Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chris Connor R.I.P.

(from my e-book, A Fine Romance: My Lifelong Affair With Jazz Singing and Singers

I was very young, and modern jazz was just reaching mass popularity when rock came in and swept it all away. Prior to then, the arrival of a new LP by such as Dave Brubeck, June Christy, George Shearing et al. was a fairly big deal with record buyers. This was certainly true of singer Chris Connor. Nevertheless, some jazz critics---complaining of her "flatness," "bad pitch," "horrible intonation," etc.---didn't like her. And, indeed, her intonation can seem odd. But, in fact, she's totally in control and knows exactly what she's doing at all times: If she's singing some series of notes not in the original melody, she still manages to reflect the original melodic sense of the song. Then for a moment she'll hop back on the melody as written, only to jump back off again a couple of bars later. But there's no faltering, and she always lands on her feet. It's a very tricky thing that she does. The operative description for Chris Connor in the early stage of her career was "far out," and it still holds true today. Critics who try to compare her to Anita O'Day and June Christy are missing the boat entirely. I'll "buy" the husky voice part; beyond that, though. Listening to her is at least as intellectually stimulating as trying to crack the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. If you follow her harmonic and rhythmic logic all the way through a song to the bitter end, often, by the time you get there, you're worn out. But it's a good kind of tired. This holds true as much for the ballads as the flagwavers. She lags behind the beat, then rushes ahead. And you can hear her musicians trying to keep up with her tempo-wise, slowing down, speeding up. This rhythmic tension between singer and players is a great part of the appeal. I saw her in a rehearsal session once; she’s a tough taskmistress. Connor’s most challenging album might well be the one cut "live" in Rio in the early sixties (alas a bootleg affair that has never received wide circulation). On this opus, she's so rhythmically and harmonically (the word that leaps to mind is) "perverse"). It must have been something in the water in Rio.

Encounter #1 I once went to see Chris Connor at NYC’s famed Birdland jazz club sometime during the early 1960s. Sweet Bird of Youth was playing first run in Times Square, so you do the chronological math). I can still recall that the legendary midget mc Pee Wee Marquette announced her as "Chris ConnorS." Years later, I learned that it was tradition at the club that if one didn't ante up with a bribe, Marquette, who jazz man Lester Young once described as "half-a-mother fucker," would intentionally screw up the pronunciation of your name in his intro. I guess Chris wouldn't come across.I also remember that some time during the proceedings I lost a contact lens and I had prrrractically the entire place crawling around on its hands and knees, Connor included, trying to help me find it. Now just how hip is that? And we finally DID find the lens! (I eventually had it bronzed.)

Encounter #2 Late one night, years ago when I lived in Greenwich Village, I espied Connor walking along 8th Street all alone. It was late and I didn't want to frighten her. I've only ever approached two other famous folk in my life---and then in broad daylight--- Billy Wilder and Myrna Loy. I crept up as cautiously as I could and introduced myself. Chris was so. . .COOL. She didn't even appear startled. Trust me, it was VERY late. I couldn't believe how kind and sweet she was. She even invited me to be her guest the next night---all expenses paid---at the Greenwich Village jazz club where she was appearing. I was just off the turnip truck from West Virginia, and if this was what life in big city was going to be like, well, gee whiz and boy howdy!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was privileged to see and hear Chris Conner in the spring of 1959 at an outdoor concert at my school, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. I arrived early and got a front row seat (on the ground)....I had my new Polaroid camera with me and approached Miss Conner for a photo. She willingly obliged, then seemed genuinely delighted when the finished picture popped out. I had her autograph the back and still have it to this day.
Later heard her in Chicago at Rick's Cafe Americaine. Took the '59 pic. and showed it to her. She was, again, gracious and said she had forgotten all about the concert in Nashville. Got her to autograph one of her early albums that night, too.