First of all, let me define vocalese for readers who may not be familiar with the term.
Vocalese is a form of jazz singing where lyrics are added to a previously recorded instrumental solo. The form was pretty much established in the 1950s* by singers like Jon Hendricks, King Pleasure, Annie Ross and Eddie Jefferson. The term was most likely coined by critic Ralph J. Gleason to describe the music of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Probably the two best known vocalese lyrics are “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which Eddie Jefferson wrote to a James Moody solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and was a hit in 1952 for King Pleasure, and Annie Ross’s “Twisted,” based on an original by saxophonist Wardell Gray, and best known to many listeners from Joni Mitchell’s cover (“My analyst told me…”).
Having written vocalese myself, I have the utmost of respect for these pioneers. Writing a lyric to fit the meanderings and creative irregularities of a jazz solo is a difficult task, and much different from writing a lyric for a standard song form, which is, of course, much more regular. Vocalese is a stream-of-conciousness form, essentially. Or at least “stream of narrative.”
For me Eddie Jefferson is the greatest, and likely most prolific, of the vocalese writers, and his exuberant vocal style was a joy. I had the pleasure of seeing him several times in the 1970s at The Tin Palace, a New York jazz club, where he sang with saxophonist Richie Cole’s band. It’s often said that a great jazz solo is an instrumentalist telling a story, and Jefferson had a way of turning those solos into coherent and amusing verbal stories. Among his most memorable lyrics are one for Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” and his comic immaculate-conception twist on “Pennies from Heaven” which he called “Benny’s From Heaven.”
But “Moody’s Mood” aside (and, there is some dispute about whether Jefferson or Pleasure actually wrote that lyric), I think Jefferson’s masterpiece is his lyric for Charlie Parker’s solo on “Oh Lady Be Good,” from a live Jazz at the Philharmonic recording. Here’s that Parker solo, about a minute into the recording:
And now Jefferson’s lyric:
Here’s what Bird said…
I got in trouble fooling around with a pretty woman.
She said that she was alone,
And that I could come by her home.
She went out to lunch with me,
And a couple of times I took her out to see a movie or two,
And never ever thinkin’ that she would do that to me.
Every mornin’, yes, every evenin’,
I used to call her on the phone and tell her just how much I wanted her so,
And there is no mistake,
My heart would surely break if she should ever say goodbye.
My, why, I thought I’d die, [could] not survive without her sweet tenderness,
And her lovely caress, I’m a fool I confess.
I’m tellin’ you that she just left one evenin’,
Didn’t even say she’s leavin’,
I went by her house to take her to a dance and we were gonna have a steak
But when I knocked up on her door there wasn’t no answer.
Lord! In the mornin’ don’t you know
I’d never even thought that while I was standin’ round and waitin’ she was halfway out of town,
I figured maybe she had gone out to the store to get a couple of things she needed ’cause she knew I’d wait around,
I sat down on her steps and smoked a cigarette ’cause I just knew that she’d be back in plenty time.
The first thing I knew an hour then two and then three went by.
All my cigarettes were gone and I was wonderin’ to myself,
What in the world has happened?
When the lady from next door come up to me and said I know you’re the fella that’s been comin’ around
I don’t know how this is gonna sound
But Virginia’s out of town and she told me to tell you that she won’t be back ’cause she has gone off with her lover to get married.
Why in the world did she do it?
I could have did oh so much for her.
Oh well I guess there ain’t no use to thinkin’ ’bout it,
I got myself a new gal and she swear that she’s mine.
Girl, please be good to me…
(My transcription. Where I have “could” in brackets it sounds like Jefferson says either “if” or “did,” but I regularized it for sense.)
That’s pretty remarkable, I’d say. How long did it take him to write that, I wonder. He has skillfully shoehorned language into a challenging solo by one of the greatest of improvisers, and it all sounds perfectly natural. Bravo, Mr. Jefferson.
* While the form pretty much took off in the 1950s, there is an utterly fascinating outlier from 1929, the earliest example I’m aware of. It’s a setting of Bix Beiderbecke’s solo on “Singin’ the Blues,” by Ted Koehler, best known for his collaborations with Harold Arlen, many of them for the Cotton Club stage shows. This version is by Bix’s sidekick Frankie Trumbauer with vocalist Bee Palmer.
Thanks to the great vocalist and vocalese maven Giacomo Gates for some fact-checking help.