that matter, do they exclude?

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