Beyond the Book Review: A feast for the ears—60 Significant Vocal Jazz and Traditional Pop albums

I recently published a highly critical review of Will Friedwald’s The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums (Pantheon 2017) on my December 2017 Book Review blog. The book highlights 57 albums representing his perspective on the best albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret traditions. Lists are highly subjective by definition so personal taste will always engender criticism. While I agree with many of his choices, such as 1954’s Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles’s  1962 album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, my primary critique with his list is a lack of diversity especially in terms of style and chronology. He fixates so narrowly on pop music of the mid-to-late 1950s (e.g., Doris Day) that he overlooks new generations of vocalists doing excellent work. Time will ultimately be the judge.

Below is a list of 60 albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret fields that represent the best in the field of vocal interpretation. I selected the list based on the quality of the recording, unique and intangible qualities, and historic importance. Optimally, people who love enjoy these genres have fodder for discussion. Similarly, I hope that people seeking to build their collections and explore a variety of styles will find this list useful and informative. I aimed very intentionally to incorporate a balanced list of vocalists from multiple decades singing a broad repertoire of songs. I have restricted artists to one album apiece (except for duet projects) to foster greater diversity and have focused on albums rather than compilations. Because of this some key artists, such as Bessie Smith, are missing; check out my June 2016 blog “Contagious in his enthusiasms: A Personal List of Essential Music (Part 1)” to explore essential vocal jazz and pop compilations in greater depth.

Ballads, Crooning & Torch Songs

All the Way, 1992 (Jimmy Scott): After years of obscurity, the famed balladeer applied his languorous, almost elliptical style to classic ballads with the musicians and structural support befitting his talents.

American Song, 2003 (Andy Bey): A superb showcase of Bey’s hushed, carefully paced style  

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In the Wee Small hours of the Morning, 1955 (Frank Sinatra): This is one of ultimate torch song albums of Sinatra singing soulfully and vulnerably.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, 1963 (Johnny Hartman): On a program of six songs, saxophonist John Coltrane and the sublime baritone Johnny Hartman create one of the most sumptuous collections of love songs.

Love, 1963 (Rosemary Clooney): Love captures the sensual energy and bittersweet nature of Clooney’s romance with arranger Nelson Riddle whose dramatic orchestrations amplify the emotional subtexts of these songs of romantic longing.

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Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, 1994 (Etta James): James switched from sultry R&B to the torch  songs of Lady Day, her idol, and the result is a smoldering collection representing James at her most reflective.

Night in Manhattan, 1950 (Lee Wiley): Wiley’s cool sensuality illuminates a set of eight classic saloon songs.

Rapture, 1962 (Johnny Mathis): This suite of lushly arranged ballads captures the elegant crooning style of Johnny Mathis singing at his finest.

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The Very Thought of You, 1958 (Nat King Cole): The lushest and most beautiful collection of ballads recorded by the smooth and poised Cole.

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Blues & Jazz

Blue Light Til’ Dawn, 1993 (Cassandra Wilson): The most innovative vocal jazz album of the 1990s showcases profound awareness of how blues elements can transform how we hear and understand jazz.

Louis Plays W.C. Handy, 1964 (Louis Armstrong): Armstrong’s blues sensibility and improvisational prowess made him jazz’s most important musician. Here he interprets the repertoire of the premiere composer of early American blues.

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Classic Blues

Richland Woman Blues, 2001 (Maria Muldaur): Muldaur interprets classic blues and country blues songs associated with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, with gusto.

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Brazilian Jazz & Pop

Courage, Milton Nascimento, 1969 (Milton Nascimento): Nascimento was an established musician in Brazil; his introduction to U.S. listeners is a collaboration with jazz musicians featuring many songs vocalists continue interpreting including bridges and Salt Song.

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Elis & Tom, 1974 (Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim): Brazil’s finest singer and greatest composer collaborated on what are the definitive versions of songs such as “The Waters of March.”

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Cabaret

Blame it On My Youth, 1992 (Holly Cole): Swinging postmodern cabaret bringing together a century of composers from Frank Loesser to Lyle Lovett.

From Broadway to Bebop, 1994 (Susannah McCorkle): McCorkle locates the melodic richness and lyrical imagination of everything from jazz standards like “Moody’s Mood” to movie themes on this wonderfully eclectic group of interpretations.

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Judy Live at Carnegie Hall, 1961 (Judy Garland): Garland’s dynamic energy and vast repertoire came together on this magical night.

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Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s, 1956 (Mabel Mercer): This exquisite set represents the sophisticated repertoire and some of live emotional intimacy that made the Welsh-American singer the exemplar of the cabaret vocal style.

Songs By Bobby Short, 1960 (Bobby Short): Short held court at the Café Carlyle for over 30 years and defined New York’s Upper Eastside cabaret sound. This early set showcases his mastery of the songs of Vernon Duke, Bessie Smith, Cole Porter and more obscure composers.

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The Barbra Streisand Album, 1963 (Barbra Streisand): Streisand’s debut set a new standard in the vocal pop skill field via impeccable technical prowess and an original contemporary interpretive approach laced with irony, humor and vivacity that distinguished her from pre-rock female pop vocalists

The Divine Miss M, 1973 (Bette Midler): Midler reinvigorated cabaret music in the 1970s by mixing homages to pre-rock pop and rock material, with contemporary singer-songwriter fare.

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Experimental/Beyond Category

Café Blue, 1994 (Patricia Barber): Thrilling experimental jazz featuring original compositions, interpretations of rock and standards, poetry, and instrumentals.

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Genre-Busters

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, 1960 (Ray Charles): The pioneering soul man invigorated songs by Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers with brassy swing, and infused countrypolitan ballads with elegance and pathos.

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Stardust, 1978 (Willie Nelson): Nelson translates his laidback phrasing and emotional command on this sterling collection of pre-rock standards arranged in an acoustic setting.

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The Gathering, 2011 (Diane Schuur): Schuur, singing and playing piano, reinterprets a set of first-rate country classics in a soulful style showcasing her gospel, jazz and pop roots.

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Singer-Songwriter Jazz

Be Good, 2012 (Gregory Porter): Porter solidified his reputation as the freshest male voice in 21st century vocal jazz thanks to his highly personal, yet relatable original songs, evoking writers like Oscar Brown Jr. and Marvin Gaye, and a warm, robust vocal style.

Serene Renegade, 2004 (René Marie): Marie consciously broke from the standards repertoire  to craft this engaging suite of melodic new songs that tell fresh personal stories.

 

Soul & Jazz

Live Session, 1964 (Ernie Andrews and Cannonball Adderley): A jumping set of soulful and swinging performances by one of jazz’s most venerable and underrated vocalists in the presence of a sizzling band.

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Pride and Joy, 2002 (Kevin Mahogany): Mahogany reinterprets classics from the Motown era as fresh jazz vehicles.

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Tobacco Road, 1964 (Lou Rawls): Classic songs like “Ol Man River” and “Georgia on My Mind” take on a new life via the thoughtful interpretations of the soulful Lou Rawls.

 

Straight-ahead jazz & bebop

A Little Moonlight, 2003 (Dianne Reeves): Superb straight-ahead jazz that makes you hear key classics like “What a Little Moonlight Can do,” and “Lullaby of Broadway” in an entirely new way. 

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American Road, 2011 (Tierney Sutton Band): A stunning amalgamation of songs from spirituals to Broadway.

Anita O ’Day Sings the Winners, 1958 (Anita O’Day): A jazz vocalist in prime form interpreting classic jazz melodies.

Cat, 2006 (Catherine Russell): A contemporary synthesizer of R&B, swing, rock, and classic blues debuts here.

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Close Enough for Love, 1989 (Shirley Horn): A masterful blend of luxuriant balladry and hard swinging jazz.

Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, 1955 (Joe Williams): A classic of big band swing jazz with a blued edge, including definitive versions of "Everyday I the Blues," "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," and "Alright, OK You Win" that have established a blueprint for other vocalists.

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Dinah Jams, 1954 (Dinah Washington): Washington showcases the scope of her improvisational chops on this thrilling set recorded with bebop musicians before a live audience.

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald): Ella’s finest live album showcases her mastery of ballads, swing, improvisation and performance on an eclectic repertoire of top shelf songs.

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Live at the Jazz Workshop, 1989 (Kitty Margolis): One of the most skilled improvisers steeped in the jazz tradition debuted on this thrilling concert album.

Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, 1995 (Dee Dee Bridgewater): Bridgewater performs the first full collection of lyricized Horace Silver songs and it balances swing, bop, and funk perfectly.

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Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley, 1960 (Mel Tormé): Tormé’s wit, poise, and musicianship infuses a set of bonafide Broadway classics with a jazz-based savoir-faire

Nancy King: Live at Jazz Standard (with Fred Hersch), 2006 (Nancy King): A masterful vocal improviser and astute pianist  make improvisational magic together live.

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Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley 1961, (Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley): Nancy Wilson essays a set of classic performances melding the earthiness of R&B with the fervor of jazz

Nightmoves, 2009 (Kurt Elling):  Elling employs his formidable jazz chops on a varied program including a brilliant rendition of “Body and Soul” dedicated to his daughter.

No Cover, No Minimum, 1960 (Billy Eckstine): This live set chronicle’s baritone Eckstine’s powerful showmanship on everything from Broadway to Ellington.

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Portrait of Sheila Jordan, 1962 (Sheila Jordan): A total original in the vocal world, Jordan translated the improvisational values of her bebop heroes, especially Charlie Parker, into daring approaches to jazz and pop standards.

Rah! 1961 (Mark Murphy): A student of bebop, swing, vocalese, and cool jazz, bopster Mark Murphy made his reputation on this inspired set, most notable for his take on “Doodlin,” “Twisted,” and “Milestones.”

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Sarah Vaughan, 1954 (Sarah Vaughan):  Vaughan’s gorgeous voice anchors this delightful small group set highlighted by classic ballad performances of “April in Paris” and “Embraceable You” and a highly influential version of Lullaby of Birdland.”

Songs I Like to Sing! 1960 (Helen Humes):  The bluesy jazz singer with the girlish tone sings her favorite songs with some of her favorite musicians and the result is a highly natural and entertaining group of expert swinging performances.

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Spring Isn’t Everything, 1986 (Maxine Sullivan): The swinging minimalist interprets songs of Harry Warren with interpretive grace and swinging aplomb.

Sweet Home Cookin’, 1993 (Karrin Allyson): Allyson’s sophomore album is a genuinely exciting collection of heartfelt ballads, soulful vocalese, and skillful improvisation.

The Audience with Betty Carter, 1979 (Betty Carter): This live set captures the skill and excitement of the improvisational daredevil Betty Carter.

The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club, 2009 (Freddy Cole): An exciting concert set that captures the singer and pianist in total command of pop, swing, and blues tunes.

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The Great American Songbook, 1972 (Carmen McRae): Subtle, swinging, and incisive, this concert capture McRae in peak form.

The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960 (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross): One of the most influential collections of the art of vocalese highlighted by classics such as “Twisted.”

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The Real Thing, 1990 (Carol Sloane): An exemplary performance of swing, bop, and balladry by a seasoned interpreter.

Traditional Pop/Swing Influenced Pop

The Art of Romance, 2004 (Tony Bennett): An interpretive master reaches his musical and lyrical acme on an inspired set of love songs.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Porgy & Bess, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong): Jazz’s greatest duet partners combine forces on this exquisite interpretation of America’s premier folk opera.

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Little Girl Blue, 1959 (Nina Simone): Simone’s unique blend of classical and jazz influences premiered on this stately album of inspired interpretations including “I Loves you Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

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Movin’ on Broadway, 1960 (Kay Starr): Starr brings brass, sizzle, and pathos to a delightful set of Broadway classics.

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Each of these artists represents the best of these vocal traditions and  warrant further listening and exploration. Enjoy!

   COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The art of the “Divine One”

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

By Elaine M. Hayes

Ecco, 2017

The increasing commercial gap between commercial pop targeting younger buyers and so-called “adult” music amplifies the urgency of reminding contemporary listeners that improvising jazz musicians were mainstream musicians for most of the previous century.

One example is the foremost singer of the bebop tradition, Sarah Vaughan (known as “the Divine One” and “Sassy”). After recording for independent record labels in the mid-1940s, she got a major recording contract with Columbia Records. This was significant because at the time only a handful of black artists had access to the financial resources and promotional support that could expose them to white audiences. Aside from cutting a few tunes with jazz musicians she mostly sang a lot of syrupy pop tunes with strings and dreadful “novelty songs.” Though her time there, 1949-53, yielded some gorgeous performances (e.g. “Black Coffee,” “Ooh What’cha Doin’ to Me”) she was only mildly successful commercially. Mutual frustration led Columbia Records to decline to renew her contract, and Sarah to pursue other opportunities.

Freed from their constraints, she found the right balance between pop and jazz singing with Mercury Records, which offered her an unorthodox arrangement: She would record pop material for Mercury, and release improvisational jazz-oriented material on their subsidiary EmArcy. As Elaine Hayes recalls in her excellent new Vaughan biography Queen of Bebop, this arrangement captured her artistic vision better than her previous arrangements. “Vaughan could now split her talent in two and experience the best of both worlds: fame and fortune as a pop starlet and the creative freedom of a jazz artist” (164). Vaughan had dueling instincts to fuse the lush grandeur and “legitimacy” of classical music (she had the voice for it) with the improvisational spontaneity and blues feeling of jazz. At Mercury/EmArcy she could record ballads with strings, which she loved, score a few profitable radio hits and simultaneously work with jazz musicians with whom she always had amazing chemistry.

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

Photo of Sarah Vaughan performing in New York City in 1949 (Herman Leonard Photography LLC).

The dual arrangement yielded some of the most beautiful and listenable albums of lush romantic music recorded in the 1950s, and even gave her a few “hit”  singles like 1954’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” and 1958’s “Whatever Lola Wants.” She and some of jazz’s most respected arrangers and musicians, including Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, and Roy Haynes recorded canonical vocal jazz albums with vocal performances and solos that have provided a blueprint for generations of musicians. It was a simpatico arrangement that lasted from 1954-60 before she recorded for Roulette Records.

When she returned to Mercury in 1963 EmArcy had dissolved, and though her first few recordings included a few jazz oriented dates she was forced to record a lot of ill-fitting contemporary pop.  The notion of Vaughan recording songs by Burt Bacharach/Hal David and The Beatles is not fundamentally outrageous; but covering these songs was redundant and cheesy arrangements undermined her talents. More to the point, the company’s insistence reflected the larger reality that jazz influenced music was no longer the mainstream. Rock music was. The great divide was already in motion and record companies expected singers who had previously mined the nuances of Ellington and Gershwin to get with it or move on. Vaughan stuck it out recording suites of pop covers and a few jazz dates before ending her recording career for four years. She was tired of record company games and ironically, 32 years into her career, she began rediscovering her voice through building a robust concert career. More on that later.

Hayes makes a very convincing argument for Vaughan as the most musically accomplished vocalist in popular music history, a sentiment shared with others including third stream pioneer Gunther Schuller who she quotes in the Epilogue.  Hayes, who holds a Ph. D. in music, describes her “crossover moment” in the Prologue noting how Vaughan’s “amazing voice” and “musical mind” shifted initial attention away from studying Europe classical music to study jazz, so captivating was Vaughan’s artistry (1).  Bebop musicians grew up with big band jazz but as swing became increasingly generic and commercial they shifted toward a more self-consciously artistic approach to improvisation. By the mid-1940s they had developed an advanced harmonic vocabulary and a penchant for virtuosic performing that focused on listening rather than dancing. Vaughan was the first vocalist to absorb this new aesthetic, and in a sense was one of the first jazz oriented vocalists to see herself as an artist rather than just a commercial singer or entertainer. This is pivotal musically, and culturally since as Hayes illustrates, the white dominated music industry expected black singers to sing blues, novelty songs and so-called “ethnic” music, not “art” music (118-20).

Whereas Vaughan’s swing predecessors typically had roots in classic blues and/or swing, she learned gospel music as a child at Mount Zion Baptist church in Newark, New Jersey. Her training on piano and organ exposed her to classical music, and she was a prodigy who studied music relentlessly. Along with gospel, and classical music, she was also a big fan of swing and got her first break winning the Apollo Amateur night in 1942 singing “Body and Soul.” Vaughan never had formal voice lessons, but translated her keyboard skills and her eclectic stylistic knowledge into a singular vocal style. From there, pianist and bandleader Earl Hines band hired her to sing and play piano. She transitioned into singing in Billy Eckstine’s pioneering bebop orchestra before going solo recording for Musicraft, Columbia, Mercury and EmArcy, Roulette, and Mercury before taking a recording hiatus. Pop covers and awkward rock and funk production choices bogged down most of the albums she recorded for Mainstream Records (1971-74). But, albums like 1973’s Live in Japan and her late 1970s Pablo Records recordings (I Love Brazil! and How Long Has This Been Going On?) reminded people of her enduring commitment to jazz.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album  Gershwin Live!  which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Sarah Vaughan realized her vision of fusing jazz and classical music on her 1982 album Gershwin Live! which won her the Grammy Award for Female Vocal Performance, Jazz in 1983.

Two key developments Hayes highlights that are pivotal to helping her realize her expansive jazz and classical fusion was recording Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” in 1973 and Michael Tilson Thomas’s invitation for her to collaborate on a travelling program of Gershwin songs in 1974. Though her initial “Clowns” was recorded in an unfortunate funk arrangement, she found the song intriguing and revisited the song making it her signature closing song. In her hands, the showtune became a “jazz aria” that displayed the full range of her talents (302-05). She and Thomas performed their Gershwin program successfully with symphonies for many years, which finally gave Vaughan the “legitimacy” she had been seeking throughout her career (307-10). Her 1982 version of “The Man I Love” recorded on their Grammy winning Gershwin Live! Is perhaps the definitive example of how classical music, jazz, and even elements of gospel music could cohere into an exciting whole, one that defied genre boundaries (341-42). As Hayes recounts, by the mid 1960s Vaughan was very open about her dislike at being labeled a “jazz” singer because her art transcended formulas. For Vaughan, “Either one is a singer or one isn’t. I like doing all types of material—just as long as it’s good” (273).

Queen of Bebop’s emphasis on Vaughan as a unique vocal artist parallels a central thread in several 21st century books on black female jazz vocalists. These including Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001), William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter (2002), Nadine Cohodas’s Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington (2004) and  Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (2012), and John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician & the Myth (2015). Notably, these books acknowledge the musical aesthetic of and the cultural context for these artists and posits them as formidable artists with an enduring creative imprint, rather than just “icons” or “figures.” 

Leslie Gourse’s 1993 Vaughan biography Sassy has served as major source of insight on Vaughan for many years. Queen, however, distinguishes itself by virtue of Hayes’s musical background. Her discussion, for example, of what made Vaughan’s hit recordings of “Make Yourself Comfortable” (176-80) and “Whatever Lola Wants” (168-70) are original readings that made me revisit the recordings.  Throughout the book, she parses many of Vaughan’s musical innovations in an authoritative but accessible fashion.  Hayes also has a firmer and intentional approach to addressing racism and sexism as important factors in Vaughan’s career. For example, she relates Vaughan’s tendency to surrender personal and professional control over to her three husband-managers as a reflection of gender norms. This also connects to the way male executives and promoters expected female artists to comply with their wishes rather than challenge them, hence Vaughan’s reputation for being “difficult” and “temperamental.”

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

Vaughan's 1954 single "Make Yourself Comfortable" was her first major commercial hit at Mercury Records.

In addition to drawing from previously published articles and interviews, Hayes quotes from a wide range of sources such as radio broadcasts. She also interviews several musicians and associates who worked directly with the vocalist, adding to the primary source Vaughan archive. From these sources, she is able to depict what Vaughan navigated on the road, her struggles with record companies and promoters, and her relationships with her musicians more fully than ever. What becomes clear throughout is that even when she was struggling with bad sound systems or hot weather, Vaughan charmed her audiences wowing them with the richness of her voice and her mastery of the stage. During her late -60s recording hiatus, she developed a more confident concert style laced with a cheeky sense of humor, and a flair for spontaneity. Hip contemporary vocal jazz artists Ann Hampton Callaway, Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Dianne Reeves also testify to the gospel of Vaughan’s spell.

Though musicians and critics adore Vaughan, other jazz divas like Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have always overshadowed her in the public imagination. She seemingly lacked Holiday’s dramatic life, and Fitzgerald’s crowd-pleasing affability. But, Queen exposes these perceptions as facile. Vaughan endured racism and various kinds of abuse from her male lovers. She simply hid this from public view as much as she could. Dealing with these corrupt figures, rather than true talent management professionals, prevented her from having the kind of economic success and recording consistency that Fitzgerald experienced when she allowed Norman Granz to manage her career. Further, Vaughan was a relentless experimenter whose unwillingness to confine herself to expectations falls outside of the American popular music norm. After a few years, you knew where Fitzgerald might go with “Oh, Lady Be Good,” or “How High the Moon,” but Vaughan was even more unpredictable and playful expecting her bandmates to listen closely for the next daring feat. They were not merely accompanying or supporting her; they were keeping up with her.

Two elements that would enhance Queen. First, I wish Hayes had discussed certain albums in greater depth. For example, her 1961 album Sarah Slightly Classical (Roulette) was her attempt to record classical melodies, and given the book’s discussion of her aspiration toward classical music, I would love to read Hayes’s take on its execution. Her Roulette career is highlighted briefly, but its vastness warrants more attention. The reality is that Vaughan recorded 45 years’ worth of material so any writer would have to be selective. Second, I wish the book featured a discography of Vaughan’s albums. Since her death in 1990, several posthumous releases have expanded our understanding of Vaughan’s artistry. These include 1994’s Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records) recorded in 1961 for the “Navy Swings” public service program, In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records), recorded in Paris in 1985, but released in 1999, and the superb Live at Rosy’s recorded in 1978 in New Orleans but only released in 2016 by Resonance Records. The digital age has made many previously rare Vaughan recordings more accessible so it is possible there are even more recordings waiting for release. A novice to Vaughan might benefit from this resource even in abridged form.

These are minor issues in a major book that sits alongside the acclaimed titles listed above. Queen of Bebop is a superior memoir with a credible understanding of the musical innovations and cultural realities of Vaughan the artist, the woman, the African-American, and the musician.

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Struggling to be heard: Billy Eckstine’s fight to sing

Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine

By Cary Ginell

Hal Leonard Books, 2013

 My entree into Billy Eckstine’s career was Sarah Vaughan, his compatriot in pioneering modern jazz singing and setting the highest bar for vocal lusciousness. Though Eckstine’s robust baritone often reminds listeners of Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Hartman his cavernous vibrato is distinctly his and actually preceded the careers of these, and other black crooners. In Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine, writer and historian Cary Ginell depicts Eckstine as an unheralded pioneer of pre-rock pop for directing the first bebop orchestra, emerging as the first commercially viable black crooner (via his MGM recordings),  and emerging as perhaps the first cross-racial sex symbol in mainstream pop. While Eckstine’s artistry is highly regarded among jazz musicians, his efforts to connect commercially were always contentious. Each artistic triumph was met with resistance. Racism loomed particularly large in his efforts to make an impact as a musician and actor.

 

Copyright   ©   2013 Hal Leonard Books;  Cove  r Photo   ©  Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

Copyright © 2013 Hal Leonard Books; Cover Photo © Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

After singing with regional big bands Eckstine began his first step toward the national jazz scene singing with the Earl Hines Band. In addition to singing he recruited other musicians, including Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie.  Eckstine and Vaughan were present during the gestation of bebop, performing alongside instrumental pioneers like Gillespie and Charlie Parker. From 1944-47 he formed and led the first bebop orchestra but several members went solo and big bands were becoming too expensive to maintain. Though he made his initial commercial impact among black audiences in the early 1940s singing blues tunes like “Jelly, Jelly” and “Stormy Monday Blues,” he found the blues limited musically and really longed to sing romantic pop from the 1930s like Bing Crosby. Though he was not opposed to the blues he suspected the music industry of stereotyping black singers by limiting them to the genre.  He broke through this barrier at MGM with luscious renditions of quality standards recorded with top tier arrangers and musicians, a pattern he continued on his LPs for Mercury and Roulette Records. While he was commercially successful as a recording artist and live performer, many critics lamented his supposed shift from jazz to pop, a major contention for Eckstine who resented critics for fetishizing the romance of being a “cult” jazz artist.

 Ginell also reminds readers that he lacked the full-blown crossover appeal of his white counterparts like Sinatra. This was most evident in his stymied attempts to become a film star. The author notes an array of unfulfilled projects, many pairing him with Lena Horne, the other major black crossover star of the time, which never materialized. Additionally, an infamous 1950 Life magazine photo of a white female fan (one of many “Billysoxers”) resting her head laughing on Eckstine’s shoulder did not endear him to a racially divided America.

 Like many singers of his generation Eckstine’s popularity waned in the mid-1950s when he, and other jazz-oriented singers, awkwardly attempted to sing more youthful music usually with poor results artistically and commercially.  He was far more successful recording thematic LPs, including acclaimed sets like 1959’s Basie/Eckstine Inc. and 1960’s concert set No Cover, No Minimum. Eckstine also hit his stride as an entrepreneur through opening several businesses and he was one of the earliest blacks to find an audience in Las Vegas.

 Outside of his career Eckstine, who was raised in a loving family environment in Pittsburgh, was a family man who married twice and raised five children, including two stepsons. Eckstine knew he was a sex symbol and possessed a wandering eye, which ultimately ruined his first marriage, and complicated his second marriage to Carolle Eclkstine. While his adult children acknowledge his infidelities and their parents’ marital challenges in the book they clearly adore and respect him. The array of family photos and the Eckstine children’s comments are one of the book’s highlights. They illuminate Eckstine’s character including his affectionate nicknames for them, his close relationship to Martin Luther King Jr., and his exacting musical standards when his daughter Gina decided to sing. For him taking care of his family was the reward for crossing over to pop. As Eckstine himself vividly stated, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial…I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.”

 In the mid-1960s the commercial heyday of jazz-influenced pop was nearly over and Eckstine made a valiant attempt to stay current by shifting from middle-of the-road (MOR) pop to recording for the black music labels Motown and then Stax. Neither light funk, nor covers of soft rock hits suited him. He spent more time perfecting his golf game, spending time with family, and performing than seeking hits. His final albums were a 1978 Brazilian pop set Momento Brasiliero , 1984’s I Am a Singer, recorded for Kimbo Records, and a collaboration with arranger Benny Carter, 1986’s Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter that garnered him a Vocal Jazz Grammy nomination. In the early 1990s his health was failing and he passed in 1993. 

 Ginell’s brisk and highly readable account of Eckstine’s life and career succeeded in helping me concretize the scope of racism Eckstine navigated in his daily life and as a larger force that interfered with his artistic life.  As a vocalist, bandleader, and musician (he played valve trombone, trumpet, and guitar) Eckstine was arguably more advanced musically than most crooners of his generation. But unlike most of them, including Perry Como, and Sinatra, he had to work his way up through smaller independent labels before reaping the rewards of a major label. And many of his followers, such as Johnny Mathis, benefited more commercially from appropriating elements of his style than he ever achieved.  As a black man Eckstine also risked alienating his audience if he became too popular with white audiences (i.e. the Life photo). Nat “King” Cole experienced a somewhat similar fate when his pioneering variety series was cancelled after Southern stations refused to air as show where he socialized with white artists like Peggy Lee and sponsors were leery of controversy.

 Should the book ever reach a second edition I have a few suggestions. There are several distracting editing errors in the book. Though Ginell includes a rich array of information 188 pages seems short for covering such an important figure.  The book alludes to Eckstine’s pioneering role but I would have liked more discussion of ways his sound and repertoire has surfaced in the work of singers like Johnny Hartman, Roy Hamilton, Ed Townsend, Lou Rawls, Kevin Mahogany, and others.  For example, though the concluding chapter states, “Nobody has recorded a ‘Billy Eckstine Songbook Album’” this is not accurate. Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole recorded Freddy Sings Mr B. on HighNote in 2010.

 Despite these quibbles Ginell’s astute attention to racism and his argument that “Billy Eckstine’s talent was timeless” is indisputable. Though Eckstine’s music from the ‘40s is accessible through compilations, and several digital conversions of his Mercury and Roulette albums are in print, Mr. B prompted me to seek out some of his more obscure recordings like 1963’s Modern Sounds of Mr. B. My hope is that works like Ginell’s, and Cole’s musical tribute might lead a company like Mosaic Records or Real Gone Music to reissue more of his work. The trails Eckstine blazed have never fully received their proper notice and keeping his work in print seems like a minimal way to recognize his legacy, and inspire future titans.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Singing her own melody

Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan

By Ellen Johnson

Rowman & Littlefield, 2014

If you've never heard of the modern jazz singer Sheila Jordan it's understandable. 50 years ago jazz artists were on CBS; now they're on PBS. Further, every major record label featured a stable of jazz-influenced vocalist ranging from Lorez Alexandria to Nancy Wilson. Today vocal jazz is primarily the domain of independent labels like Blue Note, Concord Jazz, High Note, and Savoy Jazz. By the time Jordan debuted with 1962's classic album Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note) jazz was morphing from pop music to art music.  Unlike the modern jazz vocal pioneers who preceded her, notably Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, Jordan has always been situated firmly in the jazz milieu. There are no embarrassing novelty singles (or “singles” of any kind) in her discography. There is no schizophrenic discography of LPs split between lush romantic ballads aimed at a pop audience to contrast with sizzling improvisational records targeting the hip jazz audience.

   Jazz Child   Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

 Jazz Child Copyright 2014. Rowman & Littlefield. © Cover Photo by Brian McMillen

  The conceptual possibilities of albums and the declining market for singles from pre-rock singers actually benefited Jordan artistically. Though jazz critics commonly lament the declining commercial role of jazz in the mainstream rock era commercial market, they sometimes forget to mention that modern jazz vocal performances were never really popular. Vaughan's classic self-titled 1954 album with trumpeter Clifford Brown did not get her on the charts; her lovely string laden albums of Gershwin tunes and a collection of songs from Broadway was her commercial bread and butter. Never mind that great jazz oriented pop singers like Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra, were never improvisers steeped in modern jazz, even when they worked with jazz arrangers and musicians.

Modern vocal jazz is specialized music by definition. Though many performers within this field, such as Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks and Anita O'Day, are highly entertaining and accessible their art requires a high level of skill, discipline, and creativity that can appear deceptively simple. As a leader and co-leader Jordan has recorded albums almost exclusively with jazz musicians in jazz arrangements for independent labels like Steeple Chase, ECM, Muse Records and High Note. Deeply inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker she is both a quintessential modern jazz vocalist artistically and truly independent commercially.

These observations about Jordan are just a few of those affirmed in the excellent new biography Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by author Ellen Johnson. As a performer and educator herself Johnson conveys a clear understanding of modern jazz artistically and historically. She developed a professional relationship with Jordan that blossomed into a friendship. This access gives her a unique window into Jordan's world--one populated by unreliable, troubled family members, gifted modern jazz pioneers, abusive male partners, admiring instrumental and vocal musicians, grateful students mentored by Jordan's teaching, and a community of friends including her daughter Tracey.

Though Jordan has shared aspects of her life in various articles and profiles (including a 1995 documentary Sheila Jordan: In the Voice of a Woman by Cade Bursell), Jazz Child is the most thorough synthesis of information on Jordan's life and career. Johnson interviewed Jordan from 2008-14 as well as 35 fellow musicians and acquaintances over the same period. She complements these firsthand observations with a range of record and concert reviews, and quotations from articles, plus she includes a thorough discography, videography, some of Jordan's lyrics and sheet music, and a bibliography.

Some of the more consistent themes that emerge about Jordan from these conversations are the profound impact of Parker's playing and his personal influence on Jordan's spirituality and musicality; her passion for social justice and equality; her pioneering role in the voice and bass duo format; her pervasive impact as a mentor and educator of vocalists; and a kindness and generosity that has made her a highly beloved musical partner, friend, teacher, and parent. The more you learn about her from anecdotes, concert reviews, and interviews the more you love and respect her. Hers is a story that needed to be told and kudos goes to Johnson for her warm, accessible prose. As modern jazz pioneers like Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Annie Ross, and Jordan age their memories and experiences warrant serious coverage; their stories are not just interesting, but essential to understand the possibilities of post-1950s American popular music.

Johnson, a first time author, structures the book somewhat unusually. The first six chapters tell Jordan's story chronologically, followed by six chapters that delve more deeply into topics introduced previously including Jordan's admiration of “Bird,” her refinement of the voice and bass format with bassists Arild Andersen, Cameron Brown, Harvie S, and Steve Swallow, and her innovative role as one of the first musicians to teach a vocal jazz course at the collegiate level, beginning in 1978 at City College of New York. This makes the last few chapters a bit redundant since we have already gotten the essence of Jordan. But, the more in-depth stories are interesting, the 22 page picture section, featuring photos from Jordan's personal collection are invaluable, and it's touching hearing successful former Jordan students like Theo Bleckmann, Jay Clayton, and Tierney Sutton, and peers like Sonny Rollins and Steve Swallow appraise Jordan's contributions.

 The story: Jordan (born Sheila Jeanette Dawson) was born to a single working teenaged mother in Detroit in 1928. Sheila's biological father left her mother who thought it was best for Sheila to grow up with her grandparents in the small coal mining town of Summerhull, Pennsylvania located in the Allegheny Mountains. Though her grandparents were better able to provide for her needs than her mother the family was among the poorest in a poor community and Jordan was subjected to cruel ridicule from teachers and students. Sadly her grandparents' alcoholism and emotional remoteness contributed greatly to Jordan's sense of isolation and abandonment. Jordan's childhood discovery of popular music, especially tunes from Your Hit Parade which she memorized easily, gave her an expressive outlet. She took piano lessons briefly, but excelled as a singer landing various singing opportunities on amateur hour radio shows and local contests from 1938-41. One of her most poignant musical experiences was the support of her high school teacher Mr. Rusher who encouraged her to develop her musical talents.  At 14 a conflict between Jordan's mother and grandparents led her to relocate to Detroit where a vibrant modern jazz scene was already developing.

Armed with a good ear, some performing experience, and an early mentor, the underage Jordan  made her way into Detroit's thriving jazz club scene after hearing a record of Charlie Parker and his Rebopper's “Now is the Time” on a jukebox at 15. She immediately immersed herself into Parker's oeuvre and learned his recordings by ear. His advanced rhythm changes appealed to her especially.

In addition to chronicling her early life clearly and thoroughly one of the book's highlights is Johnson's vivid description of the black club scene of 1940s Detroit as a modern jazz nucleus. Johnson recounts the scene at clubs like the Club Sudan and The Blue Bird Inn, venues where musicians performed modern jazz that also provided spaces for jazz musicians to jam and experiment. The racial tensions between blacks and whites in Detroit, informed by dejure segregation and laws banning interracial relationships made Detroit a dangerous place for black performers and white admirers like Jordan and her friends to co-exist. The book depicts multiple incidents of police harassment and racist ire spewed toward Jordan and her black musician friends. These experiences, coupled with her outsider status as a child, led Jordan to identify strongly with African-Americans and to advocate for equality throughout her life. Despite these dangers Jordan became a regular in the jazz scene and formed a modern jazz vocal group with Leroy Mitchell and Skeeter Spight called Skeeter, Mitch, and Jean. To support herself Jordan worked as a typist by day and lived the jazz lifestyle by night. When Parker and his band performed at Jazz at the Philharmonic Jordan sang in his ear and he complimented her on her “million dollar ears.”

 Jordan moved to New York City in 1952 where she continued work as a typist for an ad agency, rented an apartment in Gramercy Park, and became a 52nd street fixture. She befriended Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus who led her to study with pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano. As her musicality expanded in these settings she developed a relationship with Parker's pianist Duke Jordan whom she eventually married. They relocated from Brooklyn to 26th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and she hosted popular “loft” parties that were jam sessions for jazz musicians. On the darker side her personal life was rife with setbacks: Duke was a heroin addict and philanderer who abandoned Jordan during her pregnancy and Charlie Parker died in 1955 which devastated her. She also relocated once again landing on West 25th street off 9th Avenue where she raised her biracial daughter Tracey alone. Though they both endured racial harassment in various forms her daughter was a source of light. In 1958 Jordan got a standing singing gig at Greenwich Village’s Page Three where she met musicians like Dave Frishberg and Mark Murphy, and gained her greatest exposure.  In the early '60s she began working at the DDB ad agency (where she remained until the 2000s) and recorded vocals on two albums including a seminal 1962 version of “You Are My Sunshine” with musician and theorist George Russell who became a friend and mentor.

He was instrumental in getting her signed to Blue Note where in 1962 she became the first vocalist to record for the label. Among the classic performances recorded on Portrait of Sheila two of the most important were her voice and bass versions of “Dat Dere” and “Baltimore Oriole” which conveyed her deft ability to tell stories personally and her proficient navigation of the sparse format. 

Johnson thoroughly chronicles how Jordan had longed to record in this style since she first performed this way in 1954 and again in 1956 with bassist Swallow, but it was deemed too unorthodox and risky commercially. 13 years later she revisited this approach on several songs on her second album, Confirmation, and eventually recorded her first bass and voice album, Sheila with bassist Arild Andersen in 1977. During the 1960s and 1970s Jordan was a well-respected performer and an in-demand guest musician who recorded with jazz and classical musicians.  During the '70s she formed fruitful musical relationships with bassists Harvie S and Steve Swallow, and pianist Steve Kuhn. Other opportunities included teaching a pioneering vocal jazz seminar at City College, which led to an opportunity to teach in Graz, Austria beginning in the late 1980s. Jordan worked to balance these opportunities with motherhood and her administrative work. She also recounts a series of abusive relationships with men and her struggles with alcohol and eventually cocaine. After going through rehab she wrote the poignant song “The Crossing” which was also the title of her 1984 album recorded for Blackhawk. After only recording three albums from 1962-1977 Jordan became a prolific recording artist serving as a leader or co-leader on 10 albums from 1979-89, five in the 1990s, and seven in the 2000s. In other words, she plans to perform and teach as long as she can. Jordan is not particularly fond of recording studios; hence the high proportion of live recordings where one can hear her listening to her fellow musicians and witness her daring way with a song and her charming rapport with audiences.

I first learned about Jordan in the early 2000s from a friend who had studied classical and jazz music. He recommended I listen to Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, and Jordan to expand my understanding of vocal jazz. I remember buying Portrait and finding her small voice unusual but was intrigued by what she did with it. She was spare and daring, reconfiguring songs I thought I knew and helping me hear them differently. She was a thrilling, unheralded genius in my estimation and everything I read about her affirmed this view. Soon I became nearly obsessed with locating her albums at used record stores; her recordings were rare, precious, and unusual.

 Despite the immense respect she has earned among musicians, educators, and critics, who routinely praise her depth as an interpreter and improviser, Jordan has never crossed into the pop stratosphere. Nor has she received a nomination in the Vocal Jazz Performance category at the Grammys. Perhaps this is best, though, because she has never contorted herself for approval and has remained committed to Parker's modernist aesthetic. She has been recognized by those in the know including the 2006 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MACC) Lifetime Achievement Award, 2008 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for Lifetime of Service and a 2012 NEA Jazz Masters award. These honors, along with the rich life story Johnson tells in Jazz Child confirms Jordan’s status as a master performer and mentor within vocal jazz who speaks to greater truths about the discipline, passion, dues paying, and humanity essential for anyone aspiring to earn the title of vocal artist.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.