Le scat est né avec le jazz, au début du XXe siècle.
Le scat est né avec le jazz, au début du XXe siècle.  © Getty

What's Scat?

Who hasn't sung 'Wap Wap A Doo Wa' or 'Bi Bi Dou Wa', like that, for fun? But if you thought it didn't mean anything you'd be wrong...

Scat singing is one of the most difficult vocal techniques and is deeply ingrained in jazz history. 

Everybody Wants to be a (S)cat

So, what is Scat? Simply put, it's the art of singing without lyrics. The street cats from The Artistocats are not howver the only ones to have mastered this technique, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Melody Gardot - in short, the biggest names in jazz - all sang Scat. 

How is Scat singing different to singing la la la et da bedi da be da when we don't know the lyrics to a song? Well, it is improvised and therefore requires foresight, work, feeling and swing... Scat singing is by no means passive!

But Who Came Up With It?

The story goes that it was created by Louis Armstrong when he recorded a version of the song Heebie Jeebies in 1926. He went beyond the written score of the song and performed a brilliant array of vocal improvisation, using simple syllables. 

This recording does exist but it seems that scat singing dates from an even earlier moment in jazz history. It is featured on older recordings, by the likes Don Redman and Cliff Edwards. 

In fact, the development of scat, is inseparable from that of jazz. Throughout history, Jazz instrumentalists and singers have both improvised. With singers using their voice like an instrument.

Once a Scatter, Always a Scatter 

Though Armstrong did not invent Scat, he certainly popularised it. The perceived freedom of the performed, the individuality of the performance and the often comic almost clown-like dimension entirely seduced the public. No wonder then that comic actor Charlie Chaplin was inspired to use scat in a scene of his 1936 film Modern Times.

Scat singing is still alive and well; it is a technique that can be  adapted to all styles and all times. Musicians like Al Jarreau have introduced the technique to a wider audience, by incorporating scat into pop and RnB tracks.

Scat has in fact evolved into beatboxing, and been developed and popularised especially by hip-hop artists. 

You Can't Improvise Improvisation

"With scat, we are not looking to reproduce what we hear, we are looking for what is missing from a sound, what we could bring," says jazz musician Médéric Collignon. To scat successfully you must have an excellent sense of rhythm and harmony, and have excellent vocal technique.

"When I teach scat to my students," says Michele Hendricks, jazz singer and professor at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, "the first thing I tell them is to work on harmony and chords, as with any instrument. Then we can develop his sense of rhythm, his phrasing, and his attitude".

Scat is not only a technical or theoretical feat.The singer must also be a performer and convey emotions; they must tell a story without relying on words.

Each artist must develop his own scat style. Cab Calloway, for example, liked to use dynamic, dancing syllables such as Zaz-Zuh-Zaz or Dou Bi Di Gui Di, while Sarah Vaughan preferred more sensual sounds, such as Cha Ba Doi Beu Dou Wi.

The Heritage

You would be right in thinking that jazz singers are not the first to use syllables instead of lyrics. The practice dates back many centuries. In 1528, Clément Janequin had already incorporated sounds like Ti Ti Ti Ti Ti Ti Pity and Chou Ty Thou Thouy into his songs, to imitates the cry of the birds. 

And over time, as lyrical art develops, syllables became part of scores. Firstly because it is easier to sing certain notes on an open 'la' sound than on words. But also because these sung syllables gain a meaning from the score and context. They almost act as musical onomatopoeia. 

The Tra la la la of the little Oscar in Verdi's Un ballo in mascherais is mocking, while that of Carmen is more threatening and contemptuous. Has jazz inherited a small piece of opera? Most definitely!

The Cousins 

It's not only Western music that uses syllables. In South India, for example, traditional musicians learn konnakol, a rhythmic language, composed of series of syllables such as Ta Ka Di Mi, Ta Ki Ta, and Ta Di Ki Na Thom. When they are layered and repeated, they create hypnotising music, which can then be mirrored by other instruments.

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