Invite Jazz into the Choral World

“Jazz is America’s indigenous music…. If we don’t teach this music to the next generation, it will become overlooked.”   – Chris Venesile, MENC Choral Mentor

A bit gun shy of vocal jazz? If so, you’re not alone.  To demystify this style of singing for hesitant choir teachers, MENC sought insights from April choral mentor (and jazz vocalist) Christopher Venesile.

How did you get your ‘vocal jazz’ chops/experience? 

My father was a high school band director. Although he was not a jazz musician, music was very important in our home. I played piano in a high school jazz band, but knew nothing of jazz keyboard playing – but I loved the genre. In college (Ohio State), I was in a showchoir. We did some jazz-style songs. In my first teaching job, I started a showchoir patterned after the one I had been in. I enjoyed it, and kids were excited about it,  but my best students were not being stretched musically as much as I would have liked.

My student group was invited to a festival by a school that had the only vocal jazz choir around. They’d also invited the Gold Company from Western Michigan Universty to be the headlining group, and I was blown away by their musical excellence. After that, I knew that I was going to travel that path, no matter the cost! I started by attending my first of two Phil Mattson Vocal Jazz Workshops a fews summers later. I was hooked.

Do you consider pop music to be part of jazz?

I do consider popular music part of what we call ‘vocal jazz’ because jazz has always incorporated popular music as part of its culture. Broadway show tunes were absorbed into jazz players’ repertoire from the beginning.

When I program pop music arrangements, I look for music that’s musically interesting beyond the mere recognition of the tune — a song that may be reharmonized or put into another ‘groove. It should have some degree of musical challenge. A colleague calls it ‘intelligent pop.’

Is vocal jazz something elementary and middle school kids can start to appreciate/learn?

I would certainly defer to general music teachers. I do see jazz style, history and culture being taught with great success to young children. There are several gifted writers that produce vocal jazz arrangements for two-part elementary choirs — Dr. Steve Zegree comes to mind, Dr. Kirby Shaw, Laurie Capello-Marcy. They’re out there……

Any suggestions for exercises for middle school students to get them interested in or responding to vocal jazz? 

Kirby Shaw has an excellent publication of exercises for young vocal jazz singers (available through Hal Leonard).  I have used it with 9th graders. It’s very effective in introducing students to new rhythms, chords, and styles. It’s also good for helping young ears hear dissonant chords that are written in the jazz style – with the basses and tenors singing the 3rds and 7ths of the chords—a new aural experience.

Christopher J. Venesile has been a choral director and vocal jazz educator for 26 years, the last 22 at North Olmsted High School, North Olmsted, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He has also directed vocal jazz at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) Metro-Cleveland Campus in the Jazz Studies Department.

–Sue Rarus, May 12, 2010 © National Association for Music Education