Geoffrey Smith guides us through his top jazz singers of all time, singers he says who 'represent some of the most remarkable musical personalities ever to appear on record'.
Octogenarian Mose Allison, in a career stretching back beyond five decades, has produced a unique body of work. Allison’s songs are unmistakeable – wry, bluesy comments on the contemporary scene that manage to be streetwise and satiric, down-home and hip. While they might not have made him a household name, they have earned him the devotion of fans all over the world, and the respect and emulation of a couple of generations of his fellow singers, including stars of rock and pop.
We also named Mose Allison one of the best jazz pianists ever
Armstrong’s unique scat vocals brought a new dimension to improvisation: a piece like ‘Heebie Jeebies’ seems an outpouring of pure joy, a song that doesn’t need words to convey its rhythmic and melodic gusto. And on the magnificent ‘West End Blues’, his trumpet and vocal powers combine to produce a masterpiece of searing emotion.
Unsurprisingly we also named Louis Armstrong one of the best jazz trumpet players of all time
Singer, dancer, jive talker and dresser, Cab Calloway was a true jazz master of the revels. His exuberant personality overshadowed his reputation as leader of one of the best swing-era bands. Through the 1930s and ’40s, Calloway’s orchestra accompanied his outrageous vocal displays and boasted an array of talent: tenorist Chu Berry, drummer Cozy Cole, bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeters Jonah Jones and bebop enfant terrible Dizzy Gillespie.
The title that Betty Carter gave one of her last CDs epitomised her approach to jazz singing: It’s Not About the Melody. For over half a century she transformed standard popular songs into vehicles for her unique personal expression.
A live Carter performance encompassed joyous innocence, shattering insight and musical virtuosity, both from the singer and the young accompanists. In a Verve Finest Hour compilation she inspires her rhythm section with energy and invention just as if she were a horn, a living reproach to those diehards who secretly feel that the phrase ‘jazz singer’ is a contradiction. But Betty Carter was a musician who happened to sing, a jazz voice whose achievements continue to astound.
When Blossom Dearie died, the obituaries began by declaring that that really was her given name. It seemed too good to be true, the winsome image so perfectly suited the doll-like delivery which had made her a unique presence on the international scene for over half a century.
Dearie’s personal territory was the jazz-cabaret frontier, an adroit blend of delicate swing and wit. As her fellow musicians well knew, she was a collector and connoisseur of good tunes, savouring clever lyrics and chord changes, which she projected with subtlety, insight and humour.
Listening to Kurt Elling brings to mind the essential jazz paradox – that it’s an art music whose purpose has been to sell booze. This is especially true of jazz singing, that vague crossover area in which hip performers croon standards with a bit of beat, indulge a taste for sassy subversion or toss off ‘shooby-dooing’ scat. Though that kind of amiable entertainment may keep the customers happy, it’s not how Kurt Elling sees jazz. Intense, passionate, fearlessly ambitious, his vocal style ranges the gamut of his imagination, from searing ballads and improvisations to his own vocalese settings of classic instrumental solos, such as John Coltrane’s epic ‘Resolution’.
Besides her infectious way with pop songs, Ella Fitzgerald revealed the kind of full-throttle skill at improvisation which was usually the domain of instrumentalists.
Her power as a scat singer bursts out from her 1945 recording of ‘Flying Home’, and ‘Smooth Sailing’ from 1951 shows her at home in rhythm and blues. Records like these make you understand why she was the brightest star of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, and the one who would close the show.
Jazz lovers loved the spectacle of Ella live, backed just with a rhythm section, storming through such impromptu masterpieces as ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘How High the Moon’, recorded at a 1960 concert in Berlin. We’re left gasping at her energy, invention and exhilarating creativity; her songs enshrine a life committed to performing and a conviction that joy is the essence of jazz.
Billie Holiday was an improviser of genius. Her ability to give an ordinary pop tune a subtle new shape and depth of meaning made her that most elusive of beings, a true jazz singer.
She remains, very likely, the best. Her youthful records from the ’30s still constitute a benchmark for jazz vocalists. In them, Lady Day is the peer of the all-star casts who surround her – chief among them her soulmate, tenorman Lester Young. Together, she and Young spin wonders like their impromptu duet on ‘Me, Myself and I’, which Holiday launches with a deft quotation from her main influence, Louis Armstrong. But her phrasing, swing and confidence are her own, as in her assured entrance on ‘Miss Brown to You’, sliding across the beat, yet clear as a bell.
Ordinary Huddie Ledbetter, known as ‘Leadbelly’. wasn’t: born in rural Texas in c.1888, regal in bearing and strong as an ox, he claimed to be the world’s greatest cotton picker, railroad track layer, lover, drinker and guitar player. His pride was matched by a temper and disposition to violence, resulting in spells in prison for assault and murder. And it was in 1933, in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, that he was discovered by folksong collectors John and Alan Lomax. Under the sponsorship of the Lomaxes, Leadbelly began his rise to stardom, benefiting from the gathering vogue for trad jazz and rugged authenticity. He gave concerts across the US and Europe, dying in New York in 1949.
We also named Leadbelly one of the best jazz guitarists ever
It was Emma Kirkby who first introduced me to Bobby McFerrin: she declared in a radio interview that he had ‘the most amazing voice I’ve ever heard’, and as evidence played ‘I’m My Own Walkman’. My McFerrin epiphany followed not long after in a live 90-minute solo concert where his only props were a cordless mic and a bottle of water. ‘Amazing’ barely described it: a four-octave range from basso profondo to falsetto; seemingly limitless inspiration, energy and wit; a throbbing beat that came from the singer’s thumped chest and rhythmic gasps; dazzling improvisations in which his bebop flights were accompanied by audience riffs he dictated on the spot.
Not many vocalists inspire their own signature tune, but Jimmy Rushing was the unmistakable model for ‘Mr Five by Five’. A tribute to his roly-poly frame, the phrase was his nickname throughout his 50-year career and reflected his perennially good-humoured style. He wasn’t built for tragedy, and his strength as a singer was an infectious, gravelly assurance. Despite being identified with the blues, he sang all kinds of songs, starting off in his hometown of Oklahoma City, touring as an itinerant entertainer and winding up in the precincts of Kansas City, where he joined the Count Basie band in 1935.
Historically, you can’t have jazz without the blues. To savour the essence of the blues, any listener should experience the majesty of Bessie Smith. Her first recording, in 1923, established her as a unique vocalist, with a huge sound and mesmerising presence. She maintained her eminence throughout the ’20s, her repertoire encompassing pop songs and novelties as well as her staple blues.
Her genius for expression was forged in a lifetime of stage performance. A Smith show could seem quasi-religious, with the crowd moaning and crying ‘Amen’. But her appeal was sexual, too: a favourite trick was to ‘walk one’, singing directly at a male member of the audience until he stumbled trance-like toward the stage.
A true jazz diva, Sarah Vaughan bewitched listeners with her sheer beauty of sound and supple invention. Her blend of sensual sonority and technical command earned her the public sobriquet of ‘The Divine One’; her fellow musicians, impressed by her confidence, dubbed her ‘Sassy’.
A capable pianist as well as a singer, she came of age with the bebop pioneers, recording with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who admired her deeply. But from the ’50s, her sumptuous voice, with its four-octave range and operatic agility, attracted the attention of the pop industry. For much of her career, she veered between the two worlds, winning a middle-of-the-road following for albums of dreamy ballads with strings, while charming jazz fans with her swing and artful phrasing.
Born in Michigan, USA in 1943 Geoffrey Smith grew up to the diverse sounds of Schubert, jazz and Gilbert & Sullivan. Today he is based in the UK and is a freelance writer and lecturer, contributing articles and reviews to a variety of publications, including BBC Music Magazine, Country Life, New Society and The Spectator. He was also previously the presenter of Jazz Record Requests and Geoffrey Smith's Jazz on BBC Radio 3.