The Singing Epidemic

All of a sudden everybody wants to be a jazz singer—and a few are actually good at it

Singers sell, or there wouldn't be a glut. At one point this summer they accounted for eight of Billboard's Top 10 jazz CDs. Notably missing from the chart was the tepid Norah Jones, whom Billboard now lists under pop—which seems right given that her only connection to jazz is in singing an occasional standard and recording for the storied Blue Note label. But Jones has had an effect on jazz: the multi-platinum sales of her Come Away With Me (2002) and Feels Like Home (2004) have raised the stakes impossibly high, creating widespread fear in the jazz community that Blue Note, Verve, and other labels will think twice about releasing instrumental albums destined to sell in the low five figures at best.

The most popular of the new jazz singers—Krall, Monheit, Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Jamie Cullum, and Michael Bublé—have been greeted as if they represent the sudden reappearance of a species thought to have become extinct in the 1990s, with the deaths of Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Carmen McRae, Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Joe Williams, and Mel Tormé. Nothing could be further from the truth. The next wave produced any number of fine singers: Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Etta Jones, Helen Merrill, Barbara Lea, Nancy Harrow, Carol Sloane, Irene Kral, Jeanne Lee, Jackie Paris, Bob Stewart, Mark Murphy, Andy Bey. But they were unknown to pop audiences and regarded as ancillary figures in jazz as it evolved beyond bebop. At one point or another, starting in the late 1960s, nearly all of them went years between recordings. They survived by working clubs and alternative performance spaces, by moving over to cabaret, or by cultivating followings in Europe and Japan.

They started faring better in the 1980s, but by then something indispensable had been sacrificed. My LP collection includes albums from the 1950s and early 1960s by such forgotten singers as Don Nelson, Marian Bruce, and Alice Darr. These recordings have aged well in part because they're from an era when some arrangers specialized in providing flattering showcases for singers, and when the leading jazz instrumentalists included plenty of sensitive accompanists. These are the species that have virtually disappeared, and today's new singers are at a disadvantage without them.

Bobby McFerrin and Harry Connick Jr., two of the most promising singers to emerge in the 1980s, haven't fulfilled their promise or always been faithful to jazz. But that supposedly fallow decade also produced John Pizzarelli, Jay Clayton, Judy Niemack, Carla White, Amina Claudine Myers, and the late Susannah McCorkle.

Good singers are coming along today, too—they're just not the ones you hear the most about. Dianne Reeves has been around for years. Earlier in her career, from one overproduced album to another, she sounded like a mannered soul singer embracing jazz as a step up in class. But she came into her own on A Little Moonlight (2003), and her performances in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck are idiomatically true to the 1950s setting and a pure joy. Rebecca Kilgore and Daryl Sherman are the finest of a number of female singers who revive forgotten songs of the swing era and surround themselves with musicians who love Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, and Mildred Bailey as much as they do. Bryan Anthony, whom I know only from a CD he released to little fanfare in 2001, evokes memories of the young Sinatra without trying to pass himself off as a reincarnation. (The nouveau crooner Michael Bublé supposedly makes you squeal, "I can't believe it's not Sinatra!" Well, I can.)

I could name others, but the ones I'm wild about are Susie Arioli and Luqman Hamza. Arioli, a Canadian, leads a band featuring her boyfriend, Jordan Officer, a deft, Django Reinhardt—style guitarist. Learn to Smile Again (Justin Time), her latest release, is a departure for her: an attempt to find common ground between jazz and country music. It's not a bad concept, but the downbeat mood and slowpoke tempo of the songs (six of them by Roger Miller, remembered for "King of the Road," which isn't one of them) prevent Arioli's customary lilt. A better introduction is That's for Me (2004), on the same label. A friend I sent a copy to described Arioli's voice as "yummy"—the word I'd been looking for. Her breathing is so sure (and she's so closely miked) that she lets us hear her inhale to begin each phrase of "On the Sentimental Side" before slowly releasing her breath in a lovestruck sigh over the length of the phrase, in keeping with the lyrics.

All I know about Hamza is that he's based in Kansas City, accompanies himself on piano, and is old enough to have recorded as Larry Cummings in the 1950s. Released in 2000, With This Voice (Groove Notes) was only his second CD, and it's still his most recent—a shame, because it's so good it makes you want to hear more from him. Hamza specializes in ballads, and his diction may be the best I've heard from a male singer since Sinatra. On "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," the bonus track on the audiophile edition of the CD, it lets him deliver the line "so I chaffed them and I gaily laughed" without sounding like he's wandered in from another era. And both as a singer and as a pianist (his solo on "Weaver of Dreams" is a gem of thematic improvisation) he swings so effortlessly and in such a relaxed manner that he's never going to put anyone's foot to sleep.

So there are plenty of good singers around, and every once in a while one you've written off as hopeless can surprise you. A week or so after being disappointed by Monheit, I felt made whole again hearing Linda Ronstadt sing a sad love song from the 1950s called "Tell Him I Said Hello." The evidence points to Ronstadt as singer zero in the current epidemic. Female jazz singers in their thirties and early forties tend to name Holiday, Fitzgerald, and Vaughan as their primary influences, but I wonder how many of them were first exposed to older songs as teenagers by Ronstadt's three weepy and rhythmically flat-footed albums with Riddle. Twenty years later she's no match for the singer she was then, either in terms of range or in the purity of her upper register. But her voice is every bit as big, and there's a greater depth to it. She's gained a sense of dynamics, along with a maturity that lets her know when to hold something back. "Tell Him I Said Hello" followed me into the street, and as soon as I got home I reached for Hummin' to Myself (Verve), the CD Ronstadt had just released, to hear it again. So you never know. There may be hope even for Monheit and Krall.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist on jazz for The Village Voice. His latest book is Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader.
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Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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