Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, the KNKX and Jazz24 music teams illustrate the different styles that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to present, journey with us from Dixieland to modern jazz styles, big-band to hip-hop.

Building on instrumentals, "vocalese" layers on original lyrics

Eddie Jefferson, Half Moon Bay CA  10/1/78
Brian McMillen
Brianmcmillen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Eddie Jefferson, Half Moon Bay CA 10/1/78

You got the music – and I have the words! But more than that - it’s a singer-songwriter taking a musical line and singing original lyrics. It’s mutual appreciation of poetry and vocals. Paige Hansen walks us down the ‘vocalese’ road and it's role in jazz as part of KNKX and Jazz24's A History of Jazz project.

Listen to the story above or read the script below:

Have you ever found yourself listening to piece of instrumental jazz music you love and humming along – or maybe even specifically with that great trumpet or sax solo? If you know that experience, you are one-step away from performing vocalese.

This may sound familiar:

That’s pioneer of vocalese - King Pleasure.

Vocalese is a style of jazz singing in which words are added to an otherwise instrumental song and more specifically to an instrumental soloist's improvisation.

Here’s Coleman Hawkins saxophone solo on the song “Body and Soul.”

And here’s Eddie Jefferson singing his lyrics to the same solo.

This was the first wave of vocalese – and carried forward in time could also be an example of early foundations for rap and hip hop.

It’s different from scat singing which uses nonsense words like "do bee do bee do.”

The word "vocalese" is a play on the musical term "vocalise"; the suffix "-ese" indicates a language.

Vocalist Jon Hendricks coined the term "vocalese" to jazz critic Leonard Feather using the word to describe the first Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie released in 1957.

Swinging right?

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, consisting of Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross are the best-known practitioners of vocalese who popularized the style. Other performers known for vocalese include Bob Dorough, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau, and New York Voices.

Joni Mitchell recorded lyrics to Charles Mingus's tunes, with "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on her album, Mingus, in 1979.

The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines

So maybe – the next time you find yourself humming along to a saxophone solo, try putting some words to it and play along in creating your own vocalese.

KNKX Celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month

Throughout the month of April, we will be illustrating different styles of jazz through time that make up jazz history through storytelling and music. From the early 1900’s to 2022, we will journey from Dixieland to Modern Jazz styles, Big Band to Hip Hop.

Listen to installments each weekday at 9am and 7pm on 88.5 FM and See all stories from the KNKX History of Jazz project.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.