New York Times, Jan. 6, 2002


"EFFEMINATE,'' ''epicene,'' ''fey'' -- these are the words that critics used in 1954 when the angel-faced hero of the jazz trumpet, Chet Baker, made his first album as a singer. Many in the jazz world had already dismissed him as too much of a pretty boy for their music, which was traditionally built on sweat and muscle. Now here he was, crooning of a broken heart in a wispy voice that seemed to float between sexes. Young women and gay men, more than jazz fans, cheered him on.

The fragility of Baker's early vocals is rare in jazz, one of the last truly macho-obsessed fields in music. Female vocalists are applauded for showing their emotional scars, but most male jazz singers are still trying to sound as dry-eyed and invincible as they did in Baker's heyday. Without a horn or a set of drums to hide behind, they pose onstage as daredevils, clowns and cavaliers.

These are images of manhood that the largely male jazz audience seems to require. But for all their supposed strength, these singers emerge as far less courageous than the women. The grand exception, Frank Sinatra, pulled off an almost unrivaled balancing act. Men weren't threatened by his vulnerability: wounded as he could seem, his tough-guy swagger was always at the ready to assure people that he hadn't lost control. Countless Sinatra disciples, from Bobby Darin to Harry Connick Jr., have mimicked his loungier mannerisms, but never his soul. More pretend sensitivity came from Mel Tormé, who died in 1999. As he glided up and down three octaves, decorating standards with every scooby-doo cliché while mooning in rapture, Tormé made it clear that his greatest love object was himself.

A recent crop of CD's indicates how paralyzed most male jazz singers remain when it comes to conveying anything deeper than the clichés of masculinity. They could learn something about expressiveness from Tom Wopat, who will perform from Jan. 15 to 26 at the Manhattan cabaret Arci's Place. Now 50, this singing actor played a Southern redneck on the television series ''The Dukes of Hazzard''; he also worked as a spokesman for Rogaine hair restorer and starred on Broadway as Frank Butler, the gun-toting lothario of the Wild West, in the beefcake-laden revival of ''Annie Get Your Gun.''

With credits like these, Mr. Wopat is possibly the last person one would have expected to deliver the tender, elegant vocals, touched with jazz feeling, on his album of standards, ''The Still of the Night'' (Angel CDC 7243 5 23623 2 5). Maybe because he once sang country music -- a genre in which men are encouraged to cry -- he doesn't shy from the anguish of Stephen Sondheim's ''Anyone Can Whistle'' or Jimmy Webb's ''Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.'' The producer, Russ Titelman, placed Mr. Wopat's rugged voice in delicate settings, some created by the Broadway arranger Jonathan Tunick and featuring gifted jazzmen like the pianist Larry Goldings and the bassist Marc Johnson. In their company, Mr. Wopat flaunts nothing, but he reveals much.

Jazz artists frequently do the reverse. On ''Let There Be Love'' (Telarc 83518), the latest album by the nattily dressed, cool-acting singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli, the singing is playful, musicianly and hollow at the core. Mr. Pizzarelli, 41, descends from a long line of singing instrumentalists who hide behind affected, cartoonish voices to avoid revealing anything deeper. It's a bastardization of a style created by Louis Armstrong, whose music was anything but glib. Toothy grin locked in place, he played his trumpet as brightly as the Angel Gabriel; when he sang, his comically bearish growl couldn't cover up the pathos inside. But Mr. Pizzarelli's put-on nasal chirp has all the substance of the Munchkin chorus in ''The Wizard of Oz.'' His singing charms, amuses and makes no emotional demands on his sizable audience, which asks nothing further of him.

Romance is serious business for the crooners, who seduce us with velvet-toned pledges of love. The genre was perfected by Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, with their impeccably smooth, genial singing. Even in the saddest songs they never let down their guard, like smiling dinner hosts with not a hair out of place. High in this category is Billy Eckstine, the singing heartthrob and bebop bandleader of the post-World War II years. Eckstine's manly bass-baritone, with its exaggerated vibrato and swooping descents into the low register, was so popular that it started a parade of vocal peacocks, among them Arthur Prysock, Johnny Hartman and the latest of that species, Kevin Mahogany. The best-of CD ''Portrait of Kevin Mahogany'' (Warner Brothers 47364) shows off a big, dark voice that caresses the ear. It also reveals a singer who hasn't gone far beyond sound; every song, happy or sad, fast or slow, sounds like the same suave testament to his own virility.

The few men in jazz who expose a so-called ''feminine'' vulnerability when they sing have tended to stay on the fringes. One of these artists is the jazz pianist and singer Andy Bey, who will perform from Thursday to Saturday at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center. Now 61, he stretches ballads into slow-moving, ethereal wails in the night. Mr. Bey has been recording since the 1950's, but it was only in the 90's, when he made two celebrated albums, that he was discovered by a larger audience. He still doesn't perform often, but in 1996, in a moment of self-liberation, he declared his homosexuality and H.I.V.-positive status. It appeared to bring a new sense of peace into his work. For ''Tuesdays in Chinatown,'' his new CD (N-Coded Music NC-4223-2), he chose ''I'll Remember April,'' a poignant song of separation written in the depths of World War II. When he sings, ''I'm not afraid of autumn and her sorrow,'' Mr. Bey looks into the future calmly and resolutely.

There's much more turmoil in the work of two other veteran singers, Mark Murphy and Jimmy Scott, who offer visions of life that often aren't pretty. Mr. Murphy, the long-haired, eternal beatnik of jazz, has made dozens of albums since 1957 for a devoted cult audience. Onstage, he shifts from far-out, stream-of-consciousness humor to desperately raw pleas for love; never is he afraid to let his resonant baritone turn harsh if he wants to yank some dreamy ballad down to earth. Mr. Murphy ends his recent album, ''Sometime Ago'' (HighNote HCD 7046), by combining two of the most hopeless torch songs ever written, ''Why Was I Born?'' and ''I'm a Fool to Want You.'' He murmurs them in a voice so thick with doom that one pictures him staring out into some deadly black abyss.

A lifetime of agony colors every song, from ''Strange Fruit'' to ''Pennies From Heaven,'' on ''Over the Rainbow'' (Milestone MCD-9314-2), the latest album by Mr. Scott, a jazz-R & B singer who has finally come out of the shadows after decades of hard knocks. Because of a childhood hormonal deficiency, Mr. Scott, at 76, still sounds eerily androgynous. His neutered yowl can bring tears or chill the blood; he wears his scars almost proudly.

The newer male singers of jazz tend to avoid that dark inner world, finding it safer to recycle the old pseudo-hip clichés of the form. But last year, a promising mixture of finger-snapping nimbleness and heart appeared in New York, seemingly out of nowhere. Paul Bernhardt, a former jingle and studio singer, joined the veteran pop star, Margaret Whiting, at Arci's Place for two engagements. Mr. Bernhardt has some of the slick veneer of Mel Tormé, one of his idols. But in ballads like Billy Joel's ''I've Loved These Days'' and Stephen Sondheim's ''I Remember,'' he reaches below the surface to make the song a three-dimensional portrait of life, without hiding his bruises behind a coat of armor.