100 Years of Jazz: Microphone Singers

Microphone Singers

by Louise Balkwill

Until the 1920′, singing was a very different art.

There were no microphones suitable for singing, so if you wanted to be a singer you had to be able to project your voice in a way that made it audible over a whole band.

This was not a problem for Opera singers, but as jazz music presented an opportunity for young people to establish their own music and culture, the operatic style of singing that had been popular before was no longer suitable.

Bessie Smith is a classic example of a jazz singer who had established herself in an age before vocal microphones.

Listen to her brash, wailing tone, which she kept well into the “microphone singer” age.

Between 1921 and 1923, Kellogg, RCA and Western Electric (three competitive American businesses) each developed carbon and condenser microphones to improve radio broadcasting.

By 1925, these had been introduced into recording studios and stage shows, which marked the end of an era of acoustic recording.

The invention of these microphones made way for a new style of singing, known as “microphone singing”.

Microphone singers performed and record their music using this new technology, and it stuck…

…you will struggle to find a pop singer in the modern day who would perform without amplification!

The new technology opened up a whole new world of opportunities for singers – they could perform with subtleties that would have gone completely amiss without amplification, and this has changed the way that singers approach technique and performance ever since.

They were now able to perform with larger ensembles, and were welcomed by the great instrumentalists to join them in their bands, thus beginning the reign of the jazz singer.

Listen to Billie Holiday, only two years before her tragic death, gently and emotively singing her blues “Fine and Mellow” with an ensemble of some of the world’s most renowned jazz musicians;

In the age before microphones, such a tender performance would have not been possible.

This is not to say that Billie didn’t have a powerful voice (she certainly did!), but the freedom to perform sensitively with such a large ensemble was a new luxury that has since become an expectation for great singers ever since.

Don’t miss the next 100 Years of Jazz Blog, in which we will be looking at the great Big Bands of the Golden Era of Swing!

Inspired?

Why not try your hand at jazz singing with one of our creative and inspirational tutors with our 4 lessons for £99 (London) and 4 lessons for £79 (Manchester) offer?

Send an email to louise@beckydellmusicacademy.co.uk to enquire

100 Years of Jazz: Ragtime

Ragtime

Blog by Louise Balkwill

In our last blog, we looked at Congo Square and the origins of Jazz music. Now we visit the 1890’s, when Ragtime appeared in its earliest form.

Unlike the earlier music of Congo Square that was passed down aurally from generation to generation, Ragtime music gained popularity through being passed around as sheet music, and is thought to be the first written ‘pop’ music – Blues, in contrast, was thought by the higher classes to be a lower class rural music (although very important in the history of jazz – we will have a listen to some blues in the next blog.)

Named ‘Ragtime’ because of its ragged, syncopated rhythms, the music became very popular for dances and was written mainly by middle class African American musicians who had gained influence from minstrelsy and classical music, as well as the improvised and traditional music of Congo Square. The music was accompanied by a dance called the ‘Cakewalk’ – this made way for endless variations that the kids of the time loved to get their feet into. Ragtime music was also a very popular choice to accompany silent films in its later years. You might well have heard of “The Entertainer” (or even played it for one of your grade exams); this is a Ragtime piece written by Scott Joplin, the celebrated “King of Ragtime” in 1902, 115 years ago!

Ragtime started off as a music witten only for solo piano, but in the early 1900’s, orchestral and ensemble arrangements became popular. The violin then became the main leading instrument in these ragtime ensembles with this popular line-up:

  • Melody: First Violin (or Cornet with second Cornet harmonies)
  • Beats 2 and 4: Second Violin (prior to the banjo)
  • Beats 1 and 3: Bass Viol
  • *Obbligato: Piccolo or Clarinet
  • Bassline: Trombone
  • Percussion: Strict time drumming

*Obbligato, (Italian: “obligatory”), in music, essential but subordinate instrumental part. For example, in an 18th-century aria with trumpet obbligato, the trumpet part, although serving as accompaniment to the voice, may be as brilliant in its writing as that of the voice itself.

Fancy having a go at learning some Ragtime Piano?

Check out this video with on-screen sheet music of the first known rag, written by the first published African American composer, Tom Turpin!

(If you liked that, check out YouTube user RagtimeDorianHenry’s other ragtime videos!)

In the next blog, we’ll be looking at early blues and how it has played a massive part in the evolution of the jazz tradition!