Thursday, July 30, 2009

In addition to my forthcoming "Hot from Harlem". . .

Within the next few weeks I'll be making available an e-book collection of some of my writings about jazz and jazz-related vocalists. When it is finally on-line, I'll make an announcement here. The book consists of liners notes and various articles that I've written for magazines and newspapers over the years, going all the way back to the oldddd L.A. Herald-Examiner and Rolling Stone. I've titled it A Fine Romance: My Lifelong Affair With Jazz Singing and Singers. Here is the Foreword:

Whole Word Concept: Before “Sesame Street” was even a gleam in Jim Henson’s eye, I learned to read by that, unfashionable for its time, process. Several years before I was of school age, my older sister Nancy began holding up records----78's---and I would learn to identify the title on the label not phonetically, but visually. If I got the correct answer, my reward was to hear the record. I think that's when I began associating music with enjoyment, even beyond the obvious pleasure of the music itself. Just about the most popular recording act of the day was the Andrew Sisters, and those sides were the ones that were most used as my visual aids. I still have sense memory of one of their hits of the moment being held up and my four-year-old-voice parroting "Andrew Sis. . .Sisters . . . Ruh-Ruh-Rum. . .and. . .and Coca Cola." Everyone who had gathered around to watch this juvenile savantry, clapped their hands with glee, patted me on the head, and then spun the disc (still a quite good one, I think). Thus the word “lifelong” contained in this book’s title. For this was where my musical life began.
I once gave a Betty Carter CD to a friend who is much more stylistically conservative than the former, but, nonetheless, still quite a good jazz singer. She had never heard Carter. I couple of days later I called to ask what she thought of it. I hoped she’d enjoyed it; instead, she told me, she'd become so immediately overwrought by the experience that she ejected it from the player in the moving car in which she was traveling and hurled it onto the freeway. (Talk about your hip litter!) Carter herself was once asked to name her "favorite singer." She replied, "No comment." Which I always felt was her amusing and diplomatic way of saying, “Me.”

The foregoing is by way of illustrating that there are perhaps as many definitions as to what constitutes the fine art of jazz singing as there are opinion-holders themselves. To further illumine my point, noted critic Ira Gitler once opined that, “One person’s jazz singer can be another’s Robert Goulet.” Only a little bit more to the point, the New Yorker scribe Whitney Balliett once wrote that “The most popular definition of a jazz singer is that there is no definition. But there is. A jazz singer simply makes whatever he or she sings. . .swing. Ethel Merman is not a jazz singer. Doris Day is.” To belt then, as does Merman, is not necessarily to swing. And, while we’re at it, just exactly what is this mysterious and elusive thing called swing? Andrew, a friend of mine, was a music major at Harvard in the early 1980s. On one occasion, jazz great Benny Carter was a visiting lecturer there, and Andrew assumed that with such an articulate professor as Carter, he might finally be able to get to the bottom of this “swing” business. But when Andrew raised his hand and asked his question, Carter's answer was along the lines of that old, as-of-yore saw: "If you have to ask, then you’ll never know.” Ouch!

On the other hand, the Hi-Lo’s’ Clark Burroughs once told me that he believed that the quality of swing can actually be isolated and quantified. Something to do with how when most folks sing they invariably land squarely on the beat (not to swing), while a few tend to land just a hair in front of, or behind the beat (to swing). Burroughs says this can even be proven scientifically, but that’s an experiment perhaps best left for some other night around the ol’ campfire.

Jazz icon Annie Ross also has a theory: “When you swing, you know what it is to swing. You work with musicians your whole life. Suddenly one night you're working. . . Everything is jelling. You're jelling with the bass player and the drummer and the piano player and you're all on the same plane and you know it's swinging. No one has to define it for you. But above all, you’ve got to know where 1 is. . .1,2,3,4.“

Add to swing, then, the qualities of good intonation, a genial “sound” and recognizable timbre, good taste in repertoire, plus just old fashioned good taste in general, put them all together and, to my way of thinking, you’ve got yourself a jazz singer. This book, based on articles I’ve written over the past thirty years, charts the process by which I’ve arrived at these conclusions.


Anonymous said...

tremendous. thanks

Anonymous said...

I always thought that the best definition of a 'jazz singer' is a singer that a jazz fan likes.