JazzDivas570

WHY IS IT that the greatest jazz singers – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day -- have almost all been women? Perhaps it’s because of the emotional journey they take us on – one that goes to places of the heart where few of their male colleagues have the courage to venture. Singing Misty in a fabled 1958 recording made with strings in Paris, Vaughan ushered us into a sugar-plum paradise of beauty and romance; underlying her every phrase was a musicianship that seemingly knew no bounds. Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache is a naked confession of defeat, told with a jazz sense that humbled many a horn player.

Singing love stories set to jazz, these women heard the harmonies and textures of the band and echoed them vocally. They roamed the world to practice their art, living rich but troubled lives. Everything they saw and felt became a part of their songs.
Jazz Divas Gold is the proof.

In 1938, when swing was the thing,
A-Tisket, A-Tasket spent ten weeks at number one and made a star out of Fitzgerald, the vocalist with Harlem drummer-bandleader Chick Webb. The song marked her forever as an ageless child who couldn’t keep from swinging. Holiday’s 1930s small-group sides for Columbia regularly made the charts, but when Decca signed her in 1944 they sweetened her commercial appeal by recording her with strings. Arranger Camarata knew how to enhance, not smother, the eroticism of Lover Man. During Lady Day’s Decca years, her friend Lena Horne was in Hollywood, appearing in M-G-M musicals. Horne’s beauty clouded appreciation of her singing, but her dozen sides for the M-G-M label reveal a moving, dramatically canny singer with true jazz feeling. Take Love Easy came from Beggar’s Holiday, a 1946 musical by her ex-beau, Duke Ellington.

By the ‘50s, vocalists had grabbed the spotlight from the big bands. With the advent of the LP, jazz singers could stretch out and let their imaginations fly. The innovators of that decade are still copied, but never surpassed. Peggy Lee was a mainstay on the ‘40s pop charts, but in 1953 this mistress of intimacy made a powerful jazz statement in her LP
Black Coffee. With a quiet wail inspired by Holiday and a jazz pulse all her own, she sang of the despair of a woman left to “drown her past regrets in coffee and cigarettes.”

Even at thirty, when she recorded
Lullaby of Birdland with an all-star bop sextet, Sarah Vaughan was every inch the jazz diva. She was a bebopper to equal Dizzy, yet scored hit records and earned comparisons to opera singers. Helen Merrill was as subtle as Vaughan was exhibitionistic. A beautiful blonde of Croatian heritage, she sang with a husky, ice-blue tone, minimalist phrasing, and a melancholy air. Over fifty years after her 1954 recording of Born to Be Blue, Merrill continued to mesmerize audiences.

Unlike the shy Merrill, Dinah Washington – born Ruth Jones in Detroit – epitomized “attitude.” She was R&B’s reigning salty mama from the late ‘40s until she died in 1963, and she brought her cheeky authority to jazz as well as the blues. Neither anger nor tears were apparent in the work of Anita O’Day, who inspired the so-called “Cool School” of jazz singers. In 1956 – the year she began a milestone body of work on Verve – O’Day and the bandleader who introduced her, Gene Krupa, recreated their 1941 top-ten hit,
Let Me Off Uptown.

No jazz singer probed more deeply into words than Carmen McRae. When she recorded
My Funny Valentine in 1957, her elegant phrasing was in place, but her trademark reediness and acid-edged skepticism were still to come. Dulcet tones came more easily to Mary Grace Messina, a bop-inspired Italian singer better known by her regal adopted name of Morgana King. In the ‘60s, King developed a style based on coloratura ornamentation and an ethereal, humming tone. Her 1956 recording of Body and Soul reflects her simpler but equally compelling early sound.

As a member (from 1957 through 1962) of the historic jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Annie Ross offered an agile, high-flying voice, a model’s looks and wardrobe; and an air of cool control. Mandatory at her later solo shows was
Twisted, the Ross original that defined the art of vocalese, or the setting of words to instrumental solos (this one by bop saxophonist Wardell Gray).

A shimmery hummingbird voice, a blonde pageboy that bobbed as she played her spare but swinging piano, a Mona Lisa air of mystery – all these qualities have made Blossom Dearie a source of endless fascination. Around 1958, Miles Davis, one of her fans, heard Dearie’s gentle stroll through
Surrey with the Fringe on Top and began playing it himself. At that time, another influential singer was inching her way toward New York and the Capitol contract that made her famous. Nancy Wilson had spent the mid-‘50s touring with a quintet led by Rusty Bryant, the R&B tenorman. Don’t Tell Me is a true collector’s item: the first CD release of a teenage Wilson’s first recording, made with that group in 1956. Her famous vinegar tone is already unmistakable. A year later, M-G-M imported an LP by a rising British jazz singer. Meet Cleo Laine went unnoticed in the States; only in the ‘70s would U.S. audiences discover the wonders of a singing actress whose husky three-octave voice took her from Fats Waller to Sondheim to settings of Shakespeare.

The age of Beatlemania wreaked havoc on the fortunes of jazz singers, but against the odds, some formidable new voices came to light. Sheila Jordan, a bebop songbird from Detroit, sang in a featherweight voice that could glide through Bird-inspired lines and even slip into melismatic Native American chant. The doe-eyed, wispy-voiced Astrud Gilberto recorded “The Girl from Ipanema” in 1964 and made millions of listeners want to live inside the song’s Brazilian fantasy world. Even when she teamed with a powerhouse arranger, Gil Evans, on
I Will Wait for You, Gilberto sang like a lilypad floating on the waves. Freda Payne was primarily a jingle singer in 1963 when she made a promising but overlooked jazz album, After the Lights Go Down Low. Seven years later she scored a number-three pop hit, Band of Gold, and left jazz behind. Nina Simone never did, even when the civil rights movement took this brooding singer-pianist into the top ranks of soul music. Simone had earned acclaim in 1958 when she took an aria from Porgy and Bess, I Loves You Porgy, and made it into a dark internal monologue.

Rhythm and blues and jazz are branches of the same tree, and many singers, like Etta James, have switched easily from one to the other. James poured a disaster-ridden life into her songs, while improvising with haughty confidence. Even a standard as sentimental as
These Foolish Things sounded blunt, tough, and questioning when she sang it.

The modern jazz scene is bursting with new voices. Few are as distinctive as the murky sound of Cassandra Wilson, a Mississippi native who incorporates folk, country blues, and even hiphop into her quirky view of jazz. Dee Dee Bridgewater, a flamboyant ex-Broadway actress and R&B singer, moved to France in the ‘80s and remade herself into a jazz artist. Verve responded with a record deal.

But the label has been better known in recent years for lifting long-neglected veterans to an overdue peak of acclaim. After working in ‘50s supper clubs as a black bombshell, Abbey Lincoln gave her lashing voice to the civil rights movement. Years of career oblivion ended when Verve signed her in 1989. Here she lends her biting irony to a Billie Holiday torch song,
I Must Have That Man. If Lincoln was all about the story, Betty Carter sang like a human saxophone. An uncompromising bop artist since the ‘40s, Carter had a few brushes with pop success (notably a 1961 duet album with Ray Charles) and a lot more obscurity. Once she joined Verve in the ‘80s, the company began reissuing some of her earlier, homemade albums, one of which included her freewheeling sprint through My Favorite Things.

The 1991 album
Here’s to Life marked the belated breakthrough of the fifty-seven-year-old Shirley Horn, a Washington, D.C. pianist-singer whom Miles Davis adored. Beneath its placid façade, Horne’s music simmered with all the sultriness and controlled intensity of the young Davis. She stayed on top until her death in 2005, but Teri Thornton wasn’t so lucky. In the early ‘60s, Thornton’s distinctively grainy, earthy singing had led Cannonball Adderley to call her “the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald.” After a few good years she faded from sight, and didn’t record again until Verve issued a new album, I’ll Be Easy to Find, in 1997. Despite the CD’s title, Thornton vanished permanently in 2000, a victim of cancer. Toughness, fragility, downfall, survival – all these qualities fueled her singing. And they define the jazz diva – that heart-tugging, indomitable carrier of song.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2007

[James Gavin, author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]