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Sunday, October 3, 1993

ANNIE ROSS: A FREE-SPIRITED SURVIVOR LANDS ON HER FEET

By James Gavin
Annie312
Photo 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 jazz.

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 birth."

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 singer."

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."