ROSS: A FREE-SPIRITED SURVIVOR LANDS ON HER
By James Gavin
by John Naughton
FOR ANNIE ROSS, living on the edge has become a fine art.
In 1958, this cool-yet-sultry redhead earned a place in
jazz vocal history when she became the female third of
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the trio famous for setting
bullet-fire lyrics to jazz instrumentals. Ms. Ross's
octave-leaping, sweet-and-sour voice intrigued Miles Davis,
Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians who had little time for
female singers. So did her capacity for partying -- until
drugs nearly ended the fun permanently.
But her instinct for self-destruction was exceeded by a
knack for survival. After beating heroin addiction,
bankruptcy and chronic unemployment, the 63-year-old singer
and actress has landed on her feet again. In Robert
Altman's new film "Short Cuts," she plays a ravaged jazz
singer named Tess Trainer who tries to block out reality
with booze, pot, cynical love songs and bittersweet
memories of a rocky past.
While almost every other character in the movie is drawn
from the short stories of Raymond Carver, Mr. Altman
created this one especially for her. "I heard her sing at
my house a lot after dinner," he says, "and I became
infatuated with her passion for her music. She hears a
whole band inside her head. Every time she was bored or
things weren't going well, she'd sing. And that's just what
this character does."
The newly released soundtrack album for the film, which
opened the New York Film Festival last week and is being
released commercially starting today, is her biggest
recording project since the 1960's. In it she gives a jazz
spin to tunes by the likes of Dr. John, Elvis Costello and
U2, whose "Conversation on a Bar Stool" -- a dark dramatic
monologue that is heard throughout the film -- shows how
Ms. Ross has made the transition from singer to singing
actress. She has just kicked off a string of national
singing appearances, performing songs from the album along
with a repertory that salutes the masters of pop and modern
Years of overindulgence may have roughened her once-silky
voice, but her impeccable rhythm and sense of swing remain
-- not to mention a combination of worldliness and wry
humor. As Jon Hendricks, her former partner, has said,
"Annie Ross has that feeling you can't learn in no school,
that feeling that the men in the old Basie band had from
Recently, in her living room on the East Side of New York,
Ms. Ross lit a cigarette and recalled a life story laced
with mythology -- some of it her own invention. Her
measured speech reminds one of England, where she was born
Annabelle Short in 1930. Rumor has always had it that she
is the daughter of Ella Logan, who starred in the 1947
Broadway musical "Finian's Rainbow." Ms. Ross, however,
claims that Logan was her aunt -- and that her parents, a
touring Scottish vaudeville duo, sent her to live with the
singer in Hollywood at age 4.
As Annabelle Logan, she landed a singing role in the M-G-M
short "Our Gang Follies of 1938," then played Judy
Garland's kid sister in the 1943 film "Presenting Lily
Mars." But she resented Logan's frequent absences and
burned to make her way in jazz like her idols Duke
Ellington, Lena Horne and Erroll Garner. After the 10th
grade, she quit school, took the name Annie Ross and fled
to Europe, where she quickly found work as a revue
performer and band singer.
Things grew complicated in 1949, when she had a brief
affair with the black jazz drummer Kenny Clarke and gave
birth to a son, Kenny Clarke Jr. She left the child in the
care of Mr. Clarke's family, then moved to New York in
1950. After two lean years, a producer at the jazz record
label Prestige asked her to try her hand at "vocalese," the
technique later immortalized by Lambert, Hendricks and
Ross. She returned the next day with "Twisted," a witty
tale of split personalities set to a solo by the tenor
saxophonist Wardell Gray. She recorded it, then flew to
Scotland to join her family's vaudeville act.
While she was gone, the song became an underground hit.
"Someone sent me a clipping saying that I'd won the Down
Beat New Star Award," she says. "So I came back. It got me
a few more gigs." She spent the next five years working in
jazz clubs and theater, recording occasionally, and hanging
out with musicians, happy as long as she was having fun. "I
only wanted to sing and be free," she says.
Stardom came unexpectedly in 1958. Mr. Hendricks had
written lyrics to a set of instrumentals by Count Basie,
and he and Dave Lambert, a be-bop singer and arranger,
asked Ms. Ross to join a chorus assembled to record them.
Except for her, the group "couldn't swing if you hung 'em,"
in Mr. Hendricks's words.
The three singers recorded their voices four times each to
simulate the whole Basie band. The album, "Sing a Song of
Basie," officially launched them as Lambert, Hendricks and
Ross. Thereafter, they wrote dozens of other vocalese
story-songs that kept them on top of the jazz polls for
four years. Ms. Ross stood in the middle wearing couture
dresses and a tiara, her high-flying voice winning a few
awards of its own. Life, she says, was "like a party."
But in the jazz world, partying often meant drugs -- and
her try-anything attitude turned her into an addict in
short order. Ms. Ross stiffens at the mention of it. "Yeah,
I had a hangup," she says, expressionless. "A little bit
here, a little bit there, and that was it. It was the
culture of the time -- the long hours, having to produce
every night, needing stimulation. I guess you're young and
fearless and think you're going to live forever."
In the late 50's, Ms. Ross fell in love with the comic
Lenny Bruce, whose own drug problems were reaching their
height. In the book, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!,"
the writer Albert Goldman paints a grisly picture of their
affair, recounting how Bruce and a friend once managed to
revive her after a near-fatal heroin fix. By 1960, the
singer Carol Sloane was subbing regularly for Ms. Ross.
After the group finished a date in London in May 1962, Ms.
Ross stayed there to try and go straight. "I kind of knew
that if I came back to America I might die," she says.
She kicked her habit, but other trials lay in store. In
1963, she married the actor Sean Lynch, who helped her run
a London cabaret called Annie's Room. Eighteen months later
the investors replaced music with gambling, and Ms. Ross
was out of a job. By that time, the British rock scene had
made singers like her seem antique. The revue and record
producer Ben Bagley recalls running into Ms. Ross at Ronnie
Scott's, a London jazz club. "She embraced me and cried as
if we were old friends," he says. "We sat and talked for
quite a while. Her self-esteem was down to nothing."
By 1975, she had declared bankruptcy, lost her home and
divorced Lynch, who died soon after in a car crash. "They
say that each of these is a traumatic thing -- well, boy, I
had 'em all," she says. "Work? Meager. You know, if you
can't do what you really want to do, you tell yourself you
don't care, when in your heart you care a lot. People say,
'Oh, there, there -- you were a great singer.' You say
thank you, but you think, damn it, I'm still a great
Her luck took a turn in 1979, when she won a small acting
role in the film "Yanks." Thereafter, parts in films like
"Superman III" and "Pump Up the Volume," occasional theater
and nightclub work, and the generosity of friends helped
keep her afloat. Then in the mid-80's, she met Mr. Altman's
wife, Kathryn, who introduced her to the director. He
became a fan and gave her a cameo in his 1992 film "The
Player." When the deal for "Short Cuts" came through last
year, he signed her immediately.
Through the prodding of Mrs. Altman, she has now started an
autobiography. Her 43-year-old son lives in Los Angeles,
apparently without much of a career. "He's kind of in
music," she says. "Sometimes he plays drums." As for Ms.
Ross, the future is full of hope but not illusion. " 'As
Bob said, 'If nothing else, at least you'll get to sing in
better places.' Whatever happens, I could never give up
music. That's my heart."
She leans forward on the sofa, and for a moment her hazel
eyes come vividly to life. "What a gift Robert Altman gave
me, to have this opportunity at my age," she says. "By
rights I should be dead. But I'm just happy I survived."
And is the Annie Ross of today any different from the young
woman who won Down Beat's New Star Award of 1952? Her brow
furrows. "I've come down to earth," she says. Her eyes
twinkling, she adds, "but only a little bit."