Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jazz Singers (Essay)


For decades the question has been asked: What is a jazz singer? Some listeners claim that a vocalist has to scat like a horn (what do they consider Billie Holiday?) while others say that simply swinging is enough (do they include Tony Bennett and Jack Jones?).

Here is the most logical definition. A jazz singer is a vocalist who brings his or her own interpretation to a song and improvises through words, sounds, notes and/or phrasing. The difference between a jazz and a pop singer (and the same can be said for musicians) is that a jazz vocalist is spontaneous in concert. The goal is not to duplicate a record (although arrangements and frameworks can be followed), but rather to express how one feels at the moment. Respect can be shown for the original lyrics and melody, but if one is only duplicating the written music, the chances are that the singer falls into the cabaret area.

Since the human voice was the first musical instrument and the earliest music had to be spontaneous, one can accurately surmise that the first musical sounds were made by a jazz singer. However, it was in the 1920s that the first jazz vocalists were documented on record.

For simplicity's sake, the history of male and female jazz singers are here discussed separately. Starting with the former, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby were the most important male jazz singers of the '20s, but they were not the first. Cliff Edwards (known as Ukulele Ike), a talented performer who also played ukulele and kazoo, was a colorful jazz-oriented singer who led his first record dates in 1924. Although he became an alcoholic and a part-time actor used for comedy relief, Edwards made a brief comeback in the early 1940s as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, singing "When You Wish Upon A Star." Another early singer was the versatile arranger-reed player Don Redman, who took the first ever recorded scat vocal (substituting nonsense syllables for words) with Fletcher Henderson on 1924's "My Papa Doesn't Two-Time No Time."

Most male singers who were caught on record in the 1920s are difficult to listen to today. Notable primarily for their volume and ability to sing words clearly, the great majority come across as pompous and semi-classical. The early blues singers were exceptions, but they had less of a connection to the jazz world than their female counterparts (such as Bessie Smith).

Louis Armstrong was the first major male jazz singer. Other than one early song with Fletcher Henderson, his initial vocals on record were in 1925-26 with his Hot Five, and they still sound fresh and lively today. Armstrong vocalized with the phrasing of a trumpeter, consistently improvised, and (starting with "Heebies Jeebies") proved to be a masterful scat singer. Even when Satch was sticking close to the words, his phrasing was spontaneous, and he altered both the notes and their timing to dramatic effect. Through the years his singing was such a huge influence on everyone from Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald and Jon Hendricks that it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that he largely invented jazz singing.

Bing Crosby, a great admirer of Armstrong's, brought Louis' innovations into the world of pop music, first as part of the Rhythm Boys with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and then as the premier "crooner" of the 1930s. Crosby's baritone voice saved the world from the many "boy tenors" who were threatening to dominate music of the late 1920s. Other important pre-swing male singers included the always-exciting Cab Calloway, trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Fats Waller, plus the Mills Brothers. While the Mills Brothers became famous in later years for their pop records, in the 1930s they brought the art of imitating instruments to an unparalleled level, often sounding like a five-piece band when in fact the only "real" instrument that they used was an acoustic guitar.

During the swing era, female singers were much more common than male jazz vocalists (virtually every big band had the former), but there were some major stylists. From Kansas City came the two memorable blues singers Jimmy Rushing (with Count Basie's Orchestra) and Big Joe Turner, both of whom had long careers. Billy Eckstine made his debut with Earl Hines' band, and Frank Sinatra (an inspiration to jazz vocalists, although not an improvising jazz singer himself) became famous with Tommy Dorsey. A brilliant pianist, Nat King Cole's highly appealing singing would eventually draw him to the world of pop. Two other influential forces were the jivey Slim Gaillard (whose "Flat Foot Floogie" kept him going for 50 years) and the charismatic Louis Jordan, who with his Tympani Five helped launch R&B.

With the rise of bebop in the mid-1940s, jazz and pop singing largely split apart. Scat singing became more complex as practiced by Babs Gonzales (with his Four Bips and a Bop), Joe Carroll and Dizzy Gillespie. Vocalese, the art of writing lyrics to fit recorded solos, was developed by Eddie Jefferson, popularized by King Pleasure (whose "Moody's Mood for Love" and "Parker's Mood" are classics) and brought to its highest level by Jon Hendricks in the 1950s as part of the definitive jazz vocal group (Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross. Manhattan Transfer in the 1980s and '90s, when they perform jazz, sometimes approaches the magic of L, H & Ross.

While Ray Charles mixed gospel, soul and R&B with the spirit of jazz, and Jimmy Witherspoon, Ernie Andrews, Bill Henderson and Joe Williams fell into both the jazz and blues worlds, Chet Baker's boyish charm on ballads in the '50s made him a heartthrob for a period. Billy Eckstine's warm baritone voice would have made him a movie star were it not for the racism of the period; blacks were not given romantic leads in the 1950s. Eckstine did influence a generation of ballad singers including Earl Coleman and Johnny Hartman (whose 1963 collaboration with John Coltrane is a classic).

Two of the most significant male jazz singers of the 1960s (and beyond) were both talented lyricists who sang ironic and socially conscious words: Oscar Brown Jr. and Mose Allison. However, there were few important male singers in the avant-garde and fusion movements, although Leon Thomas' yodelling with Pharoah Sanders made "The Creator Has A Master Plan" into a surprise hit. Mark Murphy and Bob Dorough had their niches, and Dave Frishberg developed into a superb lyricist and composer, but by the 1980s and into the '90s, there was a serious shortage of significant jazz singers under the age of 60. Dominating the era was the swinging and remarkable Mel Torme (who until his stroke in 1996 was improving with age throughout his sixties) and the seemingly ageless Joe Williams. The talented Al Jarreau had shown great promise in the 1970s, but then chose to spend his musical life in R&B. Bobby McFerrin, an incredible singer (check out the hard-to-find Elektra Musician LP The Voice for an unaccompanied concert), maintained a disappointingly low profile after having a major hit in 1988 with "Don't Worry, Be Happy." The gospel-jazz a cappella group Take Six also were wandering away from jazz into pop music.

However, in the mid-1990s two new voices emerged. While Kevin Mahogany is building his career on the tradition of Joe Williams, bop and standards, Kurt Elling is an extension of Mark Murphy, who also takes wild chances, sometimes improvising words and stories. Both show great promise in keeping alive the legacy largely founded by Louis Armstrong seventy years before.

In contrast, there has never been a shortage of female singers. Starting with the classic blues singers in the 1920s (Mamie Smith began it all with "Crazy Blues" in 1920), females have largely graced bandstands as singers rather than musicians; that situation has only been gradually changing in the 1990s. The fact that so many females can sing at least at a mediocre level (and an average singer always seems to get more applause than any mere musician) has resulted in a great deal of unfair prejudice against female singers in general through the decades. As is true of the male vocalists, the best female singers are the ones that have a real feel for the music rather than just a pleasant voice, and the greats always emerge eventually from the masses.

An incomplete history of female jazz singers can be described in four words: Bessie, Billie, Ella and Sassy. Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, towered over the 1920s. After Mamie Smith started the blues craze, many female singers who had ties to the vaudeville stage, carnival shows or just had strong voices were rushed to the recording studios. Among the more memorable performers were Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Alberta Hunter (who made a successful comeback in the late 1970s when she was in her 80s), but Bessie Smith outshone everyone. Her powerful voice overcame both the primitive recording facilities of 1923 and erratic musicians; her interpretations of timeless messages still communicate to today's listeners. Fortunately Columbia has made all of Smith's recordings available, most recently on five double-CDs.

Ethel Waters was Bessie Smith's closest competitor in the 1920s and she eventually surpassed Bessie. A versatile singer who started with the blues, Waters was one of the first black performers who was permitted to interpret superior American popular songs; Irving Berlin even wrote several numbers specifically for her. Waters, who introduced such standards as "Dinah," "Am I Blue" and "Stormy Weather," also became a dramatic actress and a major influence on such slightly later singers as Lee Wiley.

Ruth Etting was probably the best-known female vocalist of the early 1930s and, although more of a pop singer than a jazz performer, her voice is still worth hearing. Annette Hanshaw was her counterpart in jazz, and only her decision to retire when she was but 23 kept her from gaining worldwide fame for her very likable style. The Boswell Sisters also broke up early (in 1936 when all of the sisters got married), but during the seven previous years, they set a very high standard for jazz vocal groups that was not reached until Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were formed two decades later. Connee Boswell continued a reasonably successful solo career, but it is her early work with Martha and Vet Boswell that is most stirring.

Mildred Bailey was the first "girl singer" to perform regularly with a big band (Paul Whiteman's). She soon became a leader in her own right and, during her marriage to xylophonist Red Norvo, co-led his orchestra. Her high voice appealed to many, and she helped to popularize "Georgia On My Mind" and "Rockin' Chair."

During the swing era there were countless female singers who straddled the boundary between jazz and pop music. Most were used by big bands to add glamour to the stage, and they generally only had the opportunity to take one melody chorus per song. Among the better band singers were Helen Ward with Benny Goodman, Helen O'Connell with Jimmy Dorsey, Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington, and Helen Forrest who spent time with the bands of Goodman, Harry James and Artie Shaw.

However, the mid- to late 1930s were most notable for the emergence of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Lady Day's behind-the-beat phrasing disturbed some clubowners and fans at first before they became used to her approach. Her phrasing was subtle (influenced initially by Louis Armstrong), and Holiday frequently altered melodies to fit her small range and her particular mood. She spent mostly undocumented periods with the orchestras of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, but it was her small group recordings with all-star groups headed by pianist Teddy Wilson (and which by 1937 often teamed her with tenor saxophonist Lester Young) that initially made her famous. Lady Day's chaotic personal life and eventual heroin addiction ruined her life and career (during the 1950s her voice declined year by year), but her prime (1935-52) was filled with classic music that still inspires other singers, for Billie Holiday often lived the words she sang.

Ella Fitzgerald had a major hit ("A-Tisket, A-Tasket") with Chick Webb's Orchestra in 1938 when she was only 20. Although quite popular from then on, she was often saddled in her early years with juvenile novelty tunes, despite the fact that she was actually superior at that point on ballads. After becoming a solo artist in 1942, Ella developed quickly as a jazz singer and within a few years was a superb scat singer and witty ad-libber. Her beautiful voice allowed her to uplift virtually everything she sang and she was a major attraction throughout the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and into the early '90s, when bad health forced her retirement. Some observers have carped that Ella always sounded too happy (she absolutely loved singing) and that she did not put enough feeling into heavier songs such as "Love For Sale" and "Lush Life." However, late in life, Ella once again became a superior ballad interpreter. The ironic part is that her upbringing was as tumultuous as Billie Holiday's, but to her, singing was an escape from her beginnings. Certainly when it came to swinging and adding beauty to a song, she had few competitors.

Other top female singers from the swing era include Anita O'Day (who found her initial fame with Gene Krupa's band), Helen Humes (who came into her own after leaving Count Basie's band), the sophisticated Lee Wiley (the first singer to record full sets of a specific composer's songbook), Maxine Sullivan, and Peggy Lee (whose quiet style foreshadowed and inspired the cool-toned singers of the 1950s).

Late in the swing era, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan made their first impact. Dinah Washington, after starting with Lionel Hampton, proved during the 1945-58 period that she could sing anything: jazz, blues, R&B, religious hymns and pop. Her distinctive and spirited voice made her a regular big seller. After having a giant hit in "What a Difference a Day Makes" in 1959, Washington stuck mostly to pop music during her last few years.

Sarah Vaughan, who first sang with the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine Orchestras, had an incredible voice. From the mid-1940s until her death in 1990, Sassy was always one of the top jazz singers, even when she spent long periods off records. She understood bebop (recording with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), and she had the technique to interpret any song that interested her; sometimes she would strangle weak material to death. If only Sassy had recorded with Ella!

Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan dominated the postwar years, but they were far from alone among female jazz singers. Anita O'Day's sly, swinging style was an influence on June Christy, whose work with Stan Kenton in turn inspired other cool-toned singers. The 1950s and '60s found such vocalists maturing as Carmen McRae (who had a productive 40-year career), Helen Merrill, Chris Connor, Annie Ross (the female third of the innovative vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross), Ernestine Anderson and Peggy Lee. Abbey Lincoln interpreted dramatic lyrics under the tutelage of Max Roach, Betty Carter stretched the boundaries of scat singing, and a housewife named Astrud Gilberto cooed "The Girl From Ipanema."

Although initially tied to the bop tradition, Betty Carter could be considered among the first avant-garde jazz singers. Sheila Jordan (who is one of the few who can improvise intelligent words in rhyme) recorded infrequently but always memorably before becoming more active in the 1980s. Patty Waters recorded two atmospheric (and somewhat scary) records for ESP before slipping away; she re-emerged in the mid-1990s. Jeanne Lee, who debuted on a duet set with pianist Ran Blake, created some very explorative music in Europe, Flora Purim frequently hinted at greatness and Urszula Dudziak utilized electronic devices. However most female jazz singers have preferred to stick to standards.

With the passing of Ella and Sassy, there is not currently one single dominant female singer, but that is not from a lack of candidates. Veterans such as Shirley Horn (who mostly sticks to slow ballads), Ernestine Anderson, Etta Jones and Abbey Lincoln continued in the 1990s to make fine music. Dee Dee Bridgewater (based in France), Vanessa Rubin and Nnenna Freelon give consistently fresh viewpoints to standards. Kitty Margolis, Madeline Eastman, Roseanna Vitro and Karryn Allyson keep the spirit of bop alive, Diana Krall's Nat King Cole tribute delights many, Diane Schuur sounds at her best when a big band is blaring behind her, Banu Gibson is the finest of all the classic jazz singers and, when it comes to interpreting lyrics from the golden age of the American popular song, Susannah McCorkle is difficult to beat.

The biggest problem facing today's singers is the lack of new material that can be successfully turned into jazz; most pop songs of the 1980s and '90s are not easily transferable. Cassandra Wilson, who has gained a great deal of publicity in the mid-1990s after years spent performing complex M-Base funk, has found a fresh repertoire by combining ancient country blues with odd pop songs and world music. Dianne Reeves, who has the potential to be the pacesetter, has spent much of her career alternating between pop, R&B, world music and jazz but in recent times her formerly erratic recordings have been as exciting as her wonderful live performances.

Whether Dianne Reeves or Kurt Elling will affect the future of jazz at the level of an Ella Fitzgerald or Mel Torme is open to question, but one has few doubts about the health of creative singing as jazz continues in its second century.


by Scott Yanow

1 comments:

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