What is a jazz singer? The answer can be as varied as the practitioners of the art form. A jazz singer might be a vocalist who swings and improvises. It might be a performer who phrases lyrics like an instrument or employs wordless “scat” sounds in place of verses. Some are known for writing and singing new lyrics to previously recorded instrumentals in a style known as “vocalese.” Sometimes the line is blurred, such as when blues or big band singers work with jazz musicians. Some jazz singers are skilled instrumentalists who can accompany themselves, while others are known for performances and recordings that speak directly to political and social issues of the day.

Jazz singers interpret a wide range of material, including torch songs, novelty and dance tunes, and standards borrowed from film, Broadway shows, Tin Pan Alley, or the Great American Songbook. They might also borrow songs from other genres and reinvent or transform them by using idiomatic approaches to time and syncopation. Many jazz singers continue to draw inspiration from the wellspring of blues music. In the last few decades, more and more are writing original material.

This exhibit offers perspectives on the art of vocal jazz from the 1920s to the present. Drawn largely from the Library of Congress Music Division’s collections, including the photographs of William P. Gottlieb and the papers of Max Roach, Chet Baker, and Shirley Horn, among others, it features singers and song stylists from both on-stage and off. Rare video clips, photographic portraits, candid snapshots, musical scores, personal notes, correspondence, drawings, and watercolors reveal the sometimes exuberant, sometimes painful, but always vibrant art and life of jazz singers.