More Than Words
Oberlin’s jazz voice program opens up new worlds for singers and instrumentalists alike.
On a brisk Friday during fall semester, students and visitors from all corners of campus have gathered at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse for a noontime ritual at Oberlin: the weekly Jazz Forum, where student ensembles from the conservatory’s Division of Jazz Studies play sets for an appreciative crowd of students and visitors, and receive feedback from their peers and professors.
As students unpack lunches and snack on the Cat’s enormous—and enormously popular—fresh-baked cookies, the first of the day’s ensembles takes the stage. But there is something new about this particular unit: It features a vocalist. As the crowd eyes the performers, sophomore Adriana Vergara counts her four-piece band off into a set that includes arrangements of “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” by Herbie Hancock and “Social Call” by Gigi Gryce. Whether it’s the lush harmonic vocabulary featured in the Hancock tune or the haunting melody of the ballad, Vergara’s performance—incredibly clear and passionate—demands the audience’s complete attention.
Across campus in the Kohl Building, the home of jazz studies at Oberlin, sounds such as these billow out of practice rooms every day, thanks to the jazz voice program that launched in fall 2016. Led by renowned vocalist La Tanya Hall, the studio is already home to five degree students, with additional young singers from Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences taking secondary lessons with Hall.
An experienced educator who has taught at the New School and Five Towns College, Hall also enjoys a vibrant performance career, having shared the stage and studio with artists such as Diana Ross, Bobby McFerrin, Harry Belafonte, Michael McDonald, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Rob Thomas, and Patti Labelle. Her wide-ranging experiences are a welcome fit for the wide range of young musicians at work in her studio.
“I spend an extensive amount of time getting to know students—getting to know a student’s toolbox,” Hall says during a recent phone conversation amid an afternoon packed with lessons. “Oberlin students are curious, and they really are asking the right questions.”
Hall’s students work on a range of formal exercises for vocal technique, but she also encourages them to create musical identities for themselves. “Studying at Oberlin, but also specifically with La Tanya, I have been able to learn that I don’t need to fit a specific type of jazz,” says Vergara, a native of Miami who began singing in choir and musical theater productions in high school. After graduation, she studied opera in Miami for four years before choosing Oberlin, being swayed by the department’s small size and opportunity to collaborate with so many instrumentalists.
Oberlin—and especially jazz studies—is unique in the way its faculty encourage students to become their own musicians and develop their own musical personalities. “There aren’t specific parameters that I need to fit in order to be a jazz musician,” Vergara says. “So I feel way more comfortable making the choices that are mine and that are personal, rather than what someone says I should be doing.”
In a spring 2017 concert, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble featured a student vocalist—Vergara—for the first time in its long history. Vergara senses a cohesiveness developing between the department’s singers and instrumentalists. It’s a bond that instrumentalists are noticing too.
“I played with a vocalist last semester, and it made me a much better timekeeper and really allowed me to provide a layer for the lyrics to have their full effect,” third-year drummer Ricardo Guerra says.
“From an instrumentalist’s point of view, it really stretches your sense of dynamics," adds Dennis Reynolds, director of OJE. "It forces you to get under the sound of the singer and play to the dynamics of that particular tune. It also gives you a better understanding of the tune you are playing if you can hear the words that are being sung.”
As Hall’s studio continues to grow, more doors of opportunity will open for Oberlin instrumentalists and vocalists alike. “There is a lot of promise among my students,” she says, “and I’m very excited about that.”
Max Weiner is a fourth-year jazz bass student in the conservatory. He writes for the Office of Conservatory Communications.