Monday, May 26, 2008
Hanging with Helen Merrill
I moderated my panel at the L.A. Jazz Institute Festival Saturday morning, with singers Annie Ross, Tierney Sutton, Helen Merrill and Pinky Winters. With the exception of a 45 minute speech I made in phonetic Japanese in Tokyo a couple of years ago, I don't think I have ever before engaged in any extensive public speaking. Kind of unsettling to me. But when Institute director Ken Poston rang me up and asked me to do it, I answered "YES!" before he had even finished the question. I was especially jazzed by the idea of working (so to speak) with one of my desert island favorites, Helen Merrill. Afterwards, I even got to spend a bit of time with her before she had to catch a plane back to NYC. The panel participants also performed concerts at the Festival, singing, variously, the works of Kern (and his lyricists), Berlin, Porter, the Gershwins, and Lerner and Loewe.
My friend (and I would go so far as to say mentor), the late Nat Shapiro, once told me that Merrill was one of the few truly intelligent singers he had ever met (no other names, please). I can see now why he was so impressed. She was great fun to be with. For much of the time we traded off comments about all the things we love about Japan and its people. In case you arent't aware, Merrill, for a number of years, lived in that country where she very simply is considered the pluperfect personification of a jazz singer. It should also be noted that her 1955 Emarcy album with Clifford Brown is the largest selling jazz album ever in that country.
I had the pleasure of introducing Ms. Merrill to Hajime Sato of Eastwind Imports, a dealer who was selling CDs at the Fest. They began chatting in Japanese and continued to do so for quite some time. The fan in me can die happy now that I, also, have been spoken to in Japanese by Helen Merrill!
Sato san has only lived in the U.S. for eight years (born in Kobe, Japan), but his English strikes me as verging on perfect. He and I developed a running gag over the four days of the Fest. I would pass by his display without breaking stride and throw somewhat muzukashii English words at him as a test, i.e.
HAJIME: "I KNOW THAT ONE! TO BE ESPECIALLY AMAZED OR SURPRISED!"
And so on and so forth. . ..
Here are a couple of quotes I threw at the panel to get the collective juices flowing:
"THE MOST POPULAR DEFINITION OF A JAZZ SINGER IS THAT THERE IS NO DEFINITION. BUT THERE IS," WROTE THE LATE JAZZ CRITIC WHITNEY BALLIETT. “A JAZZ SINGER SIMPLY MAKES WHATEVER HE OR SHE SINGS. . .SWING. ETHEL MERMAN IS NOT A JAZZ SINGER. DORIS DAY IS."
A CERTAIN JAZZ CRITIC----I THINK IT WAS IRA GITLER---ONCE WROTE THAT "ONE PERSON'S JAZZ SINGER IS ANOTHER'S ROBERT GOULET."
I think I did okay moderating the panel, which was filmed for a documentary about the Great American Songbook, and didn't disgrace myself too much.
Sometime soon, I will post a transcription of some of the remarks and comments made by these four wonderful artists.
A great four days filled with terrific music and wonderful memories.
Here's a photo of the occasion and a review, in both Japanese AND English, by Professor Takahiro Miyao on his Glocom blog.
Posted by Bill Reed at 8:29 AM