Jazz & Pop Vocalists
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Not uncommonly for someone my age I thought traditional vocal pop factory made pap. Corny and contemptible, dimly emerging from my parent’s AM radio. Half-consciously I knew Bing Crosby had an attractive voice and that I thought I might like Rudy Vallee.
Gordon found an inexpensive Sarah Vaughan disc for me to try. It was a mishmash but there were a couple of strong pieces from her Bop period that instantly won me over. Next I heard some of the Verve recordings from when she was a pop star. It seemed too mild, like she wasn’t trying. For a long time it seemed too boring to listen to.
Now I enjoy her pop material. I’m not sure when or how I made the transition. I liked her so much that I wanted more. On a friend’s advice I bought Will Friedwald’s Jazz Singing. Typically enough I started buying everything he recommended. And almost everybody I mention below I learned about from his book.
Somewhere along the line I became comfortable with traditional pop singing. Many jazz singers have had periods as pop stars: Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. And the line between the two types of singers isn’t always clear. Nor is the term jazz singer. Sometimes it means that the singer worked with jazz musicians. Or that the singer improvises and recomposes.
Many hard-line jazz fans don’t like vocalists at all. I suspect the treacley and pompous singers who accompanied many of the big bands are partly to blame. There was lots of bad singing that blocks out the musicians.
But I’ve never seen the logic that makes the throat inferior to to a saxophone or trumpet. And many of the prejudiced like singing just fine if it is a country, folk or rock singer.
No pretence to insightfulness in any of what follows. Just a few quick notes about some of my favorite singers. You can buy Friedwald’s book or go to the All Music Guide site.
Al Bowlly, a British band singer of the 30s, had the unlikely ability to sing about “buttercups peeping through the snow” without nauseating you. Mel Torme said that if he hadn’t died in 1941 he’d have become on of the three greatest male singers of the twentieth century. He didn’t tell who the other two were but it had to be Crosby and Sinatra. (Oddly enough my spell checker knows the old groaner but is ignorant of old blue eyes.)
Annette Hanshaw, “The Twenties Sweetheart,” was a swinging hot jazz singer of the 20s and early 30s.
Cartoon character Betty Boop’s voice was in spired by Helen Kane, The Boop-Boop-A-Doop Girl. Too many people it is just an annoying manner. I can’t argue with that but the one CD I have while enough is lots of fun.
Ethel Waters. Early blues singer, jazz singer, pop star, ending up as a singer at Billy Graham’s crusades. One of America’s great singers. Horribly neglected by the American labels she originally appeared on.
Red McKenzie, the only jazz comb player, was a cheerful expansive singer. He was good at novelty numbers like Murder in the Moonlight (“Love in the first degree.”).Novelty songs can easily pall and the ability to make hokum into art is much rarer than good ballad singing. Like many odd but worthwhile early singers his work is available on import CDs.
Waters influenced Connee Boswell who had a lovely southern accent and rhythmic delivery. Ella Fitzgerald cited her as her earliest influence. She and her two sisters the Boswell Sisters “parlayed their New Orleans upbringing into a swinging delivery that featured not only impossibly close harmonies but countless maneuvers of vocal gymnastics rarely equaled on record.” (John Bush, All Music Guide) The sisters Andrews and King cited them as inspiration but were never remotely as good.
Cliff Edwards was the voice of Jiminy Cricket. Starting at the beginning of the microphone era he had a cheerful and lively manner. Probably the first white scat singer.
Jack Teagarden the best-known early jazz trombonist was also one of the best jazz singers. His slurred, syllable-smothering style was unlike anyone else’s.
Woody Herman, bandleader and clarinetist, was an equally good good singer. When his southern accent comes through it is always a real treat.
Louis Armstrong. I wish I’d been able to appreciate him when I was a little kid and saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show. I just thought him an old cornball. Which he was. He also was both a major cultural event and a pop star for almost fifty years. Leading jazz from ensemble playing to improvisation, influencing even Bing Crosby as together they defined what singing would become. What can you say about him? He is one of my saints. When I listen to him sing I always feel washed in benignity. I’ve never figured out why but accept my ignorance cheerfully. I’d long been repelled by orchestrations with lots of strings. But Armstrong’s recordings with Russ Garcia on verve brought me over to the dark side. At least with the recordings made by the Verve and Capitol producers. Atlantic and Mercury string arrangements keep me from owning anything by singers I really like. Brook Benton for example.
With the trio or by himself, at the piano or at the mike Nat Cole had one of the most appealing voices of any male singer. You have to have a deaf ear to not enjoy him.
Fred Astaire with his impeccably timing, conversational style sings almost as well as he dances.
Almost everyone has heard Cab Calloway singing Minnie the Moocher but I think of him as a really under appreciated singer. He had a remarkable voice and sang everything equally well. But his famous material is reissued again and again, the other work mostly unknown.
Growing up hearing Que Sera, Sera in the background when her TV show was on didn’t make me suspect that I’d become a Doris Day fan. But she did have a lovely voice and you can sense the influence of Ella Fitzgerald in the clarity and shading.
Anita O’Day, June Christy and Chris Connor Friedwald calls the ‘vocool’ singers. They all worked with Stan Kenton, the first two each suggesting their successor.
O’Day was the first and the best. The only one of the three who improvised. Her singing conveys humor, toughness, sometimes bawdiness. Her work with Roy Eldrige in Gene Krupa’s band is swinging and often very funny. Like many she produced great work for Norman Granz’s Verve Records. Jazz singers usually continue to produce good music after their commercial heyday has passed. And she did well into the 1970s.
I developed a crush June Christy when I first listened to her. Some inexplicable detail of her voice. I really like her sad songs, most especially her famous Something Cool.
Chris Connor was the most restrained of the three. As much as I delight in her work I find myself unable to say anything about it.
If it weren’t for Friedwald’s book on Sinatra I might have thought Billy Eckstine his favorite male vocalist. I originally bought an Eckstine compilation for the nutty reason that Nick Tosches said he was someone Elvis liked. Since I hadn’t come to appreciate older pop I kept starting to get rid of the collection. But I couldn’t help but like the voice. When I become more comfortable I’d buy several Eckstine discs. I’d have been drawn to him eventually since he worked extensively with Sarah Vaughan.
Dinah Washington. Like so many black singers she started in church. She had a great tangy voice working with find jazz musicians and annoying the jazz police by singing pop and R&B.
Nancy Wilson. Another singular voice. She too started in church before singing jazz and then proceeding to piss off the purists by recording pop.
Ella Vaughan, um Sarah Fitzgerald – ok, I don’t know which I like the best.
Has anyone had a more lovely voice than Ella Fitzgerald? For me Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Song Book is the perfect traditional pop album. She probably could’ve made the phone book swing. One of the best scat singers, easily the funniest. The first time I listened to her I played the disc halfway and decided that I wasn’t interested. This astounds me now but I’ve done that many a time with someone who’d become a favorite. With new music sometimes I have to listen several times before I intuit what is going on and decide if I want to keep it or not.
Sarah Vaughan “the greatest vocal artist of our century” and the “most creative vocal artist of our time.” (Gunther Schuller, Musings, OUP, 1986) “A four-octave range, reaching from baritone to soprano. Vaughan could not only produce any notes within that range, but could vary the timbre and color of each note any way she wanted, even in the same breath.” (Joan Mitchell, NPR) Listening to her changed the way I hear singing. Many of my doo-wop CDs sit on the shelves unheard. Her Live in Japan is a high water mark of improvisational singing.
Along with Ella and the Divine One is the third member of what is normally considered the three great jazz singers. I have most of her work and admire it without taking strong personal delight.
The same with Frank Sinatra.
Bing Crosby, maybe the most popular, certainly the most influential pop singer of the last century. I wish more of his post-1956 work when the need to sell records was past were available. A set of his last recordings is out but it is marred by sonorous static, i.e., intrusive strings.
Recent people that I listen to include Cassandra Wilson, Nneena Freelon and Rachelle Ferrell.
And John Pizzarelli. His gentle, swinging style is always a pleasure to hear.