Jazz Singing – An Interview with Jazz Legend Sharny Russell

I asked Australian jazz singer, composer and pianist, Sharny Russell to give her thoughts on how jazz singing differs from other types. Also, how to learn to sing jazz. Sharny was so generous with her time and singing tips. She even shared a couple of her singing exercises. It’s a great interview and I know it will give you a lot of inspiration for your singing development.

What is jazz singing?

  • Jazz is different from other forms of music in that to be a “proper” jazz musician, you need to hear the harmony of the song.
  • Jazz is based around the art of improvisation
  • The swing style is totally unique to jazz
  • There are many forms of jazz singing, including swing, Latin, ballads, free-jazz, modal jazz, cool jazz, funk and fusion
  • To be a good jazz singer, you need to know some things about the structure of music

What does the education of jazz singers include?

  • Knowledge of the standard repertoire
  • Learning instrumental pieces including the bebop standards, particularly the works of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane
  • Jazz harmony
  • Keyboard skills
  • History of jazz
  • Improvisation
  • Performance skills

Why would someone want to be a jazz singer?

  • They like the cool vibe of the music
  • They like listening to jazz and want to perform it
  • It is a deep music education
  • Jazz music helps someone understand how harmony and creativity in music works
  • People emerge from jazz courses with sophisticated skills in harmony and arranging

How can someone get better at singing jazz?

  • Transcription is crucial
  • This involves learning by ear, performances by masters of the jazz art
  • Recommended artists include Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Michelle Nicolle, Kristin Berardi, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling

Where do the syllables for jazz improvisation come from?

  • They have developed over the years from something that was comical to a more serious form of improvisation
  • The actual syllables are less important than ensuring you sing lines that are harmonically correct and have rhythm, form and connection to the tune
  • Listen and emulate people who are skilled improvisers and the good names in jazz
  • Also, learn works from instrumentalists, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Joe Henderson, Joe Pass, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown

Rhythm and phrasing

  • They are crucial to performing the jazz style well
  • Sharny demonstrated a swing exercise based around at 12-bar blues
  • Swing needs to have a sense of forward-motion like a stone skimming across the water
  • Transcription and imitation of the greats is important strategy for learning how to sing with good rhythm and phrasing
  • Pay attention to the way great jazz artists approach notes and get off them – the on-glide and off-glide

Jazz Exercises

  • Sharny has developed a set of jazz exercises for singers, which can be downloaded here

More information


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