April 3, 2019 | by Jeff Wilson
Recently I joined a women’s history group that meets once a month in Cincinnati. When I was asked to lead a talk, I thought, "Well, what can this guy tell these women about their history that they don’t already know?"
No answer at first, but eventually a half-formed idea emerged around the theme of female jazz vocalists. That theme led me to the two seven-foot shelving units on one wall of my sunroom. Due to no biases of my own, most of that space is devoted to female singers. Sure, there's some Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, et al., but the fact is, when it comes to jazz vocals, the field has always been dominated by women. Why is that? Mostly I suspect that female singers are much more likely than men to sound like they have any business singing the Great American Songbook and other jazz-related music. To what extent that has to do with physics and to what extent that has to do with feel I’ll leave to someone who knows more than I do.
In the early 1950s, when the LP came into existence, female vocalists put out albums in great numbers. Some sold a lot of records and compiled a huge discography, while other singers released a poorly-selling album or two and then disappeared. (By the way, many of those albums are great). Most of my female jazz vocal collection falls between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, after which tastes changed and female jazz singers didn’t sell so well. Trying, for the first time, to process these LPs that I've accumulated from years of vinyl addiction, I saw lots of Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Chris Connor, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and other big names, but I saw an even greater number of relatively unknown singers with short careers in the music industry.
Gazing at the records brought a theme to mind, for I began to realize how, for a decade and a half, album covers abounded with sad titles and artwork that conspired together to set the tone for a gloomy listening experience. After that, it was up to the music to make sure the listener realized how depressing life really is and learn to revel in it (cf., "Glad to Be Unhappy"). The list I concocted contained both better-known and less-known singers, and as I started listening I was reminded once again that, when it comes to jazz vocalists, so many obscure singers have made albums well on par with the big sellers.
1. Abbey Lincoln — "Left Alone"
Billie Holiday wrote the lyrics to this song, and the pianist Mal Waldron, who accompanied Holiday from early 1957 until her death in July of 1959, wrote the music. They planned to record "Left Alone," and they even entered the studio with that intention, but nothing came of it, and unfortunately Lady Day passed away before she could record it. Mal Waldron recorded it soon after her passing, and he returned to it countless times after that. In fact, it became for him a sort of “obsession song” for him in much the same way that "My Funny Valentine" kept calling Chet Baker’s name. An early Mal Waldron instrumental version of “Let Alone” features Jackie McLean on saxophone, and there’s also an early version by Abbey Lincoln. Listening to her sing “Left Alone,” it’s easy to imagine Billie Holiday singing, writing, and living the song.
2. Sheila Jordan — "The Thrill Is Gone"
When Sheila Jordan released her first album, Portrait of Sheila, on Blue Note in 1962, you could count on one hand the number of Blue Note albums led by female musicians or jazz vocalists. Portrait is a beautiful record, but when it comes to performances that plain and simple rip your heart out and devastate you, I don’t think you can top this harrowing version of "The Thrill Is Gone."
3. Julie London — “Cry Me a River”
My first introduction to this song was the version Joe Cocker’s recorded for his first live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. His is a textbook case in the use of dynamics and mood changes—in fact, it’s amazing how many twists and turns he packs into a pop song that was released as a single. (I know, because I bought it when it came out.) Growing up on Cocker’s performance, which gets raw and raunchy, I had no idea until I hit the right yard sale that in 1955 Julie London recorded a version of "Cry Me a River" that could not be more different from Cocker’s — except that both are riveting performances.
4. June Christy — “Angel Eyes”
Some of the most devastating ballads are performed with the most minimal of accompaniment, as on June Christy’s duet of "Angel Eyes" with Stan Kenton on piano.
5. Beverly Kenney — "Born to be Blue"
“Born to be Blue” was written in 1946 by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Many people have sung it, but when it comes to tearing your heart out, no one does it more powerfully than Beverly Kenney.
6. Anne Phillips — "Lonelyville"
Here’s what Anne Phillips said about these sessions: "We recorded the album in 1959 over three, three-hour sessions at Bell Sound Studio — four tunes on each session. I sang with the world’s greatest musicians: Doc Severinsen on trumpet, Kermit’s brother Walt Levinsky on alto, 10 strings and a magnificent rhythm section: Bernie Leighton on piano, George Duvivier or Milt Hinton on bass, Osie Johnson on drums, and Barry Galbraith or Mundell Lowe on guitar. I was in the same room with the musicians, surrounded only by a gobo. We recorded onto two-track stereo — no editing, no fixing in the mix, no Pro Tools, no pitch correction, no nothing. It was all live."
7. Helen Merrill — "Don’t Explain"
"Don’t Explain" is another Billie Holiday composition, and unlike "Left Alone," this one she sang.
8. Judy Holliday — "Lonely Town"
You may know Judy Holliday from her movies; she was a popular comedian whose career was cut short when she died from cancer in 1965. She could also sing, and this is a powerful performance with a nice arrangement by Glenn Osser.
9. Teri Thornton — "Mood Indigo"
Barney Brigard and Duke Ellington wrote the music to Mood Indigo, and Irving Mills wrote the lyrics. The Duke Ellington Orchestra released a performance of "Mood Indigo" on 78 in 1930. In 1963, Teri Thornton performed it on her LP Somewhere in the Night, where the title track was the theme song for the "Naked City" TV show.
10. Pam Garner – "Lush Life"
Billy Strayhorn wrote "Lush Life" when he was still a teenager, and it was, unfortunately, a harbinger of things to come for the brilliant composer. Vocally it’s a tough song to pull off, and sometimes the arrangements are overwrought, but one listen to Johnny Hartman’s rendition with the John Coltrane Quartet tells you what a powerful piece of music it can be in the right hands. Pam Garner does a nice job with it as well.
So, do female jazz vocalists still perform heart-wrenching ballads? Yes, and lots of them. For many years I’ve gone out of my way to suss out female jazz singers, some famous but so many not, who are releasing records that continue to make this a vital tradition.
Occasionally I do a roundup of my favorites, which is kind of a daunting task, because there are so many good ones out there, and they’re all over the planet. Here’s a link to one of my roundups.
Check out a full playlist of these at YouTube.