In vocal jazz, scat singing or "scatting" is vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all. Scat singing gives singers the ability to sing improvised melodies and rhythms, to create the equivalent of an instrumental solo using their voice. The great ones say that they use their voice to emulate the instruments, often the woodwinds and brass, in the bands that they play with.

Scat SuperstarsEdit

Trumpet legend Louis Armstrong was the first major artist to popularize scat singing in a 1926 recording of "Heebie Jeebies." The form became popular with other artists from Armstrong's widely listened-to recordings.

Cab Calloway incorporated it into many songs in his act, including one of his most famous songs, "Minnie the Moocher" Calloway's 1930s scat solos inspired Gershwin's use of the medium in his Porgy and Bess;[1]

Al Jolson's scatting during his recording of "That Haunting Melody" is the first known use of scatting by a white performer.

Fitzgerald Ella1

Ella Fitzgerald

Mel-torme md

Mel Tormé

It was artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and vocalist Mel Tormé who took scatting to high art form in the more mature years of jazz's development, from the late 1940s movement to the 1970s when the Jazz Renaissance began and these artists were recognized again for their great contributions to the most American of musical forms.

The effortless scatting of the masters of the form was built on their understanding and dynamic ability to reproduce the sound produced by the various instruments of a big band or jazz combo.

One artist has taken scatting to new heights. Vocal improviser Bobby McFerrin’s performances have shown that “wordless singing has traveled far from the concepts demonstrated by Louis Armstrong, Gladys Bentley, Cab Calloway, Anita O’Day, and Leo Watson.”[2]

Many of the finest jazz singers, including Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, and Dinah Washington, have avoided scat entirely.[3]

Scatting Video Gallery Edit

Scatting has been very popular in jazz, and now pop music. Here are a few of the great vocalists. For a more complete video library




Though Louis Armstrong's recording of Heebie Jeebies is often cited as the first song to employ scatting. It predates Armstrong, with roots in the birth of the music in New Orleans, where musicians "sang" the instrument parts to learn them.

In an interview that Alan Lomax did with legendary pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, Morton explains the history of scat[4]:

That was way before Louie Armstrong's time. By the way, scat is something that a lot of people don't understand, and they begin to believe that the first scat numbers was ever done, was done by one of my hometown boys, Louie Armstrong. But I must take the credit away, since I know better. The first man that ever did a scat number in history of this country was a man from Vicksburg, Mississippi, by the name of Joe Sims, an old comedian. And from that, Tony Jackson and myself, and several more grabbed it in New Orleans. And found it was pretty good for an introduction of a song. [5]

Morton also once boasted, "Tony Jackson and myself were using scat for novelty back in 1906 and 1907 when Louis Armstrong was still in the orphan’s home".[6]

Greene Gene

Gene Greene

One early master of ragtime scat singing was Gene Greene who recorded scat choruses in his song "King of the Bugaloos" "From Here to Shanghai" ([[Category:1917]|1917]), which featured faux-Chinese scatting, and several others between and 1917.

Entertainer Al Jolson even scatted through a few bars in the middle of his 1911 recording of "That Haunting Melody".

Cliff edwards

Cliff Edwards

Gene Rodemich's band Gene Rodemich and His Brunswick Orchestra recorded "Scissor Grinder Joe" and "Some of These Days" in 1924, both of which also pre-date Armstrong.[6]

Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards scatted an interlude on his 1923 "Old Fashioned Love" in lieu of using an instrumental soloist.[6][7]

Harry Barris, one of Paul Whiteman's "The Rhythm Boys," along with Bing Crosby, scatted on several songs, including "Mississippi Mud," which Barris wrote in .

One of the early female singers to use scat was Aileen Stanley who included it at the end of a duet with Billy Murray in their hit recording of "It Had To Be You"(Victor 19373).

Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson also featured scat vocals in their recording of "My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time" five months prior to Armstrong’s recording of "Heebie Jeebies".[6]

It was Armstrong's 1926 performance, however, that was the turning point for the musical form.[8]

According to Armstrong, when he was recording the song "Heebie Jeebies", soon to be a national bestseller, with his band The Hot Five, his music fell to the ground.

Not knowing the lyrics to the song, he invented a gibberish melody to fill time, expecting the cut to be thrown out in the end, but that take of the song was the one released.[6] The story is widely believed to be apocryphal,[9] but the influence of the recording was nonetheless enormous. Armstrong's scat singing served as a model for many many artists. It was from the 1926 recording of "Heebie Jeebies" that the techniques arose that would form the foundation of modern scat.[8]

Duke Ellington - The Creole Love Call

Duke Ellington - The Creole Love Call

On October 26, 1927 Duke Ellington's Orchestra recorded "Creole Love Call" featuring Adelaide Hall singing wordlessly.
Hall Adelaide

Adelaide Hall

"She sounds like a particularly sensitive growl trumpeter", according to Nat Hentoff. The creativity must be shared between Ellington and Hall as he knew the style of performance he wanted, but she was the one who was able to produce the sound.

In 1932, Ellington repeated the experiment in one of his versions of "The Mooche", with Baby Cox singing scat after a muted similar trombone solo by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The Boswell Sisters - It Don't Mean A Thing

The Boswell Sisters - It Don't Mean A Thing

Groups such as The Boswell Sisters regularly employed scatting on their records, including the high complexity of scatting at the same time, in harmony. Ella Fitzgerald grew up listening to, admiring, and even imitating the Boswells in her early days. An excellent example of their scatting would be their version of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".

Scatman Crothers who would go on to movie and television fame. Phil Harris scatted on radio and television. Louis Prima incorporated it into his band act and even brought it to the world of Disney animation in his rendition of the Ape King in the song "I Wan'na Be Like You," featured in Disney's "The Jungle Book" (1967)."

Louis Prima - Jungle Book

Louis Prima - Jungle Book

Scat singing could be considered by some authorities as not respectable. It was for example not allowed on BBC radio in the late thirties.

Over the years, as jazz music developed and grew in complexity, scat singing did as well. During the bop era, more highly-developed vocal improvisation surged in popularity.[1]

Annie Ross, a BeBop singer, expressed a common sentiment among vocalists at the time: "The [scat] music was so exciting, everyone wanted to do it."[10]

And just about everyone did: Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Jefferson, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day, Joe Carroll, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Jon Hendricks, Babs Gonzales, and Dizzy Gillespie all were important singers in the idiom.[1]

Fitzgerald once hailed herself as the “best vocal improviser jazz has ever had”, and critics since then have been in almost universal agreement with her.[11]

In the 1960s, traditional scatting gave way to the free-jazz movement, which allowed scat singers to include sounds in their repertoire that had before been considered non-musical, such as screams, cries, and laughter. Free jazz and the influence of world musicians on the medium pushed jazz singing nearer to avant-garde art music.[1]

In the 60s Ward Swingle was the product of an unusually liberal musical education. He took the scat singing idea and applied it to the works of Bach, creating The Swingle Singers.

The BeBop revival of the 1970s renewed interest in bop scat singing, and young scat singers viewed themselves as a continuation of the classic bop tradition. The medium continues to evolve, and vocal improvisation now often develops independently of changes in instrumental jazz.[1]

The future of scatting was reshaped by the explosive popularity of vocalist Bobby McFerrin after one of his next-generation scat songs was featured on the hit television series "The Cosby Show" as a revamp of their opening credits for season four.

The Cosby Show Season 4 Opening

The Cosby Show Season 4 Opening

Characteristics Edit

Structure and syllable choice Edit

Scat singing is improvised, but the melodic lines are often variations on scale and arpeggio fragments, stock patterns and Riffs, as is the case with instrumental improvisers. As well, scatting usually incorporates musical form.

All of jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald's scat performances of "How High the Moon", for instance, use the same tempo. They begin with a chorus of a straight reading of the lyric, move to a "specialty chorus" introducing the scat chorus, and then the scat itself.[12]

The deliberate choice of scat syllables also is a key element in vocal jazz improvisation.

Syllable choice influences the pitch articulation, coloration, and resonance of the performance.[13] Syllable choice also differentiated jazz singers' personal styles.

Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan

Betty Carter was inclined to use sounds like "louie-ooie-la-la-la" (soft-tongued sounds or liquids) while Sarah Vaughan would prefer "shoo-doo-shoo-bee-ooo-bee" (fricatives, stop consonants, and open vowels).[14] The choice of scat syllables can also be used to reflect the sounds of different instruments.

The comparison of the scatting styles of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan reveals that Fitzgerald’s improvisation mimics the sounds of swing-era big bands with which she performed, while Vaughan’s mimics that of her accompanying bop-era small combos.[15][a]

Humor Edit

Humor is an important element of many scat performances. Cab Calloway exemplified the use of humorous scatting.[16]

Cab Calloway - Minnie the Moocher

Cab Calloway - Minnie the Moocher

Another classic example of humorous scatting is a recording by Slim Gaillard, Leo Watson, and Bam Brown in , "Avocado Seed Soup Symphony", in which they scat variations on the word "avocado" for much of the recording.[17]

In addition to such nonsensical uses of language, humor is communicated in scat singing through the use of musical quotation.

Leo Watson, who performed before the canon of American popular music, frequently drew on nursery rhymes in his scatting. This is called using a compression.[18]

Ella Fitzgerald, who performed later, was able to draw extensively on popular music in her singing. For example, in her classic recording of "How High the Moon" live in Berlin, she quotes over a dozen songs, including "The Peanut Vendor", "Heat Wave", "A-Tisket, A-Tasket", and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes".[19]

Technical difficulty Edit

In the opinion of Jeff Pressing, a psychologist who has studied improvisation extensively, vocal improvisers lack the benefit of "feedback redundancy" that instrumental improvisers have.[20]

All improvisers use feedback from their playing in order to judge what to play next; the more feedback that exists, the easier the improviser's task is. For the instrumentalist, aural, visual, proprioceptive (i.e. body awareness), and touch feedback work in tandem.

For the vocalist, however, only aural and proprioceptive feedback are available. Pressing uses this discrepancy to account for violin improvisation being more difficult than sax improvisation, and vocal improvisation more difficult still: "For every first-rate scat-singer in the world", he writes, "there must be 500 talented jazz saxophonists".[20]

Other Musical Forms Influenced by Scat Singing Edit

Scatman John Scatman 720p (HD)

Scatman John Scatman 720p (HD)

Pop scatter John Paul Larkin (better known as Scatman John) renewed interest in the genre briefly during the mid-1990s when he began fusing Jazz singing with pop music and electronica, scoring a world-wide hit with the song Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop) in .

Rocker Dave Matthews, of the Dave Matthews Band is a noted enthusiast of vocal scatting, often employing it into songs during live performances. During periods of improvisation, Matthews will begin to insert broken phrasings and words as well as more traditional forms of scat in combination. Styles similar to Matthews' are used by other associated acts such as O.A.R. and moe.

David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has been known to employ scat, with the most notable example being at the end of "Money" as the song fades into "Us and Them" on The Dark Side of the Moon.

Experimental rock singer Mike Patton uses a variation of scat singing in many projects, including the avant-garde metal band Fantomas and Mr. Bungle. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler has made scatting a part of many of the band's recordings and live shows, sometimes performing extended scat solos which work to complement extend guitar solos, act as solos themselves, even to replace forgotten lyrics. Some alternative metal bands such as Korn and Disturbed use the style in some of their songs, such as "Twist" and "Down with the Sickness" Many fans would refer to the scat singing of these vocalists as "gibberish."

Australian musician Harry Angus of The Cat Empire uses scat in some recordings and is known to do extended scat "solos" in concert. Actor Ed Helms has a knack for scat singing.

Use in hip-hop Edit

Many hip-hop music artists and rappers use scat singing to come up with the rhythms of their raps.[21] In the book How to Rap, Tajai of the group Souls of Mischief says: “Sometimes my rhythms come from scatting. I usually make a scat kind of skeleton and then fill in the words. I make a skeleton of the flow first, and then I put words into it.”.[21] The group Lifesavas describe a similar process.[21] Rapper Tech N9ne has been recorded demonstrating exactly how this method works, in an audio segment covered by The Washington Post.[22]

Origins of Scatting Edit

Some writers have proposed that scat has its roots in African musical traditions.[1]

In much of African music, "human voice and instruments assume a kind of musical parity" and are "at times so close in timbre and so inextricably interwoven within the music’s fabric as to be nearly indistinguishable".[23]

Dick Higgins likewise attributes scat singing to traditions of sound poetry in African-American music.[24] In West African music, it is typical to convert drum rhythms into vocal melodies; common rhythmic patterns are assigned specific syllabic translations.[1]

However, this theory fails to account for the existence—even in the earliest recorded examples of scatting—of free improvisation by the vocalist.[1]

It is therefore more likely that scat singing evolved independently in the United States.[1]

The more reasonable theory is that scat singing arose from jazz musicians' practice of formulating riffs vocally before performing them instrumentally.[25]

The adage "If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it" was common in the early New Orleans jazz scene.[25])

In this manner, soloists like Louis Armstrong became able to double as vocalists, switching effortlessly between instrumental solos and scatting.[25] Scatting and singing for instrumentalists like Armstrong were also a way of taking a break from the rigors of playing their instrument without the band physically breaking, or the artist leaving the stage.

Critical assessment Edit

Scat singing can allow jazz singers to have the same improvisational opportunities as jazz instrumentalists: scatting can be rhythmically and harmonically improvisational without concern about destroying the lyric.[26] Especially when bebop was developing, singers found scat to be the best way to adequately engage in the performance of jazz.[10]

Scatting may be desirable because it does not "taint the music with the impurity of denotation".[27] Instead of conveying linguistic content and pointing to something outside itself, scat music—like instrumental music—is self-referential and "d[oes] what it mean[s]".[28] Through this wordlessness, commentators have written, scat singing can describe matters beyond words.[27][29]

Music critic Will Friedwald has written that Louis Armstrong's scatting, for example, "has tapped into his own core of emotion", releasing emotions "so deep, so real" that they are unspeakable; his words "bypass our ears and our brains and go directly for our hearts and souls".[29]

Various psychological and metaphysical theorists have instead proposed that vocal improvisation allows for revelations from the soul’s depths.[30] Musician and lecturer Roberto Laneri has proposed a theory of improvisation based on "different states of consciousness" that draws on the the psychologist Karl Jung's model of the collective unconscious.[30] The music stemming from Laneri’s improvisatory "consciousness expansion" tends to be vocal, as the voice is regarded as the "primal instrument".[30]

Scat singing has never been universally accepted, even by jazz enthusiasts. Writer and critic Leonard Feather offers an extreme view: he once said that "scat singing—with only a couple exceptions—should be banned".[10]

Notes Edit

a. ^ In her 1949 performance of “Flyin’ Home”, Fitzgerald alternates the bilabial “b” and “p” plosives with the alveolar stop “d”.[31] The “b” and “p” sounds are formed similarly to the sounds of jazz wind instruments, which sound by the release of built-up mouth air pressure onto the reed, while the “d” sound is similar to the tonguing on jazz brass instruments.[31] William Stewart, a Seattle researcher, has proposed that this alternation apes the exchange of riffs between the wind and brass sections that is common in big bands.[32] Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, tends to use the fricative consonant “sh” along with the low, back of the mouth “ah” vowel. The “sh” closely resembles the sound of brushes, common in the bop era, on drum heads; the “ah” vowel resonates similarly to the bass drum.[33]

See also Edit

  • Vocalese (jazz vocal improvisation using lyrics instead of nonsense syllables)

References Edit

Works cited Edit

  • Grant, Barry Keith (1995), "Purple Passages or Fiestas in Blue? Notes Toward an Aesthetic of Vocalese", in Gabbard, Krin, Representing Jazz, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, ISBN 9780822315940 .