Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Listening to Prestige 190: Barbara Lea

I was sitting with Margaret Whiting one day when she got a call from the organizers of the Kool Jazz Festival, asking her if she'd perform.

"But I'm not a jazz singer," she said. "I only sing the melody."

"We know," the festival guy said, "and do you know how hard it is to find someone who can really do that?"

What is a jazz singer, exactly? Someone who improvises around the melody? What about Frank Sinatra? Some would call him one of the greatest of all jazz singers, and he pretty much sang the melody, although he did improvise around the beat.

Some people, most notably Mel Tormé, have said that "jazz singer" is an oxymoron, there's no such thing as a jazz singer.

But if there is, what makes a jazz singer? Why is June Christy a jazz singer and Jo Stafford not? Why is Peggy Lee sometimes a jazz singer and sometimes not? How about Eartha Kitt? Why was Rosemary Clooney not a jazz singer until she was one? It was said of Sarah Vaughan, whose jazz credentials even Mel Tormé would have a hard time denying, that she used her voice like a horn, but what does that mean, exactly? Annie Ross sang dizzyingly difficult jazz solos, but in a way she was singing the melody -- a melodic line established by an instrumentalist like Wardell Gray. Her famous version of "Twisted," a jazz classic, has been covered by non-jazz singers like Bette Midler, or does singing "Twisted" make Midler a jazz singer? Edie Hart was a jazz singer, but she only sang the last few bars of songs, and then only when Peter Gunn was in the room.

It doesn't get any easier if move into the contemporary postmodern world, where you can probably be everything if you set your mind to it, like Amy Winehouse or Cassandra Wilson or Esperanza Spalding.

Google "what makes a jazz singer a jazz singer," and you get not much of any definitions at all, but you do get advice to aspiring jazz singers, and that advice boils down to: listen to a lotta jazz.

So is a jazz singer someone who sings and listens to a lotta jazz? That's hard to quantify.

So I'll offer this as a definition: a jazz singer is a singer who sings with jazz musicians.

And even that isn't enough. Connie Kay played drums on most of Atlantic's rock and roll sessions, but that didn't make those performers jazz singers. Margaret Whiting is a self-described non-jazz singer (although she did play that Kool Jazz Festival, and knocked 'em dead), but her greatest hit and signature song, "Moonlight in Vermont," was recorded with Billy Butterfield.

So I'll revise my definition. Taking off from the "listen to a lotta jazz" advice, I'll say that a jazz singer is someone who sings with a lotta jazz musicians.

I suppose even that is dodgy. Margaret Whiting recorded "Moonlight in Vermont" with Billy Butterfield and his orchestra, but not really. It was Les Brown's dance band, but for contractual reasons they couldn't use Brown's name.

Which brings us to Barbara Lea, who came into Rudy Van Gelder's studio for two consecutive days
to record a group of songs with a jazz group led by Johnny Windhurst, although the supporting personnel changed between one day and the next. And what makes her a jazz singer, and a very good one, is that she sings with jazz musicians, and connects with them. You can feel the chemistry. This comes through on every song, but if you really want to hear her interacting with jazz musicians, listen to "My Honey's Loving Arms" or "I'm Coming Virginia."

The session is a little unusual for Prestige, especially in the mid-50s, in that the musicians are essentially old school, which was generally Lea's choice. And if it wasn't to Bob Weinstock's mainstream taste, it was an inspired detour. The album was critically acclaimed, and Lea was named Best New Vocalist of the year by Down Beat, which tended to be more than a little snobbish about what was jazz and what wasn't.

Her first New York recording session was two songs released on the Cadillac label (not the Chicago label that later became Chess) in 1954, with a band led by Eddie Barefield, Pee Wee Erwin, and Cutty Cutshall. In 1955 he recorded for Riverside, with a band that included Billy Taylor regulars Earl May and Percy Brice. The songs were included on an album that threw together a hodgepodge of groups,
and came out under Mundell Lowe's name.

Then the Prestige sessions, and she would record for them through 1957, after which her recording career would come to a standstill until the late 1970s, when she made a number of records for Audiophile over the next decade, and Whitney Baillett declared in The New Yorker that "Barbara Lea has no superior among popular singers."

The groups on both of the October sessions are led by trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, with whom Lea worked frequently. Windhurst's career went back to 1944, when Sidney Bechet tapped him to replace Bunk Johnson in his group. Trad jazz giant Ruby Braff has listed him as his major influence. He's little remembered today, partly because he was a trad jazzer after trad jazz had mostly faded into critical irrelevance, partly because he seemed not to have wanted the spotlight. He left New York and moved upstate to Poughkeepsie, in my native Hudson Valley, where he lived with his mother and played in the house band at Frivolous Sal's Last Chance Saloon. Frivolous Sal's, which later became The Chance, one of the Hudson Valley's major music venues, was a place where they played Dixieland jazz and the waiters wore ersatz Gay Nineties outfits. In short, the kind of place that I would not have been caught dead at, which means I missed hearing a great trumpet player. The moral
of this story -- don't turn up your nose at any place that plays live music, especially with musicians who are a little older.

The October 18th session featured Richard Lowman on piano. "Richard Lowman" was a pseudonym -- if you think about it for a minute, you can probably figure out for whom.  Ready? Thinking?


Dick Hyman.

Only four songs were recorded the first day: "Baltimore Oriole," "I Had Myself A True Love," "Nobody Else But Me" and "Thursday's Child."`Perhaps Van Gelder had to spend some adjusting for the presence of a vocalist, because the next day they came back and did eight more.

On the 19th, Lowman/Hyman had bowed out, and Dick Cary, who had played alto horn (not to be confused with alto sax) the first day, doubled on horn and piano. He was equally adept at both instruments. He had made his first mark as a pianist in 1947, when a promoter wanted to present Louis Armstrong, who had been leading a big orchestra for years, in a small group setting, including Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. Cary was the rehearsal pianist. Armstrong didn't actually show up for any of the rehearsals, and on the night of the first performance at Town Hall, there was no one else, and Cary stayed on piano. That turned out to be the beginning of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and when they began booking regular gigs, Armstrong remembered "the kid who did the concert," and Cary became the All-Stars' first piano player. His first recordings on alto horn were with Billy Butterfield, and he also played trumpet at Eddie Condon's. According to his obituary,
Unlike the Dixielanders, he was a progressive musician and his apartment became the centre for jam sessions with players like Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans and Jimmy Raney. From 1956 he worked in the progressive band led by Bobby Hackett.
Al Hall and Osie Johnson were the rhythm section on both sessions, and both were respected music veterans who could play bebop as well as older styles. Hall is best known for his work with Errol Garner, but he also played bebop with Bud Powell, swing with Teddy Wilson, and rock and roll with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Johnson also moved deftly between swing and bebop, no mean feat for a drummer since the demands were so different, and he was a favorite of jazz singers (whatever that means) like Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington.

The second session adds Al Casamenti on guitar, and he had, if anything, an even wider range, from easy listening (Enoch Light) to rhythm and blues (King Curtis) to rock and roll (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) to jazz (Billy Taylor, Wes Montgomery) to Latin (Tito Puente) to pop (Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine -- including "Rawhide") to jazz singers (Ella Fitzgerald). His lead-in to  "My Honey's Loving Arms" is particularly tasty.

The Prestige album is self-titled.

I've had to skip over an album recorded by Herbie Mann in Sweden because I can't find it anywhere.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1 here.

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