Laughin’ Louis Armstrong

It was quite a long time before I discovered that Louis Armstrong was a genius. In fact, it was quite a while before I knew what to make of him at all. Born in 1945, I grew up with television. That meant growing up on Louis Armstrong, who was a favored guest on talk and variety shows and could be seen as everything from star to supporting actor or cameo performer in films from the thirties and forties. All I knew was that he was the most unusual of all the celebrated personalities who guested on television. He was a man whose size changed from sleek to proverbial butterball in the many films I saw, celebrated or imitated by every comedian at loss for an impersonation. I found him very mysterious.

Armstrong’s sound, his manner, his facial expressions, all added up, for me, to some kind of secret language with which he consumed, reshaped, and reiterated songs, words, and music. Music I had become familiar with through radio, or television time, would dissolve in gravel, mugging, and a forward-leaning slight or broad trembling of the body which was physicalization of a vibrato. As he reared back while singing, say, “St. James Infirmary,” the width of his smile was heroic, yet it was more closely related to a grimace or the shadow world of irony and ambiguity than was suggested by the clapping of the audience or by the laughing of my mother as he would make an aside that held sentimentality or self-pity up for mockery, underlining it all with a handkerchief descending across his face, an open-armed gesture, or the motion of his head from side to side.

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Unlike my mother, my father didn’t find Armstrong charming or amusing; he found him despicable. My old man had been baptized in Lunceford, Ellington, and bebop. He considered Armstrong an embarrassment, a return to an unpleasant identity, or a man who had allowed white people to impose a ridiculous mask on him. In short, an Uncle Tom. But for all my old man’s fervor, I wasn’t going for it. Though I had no idea what was actually going on, I found Armstrong still mysterious.

But it wasn’t until I saw Armstrong in a film with Danny Kaye about the white cornetist Red Nichols that I got a glimpse of the master behind the mask. Nichols goes uptown to hear “the new bugler” play in Harlem. Drunk and laughing, he interrupts Armstrong (who is playing himself) as he gloriously trumpets the blues, and tells him that he is not as great as his father, the senior Nichols, who plays in the Midwest. With a gravity and confidence, a contempt and actuality that is rarely heard from Armstrong in any film when he is not performing musically, he replies, “If he ain’t Gabriel, he’s in trouble.”

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Nothing else Armstrong says or does in the film other than play is that authoritative, but that was enough. It prepared me for the photographs of Armstrong from the twenties with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson. There we see an arrogant, surly young man who seemed to think himself handsome and was not to be fucked with. In Jazz Masters of the 1930’s, trumpeter Rex Stewart remembers Armstrong as a man who arrived in the North wearing a box-back suit, a cap cocked to the side, and some high-topped shoes, all of which were emblematic of a street tough. Armstrong himself has written of knife fights he witnessed, of women who sold their bodies for his benefit, and women who threatened him with knives — one eventually stabbed him in the shoulder. He also spoke of the many gangsters for whom he worked and the shootings he witnessed. At times, he carried two pistols himself.

In many ways, the genial persona Armstrong cultivated in the thirties was the result of advice from his manager, Joe Glaser. Glaser encouraged Armstrong to mug and sing, and many thought of the great brassman as no more than his lapdog. But one musician claims to have opened Armstrong’s dressing room door one evening to find him holding a knife to Glaser’s throat, saying, “I can’t prove it, but if I find out you’ve stolen one dime from me, I’ll cut your goddam throat.” Another says Armstrong knocked trombonist Jack Teagarden out cold one evening backstage for getting too familiar. He then calmly went onstage to grin broadly and speak through his teeth, saying, “Thank you very much, ladies, gen’mens. Our first number this evening is dedicated to our trombonist brother Jack Teagarden, who won’t be playing this show with us, and it’s called — ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”‘ And of course, very little is ever said about how strongly Armstrong spoke out about President Eisenhower’s indecisive­ness at Little Rock, and the fact that the next string of gigs he played was so bereft of audiences, artillery shells could’ve sailed through the rooms and harmed no one. Then there was the irony of his yucking it up on screen with white stars who never invited him to their houses. All of those things made Armstrong more than a little tough. No man of his background born in 1900 who was a professional musician for fifty years could even aspire to being a square, a lame, or a chump. The pressure flushed all punks.

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A recent RCA reissue on Bluebird, Young Louis Armstrong 1932-1933 (AXM2-5519), is invaluable to this discussion, just as it is musically invaluable. The double album contains material from a period most critics find lacking in artistic greatness, which is absurd. Not only does this recording contain some of the finest trumpet playing ever documented, it very clearly shows how influential Armstrong was on singers as different as Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Dean Martin. The emotional range of the work is exemplary and the variety of things Armstrong does with the horn often startles. Without a doubt, Armstrong was the greatest trumpet player of the century — the most powerful, the most touching, the most varied.

One performance,”Laughin’ Louie,” perfectly expresses the enigma of the great musician. It opens with a trite theme that collapses into a burlesque of sad jokes and buffoonery from both Armstrong and his band members. The music starts back up and, again, breaks into laughter, Armstrong and the band bantering back and forth. Then, out of nowhere, the trumpeter decides to play something from his New Orleans past. First, he sputters some individual notes; then there is a lovely passage, then more laughter before he quiets the band down for “the beautiful part.” Armstrong then plays in unaccompanied melody. Its rich tone conveys a chilling pathos and achieves a transcendence in the upper register that summons the cleansing agony of the greatest spirituals. The band drops a chord under him and it is over. The feeling one is left with is of great mystery. ❖


Sinatra at 80: A Frank Top 10

Frank Sinatra’s first great record was “All or Nothing At All,” but “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a 1940 Tommy Dorsey disc, was his first hit, and offers the earliest evidence of Young Blue Eyes synthesizing his influences: the lyric-driven, storytelling approach of Bing Crosby, the intimacy and vulnerability of Billie Holiday, and ultralegato timing of Dorsey. The song was written by Ruth Lowe, a pianist in Ina Rae Hutton’s all-girl band, and its success undoubtedly reflected her state of mind at the time. As Sinatra recalled, “It was a sad commentary because [Lowe] had a brand new husband, a Canadian flyer, who got killed in the early part of World War II.” She presented the song to Dorsey, who let his rival Glenn Miller make the first (unsatisfactory) record, before trying it himself. Arrangers Freddie Stulce and Axel Stordahl used just the rhythm section, Dorsey’s trombone, and the Pied Pipers; Sinatra suggested that pianist Joe Bushkin switch to celesta. As Jo Stafford, the most famous of the Pipers, remembers, “It was very tough to hold the pitch, because there was so little background from the band.” They required two sessions to get it right, but “I’ll Never Smile Again” became the sig­nature song of the Sinatra-Dorsey collabo­ration, and Sinatra would reprise its combi­nation of achingly slow tempo and supertight multivoice harmony throughout the decade and at least as late as the 1954 “Don’t Change Your Mind About Me.”

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Cole Porter’s 1932 song proved the most constant and diverse of all Sinatra career mantras. Apart from using it as the open­ing theme for many seasons on radio, he has sung “Night and Day” in every conceivable fashion, resulting in six officially released versions. Sinatra first recorded it early in 1942 at his first solo session, which predicted the development of his mature ballad style. While the original Bluebird version maintained the vestiges of a dance tempo, later ’40s recording of the Stordahl chart gradually slowed the piece down into a concert feature. In 1956, with Nelson Riddle, he reconceived “Night and Day” in a post–”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” style for A Swingin’ Affair, yet that uptempo version is only marginally faster than the ’42 ballad treatment. Sinatra then reworked the Riddle chart, once for sextet and once as a concerto grosso that alternates between Red Norvo’s Quintet and full orchestra. Over the years Sinatra came up with at least four other ver­sions — Latin with flute and bongos, lush with strings, mano a mano  with guitarist Al Viola, and, regrettably, a disco-style sin­gle. No singer has possessed a song more completely than Sinatra does “Night and Day.”

Just as Ellington tailored tunes for his great instrumental voices, the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne and orchestrator Axel Stordahl helped Sinatra mastermind a brilliant stream of ballad performances in the mid ’40s. Where pre-Sina­tra pop vocal arrangements tended to be strictly off-the-rack, every element of the Cahn-Styne-Stordahl-Sinatra performances is precisely cut to fit the singer’s jib. On “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the team deploys the deep-lung singing style that Sinatra had inherited from Dorsey — even the longing title is too much for most pop singers to address in a single breath. In moving beyond the dance-band sound of his apprenticeship, Sinatra and company so understate the rhythm that the pulse is suggested rather than stated. Cahn’s lyrics played a vital function in stabbing the overall Sinatra character of ’40s radio and film — the supersensitive young swain blown about by winds of emotion beyond his control. The recording has the “quiet” ending device he used long in­to the Riddle years.

The Sinatra of the ’50s is associated chiefly with a hard-swinging style, although he had actually sung fast tempos since his Harry James tenure. More than simply singing fast, what Sinatra achieved with Nelson Riddle on Capitol Records was a renais­sance of the great swing band tradition, refitted with a harmonic sophistication our of early-20th-century classical music. The Sinatra-Riddle swing albums are rarely up­roariously fast, mining instead what the singer described as a highly danceable, Sy Oliver-inspired “heartbeat” tempo. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956) is faster than most, giving Sinatra and Riddle the opportunity to build from tender whispers to orgasmic screams. These are expressed not only by Sinatra himself but by trombonist Milt Bernhart, who, atop a polyrhythmic pattern inspired by Kenton-arranger Bill Russo’s “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” emerges from the ensemble as Sinatra’s instrumental alter ego. His solo has a raw, atavistic energy partly because he hadn’t realized he was expected to improvise on the song’s bridge and so he ignored the chord changes Sinatra renders with transfiguring passion and excitement for an incomparable climax. (See Milt Bernhardt’s story for more details)

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“The wonderful thing about Nelson and Frank,” arranger Billy Byers commented re­cently, “was they were so strong in the com­mercial department that they could turn around and make a really artistic album, like the one with the string quartet, which sold about five records.” That album, Close to You, derives from a unique subsection of the Sinatra idiom. While Sinatra alternat­ed between uptempo swingers and heart-wrenching torchers in the ’50s, he and Riddle also explored the kind of optimistic love songs the singer had done so well with Stordahl. Sinatra’s preferred vehicle when traversing this beat was a double quartet chamber group (not unlike the one Max Roach leads today) — tour strings plus four rhythm, with rotating soloists. Sinatra in­troduced the format in his first-ever album, 1945’s The Voice, and brought it to a boil with the 1956 Close to You. “With Every Breath I Take,” a song introduced in a Bing Crosby film, is a flawless Sinatra performance; as the title coincidentally infers, every breath, every vocal gesture, every phrase is exactly where it ought to be — not a microscopic nuance is out of place.

The darker Sinatra-Riddle albums maintain a sense of epic tragedy (developed earlier with Stordahl and later with Gordan Jenkins) tempered with raw intimacy. Sinatra refers to his heavier ballads as “saloon song,” yet in the most celebrated of those songs, he mixes in more parts from symphony hall than the corner pub to produce a downer of a cocktail. Indeed, Only the Lonely (1958), the album on which “One for My Baby” was released, combines harmonic textures inspired by Ravel with a rhythmic sensibility informed by Lester Young. It’s the high point of several thousand Sinatra concerts, also signifies the most famous collaboration of Sinatra and Bill Miller, his pianist since 1951. As percussionist Emile Richards opines, “There’s no one who plays saloon piano like Bill docs on ‘One for My Baby’ He’s really the boss of that.” Not merely an accompanist but a featured actor in this Mercer-Arlen music noir, Miller’s subtle keyboard established the barroom rise-en-scene. Sinatra communicates such overwhelming pain partly because his mood contrasts so strikingly with Miller’s spare deadpan background. What does the cocktail pianist care about the drunk unburdening himself to the bartender? Paradoxically, Miller supports Sinatra while sounding as through he were ignoring him. In 1993, Sinatra and Miller rerecorded “Baby” in a harrowingly moving performance, making that long, long road seem more traveled than ever.

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As Sinatra once observed, “Billy May almost always uses the extra percussion, like vibraphones, xylophones, bells and chimes and all that jazz.” Where Riddle excelled at saloon-like tunes, May — an arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller — helped Sinatra make merrier melodies. Over the course of three similarly titled albums for Capitol (Come Fly/ Dance/Swing With Me), the two perfected their approach and then brought it to a boil with the 1961 Sinatra Swings (a/k/a Swing Along With Me), recorded for the Chairman’s own label, Reprise. This album improves upon all the key strengths of its predecessors: the three­-chorus, spectacular “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” amplifies the hyperswing of “Come Dance With Me”; the travel selections, “Granada” and “Moonlight on the Ganges” restore the blend of whimsical humor and irresistible rhythm that made Come Fly With Me a classic. On “Ganges,” which Sinatra gleaned from Tommy Dorsey, May creates a shimmer­ing seventh veil of strings around the most imposing percussion section this side of Sun Ra.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Most musicians admired Gordon Jenkins’s successes as a songwriter, but many found his string-heavy orchestrations a trifle old hat compared to Riddle and May. Yet even cynical Bill Miller admits, “Frank has an old-fashioned side, and Gor­don Jenkins represents that. As a singer, he doesn’t hear the harmonies the way we would. He hears those high-swinging strings that were Gordon’s gimmick.” Although Jenkins scored some great saloon songs for Sinatra, his gorgeously grandiose textures were often marshaled for material a lot simpler than, say, Lorenz Hart. A 1961 hit for the Kingston Trio, “Very Good Year” depicts life as a succession of vintage wines and rendezvous with ever more cosmopolitan dames. Sina­tra and Jenkins inflate this repetitious faux-­folkie feature into a piece of performance art with a power that suggests a grand aria. Structurally, it consists of four parallel choruses, each a discrete reminiscence. Be­tween these episodes, Jenkins reprises a wailing string-and-oboe passage that moves between minor and major keys and grows increasingly severe with each seg­ment, ultimately sobbing and throbbing in a searing finish.

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This 1961 Sinatra & Strings arrangement (an earlier Stordahl treatment was issued on V-Disc) has proven to be not only the most durable of many orchestrations by Don Costa, but in recent years has emerged as the most powerful vehicle of Mr. Very Old Blue Eyes in concert. Composer Arlen provides a perfect bridge between Sinatra and the blues: the singer evokes a gospel feeling even in a song that uses predominantly major chord and a bridge, which Sinatra really tears his teeth into. In ’61 Sinatra could hardly get as earthy as Ray Charles, whose version his alludes to in the use of solo wind players in the intro. But by the ’90s, with much of Sinatra’s chops and his ability to sustain notes gone with the wind, he puts more and more em­phasis on this tune as a vehicle to express his earthier side. While Sinatra is as tender and loving as ever, a blues-tinged under­current of aggression runs through the song today.

“Strangers in the Night” was Sinatra’s biggest selling single of the ’60s, but the singer and his audience prefer his and Nel­son Riddle’s last great collaboration, “Summer Wind.” Johnny Mercer adapted a German song, composed by Henry May­er, providing an English lyric that Perry Como first rendered in a dull country rendi­tion in 1965. The lyric describes a strong breeze that blows across Italy from North Africa, signaling the end of summer. Sinatra plays the unrequited lover, while the or­chestra and a Hammond organ share the role of the wind. Riddle has constructed a characteristically catchy hook to represent the elements, first wafting gently, then wailing in counterpoint to the singer. As Sinatra’s emotions mount, the wind lifts the music ever upward with the help of two modulations (D-flat to E-flat to F), into a hurricane crescendo, before drifting away as tenderly and cruelly as it entered. ❖


Sinatra at 80: Practice Makes Posterity

In recent years, more people have asked me about my trombone solo on Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” than just about anything else I did in music, which is gratifying because for many years no one knew who played it. One writer even credited it to Juan Tizol. The performance is, in a way, derived from a record that Bill Russo wrote for Stan Kenton, “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” a refer­ence to the longitudinal location of Havana, Cuba, that had a montuno section for trombone. Actually, that record was in turn indebted to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” which Gillespie wrote with George Russell. That was the first instance of a mon­tuno in big band jazz. But then Russo wrote his piece — not a copy, but a piece with that flavor, done very well, with a very good Frank Rosolino trombone solo. It’s one of Stan’s best records really.

Now in retrospect, I don’t think the approach to the song was Nelson Riddle’s idea. We’re talking 40 years after the fact, but it occurred to me much much later that “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a Frank Sinatra recording that went into a Latin type of a thing in the middle, with the trombones — first bass trombone, then another trombone — was in this tradition that began with Dizzy and was adapted in a fresh way for Kenton. And it was one of Sinatra’s first really important Capitol dates — there were other dates earlier, but this one took him to a whole differ­ent level. And, remember, it’s Capitol Records and Kenton was one of its biggest stars. So it occurred to me all these years later that the A&R people at Capitol were better acquainted with Kenton and his recent suc­cesses than they were with Frank Sinatra, who had returned from a floundering ca­reer only a few years before. And in plot­ting that particular number somebody, not Frank, suggested this approach. He prob­ably wasn’t too crazy about the idea, be­cause Nelson wrote it at the last minute and it wasn’t released as a single, only as part of the album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, which was drawn from about three record dates.

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I’d been on dates with Sinatra before. His first arranger at Capitol was supposed to be Billy May, but Billy had a band that went out on the road, and the dates were set and they couldn’t get Billy back, or he wasn’t available, or couldn’t be found — I don’t recall which. In order to do the dates, they brought in Nelson Riddle and that was Nelson’s first exposure to Sinatra, on­ly he didn’t get label credit — Billy May did on the singles “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “South of the Border.” Nobody at the time knew that Nelson had writ­ten them, because although he led the band, word got around that these were Billy’s charts and Nelson was sworn to secrecy. Later they were obliged to give him his chance, and by the time we did Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, everyone could see Sinatra and Riddle were a great team.

So for the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” session, I walked in early. I always got to a record date well ahead to see what was coming so that I could get nice and nervous. Some peo­ple would say you’re out of your mind, but I just felt it was wiser. I’d relax a little more as time passed, but then I’d find myself at a session, turn page and see something very hard and, without any practice, it’s time to start playing it. The public doesn’t realize that the band gets there and within minutes will be recording the music for posterity. That’s the way it always happens. The on­ly time it didn’t happen that way was when you had bands on the road, Ellington, Glenn Miller, the swing bands; then the music was known because they had months on the job, at dances, to try things. But the way it’s done to this day is the studio play­ers walk in to do a movie and they will do that score before lunchtime. They have to be that good. Few people realize what that takes — they think they had a week to re­hearse and take it home.

Anyway, I arrive early and I see that the whole song is in G-flat, six flats, which wouldn’t bother the singer, but for an instru­mentalist it isn’t easy to come up with something graceful where there’s nothing written, just chord symbols and fills of some­thing in G-flat. So I’m looking at these symbols — ­just little chicken tracks with the name of the chord, G-flat. And I didn’t even realize until much much later that that part, that section was the bridge of the song, the part that goes, “I’d sacrifice any­thing, come what may, for the sake of having you near.” If I had even begun to know that; I would have had something planned, something related to the melody, who knows what. But I just didn’t know. And it does stay on one chord for quite a while anyway-the melody con­tinues in the same change. So we start and I kind of plotted out something that fit. I figured I was going to play it.

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Well, until recently I didn’t know how many takes we made. I had lost track of the number, there were that many. But a young­ster called me a couple of weeks ago, a young man who is writing a discography on Sinatra and he called me for anecdotes. I told him I just remembered playing take af­ter take, and that I left the best stuff I ever played in the first half a dozen takes, when I was still fresh — I’m telling you, the fiddle players were applauding me at that point. And this youngster reminded me there were 22 takes! I had really kind of written it off, because pretty soon it wasn’t a matter of re­ally making history, but of getting through it, you’re so tired, Twenty-two. I think it was about the third number in the session, and I was also given all the lead parts to play. The other players in the trombone section really couldn’t have anyway, cause it was George Roberts on bass trombone; and Juan Tirol, which was a thrill for me because I’m an Ellington nut and there’s Juan Tirol sitting next to me, but Juan was not really a lead trombone player; and Jimmy Priddy, who was also a copyist for Nelson Riddle and had played lead with Glenn Miller. But these charts were not his bag, so he wasn’t going to play it; he would have walked out of the studio. It was up to me. And I’m a hero in those days, right? — still fresh from Kenton, still had road chops. Well, that passed quickly enough. Five years later, I didn’t have those chops — there is no way you can be a studio player and keep that kind of lip or endurance. It went and it went fast. Rarely did I get calls to play that way. The typical work I was doing was cues for television shows, where a very moderate level of excellence is re­quired, once in a blue moon something hard. And then I began to wor­ry about what I’d do if I had to play something re­ally challenging after 10 years of studio work.

That fear got to a lot of players, especially trumpet players, who then began to drink or worse. It’s the fear of being caught doing some­: thing you really can’t do anymore. On the road every night, you’re play­ing hard — it’s second na­ture. Studio work, sometimes you work five days and nights in a row and then nothing happens for five days or more. Of course, you made a lot of money. I was here at a very busy time. And it was good for young jazz players because Shorty Rogers helped to break the doors down. Shorty got a couple of pictures out of the clear blue sky. But before that nobody who played jazz was considered able to walk in and do a studio call. They were convinced you couldn’t read, or you wouldn’t show up, or you’d fall down drunk. In that sense, we were all trailblazers. So somehow I got through that solo, and now 40 years later people still want to talk about it. Incredible! ❖


Sinatra at 80: Frank Swings

Add to the ever growing number of 12-step programs Accompa­nists Anonymous. AA, a semi­-fictional organization founded by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians, is dedi­cated to helping instrumentalists avoid the frustrations of accompanying singers. Many jazz musicians don’t like singers, and some will go to great lengths to avoid play­ing for them. Not without rea­son. Most singers haven’t taken the time to develop the skills required to communicate musical ideas, especially within the frame­ work of jazz. Frank Sinatra is a rare excep­tion. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as a jazz musician, yet many jazz musicians credit him with having made tremendous contributions to this art form. His artistry encompasses much of what jazz musicians strive for.

Sinatra’s mastery lies in his ability to communicate the true meaning of a song in its complete form, the music and lyrics simultaneously, without sacrificing the im­portance of one for the other. His vocal quality, intonation, diction, phrasing, and sense of swing are integrated and balanced in a way that has brought us unequaled per­formances of American popular songs.

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Some of Sinatra’s most memorable recorded performances were made in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period during which he released recordings first for Capi­tol Records and later his own label, Reprise Records. By this time in his career he had cultivated and refined the skills that created the sound and style that defined him from the beginning.

Frank’s earliest recordings for Victor and Columbia are certainly pleasant. He always sang in tune and with a beautiful sound. But in those early years, Sinatra was in many ways underde­veloped. He definite­ly lacked the swing feel that would later become one of his trademarks. And in the early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, discerning listeners will notice how long he sus­tained notes and how much vibrato he used. Frequently, singers become overly fo­cused on the sound of their own voices. They seem to be listening to themselves singing instead of focusing on delivery of the music (cf., just about any Broadway cast album or cabaret record). As a result, they tend to make themselves more important than the song. Frank wasn’t en­tirely guilty of this. But occasionally, on his early records, one detects an unmistakable self-consciousness in the way he projects his voice. He was much more of a “crooner” in those days, at times even corny. But the feeling generated by the Dorsey rhythm section and the style of those orchestrations required him to ap­proach the vocal line as he did. And so even in these early record­ings we hear evidence of one of Sinatra’s most important attribut­es: He always maintains a strong musical relationship with his ac­companiment.

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The time spent with the Tommy Dorsey band allowed Sinatra to obtain and refine much of the technical and musical material that would later be part of his style and repertoire. (His later vocal per­formances are saturated with big band swing rhythms and jazz articulation and phrasing.) That kind of information can on­ly be acquired by observing instrumental­ists. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Sinatra in 1959 and 1960 dur­ing his tour with Red Norvo, recalls: ”Frank used to always tell us that he learned a lot while he was on the Dorsey band. Es­pecially about breathing. In those days the singers always sat up on the stage with the band during the instrumental numbers. Frank said he used to sit there and watch the way Dorsey’s back would fill up with air between phrases.”

In 1957 Sinatra released A Swingin’ Affair for Capitol, and from that point on listeners become aware of a change. The voice was deeper, richer, more resonant. He had become direct, us­ing less vibrato, not “singing” as much. By the mid 1960s, a new Frank Sinatra had completely emerged, his groove deeper than ever!

That groove is a big part of what distinguishes Sinatra from every­one else. At some point between the late ’50s and early ’60s, he realized that for vocalists the key to swinging lies more in where you stop the note than in where you start it. This bit of informa­tion is something many other singers simply haven’t learned. One way Sinatra discontin­ues the sound is through his use of dic­tion, especially conso­nant sounds. When a word ends with a con­sonant, the note that accompanies it can eas­ily be stopped. A sound that has a clear­ly defined ending has rhythmic value and therefore can be in­corporated into the groove of a song. In Sinatra’s case, this is usually a swing feel.

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Critics can object all they want to Frank replacing a the with a that in the lyric of a song. But those mannerisms can’t always be dismissed as tough guy stuff. Frank knows that a word with a defined stop, like that, swings more than a word that hangs in the air, like the. It func­tions as part of the rhythm, part of the swing groove. Many singers don’t swing because they sustain notes so long that they sabotage the rhythmic relationship between the vocal line and the music’s pulse. They don’t partake in the primary ingredient in music: rhythm.

Listen to “A Foggy Day,” from the 1961 Reprise album Ring-A-­Ding-Ding. The accompaniment in the first chorus is played in a broken­-two feeling by the rhythm section. Sinatra sings fluidly with a legato approach, and his voice is cush­ioned by the strings and saxo­phones, playing sustained notes. In the second chorus, the groove changes to a four feeling, as the strings are replaced with brass and long notes are sub­stituted with shorter ones. Accordingly, Frank shortens his notes and adjusts his rhythmic placement, fully participating in the newly established swinging groove. The rhythms he chooses are generally tra­ditional big band swing figures, and they are always calculatedly and confidently po­sitioned within the structure of the accompaniment.

The swing of Frank Sinatra is beauti­fully captured on the Reprise recordings where he’s featured with Count Basie’s band. Frank sings rhythmic figures in very much the same way that the band plays them. They have the same time-feel and produce a powerful sensation of swing. For that reason the Sinatra-Basie sessions, es­pecially It Might as Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands, are among the fa­vorite recordings of jazz musicians. Saxo­phonist Bob Berg, known for his work with Chick Corea and Miles Davis as well as his own bands, is an avid fan: “To me, Frank Sinatra is the perfect singer, the Rolls­-Royce of singers. And you know, it’s really amazing how many jazz musicians love Sinatra. Miles really liked Frank. I remem­ber him telling me to check out the way Frank phrases.”

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Without question, phrasing is one of the most challenging aspects of vocal per­formance. We all phrase when we speak — ­spoken language has starting and stopping points, long and short sounds, antecedents and consequences, inflection, cadences, and natural places to breathe. These compo­nents also exist in music. Songs are con­structed by combining musical language (a series of organized sounds) with spoken language (a series of organized words). The key to Sinatra’s masterful phrasing is that he has a command of both languages and can speak them simultaneously. (No easy task, and one that can get especially com­plicated when the words and music were not written at the same time or suggest contrary intentions.) The truth is very few people can really do it. But Sinatra does it effortlessly, and with tremendous regard for the intentions of the composer and lyricist.

Sinatra’s bilingual abilities are exquis­itely demonstrated on the 1963 Reprise re­lease, The Concert Sinatra, a collection of eight beautifully performed compositions flawlessly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. These recordings exemplify Sinatra’s mas­tery of the delicate balance between words and music, and demonstrate how, perhaps more than any other singer, he understands the ways they connect. The bulk of his recorded work is a catalogue of unsur­passed renditions of songs. His innate tal­ent and his cultivated skills are worthy of the highest admiration. His performances have educated generations of musicians, es­pecially jazz musicians. At a Carnegie Hall concert in the early 1980s, Micky Weisman, who was part of Sinatra’s management team, ran into Miles Davis in the cafe, and they had a conversation that confirmed Bob Berg’s recollection. “He was there with Cicely Tyson. We spoke for a while and I remember he told me, in that raspy voice of his, that he got a lot of his phrasing from listening to Frank’s records. He said he learned a lot from Sinatra.”

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For most musicians, nothing more need be said. In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental. And though it hasn’t always been acknowledged or understood, Sinatra has made a sub­stantial contribution to the education of countless musicians. If Miles could learn from him, we all can. ❖


Sinatra at 80: The Greatest Singer of Them All

The editor, in inviting me to contribute to this issue wrote, “One subject you might be able to shed light on is the perceived split between Sinatra the incomparable romantic singer and Sinatra the intemperate monster and his dubious associates?”

Younger people, who know little more about Sinatra the man than can be gained from the depictions of him by comedian Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live, would take him to be nothing but a rude, charmless bully. The fact is, Frank has al­ways had enormous charm. When he is ei­ther in a good mood or his right mind, de­pending on one’s perception, he is an endearingly likable fellow. He is, however, much more complex than Tony Bennett, who has always had the persona of a genial, smiling, carefree Italian peasant, rather like one of those happy monks in a rural monastery. Behaviorally, Sinatra is from a different planet altogether.

Although I have personally never done an anti-Sinatra joke, they have long been common in the comedy trade. One night, when Milton Berle was presiding over a star-studded dais, he introduced Sinatra and then said, “Frank, make yourself at home: Hit somebody.”

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For years Shecky Green has done the following routine: “You can say what you want about Sinatra, but the man once saved my life. That’s right, he did. I was stand­ing out in front of Caesar’s Palace one night and three big tough guys began to kick the hell out of me. They were giving me a terri­ble beating, but finally Frank came up and said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”

Another line that made the rounds was, “I hear that the pope has been thinking of making Frank Sinatra a cardinal. Can you believe that? Actu­ally, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, ’cause then we’d only have to kiss his ring.”

But comedy is about tragedy and the reality behind all such jokes is truly sad. The deepest part of the tragedy, of course, is that Frank must have known, after all his fits of fury, that he had behaved abom­inably, and yet he was apparently unequal to the task of breaking out of such a destructive behavior pattern. Let the man who has nev­er had such a problem cast the first stone.

But if you do, be sure it doesn’t fall where Frank can pick it up.

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A fair-minded approach to the prob­lem posed by the editor will, I suspect, please neither Mr. Sinatra’s admirers nor his detractors, for the former will resent any negative criticism of him whatever, and the latter will be so critical of him on moral grounds that their evaluation of his profes­sional gift is likely to be seriously distorted.

The ancient observation about heroes and gods that are discovered to have feet of clay is, of course, relevant here. The fact is that all gods and all their human creatures have feet of clay. Indeed, many of us seem to consist almost entirely of clay. But whether we admire or loathe anything — a man, a political philosophy, a religion, a football team — we insist, consciously or not, on bringing our egos into the valua­tive process, as if our personal reputations stood or fell on the basis of the accuracy of our assessments, so poorly do we reason. We want life to be simple, when it is in fact hopelessly complex. We want our heroes to be totally heroic, even though that has nev­er happened. On the other side of the coin, we want the objects of our scorn to be per­ceived as totally evil, and that, too, not on­ly has never happened but is not even the­oretically possible.

It is a wonder we have any heroes or heroines left at all, given the modern news media’s tendency to emphasize scandal and gossip. So long as the neg­ative portrayals of public figures are sub­stantially accurate, a philosophical ra­tionale can be developed for the exposé mode of journalism, but it is hard to say where the public stands on this issue. On the one hand Americans, to judge by their newsstand purchases and television-viewing habits, have an appetite for ugliness so con­suming that it has much in common with the classical chemical addictions. On the oth­er hand, that same public sometimes carries its adulation of public figures to extremes that border on the idiotic. As regards Elvis Presley, for example, I was one of the first to recognize his talent and importantly further his career, but to stand in the hot sun for four hours waiting to get in to visit his for­mer living quarters, or to purchase some tasteless knickknack dignified by the word memorabilia — is comment really necessary?

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So — as regards Sinatra, are all the sto­ries about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semi-psychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.

But should that lead us to deny Frank’s brilliance in a recording studio? Absolute­ly not. Does the fact that Mozart, as a hu­man being, would appear to have been something of a jerk entitle us to denigrate his music? Benny Goodman was cold and inconsiderate but is still the clarinet champ. Frank Sinatra in his prime was, to put the matter quite simply, the best popular singer of them all. His gift was just that, of course. The great practitioners, of any profession­al discipline, do not become so as a result of determination, long hours of practice, or any other such admirable application of conscious energy. The truth is much sim­pler but at the same time more perplexing. The great musicians, athletes, philosophers, scientists, scholars are great primarily be­cause of a genetic predisposition. Physicist­-mathematician Richard Feynman was not so brilliant because he practiced to be. He just was. Michael Jordan did not become the greatest basketball player of all time simply because as a youth he spent an extra few minutes on the practice courts after the other boys had gone home. He was supe­rior by nature. As for Sinatra, he may have imagined that his breath-control was a trick he learned from watching his early em­ployer, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, and in­deed the acquired knack had some practi­cal value for him. But does anyone seriously believe that if Mr. Dorsey had communi­cated the same information to 1000 singers, the other 999 would have achieved Sinatra’s eminence?

In the end, is it possible to fit the two large pieces of the Sinatra puzzle smoothly together? I think not. It’s easy enough to say that the moral idiots who actually ad­mire him for his vengefulness — the same types who spray ”Free Gotti” graffiti at New York construction sites — ought to be ashamed of themselves. The fact is that they never have been and never will be. But to let Frank’s weaknesses as a man af­fect our judgment of him as a singer is both dumb and unfair. Forget all that cliche disc-jockey dumbo-talk about the Chairman-­of-the-Board and Ol’ Blue Eyes. The man was still the greatest singer of them all.

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We might be tempted to think that the mark of a great artist is discernible in terms of his influence on other performers. But that is only a reliable general­ity, not a law. I happen to think that Erroll Garner was the great­est popular pianist of our century, and yet not a single other jazz pi­anist has seriously followed in his footsteps. Many of us occasional­ly show flashes of his two separate styles — the rhythmic or the ro­mantic — but we always seem to be doing an “impression” of him, just like, as actors, we might imper­sonate Jimmy Cagney, Richard Nixon, or Donald Duck. It is a fascinating though digressive question as to why none of us piano play­ers, even those with good-enough chops, ever dreamed of following Erroll out into that mysteriously beautiful part of the cre­ative universe he inhabited, whereas hun­dreds of jazz players have been influenced by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Pow­ell, Bill Evans, and other keyboard masters.

As for Sinatra, he was strongly influen­tial. To this day, in assorted lounges across the continent, one can hear young singers — and sometimes old ones — who are performing either loosely or directly in the Sinatra style. This is not unprecedented, of course. An earlier generation of baritone vocalists consciously imitated Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. In fact, one of them, Perry Como, became enormously popular by doing so. Once, when asked to explain his singing style, Perry was honest enough to say that he just tried to sing like Bing. If Sinatra was ever influenced by anyone, it never showed. He was his own man right from the first.

To think of him as just another cute Italian singer would be misleading: He has absolutely nothing of the old country in his voice. His sound is pure New Jersey Italian, which is another thing altogether. But what a marvelous sound, what a beautiful approach it was, for delivering those bril­liantly catchy or romantically endearing songs of the ’30s and ’40s.

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It is an interesting question as to how and why, in that portion of a journal’s pages usually set aside for analysis of the glorious art of jazz, Sinatra is properly considered a jazz vocal­ist. This will naturally have to be ex­plained, as it would not have to be in the cases of, say, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and others whose abilities as practi­tioners of jazz have never been brought into question. But strictly speaking­ — a practice that isn’t particularly popu­lar — Frank never sang a note of jazz in his life. And yet there is some hard-to­-define sensibility — the word hipness comes to mind — that does not make us feel surprised when certain vocalists, over the past half century, while not­ — again strictly speaking — jazz perform­ers, nevertheless were welcome in clubs that specialized in booking jazz performers.

The point is that, despite our wish to think tidily about such matters, such an ideal simply cannot be achieved when the two important relevant components of our perception are (a) jazz and (b) popular singing. Was Billie Holliday a jazz singer? A case can be devel­oped for either a yes or no answer. And the same goes for Peggy Lee, David Allyn, Blos­som Dearie, Johnny Mercer, and a host of other singers, all of whom were marvelous and hip, even if they never changed a single note originally set into musical context by Gershwin, Carmichael, Ellington, Porter, Berlin, and the other giants of the Golden Age of American music.

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God, how we could use Frank now, in his prime, if if were possible to tinker with the great clock of time. I mean now, in an age when much of the theatrical profession is a matter of vulgarians entertaining barbarians; now, when you don’t know what the frig most rock singers are even saying, when even teenage rock addicts concede that they have to listen to an album 14 rimes before they can figure out what the lyrics on various tracks are. Now, in an age when popular singing chiefly involves white zombies stomping around the stage spastically, moving with an incredible lack of grace, wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Frank on camera, on stage, simply and clearly, without effort, enunciating the brilliant lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields? Just Frank, not lunging like a homeless derelict on speed, not wearing thrift-store castoffs, but just standing there in a tux singing “I Should Care” or the verse to “Star Dust.” Most such appealing fantasies are wistful because they have no hope of becoming reality. But this one in a sense can become real because we still have the man’s recordings. In other words, we still have Sinatra at his best.

And that — to put the matter very plainly — is better than any­body else’s best. ❖


Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?

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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:

I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?

What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.

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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.

The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Touré

ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”

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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Robert Christgau

HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.

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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra


Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater
Voice Jazz Special, June 20, 1995

Frank Sinatra will be 80 this year, on December 12, an event telegraphed by several commemorations, notably a three-concert salute at Carnegie Hall in July and a complete retrospective (24 CDs) of his Reprise recordings, scheduled for re­lease in the fall. Never before has the totality of his recorded work been so readily available. His complete Columbias and RCAs are boxed, the Capitol and Reprise albums have been reissued, as have various anthologies, and other performances of ambiguous legal standing — radio and TV broadcasts and the like. In recent years, Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets became his best­ selling album ever, his life was told in a miniseries, and he concluded what will probably be his last tour. He’s performed for several seasons with cue cards, and rumors of memory loss and mental confusion are rife; the nitwits behind the Grammy telecast felt sufficiently empowered to give him the hook, as though he were a Ted Mack contes­tant. Even his children are back in the news with cryptic messages — the for­mer conductor now singing to beat the band; the former “tomboy in lace” now flashing her 54-year-old pubes. Happy birthday!

Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octo­genarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Proba­bly nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally under­mines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and pro­motes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply sig­nify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future gener­ations, Sinatra is one entertainer who in­stilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physi­cal violence per se; though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more gen­eral sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan-on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes, of which Sinatra was Chairman of the Board, not to mention boss of bosses.

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You can hear that fear stick in the throat before erupting in overeager guffaws during his amazing 12-minute monologue on Sinatra at the Sands, a deeply embar­rassing attempt at humor, replete with Amos and Andy-isms in which Sammy is dismissed as a custodian (after seeing him on TV, “I sent him a wire, ‘No you can’t!'”), Dean is lampooned as a drunk, audience members are heckled, his father is belittled, and so it goes. One imagines Sinatra paying good money for the jokes (“I was so skin­ny, my eyes were single file”), determined to make them work. But it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of Sinatra that as an en­tertainer he can do anything — sing, act, dance — except be funny. In Tony Rome, he asks a pet owner, “You got a pussy that smiles?” and you squirm like a worm on a hook. Maybe he’s just too self-conscious. If you want to be funny, it’s usually a good idea to let the audience laugh at you before you ask it to laugh with you. Sinatra, how­ever much he may protest to the contrary, doesn’t want to be laughed at. Les Paul tells a story of the first time Sinatra sang a duet with Bing Crosby on radio; the younger man missed a low note that Crosby in­stantly collared, interpolating, “Is this what you were looking for, son?” The king of bobby socks was not amused.

But there is another side of Sinatra, where parody doesn’t intrude, where he is in fact emblematic of sage maturity, where his interpretations of verses of varying qual­ity are evened out by a semblance of expe­rience that promises and often delivers rap­port, understanding, perhaps wisdom. That’s the Sinatra of our dreams. In song, the voice is honed with craftsmanship so knowing it doesn’t have to call attention to itself. Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping fur air as Sinatra effortlessly plots a 16-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to no­tice anything but the absolute dra­matic rightness of his decision. For this is a Sinatra who is above all else a great story­teller: in Ellington’s memorable phrase, “the ultimate in theater.” In the spell of his artistry, we forget the moral ambiguity as­sociated with a Gambino poster boy; and we know — even if he doesn’t — that the stalwart liberal of “The House I Live In” is the true Frank, not the disappointed favor-seeker who abandoned progressive politics for the Palm Springs militia.

Sinatra’s street-tough persona is irresistibly softened by an artistic control that is innovative, physical, and hard-won. The voice — or The Voice; as it was once known — is transformed, its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for ex­pressive purpose, so that even the old Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence. Although the vocal deliveries of most pop baritones (Crosby, Arm­strong, Astaire, Cole, Ecks­tine) follow readily from their speech patterns and timbres, the cynical diction of Sinatra’s Jilly’s-barfly mode contra­venes the beauty of his timbre; and not just in crass monologues. Yet when he steps into a song, the manners of a punk are instantly aban­doned for those of an alluring troubadour — almost as if the offstage Frank were chagrined by a perceived unmanliness regarding his profession. His pronunciations differ: he sings a short, English a, but he speaks a flat, nasal one. As Gene Kelly made movie dancing seem athletically heterosexual, Sinatra makes singing a manly art, but a compli­cated one — aggressive, physical, seductive, sexual, vulnerable, sadistic, masochistic, dis­turbing. It’s always difficult to reconcile the man who sings “Night and Day” on Sina­tra & Strings, to choose one of a thousand examples, with the concert performer who demeans women reporters as whores of the press, to choose one of dozens.

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Yet Sinatra is a superb actor. On a con­ventional level, he brought to ’50s cinema a wiry kind of naturalism that is most cred­ible when he plays small men, loners: Mag­gio, an assassin, a junkie, a cop. When he’s teamed up with another man or a woman, he loses stature. He was far more authen­tic as Nathan Detroit than Brando was as Sky Masterson, but as the prole in High Society, he was outclassed by Crosby (who, significantly, considered his duet with Sinatra, “Well, Did You Evah?” his fa­vorite movie scene). Sinatra’s real genius as an actor, however, has little to do with the movies, and is defined by the character he created in concert, on records and record jackets, and on TV. To look, at early photographs of the scrawny crooner who finagled his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band and laid siege at the Paramount is to be astounded at how little he had to work with — beyond The Voice. Skinny to the point of gaunt, he had a homely, lined face with a wide mouth and small obsidian eyes. His management could hire women to swoon as he crooned, but they couldn’t convince anyone he was Gable. So the original image that was sold to the fan mags and eventually Hollywood was of an innocent, more often than not in a sailor suit, in need of a mother.

It’s of interest to recall that Sinatra was born the same year as Billie Holiday, whose influence he has often acknowledged. Yet Holiday, who began recording at 18, is largely associated with the 1930s, while Sinatra, who didn’t record until he joined with Harry James — at 23, in 1939 (the epochal “All or Nothing at All”) — is a figure of the war years. Most of the male stars of that period were either older favorites, who couldn’t be drafted, or younger and often suspiciously undrafted men who in effect filled in for performers who went overseas. Sinatra was the first singer in a decade to challenge Crosby’s hegemony, but even he was vulnerable to the post-war reaction against a generation of makeshift stars. Re­turning soldiers were none too sure they wanted their wives swooning for anyone, and as late as 1949 Sinatra was still trying to get by with moonlit ballads (notwithstanding “Bop! Goes My Heart”), bow ties, and a sheepish grin. Soon he was begging for work — selling cutlery on television; playing dumb and dumber in movies with Jane Russell, an actress known mainly for her bra size, and on record with a TV celeb named Dagmar who was famous exclu­sively for her bra size. Boobs are forever (right, Nancy?), but Frank Sinatra wasn’t. Bobby-soxers were no longer swooning; they weren’t even wearing bobby socks. Be­sides, he was said to be a comsymp, which didn’t play as well in the early ’50s as it did a few years earlier or later.

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And that’s when Sinatra created the role of the century. He completely reinvented himself: parted his hair, put on some weight, changed his music. His famous performance in From Here to Eternity cer­tainly helped, reestablishing him as a commanding personality and restoring his vul­nerability — toughs reportedly threatened Ernest Borgnine for knifing him in the movie. But Frank couldn’t sustain a career as a likable Italian-American wiseass who gets killed every time out. So in Suddenly, he took the Borgnine role, playing an as­sassin and in Young at Heart, he took his turn as John Garfield. As a singer, he had to remake himself as a killer as well, a tran­sition presumably made easier by an ago­nizing marriage to Ava Gardner. The voice soon shook with sorrow, self-pity, and re­solve. He began to swing; indeed, he invented a new style of swing, an optimistic four-beat volley that in its way was as re­moved from the fussier rhythms of the ’30s as the contemporaneous developments in r&b. With Nelson Riddle and Billy May writing arrangements, he dressed basic big band instrumentation in the finery of flutes, strings, and harp. Some detractors dis­missed his rhythm as a “businessman’s bounce,” but the more assured Sinatra became, the wickeder that bounce. Rhythmic integrity is one reason his recordings of the ’50s and ’60s have survived as classics.

He now had everything but a person­al style. The attitude and outfit he needed was close by in the person of his friend Jim­my Van Heusen, the brilliant songwriter, who, until late in life, was a bachelor with the most envied little black book in town. He was beloved of Hollywood madams, one of the most prominent of whom is said to have bought him an airplane (he was a li­censed pilot) as a token of appreciation. Van Heusen was the kind of guy who kept an icebox on his porch empty except for rows of martini glasses and a pitcher to fill them. He was tall and hugely charming, not especially handsome, but catnip to women, and effortlessly stylish. Born Chester Babcock (Bob Hope adopted the name for movie roles), he took his nom de plume from the shirt manufacturer famous for ads that fea­tured one-eyed male models. He favored fedoras with wide bands and liked to sling his jacket or raincoat over his left shoulder.

If Van Heusen hadn’t lived, Sinatra would have had to invent him. Onstage and on album jackets, he played the part to perfection. The new Sinatra of the affluent generation was nothing like the beanpole crooner of the Paramount. He was riveting and sure, the embodiment of good times, the keeper of old songs that somehow no longer seemed quaint or sentimental when he sang them (consider the provenance of “It Happened in Monterey” in his hands a rigorous swinger, but previously a waltz warbled by the Brox Sisters, one of whom — coincidentally — would eventual­ly rob Jimmy Van Heusen of his bachelor­-hood). Above all, he was adult. He sang to adults. He had turned himself into an em­bodiment of all those returning servicemen who were redefining American society and business. He was their troubadour, just as Elvis was that of their children. He said to them: this is what we look like, this is how we sing, this is how we treat our women and are treated by them, this is how to re­lax, and this is how we age. Sinatra’s transformation was complete: he was hand­some, charming, at times quite dazzling.

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Not until the mid 1960s, when he was in his early fifties, did he attempt to elicit the good opinion of his audience’s kids, with two arguable exceptions: “High Hopes,” from Capra’s unholy film, A Hole in the Head, was an attempt to reach tod­dlers the way Crosby had with “Swinging on a Star”; getting Elvis to make his first post-Army appearance with him on TV was a patronizing if savvy bow to the Nielsens. Teenagers in the ’50s were often resentful of as well as bored by Sinatra, and as adults they are often surprised to realize that his peak years coincide with Presley’s. He wasn’t singing to them. He sang of supreme assurance, and teenagers are confident of little. He celebrated love the second time around when most teenagers are lucky to gave gotten there once. He idealized the comforts of booze. He sang about sex in the voice of someone who had been there — a lot. Teenagers are — or were — more comfortable with Doc Pomus laments and Norman Mailer essays.

In the course of redefining adult pas­times, he frequently made himself a candi­date for derision, along with those dopey adults who followed him to Vegas, actual­ly wanting to be part of the clan that gave us Ocean’s 11. He compensated for his hair-trigger temper with exaggerated hilarity. Occasionally, the grand performance was shaky, the meta-adult seemingly un­-moored. The smart Sinatra of the songs be­came unglued by the aroma of real politi­cal power. If he pimped for JFK, he gave better than he got. He was more himself in “the house I live in” than the Oval Office he allegedly schtupped in. The end of the beautiful fantasy of the affluent generation was embodied in rat pack insipidity a good two years before Dealey Plaza. Francis Al­bert Sinatra’s contributions to the American language:




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Forget his pop hits of the ’60s. His image was no longer tenable. He seemed somehow to deserve a daughter who sang like Nancy Sinatra. So in 1971, it didn’t mean all that much when he walked away; retirement at 56. But a few years later, he was back, preceded by a press campaign that saluted him as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” a so­briquet not earned with affection but bought from a publicity firm. At first, the comeback didn’t promise much. He was ensnared in his usual press feuds and was out of voice and overweight when he hit the Uris Theater (with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie), looking sullen and sounding defensive. The children of the ’50s took their shots. The idiot jazz critic in The Village Voice wrote, “I have never found his interpretations of popular songs more sub­stantial than those of most pop singers, who are usually content to hit the right notes and enunciate the lyrics, however moronic … Sinatra’s records are more catalytic than absorbing. For Sinatra is a great craftsman but not an artist.”

But Sinatra’s audience was changing, and so consequently was his standing. As his original audience pushed 60, he was at long last discovered by its children, who, no longer acne-scarred or bell-bottomed, finally understood what those songs were about. Lost love, one for the road? — hey, let me get this round. Now his champions were younger than Frank Jr., and they didn’t treat him with the casual admiration/contempt due a contem­porary, but with the awe reserved for a living … well, legend. His movie days were finished, and for a while nobody wanted to record him, and Garry Trudeau reminded everyone who needed reminding what a scumbag he could be. But Trilogy was a huge success, and so were his concerts, which now drew bi­-generational crowds. He em­bodied a major life lesson: Never dismiss an artist just because he plays golf with Spiro Agnew. And yes, an artist he was, not a craftsman. Like Garbo or Chaplin, he looms over the cultural life of the century, defying analysis, because every generation has to figure him out from scratch.

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And where do you be­gin? The list might change with the weather. But you wouldn’t want to miss his aching rueful lament, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” or ”Time After Time,” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily”; or the ecstatic duet with Louis Armstrong on “Birth of the Blues” (The Edsel Show, 1957); or the Metronome All-Stars’ “Sweet Lorraine.” Or the two studio albums with Basie, especially the first with its ingeniously embellished “Pennies From Heaven” (an inevitable ri­poste to those who insist Sinatra can’t sing jazz). Or the prolonged inspiration of Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Close to You, Come Fly With Me, Come Swing With Me, I Remember Tommy (with its improbably fast “I’ll Be Seeing You”), Moonlight Sinatra, Sinatra & Strings, and All Alone. Or ”Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Have Dreamed,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,”‘ and “I Had the Craziest Dream?” Or “Thanks for the Memory” from She Shot Me Down, his last great album. Or the neglected and deli­ciously dilatory Francis A. and Edward K.

Did I miss many of your favorites?  Mine too: I forgot the Dorseys and Only the Lonely and A Swingin’ Affair and a dozen others. It’s a vast legacy. The Sinatra achievement is not least a guide to modern orchestration — a how-to concerning the adaptation of old pop to postbop consciousness. And Sinatra, no less than his great arrangers — Riddle, May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver, Don Costa, Neal Hefts, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, and the rest — knew all about reclamation projects. A peerless interpreter of our best lyricists, Sinatra is expected to demonstrate unexpected depths in the work of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. But the real test of his transformative powers are those songs beyond redemption, an area in which his ability is at one with Armstrong, Crosby, Holiday, and very few others. Who else would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” previous­ly the subject of burlesques by Fats Waller and Laurel and Hardy (in Blotto), but in Sinatra’s hands a joyous, straight-faced romp? Sinatra’s imperviousness to the song’s clumsiness is symptomatic. The generosity he hasn’t always been able to sum­mon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music. ■


Charlie Parker: The Man and His Music

August 29, 1975, marks the 55th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth and follows, by five months, the 20th anniversary of his death. There will be the usual tributes on radio, a memorial concert at Avery Fisher, and acknowledgements in jazz publications. Yet to most Americans, Parker’s name means little and his music less. Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses. Some observers, having noted the belated recognition of Scott Joplin and Billie Holiday, suggest that Charlie Parker’s time will come as well.

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But this seems unlikely. True, Supersax, a band that plays transcriptions of Parker improvisations but without Parker’s expres­sive immediacy, is enjoying moderate popu­larity. Steely Dan, a rock group, has record­ed “Parker’s Band,” a stringing together of Parker cliches, which, in the absence of a liner annotation, is unlikely to be recognized as such by most of its fans. There is abundant movie material in Parker’s story and several books have been inspired by him, but there is little in his music to provide a foothold for mass acceptance, despite his own commer­cial recordings with strings and Latin rhythm. For that matter, the popular successes achieved by Ellington and Armstrong were unrelated to their best work. Moreover, if Parker was the pivotal figure in the founding of modern jazz, he was also the central force in moving jazz from the dance floor to a plateau where it had to be attended as an art or not at all. Parker was not a self-conscious revolutionary and though he evolved his music logically from prevailing jazz styles, he brought the music into an elitist arena where few swing fans were prepared to follow.

The music Parker innovated in conjunc­tion with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and others is still known by the onomatopoeia bebop. But bop was not created in a vacuum. Such epochal Parker-Gillespie masterpieces as “Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Koko” define a very different tableau from that imagined by Lester Young or Roy Eldridge, yet the styles of the younger players were originally mod­eled after their idols. Bop became a tradition unto itself when a new wave of players came along drawing exclusively on the achieve­ment of Parker’s generation. The originators of bop, however, were intimately involved with the playing of Young, Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Charlie Chris­tian, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Blanton, Teddy Wilson, and other masters of the swing period. They must certainly have recognized the falsity of some of the claims made on behalf of bop.

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It is easy enough to recognize bop as a style of music different from, say, swing or avante-garde, but attempts to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of bop can be treacherous. We hear a great deal about the complexity of bop, for example, yet nothing in its fabric was foreign to Ellington. Much has been made of the intensity and speed demanded by most bop compositions, but speed was also endemic to Eldridge, Tatum, and Armstrong. Bop musicians have been credited with first superimposing their own compositions on familiar chord progres­sions; but earlier examples of this practice include Benny Moten’s “Moten’s Swing” (based on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), Sidney Bechet’s “Shag” (”I Got Rhythm”), and Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” (“Rose Room”). Most dramatically, bop musicians are said to have been the first to improvise on chords, rather than simply embellishing the given melody. Almost any handful of classic jazz recordings from the ’30s will refute this.

Another area of confusion concerns the relationship of bop to the big bands. The instrumentation of the Charlie Parker Quin­tet — sax. trumpet, piano, bass, drums — became the standard instrumentation for jazz until the ’60s, but it wasn’t the nature of the beast that required a small-group context nor did the musicians reject big bands entirely for musical reasons. The key figures in bop were actually trained in big bands: Parker with Jay McShann, Gillespie with Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon with Armstrong, Max Roach with Benny Carter. Economic considerations have played a de­cisive role in every phase of jazz. The shoestring labels that recorded bop were hardly able to offer a musician the freedom to hire 15 men for a record date. But bop, like most schools of jazz, aspired to larger en­sembles. Gillespie formed a big band as soon as he could get the backing, Woody Her­man’s second herd was a bop band, and Tadd Dameron, the preeminent composer-ar­ranger of the movement, wrote for orches­tras whenever possible. Parker himself toured with a string ensemble of his own vo­lition.

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The distinguishing characteristics of bop are immediately recognizable. The absence of vibrato and tonal coloration is necessitat­ed by the blazing tempos and the many-noted character of the solos. The techniques with which a bop solo is constructed might be discussed in jargon like flattened fifths, the higher intervals of chords, diminished scales, and chromaticism, but while the musician has to understand these terms, the listener doesn’t. In order to hear the melo­dies of a bop improvisation, one simply has to become familiar enough with the idiom to hear the component phrases of a solo. There is no greater melodist in jazz than Parker.

The central innovation in Parker’s music was rhythmic. Swing rhythm was exemplified by the Basie band’s brisk 4/4, with each beat evenly accented. The soloist seemed to be confined by the bar lines, or, in the case of an advanced player like Lester Young, to float above the chomp/chomp/chomp, knitting his melodies into four-bar phrases, and booting them along with riffs. Lester’s two choruses on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall con­cert, are representative of his alternation of rich, fluent melodies and repeated rhythmic phrases. By contrast, listen to Parker’s 1946 “Lady Be Good” solo, recorded at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Essentially, he adopts blues diction to the pop song form, but in his use of space (the first phrase is followed by a full rest) and in his variety of note-values (from whole notes to 32nd notes), he opens up the time, establishing rhythmic freedom rather than coursing over the 4/4.

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With the arrival of bop, the bassist be­came the time-keeper and the drummer was free to dispense “bombs” in response to the soloist. Young improvised in a situation governed by the time, while Parker made himself the focal point around which the time coalesced.

Parker’s need for an alert drummer is seen in the performance of his blues, “Cheryl,” at a 1949 Christmas eve Carnegie Hall concert — available on several pirate labels but never legally issued. In the fifth measure of the fifth chorus, Parker ends his phrase on the third beat. He repeats this for several measures until the drummer, Roy Haynes, responds by accenting the third beat and suspending the fourth. They play in this fashion throughout the following chorus. Another aspect of his music — the sometimes satiric quoting of familiar melodies to en­hance his solos — is illustrated by the same piece: he paraphrases Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza, an ingenious reminder that all styles of jazz are bound by the blues. (On the studio version of “Cheryl,” he quoted the New Orleans standard “High Society.”)

Neither Parker nor Gillespie considered themselves revolutionaries in the sense that they wished to destroy anything. If their music was rhythmically unsuitable for jit­terbugging, it was nonetheless an inevitable and heartfelt extension of the jazz they had grown up with and cherished. Critical feud­ing in the press, esoteric discussions of technique, and even the fashionable accou­trements of the period — goatees, berets, shades, and drugs — obscured, for many, the blues-based strain underlining their music. Parker might well have voiced the “confes­sion” once expressed by Stravinsky: “The novelty of the ‘Rite’ consisted, not in the writing, not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity. I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.”

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Parker’s mature style was intimated in his earliest recordings, with the Jay McShann orchestra. On “Swingmatism” he played 16 bars and a pickup measure replete with Lestorian triplets and a rounded intonation. With “Jumping Blues,” his personality became more apparent. His chorus begins with one of the many phrases that would become the meat, and eventually the cliches, of modern jazz. Little Benny Harris, the trumpeter-composer, extracted this phrase and extended it into “Ornithology,” a classic bop theme based on “How High the Moon,” (The first few notes in both are the same.) Parker’s recording of “Ornithology,” five years later, revealed his fully matured ability to dance into solos with rhythmic ideas that complemented those of the composition. Ironically, he brought the “Ornithology” lick back to the blues when he re-recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1953, tossing it into the theme statement. The solo on this version of “Now’s the Time,” an especially gay and insouciant invention, begins with another phrase which had become a cliche, the one he had used to begin the original version of that blues, in 1945. Parker knew he had become an “academy” and he enjoyed it.

Charlie Parker’s chief legacy is his records, and there is a sizable number of them considering the brevity of his career. Won­drous as the individual masterpieces are, the sum of his work is even more impressive. He was nothing if not an expressive player and the more we listen to him, the more vivid his vision becomes. For if there is a light side to his music — the clean order and virtuosic structuring of solos, the lovely ballads­ — there is also a dark, nightmarish side. Parker was a heroin addict most of his life. His body was so ravaged at his death that a doctor, filling out a report, estimated his age at 60 rather than 34. The horrors he lived were transfigured into music. The best known example is “Lover Man,” recorded during the breakdown which landed him in Camarillo for a year. He could hardly stand or fill his horn with air, yet he created fleeting moments of dynamic tension and surprise. In his 26th to 27th measures, he tenuously shapes a comely melody that sways and finally dips to the lowest note of the solo. This yearning, frustrated side of Charlie Parker is revealed more fully in some of the private tapes and broadcasts now surfacing. It is disgraceful that the work of a great artist should be shoddily pack­aged, indifferently treated, and unpaid for, but this emerging cache of tapes cannot go unattended simply because they’re being issued illegally. There is a newly discovered 1949 Brooklyn broadcast of “Cool Blues” which tells us much about the longing in Parker’s music, and prefigures the breakthrough in expressive techniques of Ornette Coleman.

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Even Parker’s legitimate recordings are in dubious hands. The Dial sessions have been expertly issued in a six-volume variorum edition by Spotlight, a bootleg outfit. The Savoys remain scrambled. Too many of the Verves, including “Lady Be Good,” are unavailable.

Charlie Parker’s music was delirious, funny, wise, terrifying, tragic, funky, sad, exultant, wistful, haunt­ing, electrifying. His is one of the monumental achievements in contemporary art, and still it is consigned to the shadows. ■


All the Way with Jimmy Scott

All the Way with Jimmy Scott: For Whatever Reason
Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter, 1988

“YOUR EYES … ” Other singers could finish an entire set in the time Jimmy Scott takes to sing these two words, but to this crowd it just signals the slow downward slide known as “The Mas­querade Is Over.” They respond with a gasp. “… Don’t shine …” A couple of older black women in the audience bow their heads, their mouths twisted into brittle knowing smiles. “… Like they used to shine …” In the front row, Tony Williams, once the great lead singer for the Platters, cocks his head back and lets go with a chilling half-laugh, half-cry. “… And the thrill is gone …” A cou­ple tables away sits new-wave performer James White, a serious look on his hound-­dog face. “… When your lips meet mine …” Jimmy’s voice has lost some of its range with the passing years, but it’s still impossibly high. Too high for a man.

“I guess I’ll have to play Pagliacci, and get myself a clown’s disguise,” he sings, striking an “oh, well” pose. “I’ll learn to laugh like Pagliacci” — Jimmy pauses, then swoops down on the next line — “With tears in my eyes.” His mandarin face contorts into a sob, and those long hands clutch the microphone to his breast. It is a grim song. He’s sung it for a lifetime.

“The masquerade is over,” he cries. “And so is love.” He sings the last four lines again, bringing the song’s unbear­able tension to an end. For a moment the stunned audience does nothing. They miss the beat where they should respond, then break into wild applause. A silent Jimmy makes his way through the crowd and sits down at our table. People seem almost embarrassed to talk to him. “That was great, Jimmy,” I say. He shrugs his shoulders and says nothing, taking a long drag off his cigarette as he looks away.

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“The feelin’,” says Ray Charles. “I just loved the feelin’ in his voice. Jimmy had soul way back when people weren’t usin’ the word.” Jimmy’s fan club is a heavy bunch — Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Frankie Valli, Tony Bennett, Percy May­field, Big Maybelle, Levi Stubbs, Jacqui Verdell, James Booker. When Dinah Washington couldn ‘t make a gig she called Jimmy Scott.

“He blew me away from the first note,” says Ruth Brown. “Jimmy drew the pro­fessionals wherever he sang. A lot of sing­ers owe their style to him.” Songwriter Doc Pomus agrees. “Nancy Wilson, Fran­kie Valli, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Lymon, Johnnie Ray — they all started out with watered-down versions of what Jimmy was doin’.”

In spite of his influence, Jimmy remains an invisible man in black music history. His two greatest albums — long out of print — don’t even have his picture on the cover. Jimmy performs with Char­lie Parker on One Night in Birdland, yet his vocal is credited to a woman. Rumors swirl around the singer — some say he’s a junkie, others insist his masculinity is a fraud, just another gimmick to get over a very idiosyncratic female vocalist. In the mid-6os, when Jimmy had all but disappeared from the music scene, Jet maga­zine mistakenly printed his obituary.

Jimmy has lived with a secret that has allowed others to invent his life for him — ­until now. As r&b singer Joe “Mr. Google Eyes” August says, “You gotta under­stand one thing. What Jimmy Scott sings, he lived.

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Why Was I Born?

JAMES VICTOR Scott was born on July 17, 1925, an umbilical cord wrapped around his throat. “Yep,” says Jimmy, “when I came into thins world I came here hung.”

His father Arthur was told his child had been born dead, and he rushed home from work with a friend named Victor. “It wasn’t until later in life that my family told me why I was named after him. When they came home and found I was still alive with that cord wrapped around my neck, Victor predicted that someday I was gonna be a singer.”

One of 10 kids, Jimmy was raised in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. His mother Justine was a pia­nist at Hagar’s Universal Spiritual Church and would gather the children around the old upright to sing gospel songs. “All the Scott children sang, but Jimmy’s was God-given,” says his brother Kenny. “If you ask him today, he still can’t read a note.”

Justine was s stern teacher when it came to music. “If you didn’t sing a note just so, a little later in the day she’d say, ‘You know you didn’t sing that song right,”’ says Jimmy. “She’d make you feel guilty for voicing wrong notes. She was a very spiritual woman, a cornerstone of strength. My father just didn’t give a damn.”

Arthur “Scottie” Scott was a skilled asphalt layer, but hanging out with his street buddies was more important than any job. “Shooting pool, gambling, drinking his beer,” says Jimmy, “he liked being away from the house.” Once Arthur pawned the family radio when he needed some quick cash.

Justine kept the family together, and as Jimmy entered his teens, things seemed to be looking up — until the car accident. “Mother was taking my sister Shirley to school,” remembers Jimmy. “Shirley ran ahead of her, stepping out in the street. My mother flung her back to the curb. As she did that she got hit. The driver caught my mother by the arm — tore it right off — an’ drug her about 200 feet.” Justine Scott died a few days later. No one had bothered to take her children to visit her in the hospital.

“After she died, the hospital nurse said the last thing on her breath was, ‘Are my children alright?'” says Jimmy. “And my grandmother — my mother’s mother — told her, ‘Don’t worry about nuthin’. Your kids are fine — they’ re all in the detention home.’ My mother was so upset, the excitement caused her to hemorrhage and she bled to death. That’s the one thing that tugged on me for years and years after. I knew that my mother never wanted her kids separated.”

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Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

AT AGE 13, Jimmy was on his own. “It shook the hell out of me and the other kids, because we had nobody but Mom and when she died, Dad took the quickest way out.” The kids were split up and dumped in foster homes. Along with his brothers and sisters, Jimmy begged his father to get a house and reunite the family. “We’d get promises from Dad,” says Jimmy. “‘Oh boy, now lemme tell ya, I’m gonna get the house, you all come down on such an’ such a day,’ and we’d go downtown to meet him” — Jimmy laughs disgustedly — “and we wouldn’t find our daddy nowhere.”

There were other problems. Jimmy, like his brother Kenny, seemed stuck in adolescence. With their abnormally high voices, soft features, and short stature — Jimmy only grew to four feet 11 inches until his mid-thirties, when he inexplica­bly shot up to five feet seven —the two Scott boys were always fighting to prove their masculinity.

As a teenager Jimmy ushered at the Metropolitan Theater, and fell in love with the music he saw there — Buddy Johnson, Lucky Millinder, Erskine Hawkins, and the rest of the big bands of the day. Then the youngster went out on the road with two tap dancers, working as a valet when he wasn’t pestering them for the chance to sing. Sometime in the mid-’40s on a Meadsville, Pennsylvania, gig, Jimmy got his shot. Walking out in front of a killer band that included Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Jo Jones, the bag-of-bones kid snuck up on the microphone, belting out “Talk of the Town.” Even as a kid, Jimmy was drawn to all-or-nothing-at-all tunes, supplicant hymns of unconditional love and broken-hearted ballads that offer no exit. His debut song was a sad one. It cut straight to the heart of the motherless child with the freakishly high voice: I can’t show my face/Can’t go anyplace­/people stop and stare/It’s so hard to bear/Everybody knows you’ve left me/It’s the talk of the town.

The response was immediate. “Even that first night, the people screamed and hollered,” says Jimmy, still surprised. His most excited fans were female. “You talk about Tom Jones and women throwing their underthings onstage — Jimmy Scott already had that thing going back in the ’40s,” says pianist Ace Carter. “Only they were throwing money. He pulled the women sexually.”

Hank Williams would’ve dug Jimmy Scott. Both possessed the ability to convey their innermost feelings to the world, creating an intense bond with the crowds they performed before. Yet both were extreme loners, men who had no use for show business when the show was over.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s voice had a built-in gimmick: close your eyes and you heard a female vocalist. His childlike looks only complicated the mystery.”The biggest thing that bugged me was havin’ cats pick at you because you look young — like you’re some kind of woman or something,” says Jimmy. “I even had insinuations that I was gay.” For a couple of years, Jimmy carried a .25 automatic to discourage his more ardent male admirers.

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Talk of the Town

FOR ALL his onstage popularity, Jimmy’s private life was a mess. His first love, Ophelia Sharon, left him for another guy after a quickie marriage in ’45. Then came a statuesque 13-year-old from New­port News, Virginia, a streetwalker since the age of five. Their turbulent relation­ship lasted into the early ’50s, even though the towering prostitute would often chase the singer with an open razor.

“She was kinda young,” says Kenny Scott. “Every woman doesn’t understand us. There’s nothing wrong, we’re just not as fully developed as the next guy, y’un­derstand? These women in the streets think you’re funny. Jimmy couldn’t accept this rejection.” The ladies flocked to Jimmy, but he always wound up with tough, streetwise women that couldn’t possibly understand him. It was a tortured scenar­io that would repeat itself over and over in the years to come, with Jimmy inevitably playing the victim.

From ’45 to ’49, he went on the road with shake dancer Estelle “Caledonia” Young, the woman he considers his mentor. It was with Caledonia that Jimmy first hooked up with comedian Redd Foxx and Big Maybelle, the great r&b singer. Both became lifelong friends. In ’48 Foxx, actor/MC Ralph Cooper, and fighter Joe Louis arranged his first New York City gig, at the Baby Grand. A year later, Jimmy joined Lionel Hampton, who had the swingingest big band at the time. Jim­my recorded three songs with Hampton­ — “I’ve Been a Fool,” “I Wish I Knew,” and — his first big hit — “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”

“It was a dramatic when he came out in the solo spot,” says Quincy Jones, then a young trumpet player with the band. “He’d just stand there with his shoulders hunched and his eyes closed and his head tilted to one side. He sang like a horn — ­he sang with the melodic concept of an instrument. It’s a very emotional, soul­-penetrating style. He’d put me on my knees, give me goose bumps. Jimmy used to tear my heart out every night.”

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Life on the road was an endless lesson in racism — the band had to drive miles out or their way for food and lodging — ­but Jimmy cherishes his days with Hampton. “I loved singin’ with that man,” he says, shaking his head.

Jimmy was a star. Capitalizing on Jim­my’s youthful looks and sound, Hampton changed his stated age from 25 to 17, then labeled the singer for a lifetime as “Little” Jimmy Scott. “It helped me get over to the public, but it sure didn’t help when I went to buy a drink or negotiate my salary,” says Jimmy. “Even though I looked like a child, I definitely didn’t think like a child.” The bandleader was notoriously cheap with his musicians, and Jimmy barely made a living, despite his hits.

Jimmy gradually left the Hampton band. Teddy Reig, a hustling A&R man intertwined with many jazz careers, wooed Jimmy into going solo with the promise of big bucks. Reig, along with partner Jack Hook, ran Roost Records, a threadbare label out of Linden, New Jersey. Between 1950 and ’52 the pair cut 16 excellent­ —if somewhat orthodox — sides on Jimmy, among them the original version of “The Masquerade Is Over.” The records were poorly distributed, and Jimmy didn’t see a dime from the deal.

One of the Hampton trips brought Jim­my to Newark, which in the early ’50s had a nightlife matching that of Harlem, or 52nd Street. Jimmy soon moved in. “One week I’d be at the Caravan Club, the next, Lloyd’s Manor or the Key Club,” says Jimmy. “I could practically make a living without leaving town.” It was in Newark that two young white kids, both aspiring singers, hung out with Jimmy Scott. One was Joe Pesci, who would later act oppo­site DeNiro in Raging Bull. The other was Frankie Valli.


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In a week,  Jimmy will turn 63, so I take him up to a friend’s house in the country. Not much of a present, but at least I get him out of his apartment and away from the TV. “Give me the simple life,” he al­ways says, but it’s been too simple. Take Jimmy to the movies, and he tells you it’s the first time he’s been to a theater in 20 years.

Unfortunately, when we arrive in the country I have an interview scheduled, so while Jimmy and Ear­lene look around the house, I sneak upstairs to call his old pal with the million-dollar falsetto, Frankie Valli.

“Jimmy’s not just a guy, not just a singer,” says Valli. “He was my mentor. Jimmy used to tell me ‘Don’t be afraid to sing slow, baby. Let them follow you — don’t you be following them.’ He broke all the rules in singing.”

Valli alludes to Jimmy’s dark side, telling me how the singer would vanish for months and sud­denly reappear. “Lemme tell you something,” says Valli. “There are gonna be pieces and parts you’re never gonna get to. You’ll never get to the bottom of the guy.” As he says that Jimmy’s raspy laugh ech­oes up from the floor below.

Late that night, a few of us de­cide to take a walk up a huge hill a couple blocks from the house. I fig­ure Jimmy and Earlene would want to call it a night, but they seem offended I would leave them out. A small, round woman with a perpetu­al smile, Earlene huffs and puffs her way up the hill, stopping every 10 feet to giggle at Jimmy’s jokes.

You can see stars everywhere from the top of the hill. Earlene excitedly points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and any other constellation she can name. Our faces turn to the sky, and for a long moment nothing is heard but the static drone of crickets.

Jimmy stands a few feet from me, barely visible in the mist. I think of what Frankie Valli said about never getting to the bottom of Jimmy Scott.

Earlene makes a request of her husband, breaking the silence. “You know what would really make this evening perfect, Jimmy? If you’d sing a song for us up here.” Jimmy says nothing, his figure just a silhouette against the night. Ear­lene asks again, but Jimmy doesn’t sing.

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When Did You Leave Heaven?

“I WAS A waitress at the Coleman Hotel, the place in Newark where all the black entertainers would stay,” remem­bers Earlene, who first met her future husband in the early ’50s. “I’d spend all my tip money playing ‘Everybody’s Some­body’s Fool’ on the jukebox. I never knew who sang it because it didn’t say on the record. The jukebox man used to have to replace it ’cause I’d wear it out!

“In the meantime this little guy was comin’ in with two other entertainers — ­Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie. I thought he was their son, and when they’d order I’d say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re away from home so much they don’t give him enough to eat!‘ So I decid­ed when he came in, I was gonna make sure he had enough to eat — an extra glass of milk, a double order of collard greens, a big order of potato salad. I was tryin’ to fatten him up, see? But I had no idea he sang the record I loved so much.”

Then Henry Polite, the house detective and night manager for the Coleman Hotel, introduced her to Jimmy Scott. “He says to Jimmy, ‘I just want you to know this young lady spends all her money listening to you!’ and Jimmy said, ‘Oh yeah?’ with that little voice, and I said ‘OH MY GOD — I’ve been feedin’ this little fella thinking he was a little boy and here this was a grown man!’ I was so embarrassed I didn’t even come back for the dishes!”

To complicate matters Jimmy had fall­en for someone too. While at a friend’s house Jimmy fell in love with a picture of a girl he saw on the dresser.

His search for the glamorous woman in the photograph landed him at Earlene’s house, where she was dressed in her dowdy waitress uniform, getting ready for work. “I said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ and Jimmy said, ‘What are you doin’ here?’ He said he was waitin’ for the girl in the picture. That’s when I told him, ‘Well you gotta stay an’ wait for, her, ’cause I gotta go to work!'” A little while later Jimmy figured it out, then ran back to the Coleman Hotel. “He asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was you in the pic­ture?’ I just laughed.”

Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Earlene already had a man — her husband John, who was trying to drag her into his dope habit. The next time Jimmy visited they were in the middle of an argument. Jimmy threw John out for yelling at Earlene. “After he was gone, I said to Jim. ‘Y’know, that was my husband.’ And he said, ‘What’s wrong with you. woman­ — you tryin’ to get me killed? I didn’t see Jimmy for quite a while after that.”

But even though it took months and sometimes years, Jimmy would always come back to Earlene. “Her innocence made you respect her,” he says, who often shielded Earlene from the wilder sides of the entertainment world. “Where Earlene came up on Broome Street, there were so many girls usin’ dope, or out in the street tryin’ to be slick trickers, and here’s this one girl amidst all this shit tryin’ to make a living. She was totally supportive. I had never had that attitude out of a woman.”

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The Loneliest House on the Street

“NOBODY ASKED me to leave, I just walked off,” says Jimmy of his final split from the Hampton band in ’53. Dis­gusted with the music business, Jimmy went back to Cleveland. A jealous father was waiting for him at home. “I’d want Dad to be proud of me, share in my success,” says Jimmy. “But as soon as I walked into some joint lookin’ for him, he’d start yellin’ — ‘Jimmy Scott, come over here. You ain’t NUTHIN’. I still run you, boy.’ He would bulldoze me, and I could never understand why.”

Yet Jimmy was obsessed with reuniting his family. Others thought he was crazy. “I’d say quit kissin’ their ass — they ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you,” says Channie Sum­merville, the next femme fatale in Jim­my’s life. “I bet half of his family never even seen Jimmy perform. They were grown by then, anyway — they had their own lives. Sure, Jimmy wanted to buy a big house an’ get ’em back together, but he was livin’ in a dream world. The fact that his family is separated is somethin’ he still can’t deal with.”

Jimmy met Channie at the Paddock Bar, a Cleveland hangout, in 1954. “My brother Roger kept tellin’ me, ‘Look at her — bet you can’t get her,’ so I went up to her and rapped — and I copped,” says Jimmy.

“I said, ‘I like to sing — would you give me some lessons?” remembers Channie, who idolized Billie Holiday, a singer she was related to through her cousin, Louis McCay, Billie’s last husband. Channie and Jimmy soon married.

“She was an olive-complected girl with dyed-blond hair and an hourglass figure, just beautiful to look at,” says Jimmy. “But once she opened that mouth it killed all the beauty in her. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time.”

“They’d fight all the time, all the time,” says r&b singer Nappy Brown. “Channie wanted that money, and she’d put a spankin’ on Jimmy if she didn’t get it. He had to dance by her music.” Chan­nie insists she was devoted to the singer. “When we first got together, Jimmy was down and out,” she says. “I bought him a yellow Cadillac convertible, a pink suit, even died a lock of his hair blond to match mine.” She prodded the singer back to New York, where he signed with Savoy Records and the Jimmy Evans booking agency.

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Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool

WHEN JIMMY was first summoned to Savoy records, Herman Lubinsky was running the company out of a cramped office above his electronic parts store in Newark. A short, cheap man with a lousy temper, Lubinsky knew little about the black music he recorded, but he knew how to pick a winner. “You know the song would be a hit if he danced, with his goddamn bald head, smelling like God knows what,” says Lee Magid, an A&R man who recorded much of Savoy’s early r&b.

Horror stories about Savoy in the old days are endless. Rose Marie McCoy­ — who along with her partner Charlie Single­ton wrote some of Jimmy’s greatest songs — says the team often saved their worst material for Lubinsky, knowing he’d only pay a flat rate of $100 per song. Nappy Brown almost broke Lubinsky’s neck on more than one occasion. Lu­binsky put his name on a big tune Brown wrote, “The Night Time Is the Right Time,” and Brown’s never seen a dime in royalties. Jimmy says he only got paid $50 a session.

Booking agents were often another nightmare. Most of Savoy’s r&b stars were dumped on the late Jimmy Evans, a booking agent who operated out of Times Square. “One-eyed Jimmy was an asshole, a real asshole,” says Lee Magid. “He dealt with people nobody else would handle. A schlock guy.”

“Jimmy Evans would play artists against each other,” says Channie. “One week it would be ‘Oh, Maybelle’s got the big hit, she’s the star in this office.’ A week later it would be Nappy Brown who had the hit. ‘Nappy’s the boy, we got Nap. Where’s Nappy at? Send him in. Nap, m’boy, have a cigar.‘ And everybody else is sitting around the office like damn fools. I don’t think the entertainers thought it was funny. He’d play one per­son against the other like a mother do her kids.” Jimmy claims that because he warned other artists to keep track of their earnings, Evans froze him out of gigs.

Evans has his supporters, those who say he was just a tough businessman in a tough business. Even Lubinsky has his defenders, although they usually end up criticizing him the most. Fred Mendel­sohn — an A&R man who worked on and off at Savoy for nearly 20 years before taking over the company — insists that “90 per cent of the artists never earned royalties because of the way the contract read. He was a cheap s.o.b., but as far as his honesty, I will never question it. His problem was he wanted to be a big man. He’d get in fights with artists many times — he’d have people crying over the phone. Listen, I’d have to mop up after Lubinsky quite a bit. The artist was his enemy.”

Lubinsky and Mendelsohn fought con­tinually. Tall, soft-spoken, and a real fan of the gospel and r&b he produced, Mendelsohn was the antithesis of his boss. His name is revered by the black musicians he worked with. The six sessions in ’55 and ’56 that Mendelsohn produced on Jim­my — including songs like “Imagination,” “Don’t Cry, Baby,” “If You Only Knew,” “Oh, What I Wouldn’t Give,” “Address Unknown,” and “Guilty,” — defined him as a singer. (Half of these sessions are on the first and best Sayoy reissue, Little Jimmy Scott.)

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Mendelsohn surrounded Jimmy with top musicians, even though some didn’t appreciate the singer’s style. Bassist Charles Mingus walked out on the first Savoy date, aggravated by Jimmy’s free­wheeling sense of time.

The minimal jazz combos that backed Jimmy on those first sessions — usually led by pianist and arranger Howard Biggs — played at graveyard tempos, crafting slight melodies that left huge spaces for Jimmy’s daredevil phrasing. He dragged words across measures, then cut them into such precise, frozen sylla­bles he seemed to be writing definitions for Webster’s. The result was a narcotic drone that never lost its edge.

It was scary. The youthful kid singer was gone, replaced by one who had been too many places, seen too much. Beneath that world-weary cool was a bottomless empathy. “I’d be singin’ and get so filled up the tears would just roll,” he says, explaining his nickname in the streets of Newark — Cryin’ Jimmy. If the band didn’t know the tune, Jimmy just plunged in without accompaniment. The singer held nothing back from his audience, almost suicidally went all the way. Still, so much remained unknown about Jimmy Scott.

“Everybody knows/How the story goes/I have nothing to conceal,” he sang, swinging lightly through the line, oblivious to the irony: everything about the singer is a question mark, starting with his maddening, asexual voice. It could shoot stratospherically high, trail off into a sob-stained vibratto, then descend into a cry so low-down it could shatter the toughest r&b singer. And for all the emotion, he never sounded piteous or weak. Jimmy had no use for falsetto histrionics or on-the-knees pleading. No wonder gospel singers whispered his name, women fol­lowed him home, junkies and drag queens idolized him. Jimmy Scott understood.

Yet Jimmy had his own agonizing limi­tations. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give/To walk down the aisle with you,” he sings. It’s an impassioned rending, but that nameless sorrow in his voice tells us the singer is going to get the girl. Jimmy sings of a pure, idealistic love; real life fell short. Jimmy kept the one he really loved on a distant pedestal, afraid his boozy nightclub netherworld would cor­rupt her innocence. “I am only human, but you are so divine,” he cries in “When Did You Leave Heaven?” and he’s singing to the one he couldn’t have — Earlene. Seldom has the battle between spirit and flesh been so elegantly realized in jukebox terms. The labels should read, “Recorded in purgatory.”

Though Jimmy had a couple of modest hits, he just didn’t fit the r&b market. Mendelsohn was the only one at Savoy who understood the singers talents, and when he left the company temporarily in ’57, Lubinsky sought ways to commercial­ize Jimmy’s sound. He should’ve been presented as a song stylist, like Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington, and if Savoy tried for elegance, the results were strictly kitsch. Jimmy was drowned in cheap strings, turgid arrangements, and the mediocre material Lubinsky owned publishing for. With few exceptions, the recordings from ’58 to ’60 were uniformly awful (masochists can check out the Savoy reissue All Over Again). The nadir of his Savoy career was a 1958 rock & roll session. “I’ll be what I’m not, if that’s what you want,” Jimmy warbles on the aptly titled “What?” For once I don’t believe him.

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“HE WAS lazy,” says Channie. “Jimmy didn’t want the responsibility of bein’ an entertainer. One time he went out an’ got a factory job — just so he wouldn’t have to sing.” Jimmy would squander his big money buying food and drinks for the house, or gamble it away in after-hours joints, then come home without a cent. “I had to make all the financial arrangements, pay all the bills,” says Channie. “It was like he was the woman an’ I was the man. Jimmy put me in a damn-ass trick bag.”

Jimmy disagrees. He says his wife was so hungry for his cash, she’d show up at his gigs with a boyfriend or two to ensure he’d hand over the loot. He admits to spending the money as fast as he could. “When I realized Channie was trying to hog all the bread for herself — I didn’t care how it went then. I’d rather give it away.”

Alcohol was Jimmy’s way out. As Channie puts it, “Booze turns Jimmy into Mr. Hyde.” Jimmy would wait until his last set was over, get roaring drunk, then pick on the biggest guy at the bar, inevitably chal­lenging him to a fight. Friends often talked strangers out of killing the singer. A few drinks and Jimmy wanted to take on the world.

“Sure, I’d get wild and crazy as hell,” admits Jimmy. “I’d drink one night and shit, you couldn’t get me to drink for months and Sundays after that. It look a toll. I know now I was fighting this thing within me — fighting myself, because of all the things I was seeing and living with. Not only are you tryin’ to scuffle with your career, but ya gotta go home and scuffle with your old lady, too. You look up and say, ‘These suckers done used me all this time?’ ”

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We drive all day and still show up late for the gig. Jimmy heads straight for the bar. These days he rarely drinks, but when he does the demons are there to greet him. The gig is at an empty bar in a rundown block in Queens. Not exactly last night’s show — a Washington. D.C. jazz festival with Ray Brown and Milt Jackson. But Jimmy seldom gets gigs like that.

I look around the bar, dreading another three-people-in-the-audi­ence Jimmy gig, but stepping into the back room I come face-to-face with a few hundred black couples dressed to the nines and chanting for Jimmy Scott. Jimmy throws back a drink, hops on the stage, and belts out “All of Me.”

A few more sets, a few more drinks, and Jimmy is flying. He dances across the stage, joking with the audience. “Summertime” turns into an apocalyptic blues, strange new lyrics are improvised to “Geor­gia.” The performance never ends. As the crowd files out, Jimmy even brings Earlene up on the stage, an­nouncing his love affair to the emptying house.

The show is over, but Jimmy won’t leave. I try to get him in the car and he climbs a lamp post. Fi­nally he slides into the passenger seat, although he tries to crawl out the window. After unleashing a tor­rent of abuse on the guy hired to drive, he stops suddenly, turning around to face Earlene. Jimmy’s tux is wrinkled, his hair sticks straight up, a big grin crosses his woozy face. “Give me a little kiss,” he asks his wife. She does. Then he whips back around to the front seat, snarling “Hey motherfucker, what’s your problem?” at the driver. His response is to step on the gas, and we go flying down the highway.

Minutes later Jimmy pops over the front seat, demanding another kiss from Earlene. Then he returns to cursing out the driver. This routine goes on the whole ride home. I hide in the corner of the back seat, hoping he won’t pick on me.

Everybody steers clear of Jimmy once we’re back at the apartment. About to run out of energy, he paces the floor like a tranquilized panther. “Nobody knows me,” he boasts. “I’m the world’s greatest actor.” He begins to sing an old Irving Berlin tune, a song I’ve heard him sing many times when he’s in the middle of despair. “All by my­self in the morning,” he says softly, a horrible grimace smudged on his face. He reaches out to me, but I turn away. Jimmy isn’t surprised. “All by myself in the night.”

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All or Nothing At All

ONE NIGHT after a gig in Connect­icut, Channie tried to run her husband down in the couple’s blue Coupe De Ville. It had been raining; the road was covered with mud. Jimmy and Channie were drunk. “He came outta that club without a dime,” says Channie. “I said, ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker.’ It just so happened the car swerved an’ that saved me from hittin’ his ass. Later I realized it wasn’t worth it — I could’ve gone to prison for life. I didn’t even have any life insurance on the nigger.”

On the next trip to Connecticut, Jimmy tried to kill them both. Channie had begun the long drive back, unaware that Jimmy was silently fuming about the gig money he had just handed over. There they were — four in the morning, in the middle of nowhere on some old country road, when Jimmy took his foot and slammed it down on Channie’s, flooring the gas. “I started pushin’ and kickin’ and hittin’ him with my elbow an’ he was hittin’ back at me,” says Channie. “Jimmy was drunk. He was tore up.”

Channie jumped out of the car and went running down the road, screaming for help. Officers of the law arrived, and they turned out to be Jimmy Scott fans.

The cops offered to let the singer go if he promised to behave. Jimmy politely agreed, much to Channie’s surprise. “I thought, ‘Damn, this man done got hisself together. He done sobered up quick!’ ”

The couple didn’t get too far. Minutes after they got back on the road, Jimmy repeated his trick, and this time the cops were waiting. The couple spent the night in jail. Their relationship continued to deteriorate back in New York. Jimmy’s body is a road map of scars he received one way or another from Channie, and she doesn’t deny it. “Sure I whupped him — he’s little, but he can take them blows. Maybe he don’t feel it.”

There is one record that expresses all the confusion Jimmy was going through. In 1957, during Fred Mendelsohn’s brief stay at King Records, he arranged for Jimmy to cut 12 sides with producer Hen­ry Glover. The best of them was “What Sin,” another blow-by-blow account of a doomed relationship. Jimmy’s voice soars­ above the beat like a sad air-raid siren. “What sin have I committed?” he moans. “What crime am I guilty of? Where did I go wrong, dear? How did I lose your love?”

Jimmy Scott was falling apart. His family was still separated, his marriage to Channie was a disaster, and his career had ground to a halt. He tried to escape it all by turning to the bottle, and for an artist that idolized Paul Robeson and longed to be an example to others, that was the worst failure of all. Jimmy was killing himself.

But those were only his real problems.

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What Sin?

“WOKE UP an’ thought I had a cold,” says Joe August. “Turns out I had a habit.” By the early ’50s, heroin had gone from a secretive hipster high to a more common affliction. In Newark, at joints like the Downbeat Club and the Joy Tavern, musicians could cop from house dealers the minute they stepped off the bandstand. “Everybody got high back then — everybody,” says August. “Who knew it would kill us?”

Narcotic use destroyed many great mu­sicians. But so could suspected narcotic use. Even the squarest performers had to be extra cautious in New York City, New­ark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Para­doxically the town where Jimmy drew his biggest crowds, Philly had a notorious reputation for harassing black musicians the minute there was any rumor of drugs. One afternoon in the early ’50s, it hap­pened to Jimmy Scott.

“I was playing in a club on Market Street with a piano player, Red Garland,” says Scott. “I walked into the club, ordered me a drink, and pow! This cat dragged me outside, slapped me upside my head and shoved me in a car.”

Another entertainer had fingered Jimmy for smuggling narcotics out of Cleve­land. “Somebody had the idea I was carryin’. Carryin’ what? Buddy, I didn’t have a damn thing — I didn’t know anything about sellin’ dope.” Yet he wasn’t surprised by the accusation. “They wanted the guy to name names, so bein’ from Cleveland he picked me. Entertainers were lyin’ on each other all the time — just to get the man off their back.”

The detectives found he was clean, but his troubles were far from over. Curious about the singer’s high voice and delicate looks, they demanded he strip naked. Jimmy rarely discusses this incident, and when you hear him mimic the officers’ gruff voices, you understand why. “‘What is he, a boy or a girl? His name is Jimmy. Must be a girl, has a high voice anyhow. Take off your clothes, faggot!’ Then they pushed me around, in front of everybody. I think today, why did I let that happen? But shit — these were officers of the law.”

The cops hounded Jimmy throughout ’50s, knocking down the door in the middle of the night, ransacking his apartment in search of contraband. Then they’d take the singer downtown for inter­rogations that more than a few times ended with Jimmy doing a nauseating striptease for the law. He was never formally charged with anything, yet the damage had been done. Word was out — Jimmy was a junkie. Why else would the cops be messing with him?

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Jimmy openly admits to his one experi­ence with heroin — a disastrous late ’40s encounter snorting the drug in Milwaukee that he insists scared him away forever. If he was using, he fooled those closest to him. Channie, who certainly has no vested interest in protecting her ex-husband, says, “It was a lie. I was married to the man for five years an’ he don’t have a needle mark on his body.

For some people, just watching him perform was evidence enough. Not only did he look high, but he sounded it, with the weird way he stretched out the notes. And there was the company he kept. “I was with guys who were coppin’. I was with guys who were kickin’,” says the singer. “Some entertainers turned their back on ’em because of their habit, but I couldn’t — these were my friends. Big Maybelle, Sonny Stitt, Bird, all of ’em. They’d be sittin’ in front of me shootin’ theyself, sayin’, ‘Look here, Jimmy Scott, if I ever catch you doin’ this shit, I’m gonna bust your brains out.’ ”

Once the rumors started, they were impossible to stop. Dealers approached Jimmy in every town he played. Other entertainers talked behind his back. Just last year, a New York news show lost interest in doing a story on Jimmy when Earlene informed them he hadn’t been a junkie. Jimmy says the music industry spread the lie, that they used any dirt they could find on black artists to further con­trol their careers. He says the worst vic­tims were people like Big Maybelle. While token efforts were made by booking agen­cies and the record companies to get her off drugs, Jimmy insists this was only to cover up the way they robbed her blind.

Others say self-destructive artists like Maybelle would have done themselves in anyway, and feel Jimmy is just making excuses for his real problem — alcohol. “The record company squeezed black art­ists — they figured if they didn’t somebody else would,” says Lee Magid. “But it doesn’t matter if they’re faggots or dopers or boozers, they’re gonna blame the rec­ord company, the promoters, the wives. The world did it to ’em. They don’t take the blame themselves.”

I try to argue this point with Jimmy, but he quietly maintains that he’s not just speaking for himself, but for all the artists he watched go down the drain. “Every­body I knew back then, believe me, baby, they’re all dead. They’re actually not on this earth. Can you blame all that on self­-destruction?”

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“Tell me about Willie John, Jim­my.” I’m always asking about Willie John. With records like “Need Your Love So Bad” and “Suffering With the Blues,” John’s one of the few singers who matched Jimmy’s inten­sity. The two ran together in the ‘5os. What a lethal combo — small, tough, and willing to fight until the end, although Willie didn’t make it, having died in prison after stabbing a man in a crap game. Jimmy doesn’t like to talk about Willie John, but tonight he says he’s got something to show me and goes off into the other room.

He returns with a tiny black-and-­white picture. “Somebody gave it to me in Detroit,” he whispers. Willie John sits in a chair, all dressed up in a flashy gangster suit and hat, a nasty grin on his teenage face. In his lap sits Etta James, her overripe body stuffed into a skintight dress, her big face caked with makeup. They are a magnificent couple, but look too young for the roles they play. They seem trapped. Jimmy stares at the photo and smiles. The picture is impenetrable to me.

I plan to blow the photo up so Jimmy and I can study every detail, but as he sticks it in a drawer I decide to put it off. The following week I ask him for the picture. He looks everywhere but it’s gone.

A few days later, I call Channie. She’s had a few drinks. We talk about her favorite singers — Judy Garland, Big Maybelle, Billie Holi­day, and Jimmy Scott. “They’re all dead ‘cept for Jimmy,” she says. “Ain’t that funny?”

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The Masquerade Is Over

THE END for Jimmy and Channie came on July 17, 1959. “He had worked in Connecticut again,” remembers Channie, “and we had gotten into a big fight. I said, ‘This is it — you never have no mon­ey, you never do nuthin’.’ And in the middle of it all, a voice came over the radio — ‘We interrupt this broadcast to tell you Billie Holiday is dead.’ Oh my good­ness, it was the saddest day.” The couple stayed together to officiate over Billie’s funeral — Jimmy’s sunglasses hiding a black eye from Channie — then went their separate ways after a messy divorce.

On November 30, 1960, there was one last session at Savoy. Lubinsky — too cheap to succumb to payola demands — went back to cutting gospel records. Al­though hampered by the usual $1.98 string section, Jimmy was in top form, particularly on the single released from the session, “My Romance,” pouring his heart out in the lament for a mythical love. The record went nowhere.

The early ’60s were tough on jazz and r&b artists — or anybody else who didn’t play rock & roll. The sense of community Jimmy had enjoyed with the struggling musicians around him — his surrogate family, really — was about to end. Artists were fighting one another over the few gigs left; others killed themselves with heroin. Jimmy sunk to the bottom of rock & roll bills, backed by musicians who didn’t know the tunes and didn’t care.

The singer went to California for a gig and wound up staying. Ray Charles, who had shared the bill with Jimmy in his Hampton days, had started Tangerine, his own label, and Jimmy was the first singer he wanted to record. Charles played piano throughout the impeccable selection of standards and put a string section behind the singer.

“I finally got the chance to sing with the instrumentation I wanted,” says Jim­my dreamily. Jimmy was deeply affected by working with Charles. and calls their collaboration as “a meeting of the souls.” The record was titled Falling in Love is Wonderful.

It was a profound combination — the blind pianist and the so-called “little” singer with the womanly voice. Both knew how it felt to be considered an outcast; both had experienced more than their share of controversy. “People who are born with limited equipment — or what they perceive as limited equipment — they find each other,” says Doc Pomus. “There’s a fraternity of fucked-up people in the world.”

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“Why can’t I be more conventional? People talk, people stare, so I try,” sings Jimmy in “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” the desperation of his Savoy rec­ords replaced by a languid defiance. “Let people wonder, let them laugh, let them stare,” he decides, his voice as cool as a Central Park snowfall. Why try to change Jimmy Scott now, he is saying. I am what I am. I can dig it — can you?

Charles had no problem with Jimmy’s strange sense of time. “You don’t insult people,” he says. “If they’re good and they know what they’re doin’, you let them do it. You don’t go makin’ ’em somethin’ you want ’em to be. It wasn’t a complicated thing. Everything was very easy-flowin’, man. Just like Jimmy.”

Jimmy sent for his father to come out and watch the sessions. At first Arthur was impressed, but seeing his son receive the star treatment day after day drove him crazy. Jimmy left behind everything in L.A. to drive his father back to Cleveland. “Dad, he wasn’t gonna go home on the bus,” says Jimmy. Back in Ohio, he wait­ed for the Tangerine album to come out. “You couldn’t have told me that record wasn’t gonna be a hit.” he says. It almost happened.

“Every time I played the record, there’d be some new person asking, ‘What is the name of that woman singing — she is incredible!’ ” says Joel Dorn, then a jazz DJ in Philadelphia. “Every­body thought it was a chick singer. So naturally, in explaining that Jimmy wasn’t a chick it called so much attention to him that every record store in the area got hundreds of calls. The response was stun­ning. Until the lawsuit came out.”

Herman Lubinsky had an injunction placed against the record, claiming Jimmy was still under contract to Savoy. Rather than face a lawsuit, Tangerine stopped distribution. Lubinsky made certain no record company would go near Jimmy for another six years. “To this day I don’t know what Lubinsky gained from it,” says Joe Adams, longtime business associate of Ray Charles. “I just think he did Jimmy more harm.”

Few people heard the record. The only copy Jimmy owns is full of scratches and missing a cover. “All you wanted was a decent home life, a decent opportunity to express the depths of what you were all about as a singer,” he says. “But it never happened. I never really got over.”

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Address Unknown

JIMMY REMAINED in Cleve­land, remarrying in ’65 and taking a job as a hotel shipping clerk. His spare time was devoted to a study of world religion, particularly the teachings of Yogananda. He contemplated entering the ministry of his mother’s religion, the Spiritualist Church. Music was confined to occasional weekend gigs. In 1969, Joel Dorn — now a successful producer at Atlantic Rec­ords — brought Jimmy back. An uneven record, The Source is marred by an over­dubbed string section and material that strains to be contemporary, but on three cuts — “I Wish I Knew,” “This Love of Mine,” and “Day by Day” — Jimmy took his singing to new extremes.

“Day by Day” is the album’s center­piece and the singer’s greatest recording. Jimmy ‘s subtle phrasing and dramatic time changes had grown so sophisticated that the song sounds devoid of melody, but the more one hears it, the more its riverlike tempos sweep you away. Unbe­lievably, Jimmy was singing even slower than he had in the past, stripping lyrics down to their barest meaning, rendering each phrase so succinctly you could stick it in a fortune cookie. And while the sadness in his music was more devastating than ever, a Zen calm permeated every note. “There isn’t any end to my devotion,” he murmurs. “It’s deeper, dear, by far, than any ocean.”

Jimmy had made sense of his life, come to terms with the past. He credits this to his religious, studies and the time he away from the business. “After a while you grow up,” says Jimmy. “It’s like the old saying goes, ‘when a man reaches the end of his rope, he comes to the begin­ning of God.’ ” Unfortunately the world didn’t share in his knowledge. The Source received no promotion, and many of those who heard it failed to comprehend. “I remember people hearin’ the album and sating, “Wow, that’s weird!’ ‘” says producer Dorn. “Jimmy makes me feel the way Edith Piaf does; he can reach that far into emotion. But it’s so much emotion it’s just not comfortable for people.”

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“Why was I born?” Another night, another gig, and once again Jimmy Scott is singing all by himself. The thrown-together band doesn’t know the tune. so Jimmy has graciously asked them to sit this one out. “Why am I living?” This old show tune from the ’20s once served as background music for many a suicide.

“Why do I cry … You’ll never hear me.” The white audience at this jazz club doesn’t get it. Some people fidget in their chairs, others look at the floor. One guy winces at the singer, as if he has stared too long at the sun. “Why was I born?” Jimmy cries, letting the question hang in the air for an eternity.

“Why was I born?” he asks again, his arms outstretched to the crowd before him. “To love you,” he says softly, dropping his head to his chest.

Day By Day

IN 1970 JIMMY fell while on the hotel job, severely damaging his back. The injury still causes him continual pain, particularly onstage. After Lubinsky died of cancer in ’74, Mendelsohn cut one last Savoy album on Jimmy in ’75. Begin Again was a disaster. The arranger he hired showed up drunk, without any charts, and the young musicians didn’t know Jimmy’s material. The record was ignored.

Jimmy’s third marriage ended in another difficult divorce, and he moved into a senior citizen’s home, becoming president of the building’s council. “He would always be helping somebody, driving them to the grocery store or the doctor,” says Lucille Chapman, a neighbor and friend. Chapman couldn’t help but notice the sorrow that hovered over Jimmy. “It was always there — even on the good days. Something was missing, you could tell. It was his mother. He missed her quite a bit.”

In ’79 Arthur Scott had a stroke. To pass the time Jimmy took his father fishing. Since he was paralyzed on one side, Jimmy would ready his line. “Dad said, ‘here boy, cast this out for me,’ and handed me his favorite fishing pole,” Jimmy remembers. “I went to cast it and the thing just lifted out of my hands and flew into the water. Oh man, I felt so bad about that. He loved that pole.

“But it was the funniest thing. I said, ‘Let’s go buy a new one. I’ll get one, let’s go somewhere.’ I really wanted to replace it. But he said, ‘No boy, don’t worry about it. Forget about it.’ It was like he knew nobody else would get to use that pole.”

A few months later his father was back in the hospital. Jimmy went to see him. “Visiting time was up so I started out the door. He raised up und said, “Boy, don’r think too hard of me, hear?” Arthur Scott died the next day.

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My Romance 

THROUGHOUT THE years Jim­my had kept in touch with his old flame, Earlene. “Sometimes I’d get down in the dumps and play Jimmy’s records,” she remembers, “and my mother would say, ‘Uh-oh,’ ’cause she knew what was comin’ next. I don’t care when I’d play them, he’d call. If it wasn’t that night it was the next day. So help me, it was like he knew I needed him.”

Long separated from her husband John, Earlene was still in Newark, living with her mother, when she received a letter from Jimmy Scott. After all these years he wanted to get back together. “I called him up and asked what he was doin’, and he said, ‘Nuthin.’ He told me he was gonna be a minister. Jimmy had given up singing altogether.”

Earlene went to Cleveland. “He al­ready had all these pens, cups, and statio­nery that said “James and Earlene Scott.’ I couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “I asked him if I got him an interview on the radio would he come back to singing, and he said, “Only if you promise to marry me.’ ” She returned home and, being a longtime contributor to Newark’s jazz sta­tion, WBGO, pleaded with them to put Jimmy on the air. At first the woman on the phone insisted Jimmy Scott had died long ago. Earlene was furious. “I said, ‘He is not dead. He’s in Cleveland!’ ”

That following week, Jimmy appeared on Bob Porter’s show and ended up stay­ing for hours, talking to fans. Not long after, Jimmy made his first professional engagement in years at Newark’s Mirage Club. “That place was packed,” says Ear­lene, who had married the singer on Feb­ruary 14, Valentine ‘s Day, nearly 40 years after their first meeting. “Jimmy had tears in his eyes. He didn’t know that so many people enjoyed and missed him. He thought they had forgot.”

The happy ending stops there. Jimmy’s reputation is still so underground his comeback has meant little. He’s playing the same kind of dives he sang in 30 years ago. Jimmy has to hire inexperi­enced musicians who can’t handle his time changes, and most of the gigs are unadvertised. I’ve seen him perform to an audience of three — Earlene, her mother, and me. He has no record company, no manager, no band. And Jimmy is singing better than ever.

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One day Jimmy hands me three sheets of legal paper. Across the top of the first page is written,”For Whatever the Reason.” The elegant longhand is Jimmy’s.”My Prob­lems did not take effect until my Thirteenth Birthday in that year my mother was killed by a car accident immediately I realized I was totally alone.” Both he and his brother Kenny were born with Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hereditary condition that affects one in a thousand. “The brain doesn’t secrete the proper hormones to stimulate testicular functions,” says Dr. Joann C. Findley, an assistant professor of medi­cine at University Hospital in Cleve­land. “Essentially, those born with it haven’t gone through puberty.” Jimmy’s voice has the power to break women’s hearts, make men cry. Even his saddest songs have saved marriages from divorce. His voice has joined the world, and sep­arated him from us.

When Jin1my was born, Kall­mann’s was a mystery; now it can be treated. Kenny Scott only found out a few years ago about hormone shots. “It’s helped me a lot. but you know Jimmy, he can’t stand to take a needle, and besides,” Kenny pauses for a moment, “it would probably do to Jimmy what it did to me. Change his voice.”

A few days later I leave Jimmy’s after a long interview. In the last week, his life has begun to make awful sense. I stand and wait for the elevator, thinking about the father that never loved Jimmy. The doomed marriages.”Little” Jimmy Scott, the dopefiend afraid of needles, standing naked before those fucking cops. What would I have done in his shoes? Get drunk and go crazy or put a bullet through my head? “God made me this way,” Jimmy says. “It’s too late to change it.”

As the ancient elevator rumbles up to my floor, I notice a discarded old picture by my foot. It’s an old watercolor illustration of Jesus. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, sitting in a sunlit garden. Around him are gathered three little children, dressed in their finest Sunday school clothes. It is an idyl­lic image, seductively innocent. Un­til I look closer.

A small blond child is sitting in the lap of Jesus, pointing to his paint. “What happened to your hands?” she asks.

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All the Way

JIMMY SCOTT stands in front of the microphone, his first real recording session in 12 years. On the other side of thc glass sits his producer — me. When I interviewed Quincy Jones, he said that if I got him a demo tape of Jimmy with a good pianist, he’d take care of the rest. So I took him up on the offer, using the money I’d make from this article to produce the demo myself.

Lottery tickets would have been a wiser investment. The session began with a good omen — the studio turned out to be where Jimmy had cut his first records with Hampton. But there was no money, no arrangements, and the pianist was just the wrong choice for Jimmy. Instead of slicking to the melody and staying out of the singer’s way, he kept second-guessing the next note Jimmy would land on, What were once songs had become exercises in dissonance.

The atmosphere in the studio was grim. Each new take sounded more vague than the last. I got uptight. Jimmy got uncom­fortable. I put my head down on the console, figuring I was just contributing to another disaster in Jimmy’s career.

Then Jimmy changed everything. Before the session, I had asked him to do a couple of a cappella numbers. He was noncommittal, so I dropped it. But Jimmy hadn’t forgotten.

A long drag off the cigarette, then Jimmy closed his eyes and slowly began to sing an old Sinatra tune. For once nothing held him back, and his colossal voice echoed around the studio. “When somebody loves you, it’ s no good unless they love you ALL THE WAY.” He sounded so sad. And so full of hope.

Nobody said a word when it was over. The pianist’s head was bowed; the recording booth silent. I wanted to hug Jimmy, but he was on the other side of the glass.

Back he went to his cigarette, awkward­ly shuffling the pages on his music stand. Jimmy looked frail, spent. He seemed indifferent to the past four minutes, even though he had said everything there is to say about Jimmy Scott. As usual, he had done it the only way he has ever done it. All by himself. ■


Jazz Wars in the ’70s

It All Depends on What You Know

In the mid-’60s, someone — I’m not sure who, though Gabor Szabo sticks in the brain — declared that jazz was dead. The observation is made whenever jazz is mutating, but once again a tremor rippled through the music’s cloisters as scribes hastily prepared a de­fense. At least one expression of increduli­ty was predictable: “Jazz dead? Is Louis Armstrong dead?” It seemed almost taste­less to point out that jazz was in big trouble if its future depended on one mor­tal’s coil, even Louis Armstrong’s. Apostasy made great strides. Miles Davis said calling him a jazz musician was like calling him a nigger. Jazz became Jazz & Pop, the Playboy jazz poll went the way of narrow ties (which, come to think of it, are back), and Down Beat’s readers voted Jimi Hendrix into the jazz hall of fame. By 1975, the intimidation was so widespread that out of dozens of young musicians I interviewed for an article, only a few would admit to playing jazz or knowing what it was; an agent for Stanley Clarke insisted he not be included if the article was about jazz. Meanwhile King Louis died. So did Duke Ellington.

Then, about three or four years ago, a turnabout started. Jazz, it transpired, had not died, it had simply gone away; now, it was back — Time and Newsweek each came to the same conclusion. Internation­al jazz festivals proliferated (even Playboy sponsored one). Stevie Wonder and Jim­my Carter announced that they liked jazz. Fats Waller and Eubie Blake were carted back to Broadway (where their music was dejazzified, but let’s not quibble), Alvin Ailey choreographed hours of Ellington, Mikhail Baryshnikov danced minutes to Cecil Taylor, and Scott Joplin (who died in 1917, and whose relationship to jazz in this regard is more symbolic than real) won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. More significantly, young jazz musicians were willing to come out of the closet, especially after George Benson copped a platinum record for Breezin’. People who felt intimidated by the difficulties of jazz could now feel superior to its bourgeois sentimentality. Creed Taylor, Inc. had paved the middle of the road, and soon there were Chuck Mangione records for your maiden aunt and Maynard Ferguson records for your high school football coach. Herbie and Chick made jazz cute, Bob James, John Klemmer, Grover Washington, Tom Scott, and George Duke were on the charts, while the minions of Miles Davis took a trip down memory lane via V.S.O.P.; Keith Jarrett was baptized an Artist, Bobbi Humphrey a Flutist, and Donald Byrd an Ethnomusicologist. May­be Jazz had died.

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This heresy occurred to me on air­planes. I didn’t mind if the middle classes thought jazz was Mangione rapping with Merv, there was nothing new about that. Did I really want to see David Murray rapping with Merv? But when I studied the menu of Billboard horrors on in-flight “jazz” channels, I did worry about our adventurous, music-loving youth, and the impenetrable cloak of commercial red her­rings that kept them from the real thing. How could anyone become interested in jazz from the available samplings, the meretricious make-out music manufac­tured out of lulling rhythm tracks, impersonal solos, cooing voices, and glutinous strings. I wondered: If I were 15 and knew only the processed jazz of mass media, what would I think of jazz? I’d think it was corny and predictable, without spirit or spontaneity.

A humbling thought. For what was jazz to me if not a celebration of the individual, fueled with spirit and spontaneity, sparked with irreverence? Jazz was a challenge to the listener and a risk to the performer, an expression of freedom, in the phrase of Thelonious Monk, who went on to say: “Don’t play what the public wants — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are — even if it does take them 15, 20 years.” Jazz was sublimely and lovingly seditious, and sometimes not so lovingly. But here it was splitting apart like a frazzled amoeba, jazz qua merchandise all but engulfing jazz qua jazz.

This was not entirely unprecedented or unexpected. Jazz hipness achieved total insularity in the ’60s, and a swing to the other extreme was inevitable. A dearth of interesting popular music served as a welcoming hand to jazz musicians who could cross over, and a tradition of easy-listen­ing-jazz provided models. So after the pained incantations of A Love Supreme came the Scientological doggerel of Return to Forever, after Free Jazz the CTI system of music in overdubbed layers, after Miles in the Sky Miles On the Corner, after the steamy crossrhythms of McCoy Tyner the portentous navel-gazing of Keith Jarrett, after the eccentric bombast of Tony Wil­liam’s Emergency! the wholesome treacle of Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber. Much rewarding jazz has resulted from the rec­onciliation of jazz and pop, from Armstrong’s “Star Dust” to Davis’s Bitches Brew, but Spyro Gyra — !

The historical relationship of jazz and pop mixes symbiosis with reproof. In the ’20s, ’40s, and ’60s, jazz was resolutely piloted by its avant garde, so much so that even today the Hot Five, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman are more heard of then heard. But in the ’30s, ’50s, and ’70s, a taming of the extremist impulses and the compromising influence of pop effected a cooler dialectic. The changeover of the past decade was particularly strenuous for two reasons. First, the avant garde of Coleman, Coltrane, Taylor, and Ayler posited the jazz equivalent of the white-­on-white canvas or the nonnarrative novel. Having discovered that melody, rhythm, and harmony were neither sacred nor pro­fane, but neutral and infinitely adaptable, jazz had to take the long road back to rediscover the richness of its past, ferret out new juxtapositions, and relearn the axioms (if any existed) of its tradition. This was done in the leaderless at­mosphere that constitutes reason number two. Jazz is an eternal wedding of im­provisation and composition, and the ’70s claimed its greatest improvisor, Armstrong, and its greatest composer, Ell­ington. When the royalty of an art die, a pall is cast that is no less real for being metaphysical. It’s as if those deaths place the art beyond the sustenance of history in an untethered present; eclecticism reigns as the past is raked for guidance and validation. Suddenly, Armstrong and Ellington were renewed sources of pride, and in the absence of a dynamic leader the entire tradition was renewed as an unplundered text. New standards had to be in­voked, and the ’70s might be described as a period of blind runs and free falls. The obvious places to look for those standards were the jazz past (rural blues to Cecil Taylor) and neighboring musics (rock, pop, Europe, the third world, etc.).

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I find symbolic forecasts of the un­moored ’70s in Lester Bowie’s “Jazz Death?” (1968) and the first side of Tony Williams’s Emergency! (1969). Each is prophetic on a number of levels. The Bowie recording (heard on Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious) is an unaccom­panied trumpet solo, and if the ’60s had to accept the collective effusions of Free Jazz and Ascension, the ’70s capitulated to countless hours of the solo solo. After a brief parodic opening, Bowie, in the person of Dave Flexingbergstein of Jism maga­zine, asks if jazz “as we know it” is dead. Later, in the midst of a performance that includes a march figure, torrid balladry, raspberries, a bop riff, and a mocking wah­-wah rejoinder, Bowie cavalierly responds, “Well, I guess it all depends on what you know.” As it turned out, many musicians — especially those who, like Bowie, were involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) and similar organizations — spent much of the decade showing us what they knew. The daffy eclecticism that made Jaki Byard a lone duck in the ’60s became everyday nourishment in the ’70s. Bowie’s cocky irreverence and the dry humor of his conceit also emerged as familiar traits of the decade’s hard jazz. Perhaps the most promising aspect of “Jazz Death?” was the assurance with which it marshaled half a century of jazz phrases and effects without a predetermined structure.

The first side of Williams’s seminal two-record set, Emergency!, shows the strengths and pitfalls of the fusion move­ment. To a degree, this album, issued before Bitches Brew and showcasing a trio of Williams, John McLaughlin, and Larry Young, made fusion a reality. The title selection fused jazz improvisation and en­semble interplay with the color and vi­olent energy of rock, and the result was jolting and savage; I can think of no subse­quent fusion endeavor that surpasses its flailing, nearly claustrophobic tension. It promised a startling, dangerous future. But with “Beyond Games,” the churning rhythms part for a Williams recitation of shocking banality and ineptitude. “Why don’t you say what you mean/you didn’t mean what you said,” he whines like a piker Bob Dylan, and in place of Bowie’s wit is a humorless will-to-profundity that would plague much of the fusion to follow. “Indeed, a comparison of Bowie’s and Wil­liams’s work in the ’70s establishes addi­tional prototypes: Bowie’s music remained constant and strong while Williams, smit­ten not only by the dream of fusion but of commercial success, vitiated his music to ­the extent that the promise of “Emer­gency” began to seem like an accident.

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So jazz in the ’70s boiled down to a debate between the non­compromising eclectics and the compromising eclectics, a debate that escalated into a class war. Monied groups with major record label affiliations played concert halls; a middle class of dependable mainstream-modern attractions monopolized the established jazz clubs; the new and avant were accom­modated briefly by the loft scene, and then by a network of new clubs and theatres. Numerous exceptions to this pic­ture don’t alter its veracity. Jazz radio became fusion radio, while the record in­dustry, puffing away at the jazz-is-back myth with one overproduced confection after another, steadfastly ignored serious young or mainstream jazz musicians, en­couraging by default the modest rise of independents. Some of the latter attracted cults and were leased by the majors­ — Pablo by RCA, ECM by Polydor and then Warners; Inner City, an outgrowth of Mu­sic Minus One, amassed an immense catalogue from European labels. Few of the ma-and-pa operations that attempted to replace the ignominiously slaughtered Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse labels achieved better than minimal distribu­tion, but by decade’s end Fanta offered its Galaxy line, Arista its Novus, and Columbia an occasionally adventurous signing. There was never a stir from MCA or Capitol.

If the most important developments centered around modernism and fusion, two subordinate movements also con­tributed to the period’s identity — the rise of jazz repertory and the continuous rediscovery of its forgotten ancients and not­-so-ancients, most particularly Eubie Blake and Alberta Hunter, though every year had its share of comebacks. These four areas suggest a period of fertility, but it must also be acknowledged that one very crucial area of jazz foundered on the critical list. I’m talking about jazz singing. The Bessie-Billie-Ella-Sarah-Dinah dynasty is without heir or heiress, unless it be Betty Carter, who in her late forties was widely acclaimed as the last of the Mohicans. Until the ’70s, it didn’t seem quite so certain that jazz singing would be a casualty of jazz evolution. But how could it be otherwise? The classic jazz singers were dependent on the very material jazz has generally abandoned, and Aretha Franklin has made soul the most attrac­tive idiom for expressive young singers. Thirty years ago, Millie Jackson might have been a superb jazz singer; today I can’t imagine her doing anything but what she does. Singers who are attracted to jazz tend to follow one of three avenues: they develop styles to complement the modern instrumental forms, sell themselves as fusion props, or nostalgically recreate the good old days. But there should be a fourth option, to fashion a contemporary setting for a time-honored idiom. This still means acknowledging an old repertoire (some of the best of which is practically virgin territory; for example, the Billy Strayhorn songbook), because most con­temporary pop songs are either too har­monically bleak or too self-consciously maudlin and hook-laden to suit the needs of the jazz singer, and a swinging rhythm section. I thought Dee Dee Bridgewater and Randy Crawford were most likely to make the grade, but jazz didn’t hold them and they’ve become versatile hacks.

Much of the tendency towards hackery can be blamed on fusion. In the notes to a debut album released last year, a pianist named Rodney Franklyn was quoted as follows: “When I was nine years old, I used to listen to Herbie and Chick and say, ‘I can do that!’ ” Whereupon he proceeded to recreate the funky superficialities of Tweedle-dee’s and Tweedle-dum’s styles, reserving one selection for the kind of acoustic piano romance that is presum­ably intended to please a kindly old piano teacher. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were ubiquitous, and it’s hard to tell why. Both were Miles Davis sidemen and pro­lific jazz musicians who aimed for smaller things in the ’70s. Hancock applied his compositional talent to fashioning riffs in a meticulous kind of funk that had little to do with jazz, and Corea used his similar talents to organize a band that did at­tempt to fuse jazz and rock, until the latter overpowered the former and only gaseous bombast escaped. Gimmickry aided them at every turn — perhaps the ultimate example is Hancock making himself a singer by talking into a vocoder — but with the possible exception of a bass riff on Hancock’s “Chameleon,” they’ve composed little as enduring as their early work (“Maiden Voyage,” Empyrean Isles, “La Fiesta,” “Crystal Silence”). Han­cock’s attempt to present himself as a shy Sly Stone and Corea’s insufferably adorable sense of humor have produced embarrassments, and their periodic forays into jazz during the last couple of years have been only moderately satisfying.

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It’s not irrelevant to note that Corea is a proselytizing Scientologist and Hancock a Shoshu Bhuddist, in that so much of the worst fusion music isn’t content with mere music, but with our spirituality. Imagine! — jazz musicians attaining the shallows of Rod McKuen. I’m reminded of Nietzsche excoriating Wagner (Stanley Clarke’s fa­vorite composer): “He repeated a single fact all his life long: that his music did not mean mere music. But more. But infinite­ly more! — ‘Not mere music’ — no musician would say that.” The tendentiousness of the fusion propagandists means less, in­finitely less — love, peace, L. Ron Hubbard, be real, learn to fly, have a nice day. Technique and sentimentality became ev­erything — there has never been a gener­ation that so worshipped technique for its own sake as this one. The music of the ’70s is rife with funny noises — either primitive (a table of Latin percussion) or sophisti­cated (tiers of synthesizer keyboards) — ­suggesting third world, exotica and extraterrestrial mysteries, much of it cheap and silly. References to science fiction are legion.

By decade’s end, fusion had de­generated into formula — even for compe­tent players: Al DiMeola, Brecker Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Crusaders, Pat Metheny, et al. — and it was difficult to believe that it ever had spunk. But 10 years ago it did. Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Tony Williams, Weath­er Report, the original Return to Forever, Larry Coryell, and Mahavishnu Orchestra all suggested a revitalization of space, color, and rhythm, an assimilation of the strengths of both schools. That paled quickly enough, as accessibility became the absolute goal. Instead of fusion, we saw gifted musicians lending their talents to the tepid excesses of an aesthetically failed movement — Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Gary Bartz, Cedar Walton, Blue Mitchell, and Raul deSouza among them. And how could the results sound fresh when the productions were devised by failed jazzmen and Hollywood hacks brought into the labels to create fashionable settings, arrangers like Don Sebeskey, Bob James, Dave Grusin, and Lalo Schifrin, who filched the worst aspects of rock and jazz — the polite, the weatherbeaten, the humorless. The for­mula took a predictable shape: im­maculate, tuned rhythms; hooky bass patterns; static harmonies. It was erotic but unthreatening, spontaneous in dollops, mindless, and meticulous — a Puritan’s dream.

Quite simply, the bottom line is this: jazz and pop are incompatible when jazz is subordinated to pop. When you strait­jacket jazz, it becomes a corrupted affec­tation, a seasoning. Where fusion might have incorporated rock sonics to bolster improvisation and slice through the mud­dle of Top-40 sentimentality, it turned to easy-listening sophistication, complete with doggerel, cloying guitar sonorities, pretentious interludes from 19th-century Europe, and synthesizer-replicated strings. The tonal and spatial adventures of Bitches Brew and the extravagant har­monies and instrumentation of Gil Evans were abandoned. The decline of Weather Report is indicative: Joe Zawinul is a composer of intimations, a master of at­mosphere and not of substance. With his Austrian sense of foreboding, he can com­bine rhythm, repetition, and color for menace; but he’s no melodist — his tunes are derivative, self-conscious, and dis­honestly chirpy — and his counterpoint is stilted. It isn’t fair to disparage Weather Report’s latest work for not being jazz and not showcasing Wayne Shorter in a way commensurate with his jazz abilities, yet the road from I Sing the Body Electric to Mr. Gone demonstrates an increasing capitulation to the Puritan ethic, as cleanliness and simplicity enfeeble the audacity that the group now reveals only in concert. No less disheartening is Michael Gregory Jackson’s Heart & Cen­ter, an undistinguished bandwagon effort even by the low standards of the genre, in which an intriguing young artist who had made interesting and personal statements now shows he can create lyrics as precious, melodies as unfocused, and rhythms as damp as anyone else’s.

It’s interesting to note that the cliché-­ridden improvisations of much fusion re­flect the immense influence of John Col­trane, incontestably the most imitated musician of the ’70s. The most challenging new saxophonists of the decade — David Murra, Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe, Chico Free­man, Anthony Braxton, and Oliver Lake, not to mention the increasingly personal acolyte of swing tenor, Scott Hamilton­ — have circumvented Coltrane, while the sound of commercial jazz is infatuated with his storming arpeggios. Miles Davis provided fusion with official approval and formal inspiration, as well as on-the-job training for just about everyone of im­portance in the movement, but Coltrane provided the soloists with their notes. Not since the legion of Lester Young and/or Charlie Parker followers in the late ’40s has a jazz musician attracted so large and rapt a band of disciples. But Young’s example inspired lyricism while Coltrane’s fosters scalar virtuosity, and virtuosity combined with crashing two-beats and aggressive sound systems is what fusion too frequently substitutes for ingenuity and feeling. The best of Young’s disciples evolved their own style’s eventually, and this will undoubtedly be the case with Coltrane’s — at the moment, Michael Brecker, for one, bears watching.

There were musicians who achieved commercial success without electronics — notably McCoy Tyner, the most influential pianist of the decade — but the in­evitable acoustic backlash made Keith Jarrett suddenly loom as a savior, an im­passioned American Chopin whose every contact with a keyboard was deemed holy writ. Jarrett lacked Chopin’s taste, gift for melody, and sense of overall structure, but it didn’t matter — he was decidedly a man of his times: music in the ’70s wasn’t out to freeze the moment, but to enchant and subdue it. “Trance music” was a part of every critic’s jargon, and no one was more adept at provoking the stony stare than Jarrett, a romantic sensualist of limited sensuality. Anyway, most jazz in the ’70s was acoustic; you just had to be in a big city to find it.

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The big news in New York was the invasion of outland forces, musicians from Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Mississippi, and elsewhere who were associated with the avant garde, but didn’t sound like Coltrane or Coleman or Taylor. Muhal Richard Abrams, the co­founder and first president of the AACM, was acknowledged as a guru, and by the mid-’70s was frequently encountered in loft settings, churches, and clubs, playing in every imaginable context. There were a few thrilling years there, because you nev­er knew what to expect. The atmosphere led you to expect the unexpected, and at almost every concert you were introduced to another musician with something to say. There were Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton with painted faces, appear­ing in a “happening” by artist Frederick Brown; and Hamiet Bluiett leading a dozen or more players in an Ascension-like revel for an audience half the size of the band; and David Murray playing bit­tersweet melodies with a fuzzy tone; and Chico Freeman alternating between thoroughbred swing and arcane tribal rhythms; and Arthur Blythe contrapuntally involved with a tuba or swaggering In the Tradition; and Julius Hemphill invok­ing the Gotham Minstrels or trading aphorisms with Oliver Lake; and Anthony Davis turning from impressionistic pastiche to Ellington’s “The Clothed Woman”; and Roscoe Mitchell repeating a skimpy arpeggio for 15 minutes; and Leo Smith picking his way through a forest of brass and percussion instruments; and Europeans like Willem Breuker and Evan Parker unveiling their own angles on post-­freedom freedom; and Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins establishing themselves as the all-purpose rhythm section; and Jack DeJohnette escaping the tepid Compost to forge New Directions; and Lester Bowie choreographing 50 musicians in the balconies of Symphony Space; and Blood Ulmer proving that a meaningful fusion of new wave jazz and new wave rock was still worth trying; and on and on and on. Some of it was frankly experimental, ephemeral and dull. Most of it was accomplished and enriching.

The loft scene, which started as a couple of playing spaces managed by Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers, mushroomed and peaked by 1976. It was exciting to get to know the work of all these musicians, and 50 more, by hearing them in a diver­sity of playing situations, but for the musi­cians the carnival atmosphere proved stultifying. They felt frustrated by all the obstacles to organizing working bands­ — many a cappella concerts were strictly a make-do situation — and the lofts simply weren’t conducive, economically or emo­tionally, to longterm leader-and-sideman commitments. When they were replaced by clubs and theatres, notably the Public, there was little mourning. The next step was musical organization. The most en­during and widely admired band of the decade was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which appeared infrequently in the first half of the ’70s, achieving greater economic stability in the second half and en­couraging the emergence of other groups. The Revolutionary Ensemble disbanded prematurely, but Air took off beyond its own expectations, the World Saxophone Quartet meshed music and theatre in an unpretentious and drily amusing style, and various cliques of musicians played together so frequently under rotating lead­ership that distinctive group identities evolved despite the absence of regular work. The struggle for recognition was exacerbated by the absence of strong, middle-level record labels. In the ’50s, companies like Blue Note or Riverside would have grabbed players of the caliber of Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Chico Free­man, or James Newton; the new inde­pendents, like India Navigation and Black Saint, did not have comparable distribu­tion or capital. An unprecedented number of the best jazz recordings were made in Europe and Japan.

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But it was enough to know that there was still an avant garde, a fringe on the fringe, musicians determined to keep their art honest. They inherited the total free­dom of the ’60s, and set about reapprais­ing their options. More than the fusion players, they succeeded in breaking down idiomatic constraints, but in the end jazz kept calling them home. Abrams or Jenkins or Hemphill might play a program of experimental pieces for a respectful audience, but when they invoked the blues or some familiar groundwork that could be freshened and renewed — the listeners really came alive. Swing was rediscovered as an axiom, and so was the repertoire. Hemphill found Charlie Parker in his “Kansas City Line,” Air reclaimed Joplin and Morton, Braxton structured a mili­tary march, Blythe formed a band just to invoke the Tradition, Brian Smith wrote a “Spanish Love Song” that Stan Getz might have played, only it was David Murray’s warming timbres that did it justice. Here, in short, was a large and de­termined generation of musicians sorting through the past to portend the future. Jazz dead? It all depends on what you know.

The reinvestigation of jazz repertoire had all kinds of benediction. Two major companies were formed, the New York Jazz Repertoire Ensemble and the Na­tional Jazz Ensemble; they left significant footprints but failed to survive. The no­tion, however, spread like wildfire, thanks in good part to Dick Hyman, who helped spirit Joplin, Morton, Armstrong, and James P. Johnson into the present with his transcriptions and recreations. Jazz repertoire was Eddie Barefield recreating Chick Webb, Panama Francis the Savoy Sultans, Richard Sudhalter the California Ramblers, Mercer Ellington his father, and Joe Venuti himself; it was Sun Ra recording “Lightnin’ ” and Lee Konitz ­”Tickle Toe”; and it was Aaron Bell reuniting Ellingtonians and Earl Warren Basieites; it was Soprano Summit, Mingus Dynasty, V.S.O.P., Andrew White, and numerous others. Jazz repertoire is still in its infancy, with few of its possi­bilities explored — we’ve yet to hear an orchestra successfully negotiate a range of styles. Jazz musicians are trained to express themselves, and it will take a different kind of jazz musician to play Coleman Hawkins–style on one number and Lester Young on the next; yet that’s the kind of musician who will make a genuine repertory company possible.

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I’ve neglected the most authoritative group of musicians to shape jazz in the ’70s, the group that provided the larg­est body of music likely to endure. I’m referring to all those who achieved recog­nition in earlier decades and held on; omitting them from any kind of survey of the ’70s is unfair and misleading. It was a time when Ellington gave us Afro­Eurasian Eclipse, New Orleans Suite, the third sacred concert, and his last work, “The Three Black Kings,” which Mercer Ellington performed impressively at sever­al concerts but never recorded. Sarah Vaughn recorded her epochal Live in Japan, but generally reserved her best work for the concert hall, as did Sonny Rollins, who was never more brilliant and energetic than in the last few years. Dizzy Gillespie, on the other hand, made the recording studio work for him: his style and tone changed markedly, and his encounters with Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Bobby Hackett, and Benny Carter, as well as two all-star bop contingents, rate among his best work. For all his elusive­ness, Ornette Coleman delivered himself of Skies of America and Prime Time. Basie survived a heart attack to return to the road, vying with Woody Herman for sheer stubbornness, and taking time off to pilot a series of small jam sessions. Cecil Taylor encountered Mary Lou Williams, Baryshnikov, and Max Roach, allowed his Unit to stomp, and produced some of the most exhilarating solo piano we have. Charles Mingus recorded Let My Children Hear Music, mounted annual concerts, and wrote prolifically and well in the face of a painful death. George Russell or­chestrated Living Time for Bill Evans and made modality boogie on his own terms. Gil Evans, Sam Rivers, and Jaki Byard organized wonderfully agile if shortlived big bands. Lee Konitz struck up a partner­ship with Martial Solal. Jimmy Heath struck up a partnership with Percy Heath. Sonny Stitt made two of the best records of his life, Tune Up and Constellation. Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin made dramatic returns from Europe, and Benny Carter and Joe Venuti made dramatic returns from obscurity. Jimmy Rowles dabbled with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, while Hank Jones, recording more prolifically than Chick Corea, was finally recognized as a master. Charlie Haden conducted duets and joined in Old and New Dreams. Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines, and Vic Dickenson continued un­diminished by time

From the vantage point of classic jazz, it was a great decade. There were new places to listen and an endless stream of reissues. The popularity of fusion may have created a spurious focal point, but it spilled over to lift the whole music. Still, the losses were devastating: Armstrong, Ellington, Webster, Mingus, Garner, Hodges, Carney, Venuti, Dorham, Hackett, Garrison, Rushing, Krupa, Nance, Gonsalves, Ayler, the MJQ, Kirk, Tristano, Hawes, Criss, Ervin, Ware, Blue Mitchell, Larry Young, Eddie Jefferson, Desmond, Milt Buckner, Brew Moore, Ethel Waters, Crosby, Cannonball Ad­derley, Oliver Nelson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie the Lion Smith, Kamuca, George Barnes, T-Bone Walker, Otis Spann, Hendrix, Presley, Kenton, and many others. Maybe the best that can be said of jazz in the ’70s is that it didn’t just survive. It established its own precedents and raised important questions about an art that was finally pushed beyond its golden age. The trends will pass, but the players who are brave enough to tap their own inner demons — from Eldridge to Bowie (who jammed together one night at Ryan’s)­ — will continue to pose fervent challenges in the ’80s. I hope we have the energy to respond.