Where are the singer-songwriters in jazz?


Sriram Gopal
Swing District


During the first half of the 20th century, popular performers rarely wrote their own material. A record company would sign a singer to a contract and assign someone from the A&R department to match tunes by professional songwriters with that particular entertainer. That all changed when Beatlemania swept the world. The public not only saw a group of photogenic young lads; they recognized four brilliant minds capable of writing songs that would prove to be timeless. Today’s glossy pop music still follows the old way of doing things, but the Beatles started a trend that gave rise to the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Their legacy continues in countless young people jamming out on new songs in the basement or garage. If you expect to be taken seriously in popular music today, you’d better write some tunes.

But in the world of jazz vocals, it would seem that this shift never took place. For every singer with great songwriting chops, there seem to be 10 who simply never compose. Certainly, there are notable exceptions; in the late 1950s and ‘60s, for example, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone proved themselves as major songwriting talents. And over the past few years, the local vocalists Lena Seikaly and Akua Allrich have recorded a number of their own songs. But these are anomalies. The vast majority of vocal gigs I see are built entirely around standards.

Songwriting jazz vocalists such as Abbey Lincoln have always been an anomaly. Courtesy songbird.rme

To help identify the barriers keeping singer-songwriters from emerging in jazz, I spoke with Chris Grasso. An accomplished pianist who books talent for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in D.C., he has made a career of working with jazz singers and has accompanied many of the area’s best. Grasso immediately noted that a performance is constructed on two basic building blocks: a skilled musician and a great song.

“Songwriting is much harder than people think it is,” Grasso said. “People love great songs, and there’s not a lot of great songs being written.”

There is no doubting the level of craft required for strong songwriting, and it’s true that even great instrumentalists such as Louis Armstrong were not primarily known for their compositions. Yet many of the genre’s great players – think Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington – also composed some of its most memorable songs. I could easily make a pages-long list of my favorite instrumentalist-composers, but I would be hard-pressed to come up with a comparable list of singer-songwriters.

Besides the lack of precedent for songwriting vocalists, it’s also clear that commercial considerations act as a hindrance to original vocal jazz. Grasso makes it clear to the acts he books that singers at the Mandarin Oriental are expected to play standards.

In our interview, he agreed that demand from audiences and venues were an obstacle. “Decent amounts of money come with demands to please the audience,” Grasso explained. “It’s much harder to get a paying audience for original material.”

This lack of demand for original music is borne out not only in live performances, but in the albums that receive exposure. For example, Jane Monheit has achieved impressive levels of success for a jazz artist. While no one denies her abilities, there is nothing innovative in what she does, and she isn’t a songwriter. Diana Krall, on the other hand, released a fantastic album that featured a number of songs she’d co-written with her husband, Elvis Costello. But it proved too out-of-the-ordinary for the industry, and was largely panned by critics. Despite its compositional pedigree, the record never matched the popularity of her Live in Paris, which was mainly comprised of standards.

One approach Grasso has adopted to expand the repertoire heard in the Mandarin’s jazz lounge is to expand the songbook itself. He collaborates frequently with the area vocalist Sharón Clark, and they have developed a set list of songs that are rarely heard in a jazz context, mainly well-known melodies from the 1960s and ‘70s. There is precedent for this. After all, many of the most beloved jazz songs began their lives as show tunes.

There is no denying that the standard repertoire needs to grow and evolve, but as someone who values creativity on the most personal level, simply highlighting songs from another past era still doesn’t cut it for me. At CapitalBop’s last D.C. Jazz Loft, I had the opportunity to hear the vocalist Heidi Martin play an entire set of originals. The singing and playing were fantastic, but the stories she told in between tunes, describing where the songs came from and what she sought to portray with them, was as engaging as the lyrics themselves. This level of connection with an audience is impossible when a vocalist sings the 10 millionth cover of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” or unnecessarily adds to the myriad Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday tributes that are already out there. While commercial and artistic considerations have prevented the rise of the jazz singer-songwriter, I’d encourage vocalists to break out their pens. The jazz world at large might not be appreciative of your efforts, but at least one jazz writer definitely would be. 

Sriram Gopal is CapitalBop’s monthly columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].



About Sriram Gopal

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A proud son of Maryland who now calls the District home, Sriram has been active on the local music scene since the mid-1990s, both as a musician and writer. As a drummer, he has performed at Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns, the Kennedy Center, Strathmore and many other area venues and festivals. He has covered the local jazz scene for DCist since 2007, and has since written for the Washington Examiner, Modern Drummer and Washingtonian. You can reach Sriram at [email protected].

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  1. Interesting article. I’m guessing that part of the reason for the broadening of the category called ‘jazz’ is that some of the more interesting song writers have expanded beyond the pop and acoustic traditions. For instance, a writer like Elvis Costello plays the Montreal Jazz Festival and collaborates with people like Bill Frissell. Another issue is the culture around jazz which seems to favor or at least allow musicians to turn up to a gig and read their way through the standards…something I’ve never really liked as an audience member. More difficult to do this convincingly with original compositions heard for the first time.

    Ken Avis /
  2. I’m curious as to why Betty Carter’s name was left out of the article? She was an amazing composer as well as singer/improviser. What about Oscar Brown, Jr., Rene Marie, Carmen Lundy, Esperanza Spalding and Michael Franks? She’s not as well-known but New York-based vocalist Fay Victor also comes to mind. There are a number of great jazz vocalists/composers who are out here making great contributions. Locally, you left out the great Amy Bormet and Christie Dashiell; both amazing writers and singers. I don’t have any commercial recordings available but I’m a vocalist who writes and arranges my own material. Contrary to Grasso’s comment, there are lots of great songs being written. Last week, I attended a concert given by local talent and Howard University Jazz Studies program graduate Rochelle Rice where she performed several of her own compositions and they were quite awesome!

    Jessica Boykin-Settles /
    • Your right….quite a few local composers out there.

      Another local band featuring their own compositions – and very impressive they are too – is the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet. Their new album is very strong and its in the running for a Grammy.

      With a little bit of modesty, I should mention that each of Veronneau’s albums have included original vocal and instrumental compositions along with the standards.

  3. I think Gregory Porter is one of the best jazz singer/songwriters to emerge on the scene. He’s a fantastic live performer and a superb songwriter. And the proof is indeed in the puddling.

    With only two albums under his belt, he regularly thrills audiences with his own compositions like “1960 What?” “On My Way to Harlem,” and “Lion’s Song.”

    John Murph /
  4. They are out there but as you say, there is not much commercial viability for songwriting in jazz in vocals or instrumentals. People in jazz want to hear standards. As soon as you write a song, it becomes another style. As soon as you put a beat to it that is not swing, it’s not jazz. Musicians like you a lot, but the public…not so much. It’s hard to be different. It’s easier to do what is expected. Here’s to being different.

    Alison Crockett /
  5. They’re out there, but may be hard to become exposed to. A few jazz vocalists/songwriters worthy of calling attention to…Becca Stevens, Rebecca Martin, Alison Wedding, Melissa Stylianou, Peter Eldridge, many more especially on the New York Scene.
    -Danielle Eva
    jazz vocalist/songwriter/former DC resident

    Danielle /
  6. […] Where are the singer-songwriters in jazz? There is no doubting the level of craft required for strong songwriting, and it's true that even great instrumentalists such as Louis Armstrong were not primarily known for their compositions. Yet many of the genre's great players – think Thelonious … Read more on CapitalBop (blog) […]

  7. Sriram! your article inspires me to write right away here…just jumpin’ in…

    I love the singers present here posts and comments…
    I hear you Jesse! & Diva hope to hear you live in DC soon! Love to read the responses and hear the angles we all our seeing things from!

    Alison is such a strong vocalist songwriter and solid standards interpreter not many can do both so equally well….

    I appreciate being recognized as one of the songwriters in your article… I don’t write specifically beyond that its my working thru my own issues and the song; the message in a melody comes thru when the work is done like growth…transformation…it’s supper when the water has been reduced in the pan…

    …we are formless informing each other thru our forms…

    takes patience to listen to others spirit their songwriting it’s like that “talk” you gonna have with your partner later lol it’s suposta be love and it’s so much hard work …DC has so much love though that when you land a hit no matter how large or small the space it’s always such a beautiful exchange…

    some days i don’t know what i was thinking doing rice and memphis at the Henley Park…I always used to believe everyone is so open becuz they were friendly little did I know…now I am just greatful for the opportunities and understand more why they don’t happen…at the times i may feel they’re supposed to…guess i am gettin’ ol!!!

    Abbey Lincoln/Aminata Moseka says that she is a person writing the impersonal story from a personal story…( btw*shamelessplug* I will be perform ABBEY! tribute in her own words this Sunday November 4th at An die Musik at 5p & 6.30p)

    Hope to see ya’ll at either a show of mine or a show of yours! it’s all a show of support which i love to be apart of ..have a blest weekend!! hide

    hide /
  8. Good piece. My two cents, I think Cassandra Wilson, of course a great interpreter is penning decent music with lyrics. John Pizzarelli’s work is clever, though no Mose Allison. One of my fav jazz singer songwriters, not to mention players, is Les McCann.

    Also, the tiniest quibble “the Beatles started a trend that gave rise to the likes of Bob Dylan,” they certainly influenced each other, but I’d argue it’s more correct that Dylan’s own writing first influenced Lennon/McCartney to write their own stuff.

    Marc Eisenberg /
  9. This is a great subject to pick up and discuss. I’d just like to add the following singers who’ve sang interesting originals to the ones already contributed by the folks above: Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, Jeanne Lee, Joe Lee Wilson, Leena Conquest, Lisa Sokolov, Sheila Jordan, Sunny Kim, Annette Peacock.

    Michael /
  10. This is a tender topic for me being a jazz vocalist. I have written tunes and performed them and maybe will continue to do so, but I wonder why the originality of the composition is important. I’ve always thought more about finding repertoire that was unique to me and that I felt strongly about. Wether the song was written by me, other friend composers, or the greats in our music never mattered. I just want to sing great songs. Songs that are well composed and have a beautiful poetic lyric. Now, I have a BA in Muisc Ed and Performance and a Masters in Jazz Studies, I know how to write songs and chord professions within the jazz language but that doesn’t make me a composer. Sometimes it seems like just the act of writing a song, no matter how good or bad, makes you more of a real musican in some people’s eyes. I think that’s sad and totally unfair. There is a special talent to singing standards, jazz repertoire, and others original tunes. That should not be swept under the table because to many hobbiest keep shrieking through ” Bye Bye Blackbird”. Lets us not for get the great jazz vocal tradition we have. Not everyone is meant to be a composer.

    Marianne Solivan /
  11. Well, as a drummer who digs vocals, let me say it this way.
    part of The problem is that, for every one recent song out there that’s really moving, there are ten that someone thinks we need to hear that are just like – yeah whatever.and yes, some of those may not have been heard by me if not for the fact that i came to see others in the band.
    some of the people guilty of that you’d know if mentioned,
    listen, even if half your stuff is not the best, that’s cool, mix it with some tunes that are then. there’s somewhat of a lack of common sence is part of the problem.
    what about the person who only seems to know ten songs, or, why not mix in a couple originals with the more popular ones. no, although there are recently written tunes for jazz vocalists out here, noone usually has the guts to tell the composers when they need to put a tune back in the oven so that it can finish baking. further more, people tend not to ask like, hey, is this really going to move someone or, is this just making me feel good.
    I agree that, writing that next tune or ten that are really moving is just not as easy as most people think and certainly that’s part of the issue.

    Ian Dylan /
  12. Hi Sriram, thanks for the interview. There absolutely are great original songs being written — one I mentioned to Sriram is a beautiful tune called “Bliss” on Marianne Solivan’s CD. Also, I think we can mythologize the past a bit — there were plenty of bad songs written in the 20s, 30s and 40s, we just don’t hear them anymore. I have no doubt that some of the songs being written today will become part of the repertoire — as an example, a song like “Throw It Away” is now becoming a standard. It just takes time.

    I think that for most jazz musicians, and vocalists in particular, jazz is an interpretive art, rather than a compositional one. I also think that for many jazz listeners, much of the pleasure derived from a jazz performance is the contrast between the original composition and the interpretation — the “sound of surprise,” as it’s been called.

    I think one of the reasons many younger listeners don’t “get” jazz is that they don’t know original songs (not surprisingly, given their vintage). I had a close friend come to a show I did in NYC with Sharón Clark, and he told me he finally “got” the jazz thing because he actually knew the songs, and could hear what he described as the “tension” between the original and the new interpretation. That’s why I think brining materials from more recent decades into the fold is important.

    Chris Grasso /
  13. A lot of good points being expressed. Speaking to Chris’s comment on the ‘tension’ between the original and the new interpretation, and the fact that it takes time for a song to evolve into a standard, I do love Lena Seikaly’s version of the Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’ with a great band arrangement on her last album.

    Ken Avis /
  14. Are you familiar with Milla Kay? She lives in Hamburg, Germany. She describes herself as “singer-songwriter, jazz”. I love her music.

    I found your article because I was trying to find out if she is a unique artist, or if there is even a genre of jazz singer-songwriters.

    Milla Kay’s music is pop enough that it should be a commercial success. The fact that it isn’t may say more about the disfunction of the music industry than a lack of audience for this kind of material.

    Kevin Ingram /
  15. Just to answer the subject matter question, and acknowledging the self-centredness of my reply….I’m trying…

    In case you’re interested check out my album of original songs, co-produced by jazz singer extraordinaire Rebecca Parris..


    Louise Van Aarsen /
  16. Sriram,

    I know I’m coming late to the discussion but thanks for asking the question, it’s one I’ve been asking myself. I’m a singer/lyricist/songwriter on the other coast, Oakland, CA. I’m about to release a book of 30 original jazz songs and have gotten strong encouragement from the community here and have had a few songs recorded by other singers, Andrea Wolper (great songwriter herself) in NY and Benny Watson, here in Oakland (full disclosure, he wrote two of the songs with me (great piano player as well as a singer) and recorded them himself. I am so happy that the scene for jazz songwriters seems to be thriving in D.C.

    I totally agree with a lot of the names posted here, especially Gregory Porter and Esperanza – and will be checking out a number of the other names I am unfamiliar with. Great discussion, Thanks!

    Cathi Walkup /
  17. […] a recent column for this site, Sriram Gopal reflected on the challenges of songwriting in the jazz aesthetic, where “commercial and artistic […]

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