BY BENSON IDONIJE
The the jazz scene today reveals that only Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridge Water and a few young female jazz singers are currently belching out melodies from the deep recesses of their hearts. They are reaching out to audiences with their various approaches to a creative aspect of jazz that is fast dying out because of today’s preference for popular music — for commercial reasons. Like the male turf, only a few women are now venturing into jazz singing.
This is exactly why, in retrospect, veterans such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mahalia Jackson among many others should be remembered not only for their pioneering efforts but also for the sense of commitment and high level of creativity they exhibited while performing jazz themes and materials in those difficult early days.
Deserving of praise and acknowledgement is Bessie Smith, the first major blues and jazz singer on record, and one of the most powerful of all time. Not for nothing did she earn the title ‘Empress of the blues’ in those early days of the music when most singers were just muddling through without laying claim to any creative performance, any definitive approach.
Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of that period and still communicates easily to today’s listeners, sounding as contemporary and relevant as can it be. This is not true of any other singer from that early period.
At the time the blues became exploited by almost every singer and it was impossible to differentiate a genuine singer from the rest, Bessie stood out, with a voice whose clarity went through varying inflections and chord changes. She was like today’s Alicia Keys among the thousands of hip hop stars that have inundated the scene in recent years. And to come nearer home, she would be comparable to today’s Asa in the midst of the thriving hip hop culture that has almost suffocated the Nigerian scene.
Back in 1912, Bessie Smith sang in the same show with Ma Rainey who took her under her wing and mentored her. Although Rainey would achieve a measure of fame throughout her career, she was soon surpassed by her protege.
Between 1920 and 1937 when she died, she recorded a lot of valuable material, which have continued to remain a source of inspiration to emerging generations of singers. The various albums recorded by the ‘Empress of the blues’ have today been reissued into over five (distinctively remarkable CDs as volumes, and tagged ‘The complete Recordings.’
Fifty years after her death in 1959, Billie Holiday remains the most famous of all jazz singers. ‘Lady Day’, as she was fondly called (a name she earned from Lester Young, the saxophonist who created quite a stir as soloist with the Count Bassie Orchestra), Holiday had a small voice and did not scat, like most people did to introduce some flourish to their performances. But she developed a behind–the–beat phrasing, an innovation that gave her the uniqueness that she demonstrated in all her songs. And she executed this technique with so much skill and finesse that these delayed beats did not in any way affect the smooth progression of the music; instead it introduced a high sense of musical value to her performances.
The emotional intensity that she put into her lyrical lines is one of the attributes that has continued to recommend her for critical attention.
Holiday sang with a small groups as well as big bands, interpreting most of the classics and dominating them with the own personality.
Lady Day was with the Count Bassie Orchestra during much of 1937, but because they were signed to different labels, not much was achieved by this collaboration in the area of studio recording.
She was popular with the band in live setting, and critics have continued to remember her with the Count Basie Orchestra with the same reverence and appreciation that they had for Joe Williams of Every day I have the blues fame, Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing who were all singers with the orchestra at various times.
She died in 1959, but recorded up till 1957 such memorable hits as God bless the child, Lady in Satin, Don’t explain among many others. Her works have been extensively reissued and can now be found in the market. Among them are the Quintessential Billie Holiday, Volumes 1-9, Masters of Jazz, Lady sings the blues, Billie Holiday (1939-1940), Billies’ Blues among many others.
Bop’s greatest diva, Sarah Vaughan was among jazz and popular music’s supreme vocalists who treated her voice as an instrument, improvising and providing melodic and rhythmic embellishments to performances. She had a contralto range, which she used to make leaps and jumps; and had the ability to change a song’s mood and direction by mere enunciation and delivery.
A great singer with a unique style that identified with the best of jazz, she equally turned commonplace tunes and light pop into definitive jazz-based material. She had a distinctive swinging quality and intensity in her singing style and was also a scat singer. The great Sarah Vaughan was a dominant performer from the late 40’s until the ’80s when illness forced her to cut back her appearances.
Like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan recorded extensively and teamed up with various bands, among them, The George Shearing outfit where the piano became a dominant force in the accompaniment – in combo setting. But she also sang with the famous Duke Ellington Orchestra, where she gave her own unique interpretation to such classics as Ain’t got nothing but the blues Chelsea Bridge, I got it bad, Mood Indigo among others.
Most critics name Ella Fitzgerald as the finest female jazz singer of all time, even though some vote for Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan.
The preference for Ella is obviously due to her dual role as a pop as well as jazz singer. Blessed with a beautiful voice and a wide range, she was a swinger and brilliant scat singer who was capable of making a composer’s song sound more like herself than the song itself. This was perhaps why she earned the name ‘First Lady of Song.’
A great performer, she recorded in live setting in collaboration with numerous groups; and one session that remains memorable for her is Mack the knife, the theme from the Three Penny Opera, first performed and made popular by Louis Armstrong. It was recorded in Berlin at Deutschlandhallen, a club, which held almost 12,000 people.
The concert generated the same enthusiastic reaction, the same eager applause, that marked some of her great shows back home in the United States of America.
She sang nine songs at this concert — including Mack the Knife, which was perhaps the show’s greatest attraction. It was the first time she was singing this song usually identified with Louis Armstrong — in the New Orleans style. And, not knowing the lyric too well, she substituted her own for what might well have been an improvement on the original.
Gospel songs are simple in structure and are almost childlike in lyric, appearing at times incapable of conveying the drama and the reality they are called upon to express. But through the history of revival meetings, house parties, church choirs and the singing of the blues, the music came into into the limelight. But the artist who introduced emotion and sincerity to the music to give it the jazz feel was Mahalia Jackson, perhaps the world’s greatest gospel singer.
Although these artists are now dead, they have their various reissues in the market from which aspiring young jazz singers can draw inspiration — if they wish.