The history of jazz is dominated by males who made certain instruments - the saxophone, the cornet, the bass - extensions of themselves. But when it comes to the most intimate instrument of all -- the voice -- the female is... [more]
The history of jazz is dominated by males who made certain instruments - the saxophone, the cornet, the bass - extensions of themselves. But when it comes to the most intimate instrument of all -- the voice -- the female is the prevailing presence. From the early days of the blues, she occupied center stage, exuding her earthy, smoky, gin-soaked, sexually liberated identity. And it is to this tradition that jazz vocalists owe their debt.
The blues was the child of southern slave culture, where church gospels and work songs provided a way to resist the brutal environment. The music had its roots in Africa and often came in keys unknown to European harmonics. At the turn of the century, as whites became interested in the blues, the musical marketplace necessitated that musicians transcribe these "blue notes" into more recognizable forms. The hybrid sound that resulted needed a clarion voice to draw listeners in - and it was supplied by Bessie Smith.
Bessie began singing for nickels and dimes at the age of nine in her native Chattanooga and ended up a diva of the first order. She sported a private railway car, jewelry by the suitcase-full, and a $2000-a-week paycheck -- all the spoils of her powerful voice, which "could bring about mass hypnotism," as one contemporary put it. Growling, shouting, and carrying listeners up and down the scales, Smith showed that the voice can improvise as well as any trumpet. More than this, it speaks a language that can convey the sorrows and joys of mankind as no external instrument can.
The vocalists who followed Smith got more sophisticated and experimental, but their voices continued to provide the emotional core of jazz. Billie Holiday's melancholy voice would capture the darker side of the human plight and a vulnerable form of femininity. A song like "Fine and Mellow" reveals the very heart of unrequited love, as Billie skips around the melody line like an outcast lion. Just as poignant, but lighter in tone, are the swinging rhythms of Ella Fitzgerald. Her exuberance could match that of Louis Armstrong's horn, as the album "Ella and Louis" amply demonstrates. Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone, among others, traced complex variations that took jazz beyond song and into abstraction, still keeping the music anchored to living and breathing emotion.
The success of Holiday and Fitzgerald attracted a host of male singers to jazz. People like Nat King Cole and Mel Torme began adding a jazzy lilt to standard male crooning. But no one would come to capture the world like Frank Sinatra, with his bellowing voice, unerring sense of rhythm, and boyish good looks. With his arrival, a new brand of popular vocalist was born whose celebrity might outshine the music. Still, the outsized personas and the tales of tangled love these illustrious voices spin out have their roots back in the gin joints where Bessie Smith held the floor. [show less]