• July 5, 2022

Scatting: Reflections on Using the Human Voice as an Instrument

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Jazz music emerged from a long vocal tradition. Music historians suggest field hollers and ceremonial chants contributed to the styles that would eventually blossom into the jazz listeners know and love. Prior to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, however, vocalists were seldom found in quartets. If they were, they felt sidelined by a group’s instrumentals. Satchmo elevated the voice to its own art form, and he is credited for developing the improvisational technique known as scat.

Scat Singing’s Legendary Origins

You might have heard this story. When Satchmo was recording Boyd Atkin’s “Heebie Jeebies,” he dropped his lyric sheets. Instead of stopping the recording, he carried on. The improvisations, nonsense syllables, and wordless sounds developed a melody and rhythm all their own. Jazz vocalists have adopted the technique, making art with their mouths. In fact, though Louis Armstrong is often credited with creating this technique, he may have only been the first singer to do it in a recording. Scat was already an established tradition in live shows.

Scat Singing’s Developments

Scat turned out to be a great way to open a song. Some jazz vocalists would find a humorous way to link to their audience. Cab Calloway used the technique this way in “Minnie the Moocher.” Other artists such as Ella Fitzgerald worked scatting into their songs in innovative ways, building to a completely separate scat chorus.

Scat Singing’s Evolution

Of course, scatting remains a fixture in the jazz scene, but just like the music itself, scat techniques are always in flux, always evolving, never content to stay the same. Jazz vocalists have pushed the technique in different ways, but they are not the only performers to do so. You only need to look at Bobby McFerrin’s performances to see how the style has developed. Even vocal bass found in early rap music and modern hip-hop derives from this classic technique.

Next time you visit one of the U.S. cities that are hubs for jazz, like New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; or Kansas City, MO, you can enjoy some live performances and hear what new scatting techniques the vocalists have to offer.

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