Chris Connor Dies; Cool-Jazz Singer Exhibited Daring Versatility

Chris Connor believed that
Chris Connor believed that "you must sing the way you feel and what comes out emotionally." (Undated Twp File Photo - Undated Twp File Photo)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chris Connor, 81, a smoky-voiced singer who helped define the "cool jazz" style in the 1950s and was an acclaimed performer in leading concert halls and supper clubs for decades, died Aug. 29 at a hospital in Toms River, N.J. She had cancer.

Her death was confirmed by Lori Muscarelle, her companion and manager.

Largely self-taught as a singer, Ms. Connor modeled her approach to music after the breathy swing style of vocalists Anita O'Day and June Christy. Ms. Connor was capable of great subtlety and intimacy on her recordings, which fit into the relaxed cool jazz motif, and her versatility complemented the most understated of trios and the largest of studio orchestras.

Ms. Connor launched her career singing with the popular big bands of Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton, with which she had a hit, "All About Ronnie." She also recorded it with Ellis Larkins's small group for the Bethlehem label and then went on to make a series of well-received albums for Atlantic Records, including "I Miss You So" (1956) and "Witchcraft" (1959).

Her repertoire often accented jazz and pop standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, but her song selection could also be daring, including a version of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" from the 1962 album "Free Spirits."

Unlike jazz singers Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, Ms. Connor never expressed interest in a pop career. The rise of rock-and-roll, an ill-timed decision to leave Atlantic and her struggle with alcohol affected the prominence of her later recording career in the United States. But her music was embraced anew by audiences in Japan, where she also recorded in recent years.

Mary Jean Loutsenhizer was born Nov. 8, 1927, in Kansas City, Mo. She was 13 when her mother died, and she was raised in Jefferson City, Mo., by an older sister and her father, a Western Union telegrapher.

After some clarinet training, she switched to voice and chose a career in music at a young age. After high school, she changed her name to make it more marquee-friendly and began singing between secretarial jobs.

She moved to New York in the late 1940s and quickly won a place in the Snowflakes, the vocal group of the Thornhill big band. She kept a grueling schedule and soon emerged as a featured singer with the band.

"With Claude, the whole five years was practically one-nighters," she told The Washington Post. "You'd get to the job, if you were lucky, about 6 in the evening and have maybe an hour and a half to grab a hamburger at the White Tower and check in the hotel. And I'd have to get my gown ready, put it in the shower and let all the wrinkles hang out.

"Then we'd go immediately to the job," she added. "And we'd be there for two or three hours and then get back on the bus and travel all night, maybe 300 miles. You try that for like 12 hours at a time -- it's very rough. It did me in."

During a paid vacation from Thornhill, Ms. Connor worked with other orchestras. One engagement proved fortuitous. She was singing with a band when Christy, a singer with Kenton, heard the broadcast over the radio and was dazzled by how much it sounded like her own style. Christy, who wanted a solo career, recommended Ms. Connor as her replacement.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company