The Columnist Music
The Song Not The Singer

For nearly twenty years, from the mid-1960s to about 1980, I reviewed jazz for The Times. How grand that sounds. The Times Jazz Reviewer! By Appointment, Reviewer of Jazz to The Times. . .
But it wasn’t like that at all. I got barely 300 words a time. For the first few years I wasn’t allowed to sign my reviews. They were “From a Correspondent”. After a while I was promoted. They became “From our Correspondent”. And I had to fight to be allowed to review what was worth reviewing. In the first two years I was only allowed to review concerts. Nothing in clubs at all, and never in pubs. I went frantic, because there were all those fabulous American stars coming over the Atlantic to play at Ronnie Scott’s Club, and I couldn’t get any of them into print at all, because my fuddy duddy old arts editor, John Lawrence, wouldn’t let me go to see any of them.
‘The thing is,’ he told me, ‘the Times reader likes going to the safety of a concert hall. I don’t really think he’d enjoy going to a club.’
‘Ah, but Ronnie Scott’s Club isn’t like a club,’ I would tell him. ‘It’s more like a temple of music. The atmosphere is reverent, the attention is rapt. It’s a place we cannot afford to ignore.’
One day he softened.
‘I tell you what. Let’s run a review on one of these visitors to, ah, Ronald Scott’s Club, and see if anyone raises violent objections.’
I went to Ronnie’s and wrote a piece on that week’s visitor, an extremely boring saxophonist and oboist called Yusef Lateef. To his amazement, nobody seemed to even notice. He gave me free rein after that. And that is how for twenty years I was privileged to see and hear the world’s finest jazz musicians and singers still active, or at least those who had a passport and cared to use it, and it is how also I began to notice that there was a divide in the audience between those who came to hear people play, and those who wanted to hear people sing.
It was, mostly, the singers who made the big leap out of the jazz ghetto and became popular in the big world outside. Very occasionally, instrumental musicians would do it – Dave Brubeck, of course, Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli by and by – but mostly it was the singers who made the break. Frank Sinatra had done it many years before, when he had stopped being that great kid singer with Tommy Dorsey’s swing orchestra, and become just plain Frank Sinatra, the label “swing” or “jazz” conveniently forgotten. It happened to Ella Fitzgerald. It happened to Sarah Vaughan and Pearl Bailey. They built up their own fan base, their own crowd of admirers, who wouldn’t give a toss if they had ever been singing jazz. Quite the opposite, perhaps; I once interviewed a female singer for The Times who insisted that I never mentioned the word “jazz” in the piece. ‘I’m trying to make it big,’ she said; ‘I can’t have that label hanging round me.’
I remember once going to review a Sarah Vaughan concert in London, in a big venue in Hammersmith. She was top of the bill, coming on in the second half. The first half was played by the Gary Burton Quartet. Burton was a brilliant young vibraphone player doing brilliant things with the vibes that had never been done before. He was the guy I had come to see. Sarah Vaughan, who I found rather overpowering, I was prepared to listen to for while for Gary’s sake before I slipped away to do my review.
Towards the end of the first half, as Gary was twinkling away brilliantly, I overheard two ladies behind me discussing how much longer this noise was going on for.
‘I expect,’ said one middle-aged lady, ‘that this is just the cabaret we have to have before Sarah gets on.’
The cabaret! And yet, from her perspective, she was quite right. All she wanted was for the great goddess Sarah to appear and make heavenly sounds, and the sight of any young men banging and plucking things must have seemed a comparative and frivolous waste of time.
Another wonderful example of this dichotomy cropped up in the 1960s when bossa nova became popular. In its Brazilian homeland, it was very much a guitar-based, voice-based music, but its big breakthrough hit in the USA, “Desafinado”, was played by the great jazz tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Much to his surprise, I would guess, he was edged out of the moonlight a few years later by an even bigger bossa nova hit, “The Girl from Ipanema”, sung by Astrud Gilberto from Brazil.Listen Here Gilberto had a waif-like voice with no vibrato and a sort of little girl charm which struck the public fancy big time, and pushed her into world tours – indeed, I have a strong memory of seeing Astrud Gilberto on tour in Britain teamed up with Stan Getz, and being amazed how her flat repetitive one-trick singing voice could possibly interested people when a man like Getz was also on stage playing so inventively and seductively with her and behind her, and judging from Stan Getz’s body language, he felt the same. And he had to listen to her! At least Gary Burton had the option of slipping off to the bar when Sarah Vaughan was on.
And yet it was not an encounter with a singer or a player that unlocked the secret of songs and singing for me. It was a meeting with a songwriter. I had only just started freelancing with The Times when they sent me out to Shepperton Studios to interview the musical director of the film “Oliver!”, which was being made out there. The name of the musical director was John Green. Why interview him? Well, explained the PR man who drove me out there, they were in rather an embarrassing situation over all the child actors working in the film. They were running behind schedule and simply couldn’t afford to give the children all the educational hours, which, by law, they were supposed to, so they thought that one way of distracting attention from the kids was to focus on anyone in the film who was already grown-up and educated.
I realised when I met John Green that I did already know who he was. He was Johnny Green. Johnny Green was a songwriter. Way back before the War, Green had written several of the all-time great American songs. Top of the list by a long way was “Body and Soul”, such a lovely song to play that it is still in the Top Ten of jazz musicians’ most revered songs, along with things like “Stardust” and perhaps “Round Midnight”. He wrote “I Cover The Waterfront”. Another classic. He wrote “Out of Nowhere”, not so well-known, but still a favourite and one which all bass players have to know. To be quite honest, he didn’t write anything very memorable apart from those three, but even those would be enough for most people.
I told him he must be proud to think how often “Body and Soul” was played, and how many classic versions there were, notably the legendary Coleman Hawkins version made in 1939. Gently, he disillusioned me.
‘I don’t know any songwriter who is made happy when his song is taken over by the jazz fraternity,’ he told me. ‘A man writes a song for two main reasons. The words, and the melody. Jazz players don’t bother with the words. They don’t bother with the tune much either. Have you ever listened to that Coleman Hawkins record? He doesn’t play the tune at all!  He goes straight into his improvised solo. All he has of my song is the chords. I’m supposed to be grateful for that? Thanks for playing my chords and throwing the rest of the song away?’Listen here
This had never occurred to me before. And of course he was right. Jazz players may play the tune in the first thirty-two bars, but they can’t wait to get started on improvising on the chords, or what jazz people call “the changes”. It’s perfectly possible for a jazz performer to know the changes of a sing and have no idea of the tune – indeed, as a bass player I am regularly handed just the chords of a tune, and nobody imagines I would want to know anything else.
I was curious to ask Green what kind of performer he and his fellow songwriters were happy put in charge of their songs. He told me. It was a singer who didn’t muck around with the way the song had been written. Who sang it as written. Didn’t improvise. Didn’t embellish. A cast member of a Broadway production, perhaps. Someone like Richard Rodney Bennett doing his cabaret act. Or, even better, a singer like Fred Astaire who is totally obedient to the song.
         The reason that jazz singers, unlike Richard Rodney Bennett, want to muck around with the songs is that they are surrounded by musicians doing just that. When a player takes a solo on “I Got Rhythm” or “Lady Be Good” he has no need to refer to the melody – he is creating his own new melody. When Ella Fitzgerald sings “I Got Rhythm” or “Lady Be Good”, all she has is a brief set of words and 32 or 34 bars of melody – 16, to be accurate, as the rest is repeated. The words are not much cop. In fact, when you get a mature woman like Ella singing “Lady be good to me”, you suspect she’s caught up in a set of words she doesn’t want to be caught up in. The tune is quite nice, but nothing great. So what is a girl going to do? What she is going to do is improvise. She is going to sing the old words to some newly minted chain of notes. Or she is going to improvise wordlessly and sing some scat.
         Scat singing was invented by Louis Armstrong and it is one of the two great crimes of which he was guilty, but allowed to go free for, because he was responsible for so many other good things. The legend is that when he was singing the words to a nonsense song called “I’ve got the Heeby Jeebies”, he knocked the lyrics off the music stand while the recording was taking place and had to indulge in nonsense syllables instead. Afterwards they said to him: ‘Brilliant! What presence of mind! And it sounded good!’. Wrong. What they should have said to him was: ‘Louis, for a grown man to go “oobie doobie om bom blim blam” is understandable, maybe once in a lifetime. For him to ever do it again would be unforgivable. It’s not pretty. It’s not clever. And if ever, one day, we find Ella Fitzgerald imitating your voice singing this nonsense, we shall know where to come and find you and wreak a terrible revenge.’Listen Here
But nobody did say that to him, and so jazz music became infected by the disease of scat singing which causes otherwise quite lucid citizens to get up and sing nonsense syllables to the tune of very contorted musical phrases, a thing which is only found otherwise in opera in a foreign language.
         The was compounded by the second crime invented by Louis Armstrong, a tradition which had never existed before him, namely, that the man with an instrument shall also be allowed to sing. Louis was a great trumpeter. It’s a huge effort being a great trumpeter all the time. No wonder you are tempted now and then to take the trumpet from your battered old lips and going for the easier option of warbling into the microphone.
         And it is, oddly, almost always a trumpeter who does it. Not saxophonists. The only saxophone player I can think of who sang as well, was Louis Jordan, and he was really a singer first, player second. For another things, Louis Jordan either wrote his own songs or had them tailor-made, so he took great care with the lyrics. The words to a song like, “What’s the Point of Getting Sober, When You’re Going to get Drunk Again?” are very clever and very funny, and worth all the articulation they can get.Listen Here
         That’s not how Louis Armstrong and his acolytes viewed it. If you relied on a Louis Armstrong record as a true reference for the words, you would be in big trouble. He doesn’t do the words, he does an impression of the words. And so with all his descendants. People like Wingy Manone, and Louis Prima, and Hot Lips Page, and after that through Dizzy Gillespie’s singing and so on down top the British trad era where trumpeters like Kenny Ball couldn’t really sing, but did do anyway.
         Here is a snatch of one of Louis’s followers. In fact, Henry “Red” Allen was a brilliant near-contemporary of Louis’s from New Orleans, and on this version of “Body and Soul” – yes, the very same! – plays an opening chorus of trumpet which would have horrified Johnny Green, though I find it its double tempo bravura quite exhilarating. But the second chorus? When he sings? Would anyone ever buy a record for a vocal where you can hardly make out either the tune or the words?
Listen HereBODY AND SOUL – HENRY RED ALLEN
        Humphrey Lyttelton always defended Louis’s Armstrong’s singing on the grounds that Louis was a product of show business. His business was entertainment.  Singing – and joking, and comedy – were all part of entertainment. Other people have pointed out that Dizzy Gillespie, despite being a very serious trumpeter, got his early training in the Cab Calloway Orchestra. Calloway was a supreme entertainer – singer, dancer etc – and Gillespie learnt all that from him, which is why he was as likely to sing “Salt Peanuts” as play “Night in Tunisia”. Maybe we are lucky that Humphrey Lyttelton never sang. But I think the luckiest thing of all is that Miles Davis never sang. After thirty years of singing trumpeters, from Roy Eldridge to Clark Terry and Chet Baker, along came Miles Davis, a great jazz trumpeter who never sang. There was perhaps a slightly mundane reason for this. After a botched throat operation Miles Davis always had a hoarse, unmusical voice, and couldn’t sing if he wanted to. Nevertheless, after Miles there were no more singing trumpeters and we have been safe ever since. God bless Miles.
         We are not safe from singing pianists, though. They were always the biggest threat after singing trumpeters. Put a man or a woman at a piano, leave a mike wide open nearby, and there is always a terrible temptation to accompany your own voice. Fats Waller. Wonderful pianist. Couldn’t stop him singing. Everyone said how breezy and infectious his singing was, and it is indeed, the first time round. But you quickly reach the limit of wanting to hear Fats Waller taking the mickey out of inferior pop songs, which is why when jazz connoisseurs go out to buy Fats Waller on record, they head straight for CDs labelled “Fats - The Piano Solos” or “Fats Waller – Pianist”. Coded message: No singing!
         Nat King Cole was a wonderful pianist. Not just wonderful – he was ahead of the game in the 1930s and 1940s, playing things that other jazz pianists hadn’t thought of, sharp, inventive challenging things. Then his slippers and dressing gown style of soporific singing became hugely popular and he never played proper piano again. It all seems a long time ago, but to my amazement the singing pianists are back again. Harry Connick jr. Diana Krall. Jamie Cullum. Crossing that old divide from jazz obscurity into general popularity again. And the jazz fraternity puts up no protest because, bless us, we are so pathetically grateful for any sign of acceptance from the wider world that we say: ‘Ah, yes, Jamie Cullum! Splendid fellow! Lovely stuff!’ and the real truth is that we never want jazz to be judged by the singers. Singing may be central to the rock and the pop and the world music traditions, but it’s peripheral to jazz. I took my step-daughter to her first jazz concert once, to hear the Gil Evans Orchestra, and after half an hour of listening to this adventurous big band she whispered to me: ‘I have never sat this long in a concert in my life before now without anyone singing…’ In the second half I think there were actually two or three guest vocals from Van Morrison, which pleased her, though I thought it lowered the tone of the occasion . . .
         I don’t think there’s a better way of summing up the way singers are really viewed in the jazz world than with a story. It’s an old musician’s story. Jazz musicians love telling each other meaningful stories with a kick in the tail. This one is about a musician who dies and goes to Heaven, and St Peter says ‘Name please?’ and the guy gives his name, and St Peter says: ‘Ah! You’re the jazz musician!’  ‘Yes . ..’  ‘Well, we‘ve got a treat for you. God has been so pleased with your behaviour that he has arranged a reward. He says you can get a band together from all the talent available in Heaven. Any famous jazz musician who has died and gone to Heaven you can have in your band.’
         ‘You mean – like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington?’
         ‘Yes – they’re both available.’
         So with great excitement the man puts his band together and gives St Peter the list. And St Peter says: ‘There’s just one thing, I’m afraid. God is very keen on this young girl singer, and he wants to see her featured with a band . . .’

YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS

END - back to top

Miles Music
   
  Musical Notes
   
  Discovering Ellington
  Jazz on Television
  Cuban Jazz Festival
  Letter to Les
  Don Rendell/Ian Carr
  What's Jazz?
  Louis Armstrong
Song not the Singer
  Stan Tracey
  Jazz Train
  Inside Every Big Band
  Spanish Tinge
  Top Ten Songs
  History of Jazz
  Travels with a Double Bass