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Writing for Singers - Part I

David Berger


There is a famous old story about Ben Webster coming to a complete halt in the middle of one of his great tenor saxophone solos. When asked what happened, he said, “I forgot the words.” And then there was Sonny Rollins who insisted on learning the words to every song he played. Frank Sinatra said that when he learned a song, he always learned the words first before he even sang one note. Do you ever wonder why jazz stopped being popular? One reason is that we stopped singing and playing the words.


When I was in high school and college, I planned on a career as an arranger in New York City. I envisioned spending most of my time writing and recording arrangements for singers with orchestras and bands of various sizes. I also figured that once in a while I would get to make an instrumental jazz recording as my reward for all the nice settings I would create for popular singers of mostly standards and show tunes. I grew up watching Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and a host of other great singers on TV. Although rock and roll was popular with my contemporaries, adults still loved hearing the standards and show tunes. How was I to know that by the time I graduated from college in 1971, that world was rapidly dying?


So I really didn’t plan on a jazz career. As much as I loved jazz, I didn’t think I could make much of a living at it. Besides, I loved writing for singers. I loved Marty Paich’s charts for Sammy Davis, Gil Evans’ and Al Cohn’s charts for Astrud Gilberto, and especially the first record Thad Jones did with Joe Williams. When I was at the Eastman School of Music in the summer of 1967, Manny Albam brought thermofax copies of the scores from Joe and Thad’s record dates to class. I dreamed of writing dates like that for Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis… Well, I never got to write for them, but I have gotten to write and conduct for many of the other great singers of my day. So I consider myself very lucky.


I don’t know if most jazz arrangers and composers are very interested in vocalists. I’ve known pianists who accompanied singers just for the money and complained all the while. Not me. I have always looked at writing vocal arrangements as a challenge to help the singer tell the story—kinda like the contribution of sets and costumes to a show.


When I was playing in Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, at a rehearsal we played Brookmeyer’s chart of Bweebida Bobbida. During the next break I told Bob that I was surprised at how dissonant the voicings were. Although I had listened to the recording hundreds of times, I never noticed all the half steps and major sevenths inside the voicings. He told me that he had learned to hide the dissonances during his days writing commercial music.


When writing for singers I don’t want to dumb down the music, and yet I don’t want to upstage the singer. The relationship between the band and singer must be symbiotic. You’ve got to know the strengths and weaknesses as well as the personality of your singer. I wrote completely differently for Jon Hendricks than I did for Mary Martin. I knew both their styles well and also what they liked and were looking for. Then I found a way to have fun with both.


Back in the 1970’s when I was playing trumpet with Lee Konitz’ Nonet, one of my favorite arrangers, Bob Freedman, came to one of our gigs accompanied by Bill Rowen. Although Bill copied for both of us for years, Bob and I had never met. Bill introduced us, whereupon I proceeded to tell Bob how much I loved his arrangements. He didn’t believe that I knew his work, so among others I cited the two vocal charts he ghosted for Thad Jones (Night Time Is The Right Time and Black Coffee). I then asked if I could take a lesson from him. He replied, “What could I possibly teach you?” After a while he agreed that we could hang out for an afternoon.


And so, I went to his apartment. It was very neat and spare. I asked what he was working on. He said that he was arranging a show for Ethel Merman at Radio City Music Hall, to which I asked, “What do you do for Ethel Merman?” She seemed so over the top corny to me at that time. This was late in her career, and, like many singers, she had become a caricature of herself. He said, “I’ll tell you what I don’t do—I don’t try to teach her music.” And that was the best lesson I ever got.


This business of writing for singers is tricky. You don’t want to overpower them or betray the meaning of the words. But then again you don’t want to be so bland that you don’t make the song come alive. I’ll be honest—I’ve made both mistakes. Fortunately, not too often. If I’m conducting or attending the first rehearsal or recording, I can make adjustments in the arrangement if needs be. I try to get it right, if possible, so the chart will read down, but sometimes they just need a little tweaking. Sometimes the chart sounds good right away, but then I may get an idea to build on it a bit. I’m always sensitive to what the performers bring to the music. They may open a door I didn’t see.


Like most arrangers, I’m not too crazy about being told to change what I’ve written, but that is part of the game. Singers, bandleaders, musical directors, directors, choreographers and producers may all have their own ideas. It’s then my job to give them what they want and make it fit my aesthetic. This usually happens on the fly. I’ve learned to think on my feet. Fortunately for me this doesn’t happen too often, and if it does, it’s usually something minor. Sometimes they are right. I try to be open to that.


Many years ago I wrote a large studio orchestra chart for Susannah McCorkle for a TV show. The song was Alec Wilder’s I Like It Here, which is a very vanilla, happy, pleasant little ditty. I thought I’d play it against type and give it a dark Gil Evans-ish treatment. Ray Wright was conducting, and the orchestra read it down beautifully. I thought it was great. Ray thought it was great. Susannah didn’t like it at all. She wanted vanilla, happy, etc. Although I disagreed, I kept that to myself and had all the instruments playing the dissonant notes tacet their parts. To me it was as if Hamlet came home and told his mom,


“Congratulations on your wedding. Too bad about Dad. I hope you and Uncle Claude will be very happy.”


No drama, right? Oh, well. Half of being an arranger is keeping everyone happy.



The text above is the first half of the introduction of my upcoming book, "Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging, Volume II: Writing for Singers."  In this book we will look at songwriting as well as arranging and orchestrating settings for songs. I’m not a lyricist, and I don’t play a lyricist on TV, but I’ve worked with some great lyricists. I’ll discuss various methods of collaborating as well as construction, word painting and story telling.



Preorder the new book now!  Just click the image below.

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  • John on

    Hi David, How much is the new book pls ?

  • Bill Kirchner on

    I share your enthusiasm for Bob Freedman’s writing. Albums for which he was sole arranger include Grady Tate’s FEELING LIFE, Wynton Marsalis’s HOT HOUSE FLOWERS, Grover Washington Jr.’s ARIA, and his own THE JOURNEYS OF ODYSSEUS.

  • Larry Fisher on

    Dave…. great stuff… really enjoyed this one… looks of insight and artistic inspiration….

  • Chuck Israels on

    Good start. Looking at the photo of Cécile, I can’t help thinking that her dress is a good “arrangement” for how she looks! Her taste goes beyond music.

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