The vocal technique of scat singing is one of the most distinctive and intriguing sounds in jazz.

It’s also arguably one of the most divisive, with some listeners loving the sound of an improvising vocal soloist in full flow, and some finding the sound of those strange and expressive syllables somewhat disconcerting.

This guide will take a look at what jazz scat singing actually is, as well as outlining the history of its development. We’ll focus on some of the pioneers of the art form and recommend some great recorded examples of classic jazz scat solos old and new.

Jazz Scat singing

What is scat singing?

Often credited as being ‘invented’ by Louis Armstrong, scat singing is when a jazz vocalist uses meaningless syllables to take an improvised solo. The exact syllables and sounds used will vary with the period and style, but some examples might include: 

doo, be, shoo, bop, ooh, dee, doo, sha-bam

Traditionally, in a jazz group, the vocalist sings the melody and accompanying lyrics to the song, before an instrumentalist might play an improvised solo over the tune’s chord sequence.

But by taking a scat solo, the singer is freed from the constraints of the lyrics, and is able to improvise creatively in the way that a saxophonist or trumpeter might.

This is not an easy skill.

If a saxophonist, for example, has a decent understanding of harmony, he or she can press the relevant keys on their instrument to produce a note that they know will fit with the underlying chord.

A singer cannot do this: they have to use their ears and contextualise the notes they choose in a way that is arguably more challenging.

The origins of scat singing

Trumpeter & vocalist Louis Armstrong is generally regarded as the inventor of scat singing in jazz.

According to legend, while he was recording “Heebie Jeebies” with his band The Hot Five in 1926, his sheet music fell off the stand during the middle of a take.

As he couldn’t remember the lyrics, he sang an improvised solo with nonsensical syllables instead of the proper words.

“I dropped the paper with the lyrics—right in the middle of the tune… And I did not want to stop and spoil the record which was moving along so wonderfully… So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started to Scatting… Just as nothing had happened… When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out… And to my surprise they all came running out of the controlling booth and said—’Leave That In.’ Louis Armstrong

The song became a hit, and Armstrong added the technique to his regular musical arsenal.

His recording of “Hotter Than That” is another fabulous early example, in which Louis uses his voice to create a spontaneous masterpiece that is full of vibrant personality and rhythmic sophistication.

In fact, there were probably examples of similar singing styles that predated Armstrong’s seminal 1926 recording, with various ragtime vocalists, early pop singers and entertainers using scat-like techniques in the early 20th Century.

Pianist, composer and New Orleans innovator Jelly Roll Morton claimed that a comedian named Joe Sims invented scat singing way before Louis Armstrong’s time”.

It has also been suggested that scatting has roots in the music of West Africa, in which fixed syllables are assigned to percussion pitches.

Further development of scat singing in jazz

The scat singing styles and syllables used by the great practitioners of the art form tended to reflect the periods and scenes in which they existed.

Ella Fitzgerald’s snappy jazz scat singing is reminiscent of the saxophones and trumpets of the swing and big band era during which she came to prominence.

Whereas Sarah Vaughan’s improvising is rooted in the bebop tradition, which is no surprise, given her early collaborations with Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie.

Later on, Betty Carter was celebrated as a master vocal soloist, her deeply emotive and somewhat wild style reflecting the intense and increasingly spiritual jazz that came about in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Mel Tormé’s relaxed virtuosity perhaps owes something to the cool jazz of the West Coast, where he was based.

Other notable scat singers include Anita O’Day, Eddie Jefferson, Carmen McRae and John Hendricks.

It’s worth mentioning that not all jazz singers scat – some prefer to focus simply upon interpreting the melody and lyrics – and those that do generally use the technique sparingly.

Albums by Fitzgerald and Vaughan, for example, certainly do not include improvised solos on every track.

Instrumentalist-singers

The artists mentioned in the previous section are all renowned jazz singers, but there is also a tradition, beginning with Louis Armstrong, of jazz instrumentalists with a sideline in vocals, and many of these have used their improvisational know-how to sing scat solos.

Chet Baker’s relaxed singing style always matched his cool trumpet playing perfectly, smooth and stripped-back, with never a wasted note.

Clark Terry’s “Mumbles”, meanwhile, is novelty-meets-art, with the great trumpeter’s strangely humorous vocal solo accompanied by the ever-swinging Oscar Peterson Trio.

Dizzy Gillespie, another trumpeter, brings his bluesy bebop style to his occasional scat soloing.

Scat singing today

Scat singing continues to be used in jazz today.

Current New York jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimee improvises in the classic straight-ahead tradition, often cleverly inserting quotes from other tunes in the way that Ella Fitzgerald would.

Esperanza Spalding is able to improvise vocally whilst accompanying herself on the double bass.

Amy Winehouse, known primarily as a soulful pop singer, took a scat solo on her funky interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight”, while Kurt Elling, one of the most acclaimed jazz vocalists today, is a virtuosic and emotive soloist.

Bobby McFerrin impressively blends scat singing with polyphonic overtone singing and improvised body percussion.

In contemporary jazz, the voice might be used as part of the ensemble, even if the piece has no lyrics.

For example, David Binney and Edward Simon’s Oceanos album utilises Luciana Souza’s voice as a melodic line alongside Binney’s saxophone on complex written material.

This probably wouldn’t be referred to as scat singing, but is certainly an extension of the tradition of using the voice as a melodic instrument in jazz.

Norma Winstone fulfils a similar role at times within Kenny Wheeler’s music.

Ten of the best scat solos in jazz

With all that in mind, we’ve picked 10 legendary scat solos from jazz history, starting with Louis Armstrong back in the early 20th Century, to contemporary jazz singing great Kurt Elling. 

See for yourself what’s changed (and what hasn’t!) across almost 100 years of scat evolution…

Louis Armstrong – “Heebie Jeebies” from the Complete Hot Five and Sevens Recordings

Heebie Jeebies is generally considered the very first scat solo in jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie – “Oop-Pop-A-Da” from Diz ‘n’ Bird at Carnegie Hall

A riotous recording by Gillespie’s innovative bebop big band from 1947.

Sarah Vaughan – “All of Me” from Swingin’ Easy

Vaughan uses her whole vocal range on her brilliant one-chorus improvisation on this favourite standard song.

Chet Baker – “It Could Happen to You” from Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen To You

Just like his trumpet playing, Chat Baker’s half-chorus vocal solo here is clear, cool and melodic.

Ella Fitzgerald – “How High The Moon” from Mack The Knife (Live in Berlin)

Fitzgerald quotes over a dozen other songs on this incredible live performance, including “The Peanut Vendor” and “Ornithology”.

Anita O’Day – “Them There Eyes” from Anita Sings The Most

O’Day is accompanied by Oscar Peterson on this number at breakneck tempo.

Louis Prima – “I Wanna Be Like You” from the film The Jungle Book

Louis Prima’s performance in the 1967 Disney animation brought scatting to a mainstream audience.

Mel Tormé’s – “Lady Be Good” (from a live performance)

This incredible (not to mention funny) live performance is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

Mark Murphy – “Bebop Lives (Boplicity)” from Bop for Kerouac

This vocalese adds lyrics to “Boplicity” from Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool album, before Murphy, a vocal innovator, takes a fast-paced scat solo.

Kurt Elling – “Nature Boy” from The Messenger

Elling’s virtuosic baritone is in particularly impressive form on this old jazz standard.

NEXT:
The Best Jazz Singers of All Time

Thanks for checking out this guide; hopefully it’s answered your questions about what jazz scat singing is and given you some great scat solos to listen to! 

If you’d like to learn more about many of the artists here, you can find them in our round up of the best jazz singers of all time.