Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mary Ann McCall

Today is the birthday of jazz singer Mary Ann McCall. She was born in 1919 and if still alive today (she died in '94) would be. . .oh to hell with it, you do the math.

McCall is one of the most underestimated of the big band era singers. I don't think she recorded too much on her own after that: I have a Jubilee lp, Detour to the Moon and a Coral lp, Melancholy Baby, both circa late fiftes - early sixties. Also an album and a few odd singles for the Regent label in the fifties. All of the Regents were arranged by Ernie Wilkins. She also appears on the 1977 LP the Woody Herman 40th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert, produced for records by my deeply-missed friend, the late Nat Shapiro. Herman's band, of course, is the one most closely associated with McCall.

I’m glad I had the good sense to check her out sometime during the early 80s when she was singing at a little bar in the airport Hilton, near LAX. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the little squib announcing her appearance in a local handout. Oh, they must be keeping it very low key to keep the crowds away. And so I arrived there extra early. That is how naive I was a mere two decades ago.

You've probably already guessed the rest: with the exception of myself, there was practically no one else there. I had McCall and another equally great jazz artist, Nat Pierce, her accompanist, pretty much all to myself. And I went back again and again, weekend after weekend and got to know her pretty well. She would always sit with me between sets and schmooze.

Even at this late grandmotherly stage in her career she was one of jazz singing's best kept secrets. I wish I had brought a tape recorder along with me to capture those extraordinary sets. She and Pierce had been musical cohorts for nearly four decades by that time. And it showed: No muss, no fuss, no killer lounge act pyrotechnics, just straight-ahead jazz singing and piano. She just sang the songs and went home!

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