Vocal Jazz Auditions

KU Jazz Singers and Vocal Jazz Lab– Fall 2023

Auditions are required for KU Jazz Singers, meeting MWF 5:00-5:50pm

  • Auditions are on Tuesday, August 22 and Wednesday, August 23 from 12:00-6:00 PM.

Sign up for a time on the bulletin board outside of Murphy 122, and fill out the KU Jazz Audition Form before your audition:  https://docs.google.com/forms/d/12BvimGy8JhPWguPfeYhIhtDFzhoC6FIGjaqccr…

Auditions are not required for KU Vocal Jazz Lab, meeting Mondays 6:00-7:20pm with four Wednesdays 6:00-7:20 to make up for Monday campus time conflicts

Thank you for your interest in auditioning for KU Jazz Singers!

My name is Kerry Marsh, and I’ll be directing Jazz Singers this year, along with KU Vocal Jazz Lab. I graduated from KU in 2000 with a BME in Music Education and from The University of North Texas with an MM in Jazz Studies in 2003. I’ve directed award-winning vocal jazz ensembles for over 20 years at Sacramento State University, The University of Northern Colorado and more, and I am a vocal jazz arranger and publisher. I’m thrilled to be joining the KU School of Music faculty this year!

In case you haven’t had the experience of singing in a vocal jazz ensemble before and aren’t too familiar with this type of group, I’ll give you a brief introduction to the genre. One of the best ways of becoming acquainted before your audition may be to seek out YouTube videos of other top collegiate vocal jazz ensembles online. One other particularly clever thing to do might be to visit my website at KerryMarsh.com, where my partner (Julia Dollison) and I publish a whole lot of vocal jazz arrangements, all with studio demos sung by myself and Julia. Clicking on a few of these ScoreFlippers on the site will give you a solid sense of the type of music we’ll be performing in our new groups. 

Here are a few charts that I might be programming with Jazz Singers or Vocal Jazz Lab this Fall:

Samba Jiji

Black Hole Sun

These Things Take Time

Dancing In The Dark


Here’s a music video I put together with my group from Sacramento State back in 2012:

My Foolish Heart - Sacramento State Jazz Singers

And, finally, here’s a live recording my combined groups made to audition to be on a Ben Folds album (spoiler alert…we got the gig!):

Some key things to know about vocal jazz ensemble singing as an art form that will help you get into a good mindset for this audition and beyond: 

  • Vocal jazz groups can be made up of anywhere between 4 singers and 24 (or sometimes more!), and my vision for KU Jazz Singers, depending on how many qualifies singers we hear at auditions, will be an evenly balanced SATB of around 12 or 16 singers.
  • Since we perform with microphones in vocal jazz groups, the vocal approach and aesthetic is different from bel canto singing style, because we mostly sing without vibrato in order to help us carefully tune complex harmonies. Theater singing styles are more closely related to what we do, but the best real reference is to listen to jazz, pop and R&B singers for solo style, and vocal jazz groups for the ensemble style (it’s sort of its own thing!). We use bright vowels and very conversational diction, and there’s a lot of focus on getting the most exciting sounds out of the interesting chords we sing together. The number one goal is expression, though, and giving our listeners an experience that emotionally impacts them. 
  • We most often perform with piano, bass and drums accompanying us, with occasional a cappella charts in our set. 
  • We’ll perform swing tunes with classic and modern styles, bossa-novas and sambas (“Latin” styles with straight eighth note grooves), pop music with added complexity, beautiful ballads and sometimes fairly esoteric and modern styles. My personal approach has been to keep vocal jazz groups on the more contemporary side, and I find that my groups have enjoyed being on the cutting edge, stylistically, while also spending some time learning about the history and traditions of the art form. 
  • Vocal improvisation (scat singing) is certainly a part of the experience, but not necessarily for everyone in a group, and nobody will be required to improvise, although there will be opportunities to learn about this form of expression. It’s a lot like learning a new language, so the journey involves a learning curve, but it can be really fun and some singer have just the right ear for it and learn it quickly and naturally. 

Here is a detailed rundown of how your audition will go:

I’ll have you vocalize through your registers, making special note of how high and low you’re comfortable singing with good intonation in your chest voice and head voice (and mixed voice, if that’s something you’ve worked on, although that’s often something we develop for S/A singers in rehearsals). 

For this part, you’ll just sing a bit of some song that features you well. You’ll just sing without accompaniment for a little bit in a soloistic style, and you should just pick something you enjoy. If you happen to know any songs in the jazz world, that’s really great…otherwise a pop tune, R&B, even a theater excerpt would work. We just want to get a sense of how you use your voice when you’re most comfortable with the material. 

I’ll play a pre-recorded audio track that takes you through a sequence of ear training exercises that are all call-and-response. You’ll hear a sequence of four pitches played at the piano and you’ll respond with “lah lah lah lah” after you hear the little melody. Then you’ll do the same with a few five-note phrases. Finally, you’ll hear some swinging jazz phrases sung for you that you’ll then repeat back with as much of the same style as possible. 

I’ll play another track taking you through three quick exercises where you’ll be given a single note to hold on a given syllable (“Lah”, “oo”, and “hey”), then then a chord will come in, with your guide note fading out. Your goal is to stay steady on your held note and to blend and balance with the newly emerged chord as best you can in those few seconds. Pretty simple process…we just want to see how comfortable you are singing against notes that are dissonant with your own, since that’s a big part of the vocal jazz ensemble experience.  

I’ll play one more audio track that takes you through a sequence where you’ll use you ears (along with sheet music in front of you) to learn a four-measure vocal jazz phrase for your part. Sopranos will all sing the second soprano part, since it’ll provide more challenge than the lead part, but otherwise, altos learn alto, etc. The track will guide you through a few stages of listening to your part, giving you a chance to sing along with it many times, and then you’ll have the chance to sing your part twice along with a track that has your part missing. Each pass is about 12 seconds long, so this isn’t too extensive, but it gives us a chance to learn how you hear and respond to typical vocal jazz ensemble parts. 

Entirely for bonus “points” if you like, you can take a shot at some improvised scat singing, with me playing a blues progression at the piano. You could make it into Jazz Singers without doing this, but if it’s something you’re comfortable with or even just want to take a brave dive into something new right away, you’re welcome to do it. Lots of solid info on YouTube to serve as an introduction to scat singing, but I think my friend Aimee Nolte has a particularly solid video series on the subject, and they’re chill and fun videos with a low intimidation factor.

You’ll notice that there is NO SIGHT-SINGING test in this audition, and that’s deliberate. I believe that vocal jazz helps students build their sight-singing skills, but I also believe that some amazing singers with great ears haven’t had the opportunity yet to develop their sight-singing skills, and since I’ll always give my group members opportunities to work on their music outside of rehearsal (almost always with ear-learning audio tools available), it’s not absolutely crucial that our singers have amazing sight-singing skills from the start. 

I always assume that some folks auditioning will have nerves under the surface, and that may effect how you use your voice, and that’s totally OK! I’ve been hearing auditions for vocal jazz every year since I was a student at KU directing my first groups back in 1999, and I always just want singers to know that I’m rooting for you 100% and want you to have a great experience. My goal will be to give you the opportunity to sing in an ensemble that provides you the best challenge possible while not creating a frustrating, overwhelming or (on the other side) boring experience. It’s not an exact science, but I always do the best I can for my students. 

However great your audition is, if it turns out that we can’t quite place you in Jazz Singers this semester, the good news is that we have Vocal Jazz Lab on Monday nights from 6pm to 7:20 (with a few Wednesday evenings when needed), and you’ll be very welcome to sing with us in this brand new ensemble.

Enrollment information

Everyone must enroll in the appropriate class for the ensemble or class they are placed in:

  • Jazz Singers—enroll in JAZZ 412 (undergrads) or JAZZ 712 (grad students)
  • Vocal Jazz Lab—enroll in MUS 100—Directed Study in Vocal Jazz (freshmen and sophomores) or MUS 300—Directed Study in Vocal Jazz (juniors, seniors and grad students)

I want to thank you for your interest in vocal jazz! When I found vocal jazz in my freshman year at KU years ago, it completely changed my life for the better, and I hope I can give you and other Jayhawks at least some part of that inspiration that I was lucky enough to get from my early experiences. Looking forward to meeting you and hearing you sing!

-Kerry Marsh