In 2004, Billie Holiday became the first singer inducted into the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center. Since then four other singers have made the cut. This number might seem small until we note that JALC has only held inductions six times in the intervening 14 years and each year the list of nominees has grown ever shorter. Notably, this year Nat King Cole and Nina Simone claim two of the three spots for new inductees. (Bassist Jimmy Blanton fills the third.) 

The criteria for inclusion in the Hall of Fame apply to so many singers, both past and present: Nominees’ work must be innovative, original, multi-generational, historically significant, and influential. The musical contributions of singer/pianist Freddy Cole, who will celebrate his brother Nat’s Hall of Fame win with a performance at JALC on July 19, certainly meet these criteria. With a near-constant performing schedule and almost 40 albums to his credit, Freddy continues to enchant with his romantic baritone and subtle take on classic love songs. In May he released My Mood Is You, his eleventh album for High Note Records and the next installment in his oeuvre of lovely, lesser-known standards. From the slowly swinging title cut through the walking bass on Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me” to the light-hearted groove on Randy Newman’s “Marie,” Freddy invokes Nat even as he claims each tune as his own. Two of the best singers to come along in recent years—newcomers Shenel Johns and Vuyo Sotashe—will present the tribute to Nina Simone on July 18.

Ella Fitzgerald, the second singer welcomed into the Erdegun Hall of Fame, joined in 2005, a year after Holiday and just shy of 50 years after she helped to launch Verve Records with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. During the recording of that landmark album, Fitzgerald had a three-week gig at a small club in L.A. The live recording of one of those evenings gives us Ella at Zardi’s, a first-time release of the record through the modern-day Verve (now part of Universal Music Group). On that evening, Verve founder Norman Granz gave his usual introduction before Fitzgerald took the stage, his voice ringing with admiration: “For me, she’s the greatest there is—Miss Ella Fitzgerald.” This recording is precious because of moments like this, along with Fitzgerald’s disarming patter (“’Very Glad to Be Unhappy’—is that the name of it?”), her response to requests (“Do you want it slow or fast?”), and the rarer numbers (“Bernie’s Tune” and “Joe Williams’s Blues”). During those three weeks in 1956 Fitzgerald was at her peak as a vocalist and soloist; air lifted to present day via this recording, her talent hits us just as viscerally as it did the wonderstruck listeners in that intimate room.  

Glenn Crytzer, who sings and plays a variety of stringed instruments, eschews all modern jazz explorations in favor of “authentic-to-period” swing. No modern twists and turns in arrangements, none of the usual tech enhancements—just pure big band sounds and vocals that could have been recorded right next door to Ella at Zardi’s. His latest release, The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra: Ain’t It Grand (Blue Rhythm Records), contains 30 swing, novelty, and original tunes, all performed and recorded in a time machine, it seems. Crytzer’s arrangements for his 16-person group encourage dancing and laughter; there isn’t a woeful moment on the disc. Singers Hannah Gill and Dandy Wellington, dead ringers for 1920s radio stars, stand out for their plummy voices and vintage sound.  

On a more contemporary big band recording, saxophonist and band leader Bob Mintzer partnered with New York Voices to create Meeting of Minds (MCG Jazz), a recording of 10 tradition pop tunes (and one Mintzer original) that feature the tightly knit vocal quartet imbedded in a large modern jazz ensemble. The singers (Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader, and Peter Eldridge) move airily through each groove, solo, and harmonic framework, ably guided by Meader’s nuanced arrangements.  

This year the 92 St Y’s “Jazz in July” program covers a wide swath of jazz history, highlighting the work of composers Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein, legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianists Teddy Wilson, Tommy Flanagan, and Hank Jones. Sandy Stewart sings Rodgers on July 19; Rene Marie sings Bernstein on July 25; and Melba Joyce sings the blues on July 26.

(Reprinted from the July 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)