The Jazz Singers
As we acknowledge jazz music as the great music form of the 20th century, we seem to have missed the boat somewhat on the jazz singer. No surprise there, when you consider with how much reverence (and borderline defensiveness) jazz musicians speak of their craft. Despite jazz's imprint, popular response (particularly these days) sometimes has lagged behind. So perhaps the jazz singer represents a competition of sorts for the instruments that have made jazz what it is. Think of it; the jazz singer, in performance mode, constantly must share the microphone with the rest of the band. Many times, the female jazz singer was viewed as window dressing, as a brief respite from the more serious, listener-oriented instrumentals. Jazz singers, at times, have been considered a really good ornament.
But we're beyond and above that now, as the Smithsonian Institution accurately states in its 5-CD presentation, The Jazz Singers, a comprehensive anthology of 20th century jazz singers. Here we see the jazz singer as equal partner; an instrument, if you will, just as important to the jazz process as a trumpet or saxophone.
Eschewing alphabetizing or chronologizing, this educational and entertaining box set breaks down the form into the many different ways in which jazz singing was used. First, there is Steeped in the Blues, which features the blues influence on jazz (and vice versa), highlighted by Billie Holiday's classic "`Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do," as well as a more contemporary spin on the blues with a fantastic version of Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" by Cassandra Wilson. The first disc segues into the next section, "Straight Out of Church," a tidy three-song collection that acknowledges the gospel sound, including Mahalia Jackson's "I'm going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song."
Let's Have a Party stretches from the first to the second disc, celebrating jazz's joie de vivre with vibrant performances, including the great Cab Calloway's "The Man from Harlem." Swinging the Songbook covers the final two-thirds of the second disc and opens the third disc with (hipsters take note) a wide array of swing vocals, including competing versions of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" by Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday.
After Hours: Slow-Dancing and Torching the Songbook covers the softer, sultrier, ponderous jazz moments, opening the second third of the third disc with a triple-shot by Holiday followed by two by Ella Fitzgerald, including her incomparable take on George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." The Jazz Composition section picks up early on the fourth disc, with direct salutes to the jazzmen, particularly to Charlie Parker on King Pleasure's "Parker's Mood" and Sarah Vaughn's "Lullaby for Birdland."
No discussion of jazz singing would be complete without scatting and other vocal pyrotechnics, and the Scat and Vocalese section comes through. The section opens with Jelly Roll Morton ("Improvised Scat Song"), who can be heard before the song taking the credit away from Louis Armstrong as the originator of scatting and giving it to Joe Simms before singing his tune. And, of course, there is Ella, ripping through "Them There Eyes."
For such a prestigious collection, The Jazz Singers ends on a decidedly whimsical note with Novelties and Take-offs" which closes out the final two-thirds of the fifth disc with some of the wackier vocal takes, including "Rockin' Chair," a hilarious duet between Armstrong (who understandably dominates this package) and the song's legendary composer, Hoagy Carmichael.
You can order this box set through the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings by calling toll-free 800-863-9943. Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022
--David Lee Simmons