America's Great Voices From
Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond
By Will Friedwald
Scribners. 477 pp. $29.95
IF NOT for the singers who etched the poetry of Larry Hart, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter into our minds, many of us would probably be humming in the shower. Singers have not only given the music greater dimension, they have supplied the elements -- nuances, inflections, drama -- that are inextricably tied to our memory triggers.
Some of the voices have been blues- or jazz-based, some of them have been pop. But virtually all during the past six decades have been jazz-influenced. That brings us to the central thesis of this thoroughly researched, often fascinating book by Will Friedwald which examines the effects of jazz on popular singing. His scope goes well beyond those whom we traditionally consider to be jazz singers -- Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan -- to include the pop-rooted sounds of Al Jolson, Perry Como, Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon.
The book is a keen exploration of the seminal figures of song, and the evolution of the art form. It examines not only which singers became the dominant voices and influences, but how and why. Along the way, Friedwald explores the use of melodic improvisation, vocalese and scatting.
He suggests that the best jazz singers borrow ideas from instrumental jazz, which seems only fair, since the voice was the first musical instrument. (He doesn't allow, however, for the fact that many singers create ideas that are borrowed by instrumentalists.) Scatting has become "an essential part of jazz singing," Friedwald notes, although he doubts that "we've come up with more than ten artists who ought to be permitted to scat for a mere thirty-two bars."
He takes us from the blues of Bessie Smith, who "sings about love without a trace of sentiment, and of sex without guilt," to the virtuosity of Cliff Edwards, whom he calls the first to employ genuine jazz-rhythm. He properly identifies Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby as the two most important people in jazz-derived popular singing. And he digs into how they accomplished it. He does it, too, without tying up the book with biographical details, except where they apply to the development of a singer's style. From Satchmo and Bing, Friedwald explores a path littered with the relatively unknown as well as Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee and Cab Calloway.
In an apparent attempt at being cute, however, he sometimes borders on the offensive. Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley and Connee Boswell were the harbingers of the species known as jazz- and band-singers, as the author points out, but referring to them as canaries is cheap. It's true that the so-called girl singer was often referred to as a chirp, or a canary, or a thrush, or a skirt during the big band era, but Friedwald unnecessarily sprinkles two chapters with the demeaning terms.
Friedwald also uses semi-crude language to describe Boswell's tone, suggesting that her voice is a "directly sensual, genuinely vaginal instrument . . ." His description of Wiley, however, is apt and poetic: "Where Boswell swings hard and Bailey bounces, Wiley blows smoke rings, each not a puff that melts into wisps of vibrato."
He assesses the best of the early vocal groups (the Boswell Sisters), the band singers (Count Basie's great vocalists Helen Humes, Joe Williams, and Jimmy Rushing who "informed everything he sang with blues honesty and passion"), and the great singing instrumentalists (Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden and Chet Baker).
Billie Holiday, he writes, shares Bessie Smith's "jaunty defiance, underscoring her right to do as she pleases . . .She made her songs real by depriving them of their innocence." As for Ella Fitzgerald, Friedwald notes that she "never crossed between pop and jazz but always kept one foot in both, making her, in retrospect, the definitive jazz singer."
He moves through bebop and beyond, with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and the riches of Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. The last, he writes, "bathes in her own sound not to interpret a song but to use it as a diving board into a long, slow swim through honey-thick pools of aural euphoria . . . It's not that Vaughan herself doesn't pay any attention to the words, it's that she gives you more interesting things to concern yourself with . . ."
Frank Sinatra earns almost an entire chapter, wherein Friedwald also praises Peggy Lee as "our all-time great neoclassical, pan-cultural music stylist."
As for the present, Friedwald says Betty Carter "is the best thing that's happening to jazz singing today." But he wrongly dismisses almost all modern scatters except Carter, saying that "attempts to bring about the second coming have, scat-wise, thus far only brought about off-the-chord caterwauling." And much of the final chapter, given to citing bad examples (Michael Feinstein, Cleo Laine, Diane Schuur), might have been better alloted to those who know what they're doing.
All in all, however, this is the best study of jazz/pop singing ever published. And, as a bonus, it includes a fine selected discography.
Stuart Troup, co-author with Woody Herman of "The Woodchopper's Ball," is jazz critic for New York Newsday.