How scat singing became an expressive language in its own right

Scat isn't just an idle feature of jazz – it represents in vocal form an important ideology of freedom of expression that has always underpinned the whole enterprise of jazz music

George Burrows
Monday 29 October 2018 19:25
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Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in 1947. Legend has it that Armstrong became the first to record scat in the 1926 track ‘Heebie Jeebies’, when he forgot the words during a recording session
Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in 1947. Legend has it that Armstrong became the first to record scat in the 1926 track ‘Heebie Jeebies’, when he forgot the words during a recording session

If you go to hear a jazz singer at your local venue, you will most likely experience “scatting” or “scat”. Scat singing can be disconcerting because it involves the singer departing from the melody of a song in improvisation and abandoning traditional lyrics in favour of apparently nonsensical utterances such as “doo-yah-dah-dah-dit-dip-bah!” (to quote from Louis Armstrong’s 1927 recording, “Hotter Than That”).

For some people, scat marks the descent of jazz singing into meaningless nonsense and unseemly expression. Even the great jazz critic Leonard Feather suggested that: “Scat singing – with only a couple of exceptions – should be banned.” But, is scat really meaningless and, if not, how can we make sense of it?

Despite the existence of scat-like singing in the folk music traditions of West Africa and Europe (for example, Scottish mouth music), it is most likely that scat emerged in jazz in the early 1900s when singers in New Orleans began to imitate the first jazz instrumentalists. Legend has it that Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter, vocalist and pioneer of improvisation in jazz, became the first to record scat in the 1926 track “Heebie Jeebies”, when he forgot the words during a recording session.

This is a plausible story, because recording was still a fairly primitive process – tracks were recorded in a single take and studios were kept uncomfortably hot to keep the wax masters soft enough for grooves to be cut in to them. Under such conditions – especially within the racist culture of the time – it was no wonder that, as Armstrong reported, black musicians felt nervous at the prospect of upsetting white producers by wasting studio time with errors.

In this context, Armstrong’s covering of a memory lapse with improvised vocal hokum, was as much a way of protecting himself and his livelihood, as a sign of great vocal artistry. Nevertheless, such recordings established scat as a characteristic feature of jazz singing.

Through the recordings made by Armstrong and later Cab Calloway, scat swiftly became a distinctive feature of jazz’s modernity that, along with the saxophone, syncopation, improvisation and outlandish playing techniques, made (and makes) jazz distinctly hip.

Beyond lyrics

Scat is, however, not just an idle feature of jazz. Instead, it represents in vocal form an important ideology of freedom of expression that has underpinned the whole enterprise of jazz music making since its inception. Scat allows the jazz vocalist to escape the lyrics and the straitjacket of meanings that comes from words. It grants the singer the status of a solo instrumentalist, like any other in jazz, and thereby moves vocal expression towards abstraction and modes of meaning that are musical rather than verbal. Scat thereby defies linguistic meaning systems and, by extension, the social structures and power relations that condition them.

If, as many aficionados would argue, jazz is the musical expression of freedom that extends from the memory of African American enslavement and emancipation, then scat is its vocal manifestation par excellence.

Given that freedom may be at stake, it is tempting to take scat very seriously indeed. However, many of the greatest exponents of scat, whether black or white, most often exude fun. Ella Fitzgerald, for example, makes playful reference to Armstrong’s 1955 hit record of “Mack the Knife” in her 1960 rendition of the song, when she breaks in to some decidedly gravelly voiced scat.

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Fitzgerald’s televised performance even shows her mopping her brow with a white handkerchief in just the same manner as Armstrong did in his performances. Is her reference to Armstrong and Bobby Darin a critique of Armstrong’s 1950s turn towards pop commercialism (Darin had a huge hit with the song in 1960) or a fondly comedic tribute? The beauty of Fitzgerald’s scatting is that it never tells us explicitly and we are left to make up our own minds as we enjoy her playful singing.

New language

Fitzgerald’s scatting, as much as that by more recent luminaries such as Cleo Laine, Al Jarreau or Kurt Elling shows that since jazz’s inception, scat has become established as an expressive language in its own right.

But anyone who has tried to scat on one of great jazz “standards” (classic songs) with a band can tell you that it is simply not the case that anything goes when one is scatting – there are conventions and expectations that come with the idiom. Furthermore, even great scat singers tend to employ certain “licks” (turns of phrase) that are rooted in instrumental solos of the past.

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for experiment and development and the underlying connection between scat and freedom remains a powerfully meaningful one that is only reinforced by the playfulness in scatting.

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In the performances of masters like Fitzgerald and fellow singer Mel Torme, it is scat’s playful fun that stops it appearing pretentious in its abstract representation of freedom from restrictive structures and oppression. But the combination of its serious underlying message of freedom and its comedic mode of expression means that scat appears curiously double voiced and discursive: we are left to make sense of the contradictory (serious-fun) character of the wordless singing.

So, as much as scat might appear to be a descent into utter nonsense, it actually makes a great deal of sense as a particular sort of unresolved expression. It is sensible precisely where words fail – and there is surely a whole lot still to be sung about our experience of contradictory and complicated situations, thoughts and emotions that words can never adequately capture.

George Burrows is a reader in performing arts at the University of Portsmouth. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com)

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