Singing the Blues. August 2007.

I have been listening to this evening’s Prom on the radio, featuring the newly knighted Johnny Dankworth leading a big big band in a couple sets of largely Ellington numbers; they’re just finishing with a feisty reprise of Take the A Train. A family affair – son Alec is on bass – the vocals are provided by Lady Dankworth, Cleo Laine. (Lady Laine has a kind of Billie-like air to it.)

I’m not a fan of jazz vocalists, really. Cleo put words to a lot of the numbers – tunes from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder suite had a variety of words stuck on them. Actually, it worked quite well, but since this is one of my favourite pieces of music, it also jarred. Still, she sounded good, and she didn’t irritate too much.

Aside from Billie Holiday, maybe Sarah Vaughn, I don’t really go for singers. The words seem to get in the way. And the style of singing jazz appeals to people who don’t like jazz. People go to hear the singers rather than the music.

(I think I have said before how much I dislike Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Love For Sale. She takes a sad, dark song and turns it into treacle. And hearing that record, long ago, made me realise I didn’t like jazz singers.)

The interval in the Prom was a feature by Miles Kington, a bass player, humorist (well, he writes a “humorous” column in the Independent), and one-time jazz critic. He was going on about how he disliked jazz singers. This pleased me no end, since he managed to give me the words to explain why I don’t like jazz singers. (And since people that don’t like jazz like jazz singers, and I have never really been able to explain why I don’t, I think this could be very useful.)

He spoke about an interview he did with Johnny Green, who wrote some famous jazz tunes – Body and Soul, I Cover the Waterfront – and Kington asked what it was like to have written some of the most famous jazz standards. Green hated it. He especially hated the version of Body and Soul by Coleman Hawkins – which is a true classic of jazz interpretation. And the reason he hated it is that it was an interpretation: Green liked singers who didn’t improvise, who didn’t mess with the beat, who sang the words as they were written.

Jazz on the other hand is about taken the tune – or even just the chords behind the tune – and bending it, inventing a new tune over the top of the original, going off in new, strange directions.

Singers don’t really do this; the words fit the tune, and singers have to sing the tune. When I listen to jazz singers, the interesting stuff is happening behind them – the singers just get in the way.

Kington went on to dismiss those jazz musicians who are determined to sing. Mostly trumpet players – he explained this by reasoning that trumpet was a physically hard instrument to play – all that puff going through that little brass tube – and singing actually gave trumpeters a break. He was most angry with Louis Armstrong, who invented scat and recorded vocals with meaningless childlike words – Heebie Jeebies, Skid-Dat-De-Dat – that played into the hands of white images of black entertainers. Pops set the standard, and made it ok for other serious musicians to sing rubbish songs. Kington pointed out that Nat King Cole – a serious jazz pianist – discovered that people (not jazz fans, obviously) liked his singing; and he became a singer – not even a jazz singer – and hardly played piano at all. Even Dizz played the vocal-jester, hamming it up between the hard-bop; because hamming pays.

So that is why I don’t like jazz singers; they sing over the real music; they restrict the improvising (because they have to be able to sing the tune). And for me, they just get in the way.

(It did however strike me as ironinc that Kington was given space for his diatribe against singers in the middle of a Prom featuring Britain’s most famous jazz singer. And I must admit I thought she sounded pretty good – especially for an eighty-year old!)


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