Frank Sinatra’s effect on jazz music: Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Frank Sinatra was, by most accounts, the greatest entertainer in the history of American pop culture. His career spanned more than five decades from the late-1930s to the 90s. Dropping out of high school with no formal music training, he couldn’t read music, but he went from being a teen idol to a living legend. His first hit, “All or Nothing at All,” foretold his future and summed up his philosophy and the arc of his career.
Sinatra was a complex man. He was the winner of nine Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement as well as being very philanthropic. There was also the “bad boy” side of him, but I focus here on a simple question: Was he a jazz singer? I’ll answer that with another question: Does it snow in Vail? The unequivocal answer is: yes.
Not just a pop singer
The hallmark of jazz and therefore a jazz vocalist is to swing and improvise. In “Jazz in America,” it is stated a performance swings when it uses “a rhythmically coordinated way … to command a visceral response from the listener (to cause feet to tap and heads to nod).” If you still don’t get what swing is, listen to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers ,” one of Sinatra’s greatest recorded tunes. If you still don’t get it, I suggest that you focus your listening to polka music.
Improvising in jazz is to compose on the spot. Techniques such as singing behind the beat, accenting words and changing the phrasing (grouping lyrics in a way that is different than the composer wrote them, but suits the vocalist sensibility of how the lyrics should be interpreted), altering and substituting lyrics all allow a vocalist to make a song his own. In essence, by using these techniques, the vocalist becomes the composer of a new song and if the vocalist can make the listener tap his feet, click his figures or nod his head, you have a jazz vocalist.
Sinatra’s swagger and half-cocked hat said that he was a jazz musician, but attitude and attire are not enough. He sang and recorded with many jazz greats, admired by musicians such as Count Basie, Miles Davis and Lester “Prez” Young. But it is not the company you keep or the admirers that you have, but how you sing that determines your bona fides as a jazz singer. He recorded “Swing Easy,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair,” but branding is one thing and really swinging is another.
Ultimately, you have to be able to deliver the goods and “The Chairman of the Board” could. Learning early in his career how to sustain long, unbroken phrases without pausing to catch his breath allowed him to be adventurous with the phrases of a song. Sinatra admired many jazz instrumental soloists and used similar phrasing in his performances. His diction was impeccable but yet had a conversational quality. He had an incredible sense of timing. This allowed him to alter a phrase so the beat didn’t always coincide with the ending of a rhyme, but created a sense of sincerity making the lyrics more personal and causing the listener to believe the story that was being told. In fact, he was quoted as saying: “When I sing, I believe. I’m honest.”
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit vailjazz.org.