The legacies of our classic jazz singers, once considered popular singers, have considerable reach. These early adopters of the American Songbook still define how these works are performed, even as modern jazz singers shape traditional vocal jazz to their own inspired ends. For this months’ vocal jazz issue, let’s take a look at how the influence of some beloved musical forebears as yet moves through singers today.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996). This year Verve Records discovered a forgotten live recording of this ne’er-to-be-forgotten scat master. Recorded in January 1956, the seven tunes that make up Ella at the Shrine predate Fitzgerald’s earliest known live recording by almost two weeks. Such a sweet find. The hero of this story is Fitzgerald’s manager Norman Granz, who not only started Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) in 1944, and Verve Records in 1956, but who made jazz improvisation in live performance a thing.
Here’s the story. Granz would hang out at after-hours jams where the leading jazz musicians of the day were working out their ideas. He thought that the public would appreciate the genius of this extemporaneous composing, so he made these jams part of the JATP programming. Granz was right about a lot of things, and this was a big one. Fitzgerald was the rare vocalist who could hold her own as an improviser, and she soon became JATP’s favorite songbird.
Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990). Quiana Lynell, the 2017 winner of the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition, has a caramel-toned voice that legitimately spans genres without a hitch. She’s classically trained but excels in soul, gospel, and R&B; she brings all of this lusciousness to her newly launched debut for Concord Jazz, A Little Love. An added bonus: Rising star singer/drummer Jamison Ross puts in a guest appearance on the album. Based in New Orleans, Lynell’s next New York gig is Dizzy’s on Jul 11.
For those who aspire to fill Lynell’s shoes, the 2019 Sarah Vaughan competition just opened. Both male and female singers can apply through the competition’s online portal; just upload three tracks by Sep 9, 2019.
Dinah Washington (1924-1963). The 16-piece Evan Sherman Big Band plays a tribute to R&B superstar Dinah Washington at JALC on Jul 16, celebrating Washington’s induction into the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Vocalist Joy F. Brown, who, like Lynell, studied classical voice but opts for straight-ahead swing over solfeggio, will sing the title role. Brown is a singer to watch; just three years into her time in New York and already she’s holding the mic on the city’s premier jazz stage.
Mark Murphy (1932-2015). Smooth-voiced singer Nancy Kelly is unabashed in her admiration for bebop vocal legend Mark Murphy, her friend and inspiration. She dedicates her new album, Remembering Mark Murphy (SubCat Records) to his artistry by re-interpreting some of his most compelling performances like “On the Red Clay,” Murphy’s take on the kinetic Freddie Hubbard tune; “Stolen Moments,” from Murphy’s ever-popular 1978 album by the same name, and “Song For The Geese,” from Murphy’s 1998 Grammy-nominated album. (Murphy wrote lyrics for all three of these singles.) Kelly will release the album at Birdland Theater using her studio band on Jul 4-7.
Bobby McFerrin. The National Endowment for the Arts just announced the 2020 recipients of its coveted Jazz Master Award. Ten-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin is one of four selected jazz personalities, and the only singer of the bunch. He’ll receive the NEA Jazz Master Award at next year’s ceremony on April 2.
Un-tributed. Bassist/singer Nicki Parrot has done her share of tributes, with albums honoring singers as diverse as Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Blossom Dearie, and the Carpenters. This time she’s paying homage to two of her favorite cities with New York to Paris (Arbors Records), an album of 14 urban-themed standards in French and English that continue to charm under Parrott’s gently swinging treatment. On tunes like the slightly funky “On Broadway,” the jaunty “April in Paris,” or the light-hearted “La Mer,” Parrot moves expertly from singer to chanteuse.
Singer/pianist/composer Lauren Lee gives a nod to the jazz master singers every time she improvises or plays one of her modern jazz originals. Catch her at Kitano on Jul 22 or at Bar Thalia on Jul 27.
(Reprinted from the July 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record)