There are many ways to vocalize in jazz, with variations all the way from straight vocals to the nonsensical improvising of scat singing, but one of the more unusual types would have to be something known as vocalese. It’s generally defined as the addition of lyrics to well-known instrumental solos, often as a tribute to the original instrumentalist, and it first began showing up in the post-war years when a guy named Eddie Jefferson became its leading proponent.
A Pittsburgh native, Jefferson was a multi-talented guy who could dance and sing and probably a few other things too, but he first began to make his name in the late 1940s by writing lyrics to some well-known jazz solos and then singing them. Among his earliest attempts were his takes on saxophonist Lester Young’s “I Cover The Waterfront” and “Parker’s Mood,” a piece from the legendary Charlie Parker.
By the early 1950s, Jefferson was finding some success in record sales, reinterpreting classics like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia” and Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” but he had also started something. He soon found that he had a serious competitor, a guy named King Pleasure. In fact, what would eventually be considered Jefferson’s most memorable record — a collaboration with saxman James Moody titled “Moody’s Mood for Love” — was actually a bigger seller for Pleasure (although he used the lyrics Jefferson had written).
But Jefferson had plenty of recognition among jazz pros, and although he went through some down periods he did find renewed success in the late 1960s and beyond. He did some good work with Moody again and in the 1970s often performed with Richie Cole, a new generation saxophonist. Unfortunately it all came to end in 1979, when Jefferson was shot and killed outside a Detroit nightclub, reportedly by a disgruntled former co-worker. He was just 60 years old.