100 Years of Jazz: Microphone Singers
Blog by Louise Balkwill
Until the 1920′, singing was a very different art; There were no microphones suitable for singing, so if you wanted to be a singer you had to be able to project your voice in a way that made it audible over a whole band.
This was not a problem for Opera singers, but as jazz music presented an opportunity for young people to establish their own music and culture, the operatic style of singing that had been popular before was no longer suitable.
Bessie Smith is a classic example of a jazz singer who had established herself in an age before vocal microphones – listen to her brash, wailing tone, which she kept well into the “microphone singer” age.
Between 1921 and 1923, Kellogg, RCA and Western Electric (three competitive American businesses) each developed carbon and condenser microphones to improve radio broadcasting. By 1925, these had been introduced into recording studios and stage shows, which marked the end of an era of acoustic recording.
The invention of these microphones made way for a new style of singing, known as “microphone singing”. Microphone singers performed and record their music using this new technology, and it stuck – you will struggle to find a pop singer in the modern day who would perform without amplification!
The new technology opened up a whole new world of opportunities for singers – they could perform with subtleties that would have gone completely amiss without amplification, and this has changed the way that singers approach technique and performance ever since. They were now able to perform with larger ensembles, and were welcomed by the great instrumentalists to join them in their bands, thus beginning the reign of the jazz singer.
Listen to Billie Holiday, only two years before her tragic death, gently and emotively singing her blues “Fine and Mellow” with an ensemble of some of the world’s most renowned jazz musicians;
In the age before microphones, such a tender performance would have not been possible. This is not to say that Billie didn’t have a powerful voice (she certainly did!), but the freedom to perform sensitively with such a large ensemble was a new luxury that has since become an expectation for great singers ever since.
Don’t miss the next 100 Years of Jazz Blog, in which we will be looking at the great Big Bands of the Golden Era of Swing!
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