Sunday, June 04, 2017

SUNDAY MUSIC: The Jazz Singer

Al Jolson gives the title to this piece. Jolson and his climb from a child circus entertainer to the world's most popular entertainer is a story told on film and looked back upon in distaste today for performing in “blackface”, for those who believe he was in some way disrespectful of black people by some form of cultural appropriation; a label the progressives would love to and have hung on his memory, but they should read his life story here to see how ridiculous their claims are.

Jolson was not a jazz singer in modern terms, yet was the man who recognised the format of singing what came into your head as opposed to that written down as "jazz", a new word in those early days: the development of the blues into other forms of music.

This the most famous of his performances is now remembered for all the wrong reasons but in it - and this was 1927 - you can hear the elements of early jazz singing:

Virtually all the early jazz singers came from a blues background or interpreted blues in their repertoire. Louis Armstrong is often quoted as a jazz singer, and he was, but much of his singing was a leftover from the Jolson days in many respects. As an addition to his trumpet, part of the “entertainment” and in many ways more gratuitous in performing as a very obvious black man to white audiences, it didn’t harm his career but in retrospect it can be a bit cringeworthy to watch the act.

Joe Williams is always associated with the Basie band and quite rightly so as it was a match made in heaven. He sang with other big bands before Basie. Born in the deep South, he was taken to Chicago at an early age and sang in a gospel group in churches before singing with his first bands including Lionel Hampton without great success personally.

In 1950 he was singing in a club when Basie heard him. Their association lasted from ‘54 through to ‘61 and this was the period when “Number One Son” as Basie called him sprang to national prominence. After Basie, with whom he remained good friends, he toured,  performed and recorded as a solo artist and with various musicians and bands. He also had a regular television appearances and was in two films with Basie, plus the Crosby Show and Sesame Street. He worked on a regular basis until his death in Las Vegas in 1999 at the age of 80.

Here, inevitably with Basie, he sings his most influential song, one that saw him inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in’92 as having significant influence in jazz: Everyday I have the Blues, at a Basie reunion in ‘81 at Carnegie Hall:

Before Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing sang with Basie for thirteen years from ‘35 - ‘48 and was considered by many to be the best of all blues singers. Another from a musical family, he was unusual in that he attended college where he studied musical theory and then went to university.

Here is "Mister Five by Five", with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1958:

John Coltrane wanted to make this album, no hard be bop here, and choose Johnny Hartman to sing on this album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. It was the only vocal album Coltrane ever did, recorded as it would be at the time at the Rudi Van Gelder studio in 1963 it became an instant success and a jazz classic. Why Hartman never had a higher profile in music is a mystery; a voice like syrup, wonderful tone and diction, yet apart from this never really appreciated outside those who know better. A superb artist, Hartman till this time did not consider himself to be a jazz singer !

Clint Eastwood gave a more than nodding nudge to Hartman's quality when in ‘95 he included four tracks from Hartman's out of print album Once in Every Life in his film Bridges of Madison County.

This version of My One and Only Love is considered to be the definitive one:

Frank Sinatra is capable of filling several of these pieces with his own work and life. His qualities don’t need repeating, they were there for everyone to see for decades, so I am not including him here. He deserves a lot more space than a single number - and what number, era, backing band would you choose? - but one singer, a contemporary of Sinatra’s who although well known was never quite considered to be in that top drawer by the public, was Mel Torme, the “Velvet Fog”. Torme was a child prodigy performing for money at the age of four (!), was a drummer in his elementary school band and in the same period acted in three separate radio programs. At sixteen his first song that he wrote and was published, “Lament to Love”, was a hit for Harry James; at eighteen he made his film début in Frank Sinatra's first film and his second film at twenty-two, “Good News”, made him a teen idol. In ‘44 he formed the Mel - Tones, the first jazz-influenced singing group.

After the war he started a solo singing career around 1947, became involved in cool jazz and started recording jazz albums in earnest. He never really stopped either, singing, acting, arranging and writing books, one of which contained these words about Patti Andrews of Andrews Sisters fame:

"They had more hit records to their credit than you could count, and one of the main reasons for their popularity was Patty Andrews. She stood in the middle of her sisters, planted her feet apart, and belted out solos as well as singing the lead parts with zest and confidence. The kind of singing she did cannot be taught, it can't be studied in books, it can't be written down. Long experience as a singer and wide-open ears were her only teachers, and she learned her lessons well."

Another book was the biography of Buddy Rich, a friend after they met when Rich was in the Marines in ‘44. In total he wrote 250 songs. How he found time to do all this and then tour the world averaging 200 appearances a year is mind-blowing, but he did. A stroke halted his work in ‘96 and another killed him in ‘99 at the age of 73. I am biased, always have been, but he like Sinatra with his perfect diction has always been my favourite jazz singer.

Here he is with his old mate Buddy Rich performing Love for Sale. It includes two items I normally abhor: drum solos and scat singing; for these two real musical giants, I make an exception.

- and this lovely version of Stardust:

This I include for one obvious reason: not only to show the entertainer and virtuoso that Torme was but also to see another much better side of Dusty Springfield:

Lastly, with George Shearing at Newport in ‘89: “It Was Just One of Those Things”...

I have indulged myself with Torme just a bit but he should have a lot more. He belonged to that group of people who grew up having to learn all the aspects of show business as well as their music. All were great entertainers who seemingly could turn their hand to whatever was required. It was a golden age and as with so much, not likely to return.

Part 2 of The Jazz Singer will follow.

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