Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Jazz Vocalists

October 25th, 2004

Gary Giddins


In the final column of his thirty year career as jazz critic of the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote, “I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.”

He went on to lament about not having written columns on the likes of Booker Ervin, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman and other musicians most easily categorized as “underrated.”

With that in mind, we thought it would be a great opportunity for Giddins to talk about those left behind. This October 25, 2004 conversation — the third in the series — is devoted to vocalists.

Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.


Weatherbird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century is the new collection of 140 pieces Giddins wrote over a fourteen year period, and is the companion volume to Visions of Jazz, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

photo by Lee Tanner

Abbey Lincoln

“It’s like an ocean, jazz singing. All you can do is swim around in it looking for those who touch you. It’s an ocean with no bottom.”

– Gary Giddins


JJM  When you start a conversation about great vocalists and big bands — underrated or not — it is hard not to begin with a vocalist who not only sang in a big band but led one, and that would be Billy Eckstine.

GG  Yes. Eckstine initially made his reputation with Earl Hines’s band, where Sarah Vaughan became the other vocalist and also the second pianist, When he left, he took Sarah and the modern guys and started his own orchestra. Unfortunately, this was during the longest of the three recording bans, so other than a few broadcasts and short films, there are not many recordings that show what Eckstine’s big band could do.

But long before Eckstine, singers were a vital part of orchestras for a number of reasons. First, audiences loved them because they could understand songs with lyrics easier than purely instrumental pieces. Second, the singers gave the band members a chance to rest. The singer would come out, do a number or two, while the band members caught their breath so they could then return to some very difficult instrumental pieces. I assume, maybe incorrectly, that that’s the origin of a strange movie convention of the forties, where a scene is set in a nightclub and an emcee gives a big intro to the singer, who walks out in a satin gown, does one number, and leaves. As a singer-friend of mine always says, “If only!” On the other hand, I suppose it was because of their limited exposure that bands initially resisted hiring singers qua singers, when they could have members of the band double on vocals. That changed after Paul Whiteman signed Bing Crosby and, a few years later, Mildred Bailey. Before that, you had guys like Jack Fulton, the Whiteman trombone player who sang in a high tenor when needed, or Russ Columbo, who started out on violin with Gus Arnheim, until he realized he was a better crooner. Well into the swing era, musicians like Trummy Young and Tony Pastor handled key vocals, even when singers were part of the personnel. By then, bandleaders realized that a dedicated singer could be a commercial asset — especially an attractive one.

JJM  I love the photographs of the female singers sitting almost meekly on the bandstand while the rest of the orchestra is playing.

GG  During the war, the photographs became part of band lore. The female singers had to submit to cheesecake photos in which they would be sitting in pleated skirts, showing just enough thigh to be provocative. Sometimes they even did bathing suit pictures. There was a nice sexual jolt when you went to see a band and discovered how cute the femme singer was. I guess things have come full circle — cheesecake is now commonplace on CDs. In fact, the demure, smiley poses of the forties seem pretty tame compared to the steamy come-hither glances and various states of undress we have now. All of that disappeared for a couple of decades when the great singers — Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Lee, McRae, Clooney, O’Day — either refused to do that or were too old or otherwise unsuitable for it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it; sex sells everything else, so why not music? Still, it sometimes strikes me as demeaning.

For a long time, women weren’t hired by bands because the song publishers controlled the way songs were sung — the lyrics had to be sung as written, with no pronoun alterations. Since most songs were about men singing of their love for women, band leaders thought those songs would sound silly if sung by women or that they might get in trouble with the song publishers if the genders were reversed. My favorite example of this is Bing Crosby’s recording with Whiteman, “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” — the de facto original gay recording. Today, a male singer would change the lyric to “there ain’t no sweet gal.” It doesn’t change the syllabic content or the meaning or anything else. Yet we have Bing, singing “there ain’t no sweet man,” because they were afraid to alter the damned pronoun.

That changed, or course, and after Whiteman hired Mildred Bailey in 1929, she became the first woman singer to sing exclusively with a big band. People began to expect to see real singers who looked great and could really sell a song. By the early forties, Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford were the essence, in a way, of the Tommy Dorsey Band. As great as that band was, Sinatra drew the crowds. In a way, his apprenticeship with Dorsey and, before that, Harry James, created a demand for his going out as a single and an attendant suspense as to how he would do. Of course when he finally did go out alone, he rocked the entertainment world.

JJM Who are some of the band singers you most admired?

GG  I guess Jimmy Rushing would top the list. He was with Basie for eleven years or so, and he could sing ballads, blues, or trite tunes like “Georgiana,” one of my favorite Basie sides. He had a magnificent voice, and he sounded like one of the guys in the band. One of his great recordings with Basie, “I Left My Baby,” is a slow blues, and you can hear all of the elements of the Basie band perfectly coalesce around Rushing’s vocal. It starts with a very mysterious, slightly ominous piano introduction, and then he sings a poetic lyric, accompanied by Lester Young’s beautiful obbligato. When the vocal ends, the band does two or three choruses of layered riffs that steadily build in power. When the thing is over you need a drink, because nothing could follow it except a long nod of appreciation. Incredibly, that’s one of several great tracks they left off the recent Columbia/Legacy Basie box.

The really good bands figured out how to use vocalists. For a while, Duke Ellington had musicians who could sing, but he insisted he would not hire a male singer until he could find someone like Crosby. He eventually found him in Herb Jeffries, who sang Ellington’s great hit of the early forties, “Flamingo” If you listen to the ways that he used Jeffries, it’s fascinating. One great Ellington record is “I Don’t Know What Kind of Blues I’ve Got,” in which the vocal is woven into the arrangement, no more or less important than the saxophone parts. Interestingly, the short Ellington piano intro prefigures Cecil Taylor. Bandleaders had the luxury of using singers in creative ways, but once the singers became stars, they couldn’t do that anymore. I think Joe Williams was the last genuinely great singer to do serious time with a band. By then, singers weren’t looking for apprenticeships. They wanted to go out on their own, like Tony Bennett. When the singer became the star, the dynamic changed. Listen to the early Billie Holiday records: the ones originally released as Teddy Wilson sessions feature Holiday for one chorus. She’s one of the guys, along with Lester Young, Artie Shaw, Buck Clayton, or whoever happened to be in the band for that session. As she became more famous, they became her backup. Now, she was always gracious to great players, which is one reason her Verve records remain so powerful, but the drama revolved around her — as it had to. She had become the emotional center of the music and it was the duty of her musicians to sustain and elaborate that center. On an older record like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” Benny Goodman defined the mood and her job was to be equal to it.

JJM  That seems to have completely disappeared.

GG  And it’s a shame. One of the things that really filled me with optimism about jazz when I got out of college was hearing the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band at the Village Vanguard. In the early seventies, they hired a singer named Dee Dee Bridgewater, who I thought was extraordinary — and she’s my age, so it was exciting to think that my generation had its own Ella, its own Sarah or Billie. I was so disappointed when she left jazz to go into disco, but that didn’t last long. After a spell in Europe, she reasserted herself with a series of albums on Verve, and people could see what she can do, how good she really is, how original. Of course, she is also a stunningly beautiful woman. And her act is infused with playful sexuality — she puts the cheesecake in her performances, not in CD photos. Not many singers have the nerve or poise to pull that off. But going back thirty years, her time with Thad and Mel was really something. She never recorded much with them, if at all, during her time at the Vanguard. They would bring her out in the middle of a set, she would do a couple of numbers and then she would disappear. But she made her mark on those two numbers. Strangely, it led to a triumph on Broadway in The Wiz, which she practically stole with a five-minute role, but not, at least for several years, to a great jazz recording.

JJM Talk a little more about Mildred Bailey……

GG  As I mentioned, she was the first female band singer. She and Red Norvo were in Whiteman’s band at the same time, which is where they met. They married and became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” If you want to talk about underrated big bands, Norvo’s has to be very high on the list. Eddie Sauter wrote gorgeous arrangements to set off Mildred’s voice, and the music had a plush, innovative, even ingenious sound unlike any other. Somebody — Columbia or, more likely, Mosaic — ought to collect Norvo’s instrumental recordings, not just with the big band, but the small-group oddities, like “Dance Of The Octopus,” which I love. Fortunately, Mosaic did put out The Complete Columbia Mildred Bailey recordings, a magnificent set, and I think Columbia’s one-disc Norvo anthology is still around.

Mildred was part Native American, from the state of Washington. She was very thin as a young girl and rode to school on horseback, but she ran away from home when she was very young — after her mother died and her father married the archetypal wicked stepmother. She ultimately married some guy in Seattle named Bailey, who nobody knows much about. A couple of years later, she turned up in Los Angeles, married to a bootlegger and singing in a posh and very private Hollywood speakeasy — you could drink and listen to her sing or go into another room and gamble or rent women. She was the sister of Al Rinker, who was Bing Crosby’s boyhood friend, and later part of the Rhythm Boys, and after that a composer and radio producer. When Al and Bing were just starting out, they went to Los Angeles to see if they could start a career in show business and Rinker suggested they go see his sister Mildred. They showed up unannounced, but she embraced them and put them up for awhile, helped Bing with his singing, and got them auditions. Crosby’s way of paying her back was to trick Whiteman into hearing her, because he knew that alone would incline him to hire her. He did, of course, and within a year she was the highest paid musician on the Whiteman payroll.

Mildred was largely forgotten for a while, except by a few young singers, most notably Daryl Sherman, who has always held her banner high, but she was extremely influential — in a way, the missing link between Ethel Waters, arguably the first great jazz singer, and Ella Fitzgerald and the swing style that followed. She has the light voice Ethel had, but could sing anything — blues, ballads, fast, slow, novelties, She was a marvelous performer with great wit and a ferocious temper. Her radio broadcasts are great fun partly because you never know what she’ll say. Tommy Dorsey comes on as a guest and reads the scripted nonsense, and she says something like, “Well, Tommy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but play something.” In the same series, which is out on a recent Storyville CD, Trummy Young says what a thrill it is to be on the show, and she says, “Yes, I know.”

In her early period, she occasionally relied on mannerisms that I find annoying, but she got rid of those pretty quickly. She also sang darkie pastorals that are simply embarrassing, but she was hardly alone in that — Fletcher Henderson recorded ” Underneath The Harlem Moon.” It’s no excuse, but it’s also no reason to ignore her work. If anyone reading this has eighty bucks or so to invest in discovering Mildred Bailey, the Mosaic box is worth every penny. It will take most of your life to absorb it all, but it is infinitely fascinating. She recorded with many of the great musicians of the period — -not unlike Holiday — and she brought out something wonderful in all of them. Speaking of Holiday and boxes, Columbia/Legacy did do her justice in the complete 1933-44 box, another investment that never completely gives up all its wonders. I’ve been listening to some of those sides for forty years and in some cases I think there isn’t a measure I don’t know, but I find that as I get older I hear a lot of things differently. Of course, Holiday is underrated only in the sense that Armstrong is — no matter how good you think they are they prove to be better. One funny thing about that box; I wrote one of the liner essays, and published for the first time a series of very personal and revealing notes that she wrote at the end of her life. They were given to me about twenty years ago and just gathered dust in my files. I figured they would amaze Holiday scholars, who’d want to know more about them. Nobody noticed!

JJM How about Helen Humes?

GG  I loved Helen Humes. Helen sang with the Basie band before becoming a rhythm and blues star in the forties, when she had an unexpected hit called “Be-Baba-Leba.” She toured for a while, but the fifties were not an easy period for her, although she made three really wonderful records for Contemporary toward the end of the decade. Then she dropped out so she could take care of her father on the family farm in Louisville. Following his death, she decided to come back to New York. Fortunately for me, her comeback coincided with my leaving college and my first attempts at making a living as a jazz critic. So I got to know her pretty well when she opened at The Cookery, Barney Josephson’s place at University and Eighth Street…

JJM  He owned Café Society, right?

GG  That’s right. It was a delightful place, a restaurant really, but with a piano in the middle of the room. Mary Lou Williams convinced Barney to install it so that she’d have a place to work. But after Helen scored a huge success, the room became more of a nightclub with food than a restaurant with a piano. Man, did he love all the attention; drove his wife crazy. His introductions would get longer and longer — especially after Alberta Hunter scored an even bigger success there. But he was a great guy, who had made Café Society the first totally integrated club in New York, if not the country, and he was later a victim of the Red Scare. I met Alger Hiss through him, and a number of other old lefties, Larry Adler, Bella Abzug — a cheerful elegant group. One day I was standing in line at a voting booth and turned to find Alger right behind me. I said, “Jesus, man, I didn’t know you could vote.” He cracked up.

Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine, asked me to do a piece on Helen — a story that led to a column I wrote for New York in the mid seventies — and Helen and I became friends. She was just great, so much fun to hang out with and talk to. She really enjoyed her second-act career. John Hammond was a big fan of hers and got her to do a recording on Columbia with Buddy Tate, which really should be reissued. Around this time, Bruce Lundvall, who had become president of Columbia Records for a brief halcyon moment — threw a party at what used to be Birdland. He rented the downstairs and had all of these unbelievable musicians playing way into the night. A great evening, and one of the things that made it spectacular was the presence of Kenny Clarke. My generation had never seen Clarke, who relocated to Europe after he left the Modern Jazz Quartet in the early fifties, so it was a tremendous thrill to finally see him in person, and he did not disappoint. Besides Clarke, a number of bebop musicians and modernists were there, including Dexter Gordon. It was one great set after another. And who stole the show — and I mean like professional thieves? Buddy Tate and Helen Humes. They got up there and swung so hard that for the first time all night, all conversation was brought to a halt. People stood there agape, jaws hanging. “He may be your man, but he comes to see me sometimes” — absolutely thrilling.

Afterwards, their performance was all anyone could talk about. The room was filled with major stars, far more famous than Helen and Buddy, yet they got to the nub of what swing is about. I walked over to the critic Stanley Dance and, as I was shaking my head and telling him how amazing I thought their set was, Stanley, who was English, said, “Well, I always thought that bebop was rather corny,” which was a typically severe Stanley remark. But that evening I was not going to argue with him, because something about the elemental quality of dead-on swing was too intoxicating to quibble about.

Regarding Humes recordings: during the jam session era of the early forties at Minton’s and Monroe’s, Jerry Newman used to hang out with a wire recorder, documenting sessions — including the legendary Charlie Christian “Swing to Bop”, which came out on 78s, I think. His other stuff started to come out in the seventies — like the famous Art Tatum set, God Is In the House. You can hear her do a few things with Don Byas that suggest the power of the Birdland night, especially her trademark ballad, “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight).” She sang it many times in her career, but that version, on Helen Humes: Monday at Minton’s, is the one buried treasure.

JJM  As far as the Ellington vocalists, you mentioned Herb Jeffries first…

GG  He had some good vocalists. Ivie Anderson is the most famous, and for good reason. A charming singer — when you listen to her, she sounds like someone you’d like to know, so unpretentious and straight-ahead. I also like Jeffries’s and Al Hibbler, before their mannerisms took over. I enjoyed Betty Roche, who was in the band for a very short time, but will be remembered for her “Take the A Train” vocal. Joya Sherrill was fun and impressive, too. With that wonderful contralto, she could sing some of the virtuoso pieces he wrote that required an opera singer. In the late sixties, Alice Babs, the Swedish singer, did some important work with him. She was operatically trained and he wrote some marvelous pieces for her in the Sacred Concerts. But a lot of the singers, after a while, were not so great. I can’t remember how many times I went to hear Ellington and had to endure Toney Watkins, his valet who I’m sure was better suited to that than singing. But audiences enjoyed his faux-rock number, so Ellington knew what he was doing. Same with Basie; after Joe Williams, he never really had anyone that good again. He stayed with Basie a long time. Most of the late forties, early fifties generation of band singers, like Rosemary Clooney, had left the bands by 1951-52, but Williams was just getting started; he did “Every Day I Have the Blues” with Basie in 1955, the record he was able to build a career on.

JJM  Abbey Lincoln is clearly a major star now, but I remember struggling with her early recordings, the ones on Riverside come immediately to mind.

GG  Yes, her stardom came with the Gitane records she’s been making in the last ten to twelve years. I’m delighted that she is finally getting her due and that she is recognized for what she is, not only as a heartbreaking performer, which she proved again the other night, singing “Down Here Below” at the opening of the new Jazz at Lincoln Center theaters, but a great and distinctive songwriter. It was a long time coming. She had a very strange career, in and out of music, during which time she devoted more effort to acting, and had memorable successes, like the film Nothing But a Man. Before that they tried to promote her as a black Marilyn Monroe type because she was and is gorgeous. They even had her perform in Monroe’s red dress in a picture she made in the fifties — I think it was Frank Tashlin’s rock and roll comedy, The Girl Can’t Help It.

I love Abbey’s songs. She now has a major body of work, from the Riverside LPs, especially the one with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, through the Gitane/Verve series, and it will last a long time. Like you, I didn’t really get her at first, but when the first of the Gitane records was released — The World is Falling Down with Jackie McLean and Clark Terry turning in superb solos — I was sold. That album is incredible. I did a feature on it, calling it the record of the year and one of the great vocal records ever — you know, completely knocked out. Then I went to see her at a club in New York called Tramps, and as I was walking out, the owner asked if I would like to meet Abbey who was sitting near the door. I could hardly say no, but I was a little hesitant because I had written some unkind things in the past about albums that sounded flat and uninvolved to me. So we shook hands and I told her I felt like I should apologize because for a long time I didn’t understand what she was doing. She squeezed my hand and said “That’s okay. For a long time, I didn’t understand what I was doing.”

JJM  Very gracious.

GG  Yes.

JJM What about Ernestine Anderson?

GG  She made two records for Mercury in the fifties that are now rare and I’m fond of them, both featuring all-star big bands. I was pleased to see that she made it back, but while I continue to enjoy and respect her, I don’t find her later work as distinctive.

A comeback I thought really exciting was that of Teri Thornton, in part because it was so unexpected. I never heard the album she made for Riverside, so I didn’t know very much about her. But after being off the scene for thirty-some years, she triumphed at the Monk competition, winning first prize, recording a magnificent album for Verve, while her old one was reissued, a real find in its own right. I don’t know if she was ailing then, but she died very soon after. She really had it all and her brief revival was a kind of gift.

As I mentioned, Dee Dee Bridgewater is now getting some of the attention due her. Some people think she overdoes the sexpot routine and I wish she would focus more on ballads, but she’s a wonderful singer and a great entertainer, something you no longer encounter very often in jazz. I always go to hear her when I can. Carmen Lundy is a talented singer who I don’t think has truly explored her potential because she is also trying to function as a songwriter. She hasn’t made the record that could put her over yet. I admire Diana Krall when she’s serious. I don’t like the stuff she is currently doing. No one considers Norah Jones a jazz singer, but having heard her twice in clubs with a piano-bass-saxophone trio before she made her breakthrough, I’m telling you that if she ever puts her mind to making a jazz record, she will surprise everyone. You can hear a preview in the Ellington number, Don’t Miss You At All, on her second album. Diana Reeves sounds better today, with her terrific trio, than ever. Cassandra is probably the most self-possessed original to come on the scene since the Betty Carter-Abbey Lincoln generation. She will not be put into a box, but to me everything she sings is informed by jazz and I love to watch her work. The big mystery is: where are the male jazz singers?

JJM  Bunny M., the young woman who writes a column on Jerry Jazz Musician, has written about some of the young male singers, among them Jamie Cullum, Michael Buble…

GG  Yes, he is a little like Peter Cincotti.

JJM  Well, these male singers may be out there, but perhaps we have returned to the era the jazz writer Will Friedwald referred to as the “Cult of the White Goddess.”

GG  Cheesecake revividus.

JJM I saw Karrin Allyson recently, who sang songs by the likes of Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and Melissa Manchester. For fear of admitting my moldy fig side, I have to admit that my initial reaction was not favorable. I turned to a local critic friend of mine and asked, “Why in the world is she singing Melissa Manchester pieces?”

GG  Well, I think it’s legitimate for these singers because they grew up with that music and they like those songs, so of course they should explore them. It’s another story when they do it to make some sort of a point about contemporary music being as good as the classic songs, a point that they can’t win because it is not true. Karrin Allyson made a splendid record of the material on Coltrane’s Ballads — an album I thought she hit out of the park. She’s a good singer and I have respect for her work. But I agree, I don’t see the point in doing new songs that aren’t good enough just because they’re new.

Herbie Hancock did an album called The New Standards, but he had to write changes, so who was he kidding? If you have to add changes then the songs are not standards, at least not in jazz, because they lack harmonic substance to interest jazz musicians. It’s Mickey Mouse music — good enough for what it is supposed to be, but not to be confused with Gershwin, Ellington, Berlin, Arlen, or Rodgers and Hart. These were sophisticated songwriters who provided the kind of harmonies that get jazz musicians excited. Their songs are inspiring, creative in a way that prompts more creativity from the interpreter. The composers grew up in the jazz era and wrote songs that lend themselves to swing and jazz. For the most part, post-rock songs don’t. Certainly there are exceptions. When Cassandra Wilson or Abbey Lincoln sings a Bob Dylan song, for example, they do it persuasively. Cassandra did a Monkees tune, for Chrissakes. I had never even listened to the Monkees, but I thought she made a really good record. Somebody asked me how can she sing that song (“Last Train To Clarksville”), and I asked, “What is wrong with the song?” It was then that I discovered it was a Monkees tune, but the way she performed it made it her own. She sang the hell out of it. And even “Wichita Lineman,” a song I remember hating when I was in school — a cornball record that got overplayed on the radio — well, she got some feeling out of it. The old adage still applies: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Another very talented younger singer is Paula West, who has opened her repertoire with songs by great composers that everyone else has overlooked. She has a lovely, smoky voice, and a way of holding vibratoless notes for years at a time. Denise Jannah, in Rotterdam, is another singer I like a lot; I produced an album for her at Blue Note with a big band that did well in Europe but not here — I’m very proud of that album. She’s also open to forgotten songs and will tweak standards by arranging them in 5/4 and other unexpected time signatures. Jeannie Bryson is another talent who hasn’t gotten her due — she made a very hip album of Peggy Lee tunes and did a beautiful reading of “Am I Blue.” Why isn’t she signed with a label?

JJM Well, it is a real risk for these singers to attempt new pieces, wouldn’t you say?

GG  Yes it is, a real risk.

JJM  You have to admire them for doing it. I thought the performance of Allyson’s was excellent, I just didn’t think the songs were that good.

GG  Then she didn’t make it work. That’s the risk.

JJM  Who is the greatest improvisational singer of the last thirty years?

GG  I would have to say Sarah Vaughan. She goes back to the forties, but she was around until 1990, and just for sheer creative ability, she and Ella remain unchallenged. Of the singers who came up a little later, Betty Carter is tremendously important and a very creative, adventurous singer. Betty took scat to a new level, she had great wit, and she could take hold of a ballad and bleed the thing ragged, make you think you’d never really heard it before and would have no need to hear it again. Carmen McRae was a different kind of singer, but she had a way of revamping songs and making them her own. Of course, if you go back to the early sixties, there was the incredible Dinah Washington, one of my all time favorites, way up in the pantheon — funny, raucous, triumphant, and she instantly transformed everything she sang. But, I can’t think of many singers who have come up since then with that kind of adventurousness. You know she too is in the Betty and Abbey generation, which is to say they were bred on swing and educated in bop. When she’s really cooking, Diane Reeves can be quite remarkable; I hope she continues making records like the last one, because I can hardly listen to the stuff she made before it.

JJM Yes, that has been my impression also.

GG  The real area of confusion for me is male vocalists. Let’s see, Tony Bennett is nearing eighty, Andy Bey must be close to seventy. Ray Charles is gone. Kevin Mahogany and Allan Harris never really developed their potential. The paucity may partly be due to the fact that many of the quasi-jazz singers of the last forty years worked in cabaret, which is more hospitable to women. Then there’s the matter of my limited tastes. I’ve tried but I can’t appreciate the work of guys like Peter Cincotti and Harry Connick. I know people whose taste I respect a lot who love Connick, and I do think he is a spry and engaging pianist, but to me the singing is lounge music one step removed. Rarely do I eagerly anticipate a new record or live performance by a male vocalist, which is odd, because when I was growing, nothing gave me greater pleasure. Joe Williams knocked me out with his energy and originality and excitement, and I worshipped Rushing, not to mention Armstrong, Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, Sinatra, Johnny Hartman, many others.

I can see that Kurt Elling is a talented guy who sings in pitch and has a commanding voice and different ideas, but I can’t stomach that stuff. I don’t know if I can even explain why, which is why I never reviewed it. There is a self-conscious hipness about it that shuts me out, and that is my number one criterion — to have the performer bring me in to a place where I can empathize with him. I hasten to say it’s my problem, not his, because anyone can hear that he’s a solid musician and is doing what he wants to do. Same thing, incidentally, with Patricia Barber. I read worshipful reviews, then listen to her and feel like I’m on a different planet. She makes me want to slit my wrists.

Of the younger singers, Alan Harris shows a lot of talent, but I don’t know where it is going. Mahogany showed tremendous promise, but his records are disappointing and he doesn’t seem to have gone very far from his earliest work. He was impressive in the Altman movie Kansas City, doing the Joe Turner/Jimmy Rushing thing. And as for Bobby McFerrin, I produced his first concert appearance in New York for George Wein, over George’s objections incidentally, but that’s another story; the bill included Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, Carrie Smith and Sheila Jordan. Bobby came on at the end, with Chico Freeman and a bass player, and killed. The audience stood and cheered for a long time. He can do anything.

JJM  Those early albums with McFerrin and Freeman were terrific.

GG  Yes, but then he did “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and semi-classical things, as well as appearing in television commercials. He does what he wants to do, but is he a great jazz singer? I don’t know. I think he can be when he wants. It’s like Bing Crosby: when he wanted to make a great jazz record, he could, but that wasn’t what his audience or the times demanded of him.

JJM What about great singers who also doubled on an instrument? I think of guys like Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Teagarden…

GG  Yes, all of them sang very engagingly. Teagarden was an extraordinary singer — a true original, his voice sounded like his trombone and he sang almost exactly as he spoke. He was primarily a blues singer, but he didn’t imitate anybody. He just sang who he was. Same with Roy . . .

JJM  And Fats Waller…

GG  Glad you mentioned him. Waller is one of my favorite singers of all time. He could sing it straight, he could make it very funny, he had great pitch, and he was very fast on his toes. I love his humor and the sound of his voice. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Right Myself a Letter,” “Christopher Columbus,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,”  ” It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” — all vocal masterpieces. And come to think of it, don’t miss Dinah Washington’s treatment of Waller, especially her takes on “Christopher Columbus” and the sexiest-ever reading of Honeysuckle Rose .

JJM What is the greatest live performance by a singer that you have seen?

GG  In the eighties, Sarah Vaughan did a tripartite event, three concerts on three consecutive evenings. Her guests included Eddie Jefferson — another singer I enjoyed very much — and Betty Carter. There may have been someone else as well. She was great on every evening, but the night she mixed it up with Carter was staggering. She sang with great respect for Betty, and vice versa, and you really felt you were watching two of the great pros of all time hitting all the stops. I’ve already mentioned the Humes shout-out at Birdland. Rosemary Clooney’s Carnegie Hall series and her Rainbow and Stars programs were unforgettable, because no one could do more with lyrics — no one. Sinatra at Radio City was amazing, too. Johnny Hartman could cast an unforgettable spell, sitting cross-legged on a stool with the inevitable cigarette — the last of the great crooners.

An experience I’ll never forget is when Crosby made his 1976 comeback at the Uris Theatre. His duet with Clooney on “On a Slow Boat to China” was extraordinary and such a surprise because I wasn’t expecting that much from them. There were many other nice moments, too, but then at the end of the show, he had the quartet of Milt Hinton, Johnny Smith, Jake Hanna and Joe Bushkin accompany him on a medley of thirty-five or forty of his hits that just went on and on, and it was exhilarating. Every song was like an American milestone, and he didn’t sing more than sixteen bars of anything to get the audience caught up in it. The performance not only paid tribute to his career, but to the world in which pop music and jazz were — for a little while — almost inseparable. He united the audience.

The first time I saw Sinatra, in 1975, he gave an atrocious performance; he was out of voice, he was nasty, rude, and it was hateful. I gave him a very harsh review. When he next came to New York a couple of years later, he had his publicity people send me tickets, and he was magnificent. After that they never offered me tickets again because he had made his point, drawn me into the fold, and didn’t have to pursue me. The way I read it is that he knew he blew the 1975 comeback, and also knew that he was going to kill on his return. Later I became very friendly with his throat doctor, Jimmy Gould, whose patients ranged from Pavoratti to Mick Jagger, and he told me that when Frank was serious about a performance, he prepared — stopped smoking, did vocal exercises, the whole nine yards. He had an incomparable ability to hold his audience. Tony is another one like that, and Rosemary too, and of course Armstrong, maybe the most magnetic performer I ever saw in my life, though sadly on only two occasions. What all of them have in common is the ability to read a lyric and to keep your attention and your empathy from the moment they walk out.

Abbey Lincoln can do that. Her voice isn’t what it was, but one of the great vocal performances I ever saw was when Abbey was at the Blue Note. She sailed from peak to peak during the show. Every measure was electrifying. She was totally in control of the material, of the band, and of the audience. I remember comparing it to a Jason Robards performance I had seen where everybody in the audience had the illusion that Robards was speaking to them directly. Everybody in the audience at the Blue Note felt that Abbey was singing only to them. Sinatra could do that in a concert hall.

Ella could do that in a different way. Ella never gave you the impression she was looking at you or anybody else because her eyes were closed and she was all over the place, yet she was so into her music — so revved up that you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Sarah also exemplified total control. She always knew where to take you. If she did an elaborate or difficult ballad, she would come back with a racehorse number. She knew when to talk, when not to talk, how to pace herself, like an athlete, a total pro.

And we haven’t mentioned people outside of jazz, like B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, who at their peak were monumental performers — B.B. can still do it. One of the greatest performers I ever saw was the rock and roll singer, Jackie Wilson, who was as acrobatic as a dancer.

That is what I miss. The idea of performers coming out with just a mike and the band, singing to you in a personal way, disappeared when rock moved into its stadium and MTV phase. They put on a “show” where they gyrate among the lights wearing headphones and microphones, displaying attitude, and for all you know they could be lip-synching. Except for the fact that it pays a lot of money to get in, the audience is often immaterial. There is no eye to eye contact. What jazz singers and classic pop singers do is take very familiar songs and make them fresh, relevant and meaningful.



JJM Blossom Dearie had a reputation for putting on good shows. Did you ever see her live?

GG  Yes, a couple of times. She’s not my favorite. She is charming and cute and fun, and I like her repertoire, but I got a little tired of that squeaky voice. But she does a lot of witty songs, many by Dave Frishberg, who is the living definition of wry intelligence. He’s great fun, and so is the ever idiosyncratic Bob Dorough. I’ve been a fan of his since high school, when he made a cult album on Focus with a definitive “Baltimore Oriole” and a hilarious “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”

When Cassandra Wilson first came on the scene, she wouldn’t look at the audience. She acted as if she had contempt for it, but I think she was really shy. She wanted to be just one of the band. She would turn her back or close her eyes. I often wondered what I was doing there; I mean I could have stayed home and listened to the record. At some point, I think she came to the conclusion that if she wanted people to come see her work, she would have to acknowledge the audience and maybe even have fun with it. She has become an incredible performer. She’s great looking and knows how to use that, and she mesmerizes the audience, swaying in her bare feet. Now, it’s taken her twenty years to figure out how to do that. Of course, this is something only singers have to worry about. Pianists walk out and play and don’t have to say two words. Singers have to attract you visually and aurally. They must have a commanding presence. Most singers, one way or another, figure that out.

JJM  And beyond that, they are judged by the repertoire that they sing.

GG  Absolutely.

JJM  What about West Cost Jazz singing? June Christy is sort of the epitome of that…

GG  I like the quality of June Christy’s voice. Once she got an arrangement, she pretty much stuck to it. But she had some good charts and she swung. I like Chris Connor, too, although not as much as Christy, maybe because I don’t think her time is as good. The mother of them all is the great Anita O’Day, a total original who could really swing. In her prime, she made some extraordinary records — almost all the albums she did for Verve are treasurable.

JJM  She and a handful of other women mention Martha Raye as being quite an influence…

GG  Hey, Martha Raye is a state secret. She was a wonderful singer who became so successful as a comedian that she basically walked away from her musical career. Many of the singers who heard her when she was first coming up were quite influenced by her. She had a lithe yet powerful voice with great projection, which you expect from her, and great time, which I guess you expect from any comedian. She was the person who introduced “You’ll Have to Swing It, Mr. Paganini”, which became an Ella Fitzgerald classic. People mostly think of Raye as a lowbrow comic with a big mouth and curvaceous body, but she is more interesting than that. There is a good anthology of her work out on CD.

JJM  What about bebop singers? Anybody come to mind?

GG  Well, the two great voices that came out of the bebop period are Sarah and Billy Eckstine, which takes us back to where we began, I think. Eckstine was among a group of singers known as the “Black Bings,” bass baritones who began with Crosby’s lower register. Earl Coleman told me that the first acknowledged Black Bing was a guy named Leroy Felton, who sang with Benny Carter’s band. You can hear a great example of him on Benny’s recording of “More Than You Know.” Then Eckstine came along and had a lot of imitators like Earl Coleman and Arthur Prysock, but Eckstine had the most beautiful voice and the best pitch. The problem with Eckstine is that he lost control of his vibrato after twenty years or so, and in the later years he was wobbling a lot. His record of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” is my favorite version of that song — it has incredible flute playing, by Frank Wess, I think.

People forget that during the period when Sinatra’s career fell apart in the late forties and early fifties, Eckstine was just about the best selling singer in the country. He had hit after hit after hit. If this hadn’t been a totally racist society, there’s no question that he would have gone on to Hollywood to become a major film star, because he was also a heartbreaker to look at with those baby blues. He was very sexy, had tremendous presence, but his career was basically closed off by race. He also had some weird alimony problems that kept him a prisoner of Nevada. I’m amazed no one has written his biography yet.

Among other bebop singers, I liked King Pleasure a lot. I don’t know what really happened to him. I enjoyed Dave Lambert and Eddie Jefferson, and Jackie Paris had a beautiful voice. These singers seemed to be influenced by Sinatra on the one hand and Charlie Parker on the other, and I like what they did, although I have to say I am not so fond of the “Oh Shoo Be Doo Be” kind of vocals that were stuck into a lot of bebop records — “Lemon Drop” and that kind of thing. I’d rather hear Dizzy Gillespie do that than almost anybody else. None of these singers had particularly long or vital careers except for Jon Hendricks. Sing a Song of Basie, the first album by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, is a one of a kind gem.

One great singer who strides swing to bop and beyond is Nat Cole. His trio was hugely influential. Cole opened doors that no black performer had ever passed through before. Many people were upset when he started singing at a stand-up mike instead of playing piano, but he could do everything. He was a truly great pianist. Dizzy Gillespie once told me that he would rather have Nat playing behind him than anyone. His trio arrangements were intricate and clever — Will Friedwald is especially good on that aspect of his music, though for some reason he’s a bit cool to After Midnight, which I would rate as one of the all-time must-have vocal albums. And of course Nat had an incomparable voice and personality to spare. He died very young of lung cancer and toward the end you can hear the disease in his recordings. It’s really hard to listen to those final recordings.

JJM What’s the future of jazz singing?

GG  I wish I knew. Forty years ago, singers like Dee Dee, Cassandra and Diane would have been everywhere without having to sing rock and roll or pop, because there were variety shows on TV every night. They would have appeared with their own trios, and they would have been part of the culture. While they would have sung mostly for adults, some kids would have been turned on to them. So a performer like Dee Dee, who is beautiful and gifted, charming and charismatic, which is to say, made for TV, has no way to enter the mainstream. All she can do are jazz clubs and concerts. She can’t reach the potential audience the way Ella could. All Ella had to do was appear on Ed Sullivan one night and a million more people knew who she was. There is no place to get that extra jump now, and that is a terrible thing.

JJM  The challenges they face are pretty amazing. As you say, there are few outlets for jazz, so they tweak their sound a bit in an attempt to expand their audience, or the A&R guys steer them down a path the singers don’t find to be particularly authentic. Singers have so much to gain, financially, if the right sound is recorded. If you are an instrumental artist, you are only going to go so far. But if you are a singer, you can potentially become Diana Krall and reap great financial rewards. Consequently, so many people get involved in the process, telling them the direction to head in an effort to become a big star, and it ends up in very uneven recordings. On one album they may think they are going to be a big star and record for a mass audience, on the next they may return to their roots and do a pure jazz album. Fans are left scratching their heads, wondering where this particular sound came from.

GG  I know. When I was in college in Iowa, I became friendly with a rock duo from Kansas City, Brewer and Shipley, who eventually had a hit called “One Toke Over The Line.” They went off to make their first record and gave me a copy. I listened to it that night and found it very disappointing. I saw them the next day and asked how they felt about the record, and they were both sort of ashamed of it. They told me that they went into the studio to record the music that had made them popular in coffee houses and on college campuses in the Midwest, but once they got there, the producer wanted to try all kinds of different things that were out of character for them but sounded great in the studio. When they heard the final record they felt they had been seduced by technology. I think that happens a lot.

On the other hand you have Norah Jones, who is one sharp lady, totally in control. God knows why that record had the impact that it did, but it was the right thing at the right time. The fact that she had such success is a hopeful sign, because her work is not overproduced — it’s a performer’s sound — and she has scored twice with it.

JJM  Sure, it has put a lot of cash in the hands of Blue Note’s Bruce Lundvall, who really appreciates and respects the art. That kind of money at someone else’s disposal could take jazz in an entirely different direction…

GG  True.

JJM  There are so many good singers we didn’t talk about.

GG  That’s for sure. Lee Wiley, the great Peggy Lee, my friend Mary Cleere Haran, who has a beautiful voice, great humor, and is now beginning to take more chances rhythmically than you usually hear in cabaret, Big Joe Turner who could sound like a volcanic blast. And we’ve ignored vocal groups like the Boswell Sisters — completely out of their minds and easy to get addicted to once you get into them. They invented their own language and their own way of harmonizing. Don’t confuse them with the Andrews Sisters, who are the square version of the Boswells. They just sing it straight and have nothing to do with jazz. But the Boswell’s came out of New Orleans and went on to record with the Dorseys, Bing, Joe Venuti, many incredible people. Connie Boswell went out as a single and made some good records on her own.

Other singers I loved and who may now be forgotten are Jeri Southern and Kay Starr. Kay grew up in Oklahoma, and by fourteen was singing on the radio. She came up with the big bands and also made records with Venuti and other jazz musicians. She became a big star singing songs that she felt were offensive, like “The Rock And Roll Waltz.” She once said that she didn’t know what the hell it was, but she knew two things it wasn’t: rock and roll. She was a little embarrassed about the song, but it was huge. At the same time, though, she was making albums with Ben Webster and Van Alexander’s very hip arrangements. So, she is somebody who has been forgotten. Her recordings for RCA are marvelous, and those on Capitol are even better. That was a golden age of singers. Jo Stafford, Dakota Staton, Jeri Southern-anything she did on Decca is worth hearing, though the later stuff is not as good. Hey, you know what? We haven’t really touched on blues singers. It’s like an ocean, jazz singing. All you can do is swim around in it looking for those who touch you. It’s an ocean with no bottom.



Gary Giddins products at


This conversation took place on October 25, 2004



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