“She’s Not Just a Singer”: Voices, Instruments, and Musicality in Jazz

To begin, I invite you to watch this clip of Esperanza Spalding and Gretchen Parlato collaborating in recording Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Inútil Paisagem,” plucking strings, clapping, clicking tongues, improvising, singing with words in English and in Portuguese, vocalizing melodies, bass lines and counterpoints. 

Spalding and Parlato are contemporary jazz singers—Spalding is also a bass player—whose voices are constantly defined as instruments.  Two reviews of many speak of “the delicate sound of Spalding's voice that almost reflects that of a violin” (Berlanga-Ryan 2011) and assert that “Gretchen Parlato’s voice is a cello.  It’s a muted trumpet, a trombone.  It’s an alto saxophone” (Greenlee 2009).

This is not a new phenomenon.  Instruments have long been considered to influence singers in jazz.  Think of Louis Armstrong as songster and trumpeter, of Ella Fitzgerald’s and Betty Carter’s dexterous scatting, of Sarah Vaughan’s ‘black baritone,’ of Chet Baker’s straight mute sound.  These are all singers whose styles and techniques include elements of instrumentality.[1]

Instrumentalists in jazz have long been informed by vocality, too.  In Thinking in Jazz, ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner speaks amply about instrumentalists who learn to play through singing, play songs by storytelling, and achieve sounds by imitating timbres of the voice.[2]  Berliner invokes a familiar idea when he quotes a musician saying that “Miles Davis transformed the character of his instrument with such a variety of inflection that ‘at times he didn’t even sound like he was playing a trumpet.  It was just the sound of his own voice’ (LH)” (Berliner 1994, 126).

Here is an image of jazz musicality in which singers and instrumentalists craft their sounds with constant attentiveness to each other.  I call this the ‘voice-instrument dialectic,’ in which these two nominally oppositional entities are neither mutually exclusive nor is one defined completely through the other, but rather they both always act on each other.  It seems, though, that one direction of impact—the voice on the instrument—remains marginalized, less frequently noted than the other.  For example, listen to this clip of Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

In the evocative conversation in the beginning, Young and journalist Chris Albertson discuss the reciprocity between the saxophonist and Holiday.  When Albertson says to Young, “You’re her favorite soloist,” Young responds, “Well, she is mine, too,” adding, “so that’s a draw.”  When Albertson says, “she gave you the name Prez,” Young replies, “And I gave her the name of Lady Day,” adding again, “so that’s even.”  When Albertson says of Holiday that, “she has said that…her style of singing is formed after your style on the tenor sax,” instead of continuing with symmetry, Young agrees with and affirms Albertson’s statement.  This is not to criticize Young, but to suggest that the influence of singers on instrumentalists is less easily pronounced. 

This power dynamic between voice and instrument persists in the reception of Spalding and Parlato.  They are both, in unique ways, successful in today’s jazz scene,[3] and in endorsing the singers, critics and fellow musicians reveal how instrumental qualities are tied up with aesthetic value.  A peer musician of Parlato’s says, “Gretchen’s not just a singer; she’s a musician” (Clayton in Appelbaum 2011).  A review of Spalding describes her as an “acoustic bass-playing jazz vocalist [who] could swing with the wisdom and force of Ray Brown while singing with the intuitive rangedefying [sic] freedom of Ella Fitzgerald” (Jisi 2013).  A review of Parlato concludes, “combining the ability and elegance of a classic jazz diva with the curiosity and vision of the genre’s forward-thinking pioneers, Parlato represents a bold evolution of the jazz singer” (Bolles 2013).  Here, musicality exists outside the realm of singing, bass playing is associated with wisdom while singing is associated with intuition, and singers occupy the past and the theatrical, not the creative and innovative.  Why, if voice and instrument influence one another as they do, do critics continue to give aesthetic validation in this way?  Why do instruments appear to be understood as better than voices?

A place to start looking for answers is the fact of voices belonging to bodies—in jazz, historically, black bodies, female bodies, bodies which, at certain moments in time, needed to be transcended for economic and political ends.  As jazz scholars have noted, part of the move within jazz toward increased musical complexity with 1940s bebop was driven by an economic pursuit to stop the ease with which swing had been appropriated, and a political pursuit to “reject the legacy of the minstrel mask by emphasizing ‘art’ instead of ‘entertainment’” (Monson 1995, 407).  These pursuits deepened a cleave between singers and instrumentalists that continues to inform their separated traditions today: singers, with sensual bodies and universal words, as historical originators and entertainers, lacking in complexity and innovation, fixated on the Great American Songbook, limited by diatonic improvising or no improvising at all; and instrumentalists, with their mechanical tools of great speed and range, as masterful innovators, creating new styles, crafting and developing their improvisations, elaborating with rhythmic and harmonic complexity.[4]

The voice is in a dialectical relationship with instruments, but the historical separation of its bodied containers, of singers, resists its explicit presence.  In Freedom Sounds, ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson makes the point that in 50s and 60s U.S. jazz, racial tensions that were rigidly expressed in black and white musicians’ communities and discourse were in fact much more fluid within their aesthetic practices.  In other words, music accommodated more pluralism than did its social structures.  This is the case with Spalding and Parlato, too, as their music expresses more fluidity between voice and instrument than society and discourse suggest.

To be sure, their music asserts some clear instrumental markers—repertoire associated with instrumentalists,[5] maneuvers deemed more musically complex (odd meters, complicated chord changes, non-diatonic improvisations), increased improvisation, and a move away from lyrics and language.  I argue, though, that it is exactly within these instrumental markers where the singers’ voices are vitally important, and where the music is telling us to pay attention to vocality as much as to instrumentality. 

Parlato has over the years done several versions of Herbie Hancock’s tune “Butterfly.”   She wrote lyrics to the melody, and has slightly reworked the rhythm of the last eight measures of the original form, which she then uses also as an introduction, interludes, and vamps.  In a live version on her most recent album, Live in NYC, the introduction is made up of this section.  Parlato begins by clapping and improvising using the pitches of the main melodic event in compound meter.  While she continues clapping, her voice, with some interjections from the rhythm section, slowly introduces the simple meter groove of the tune, creating a polyrhythmic texture.

This introduction makes a very strong point.  It is entirely embodied, and accomplishes so much—the polyrhythm that the whole rhythm section continues to elaborate through the piece begins with Parlato’s voice, resonance, lips, tongue, and hands.  This is a general quality of Parlato’s singing—her vocality is often intertwined with her rhythmic decisions.  She often uses repetition, riffs and vamps.  These reframe her voice as percussion, but they also direct focus to her tone, orienting ears to the timbre of her voice and the physicality of her sound production, perhaps more than the melodic content of her lines. 

This combined attention to tone and repetition also relates to modal improvisation.  Parlato often improvises in the midst of complex harmonies, and this stylistic and rhythmic orientation mean that she can do so without marking a lot of chord changes.  In her solo in the live version of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju,” she improvises with a diminished scale on an open vamp, which is both a nuanced recontextualization of the original tune, famous for its focus on the whole tone scale, and a place where her voice exposes its heightened qualities—it becomes extra nasal, extra direct and piercing, extra stretchy and full of breath.

This improvisation is a radical departure from the standard mode of jazz singers’ improvisation—scatting.  As vocal imitation of instruments, scatting is already one of the most potent examples of the voice–instrument dialectic.  Parlato, however, seems to have a complex relationship to scatting, both building on it, and going beyond it, expanding the possibilities of instrumentality of the voice.  In contrast to the familiar ‘shoobedobop’, then, are Parlato’s long tones with no consonants heard in “Juju.”  

Spalding, similarly, is introduced as a singer who “vocalizes in fast, non-lyric-based style, as if she were voicing the horn melodies.  Just don’t call it ‘scat’ singing” (Norris 2008).  The interviewer’s warning against the term is informed by Spalding’s own stated aversion to it.  She sings about this and demonstrates in this live performance:

Still, even within Spalding’s expansions of instrumentality within her improvisations, she continues to be indebted to the voice.  In an interview, Spalding demonstrates both her distinctiveness from scatting and her admiration for it:

I really love the way Ella Fitzgerald would scat and the way Betty Carter would scat. I never thought to emulate what they were doing. I thought they were really good doing a vocal solo. So when I started doing that, there were ideas that I couldn’t play on the bass. I didn’t have the technical facility to do certain melodies, certain ideas that I wanted to try to do. (Quoted in Vitro 2013)

This statement demonstrates a radical shift from the usual claim that singers don’t have the technical facilities that instrumentalists have, to the opposite claim, that Spalding as bass player cannot do what Spalding as singer can.  Her vocal improvisation isn’t just an imitation of the bass.  It adds something new to the conversation.  And they work together; Spalding often improvises simultaneously on bass and voice, using the same material but separated by octaves for the different registers.  Her voice moves quickly and makes big interval leaps, gliding up and down, and smearing consonants, always keeping together with the bass’s line.  They play the same melodic material but each contributes equally to the moment.

Both Spalding and Parlato use wordless singing also while vocalizing the ‘head’ of their tunes, in lieu of lyrics, as well as in interludes, and as backup harmony.  This seems to be one of the key elements to which critics refer when speaking of the singers as instrumentalists.  Spalding herself says:

I just feel like I’m playing like a horn player… “I Adore You” is a song that I wrote, and I thought about putting lyrics to it, but it doesn’t make sense, cuz that type of singing – it’s… a very fast melody, that literally a horn player or a piano player could play.  …So why would I put lyrics to it?  It’s good how it is. (Quoted in Norris 2008)

“I Adore You” is indeed a good example of wordless singing in unorthodox sections, and it also, incidentally, has a noteworthy collaborative bass and voice solo.

Parlato’s head on this version of Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.” is a good example of her extended wordless singing.

The extended absence of lyrics is a shift away from the speaking voice to the musicking instrument.[6]  But here, too, vocality intervenes.  A big part of the excitement of wordless singing is the fact that it can lie side by side with words, lyrics, and poetry, all of which both singers are invested in deeply.[7]  Finally, it is, of course, the very embodiment of the voice, the ability to manipulate diaphragms and cavities to shift and shape consonants and vowels, that enables the production of effective wordless singing in the first place.

In closing, I’ll press my point, which has been twofold.  Critics and fellow musicians highlight the instrumentality within Esperanza Spalding’s and Gretchen Parlato’s music, marking the historically racialized and gendered constructions of the voice that skew perceptions of excellence away from it and in favor of the instrument.  But the two singers, in their choices of repertoire, in their manipulations of rhythm, harmony, improvisation, and tone, in the interaction between their voices and other instruments, and in their use of lyrics and wordless singing, like many others before them, draw on the important dialectic relationship between voice and instrument.  Spalding’s and Parlato’s music makes a case for musicality within jazz not only through instrumentality, but also, pertinently, through the body and its sound, through the voice.


[1] For interesting perspectives on musical qualities of jazz singers over the years, see Will Friedwald’s Jazz Singing (1990).

[2] Especially chapter four, “Getting Vocabulary Straight: Learning Models for Solo Formulation,” (pp. 95-119) and chapter five, “Seeing Out a Bit: Expanding upon Early Influences” (pp. 120-145).

[3] In addition to winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011, defeating, famously, pop star Justin Bieber, Spalding also maintains a robust career as a sidewoman bass player (esperanzaspalding.com).  Parlato was the first singer to enter the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and she also won its international competition, in 2004 (gretchenparlato.com).

[4] For more on the separation of singers and instrumentalists in jazz, see Lara Pellegrinelli’s The Song is Who? (2005).  For more on issues of gender in jazz, see Sherrie Tucker, “Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies” (2001/2002).  For an interesting discussion of voice, song and aesthetics in western art music, see Gary Tomlinson “Musicology, Anthropology, History” (2003).  For how gender ties in, see Leslie C. Dunn’s and Nancy A. Jones’ Embodied Voices (1994).

[5] Over the course of her four albums, Spalding sings “Body and Soul,” “Ponta de Areia,” and “Peacocks,” strongly associated, respectively, with John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins, Wayne Shorter, and Bill Evans.  Parlato, on her four albums, sings several Wayne Shorter tunes—“Juju,” “Footprints,” and “E.S.P.”—Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green,” and Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly.”

[6] A similar thing happens with singing in other languages, which both singers do often, mostly Spanish and Portuguese.

[7] Both singers write lyrics to existing instrumental tunes, or write poems to which they then compose music.  Spalding’s last album, Radio Music Society, contains densely packed words on every track.  In fact, each of the songs on the album also has an accompanying video in which the lyrics are quite literally depicted or acted out.


“All About Me.”  Esperanza Spalding: Chamber Music Society.  Accessed December 2, 2013. http://www.esperanzaspalding.com/cms/profile/.

Appelbaum, Larry.  “Interview with Gretchen Parlato and Gerald Clayton.”  Let’s Cool One: Musings about Music.  December 2, 2011.  Accessed November 30, 2013. http://larryappelbaum.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/interview-with-gretchen-parlato-gerald-clayton/.

“Awards & Credits.”  Gretchen Parlato.  Accessed Apr 28, 2015.  http://gretchenparlato.com/.  

Berlanga-Ryan, Esther.  “Esperanza Spalding: The Intimate Balance.”  All About Jazz.  February 14, 2011.  Accessed May 1, 2015.  http://www.allaboutjazz.com/esperanza-spalding-the-intimate-balance-esperanza-spalding-by-esther-berlanga-ryan.php.

Berliner, Paul.  Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Bolles, Dan.  “Finding Her Voice: Gretchen Parlato.”  Seven Days.  May 29, 2013.  Accessed November 30, 2013.  http://www.7dvt.com/2013finding-her-voice-gretchen-parlato.

Dunn, Leslie C., and Jones, Nancy A.  Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture.  Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Friedwald, Will.  Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond.  New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1990.

Greenlee, Steve.  “Jazz singer Parlato mesmerizes with dream-like voice.”  The Boston Globe.  October 16, 2009.  Accessed December 2, 2013. http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2009/10/16/parloto/.

Jisi, Chris.  “Esperanza Spalding: E-Harmony.”  Bassplayer.  April 3, 2013.  Accessed May 1, 2015.  http://www.bassplayer.com/artists/1171/esperanza-spalding-e-harmony/26667.

Pellegrinelli, Lara.  The Song Is Who? Locating Singers on the Jazz Scene.  PhD diss., Harvard University, 2005.

Monson, Ingrid.  “The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse.”
 Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 48, No. 3, Music Anthropologies and Music Histories (Autumn, 1995), pp. 396-422.

----------.  Freedom Sounds: Civil Right Call Out to Jazz and Africa.  Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Norris, Michele.  “Esperanza Spalding: Voice of the Bass.”  NPRAll Things Considered.  May 15, 2008.  Accessed November 30, 2013.  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90478162.

Tomlinson, Gary.  “Musicology, Anthropology, History.”  In The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, Richard Middleton.  New York: Routledge, 2003. 

Tucker, Sherrie.  “Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies.”  Current Musicology, Vol. 71-73 (Spring, 2001/2002), pg. 375-408. 

Vitro, Roseanna.  “Esperanza Spalding: Grounded & Inspiring.”  JazzTimes.  June 21, 2013. Accessed December 2, 2013.   http://jazztimes.com/articles/94049-esperanza-spalding-grounded-inspiring.


Coltrane, John.  Coltrane’s Sound.  Atlantic,1960.

Davis, Miles.  Kind of Blue.  Columbia Records, 1959.

----------.  E.S.P.  Columbia Records, 1965.

Evans, Bill.  But Beautiful.  Milestone, 1974

Hancock, Herbie.  Thrust.  Columbia Records, 1974.

Hawkins, Coleman.  Body and Soul.  RCA (1939-1956), 1996.

Parlato, Gretchen.  Gretchen Parlato.  Self-released, 2005.

----------.  In a Dream.  Obliqsound Records, 2009.

----------.  The Lost and Found.  Obliqsound Records, 2011.

----------.  Gretchen Parlato: Live in NYC.  Obliqsound Records, 2013.

Shorter, Wayne.  Juju.  Blue Note Records, 1964.

----------.  Native Dancer.  Columbia Records, 1974.

Spalding, Esperanza.  Junjo.  Ayva Musica.  2006.

----------.  Esperanza.  Heads Up International, 2008.

----------.  Chamber Music Society. Heads Up International, 2010.

----------.  Radio Music Society. Heads Up International, 2012.

Tamar Sella is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. in music from UC Berkeley. Her research interests include issues of gender in jazz with relation to notions of vocality and embodiment, the jazz scene in Israel, and the global circulation of jazz education.  She is currently the director of Harvard’s graduate student jazz bands.


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