I’m thinking about my new favorite jazz standard (perhaps new isn’t the word I should use–how about song I’m newly aware of?)–the song “Nature Boy” sung by Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nicole Chillemi among others. It’s a beautiful song with very few words and a haunting, delicately challenging melody. I’m drawn to songs like these that remind me not only of what singing is all about but also of how much of an art, an exact science songwriting is. Songwriting, like any other writing, is not just about putting words on a page or over some chords. It’s about placing the right words on a page, the right words over an instrumental, the perfect lyric to express everything we’ve ever wanted to say.
Jazz music has always been in my peripheral view for as long as I can remember. Growing up WCLK, Clark Atlanta University’s incredible radio station, was always in the background of every car ride. My mother had an amazing multi-CD jazz anthology that introduced me to the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (although my favorite song in this set was John Coltrane’s “Naima”—a song that I’d literally loop for hours, listening with my eyes closed).
But now as I think of jazz, I’m reminded of a few key things:
1) The voice can be as potent, as dynamic and as masterfully wielded as a trumpet, a piano or a double bass (and all of those instruments can sing and hum as beautifully as a voice). No one proves this point, in my opinion, quite like jazz vocalist, pianist, iconoclast Nina Simone—my favorite singer in the universe (Please don’t get me started!)
2) One impeccably placed lyric is worth a thousand pictures.
3) Jazz music is about understanding the rules and conventions of musical theory while respectfully playing within or outside of these rules…or breaking them altogether.