Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond
It’s not often that a critic manages to redefine a field, but that’s just what Will Friedwald accomplishes with Jazz Singing, a survey of vocalists from Bessie Smith to Bobby McFerrin. After reading Friedwald, you’re primed to search out Anita O’Day’s wonderful but obscure recordings with the big bands of Gary McFarland and Jimmy Giuffre; you’re eager to hear forgotten stars from the 1920s like Annette Hanshaw; and you’re able to appreciate anew the art of old favorites like Tony Bennett. ”When it comes to heart,” Friedwald observes with typical incisiveness, ”Bennett is a virtuoso.”
Friedwald’s capacious definition of jazz singing includes any kind of pop vocalizing that swings. What’s crucial for him is not improvisation, or the ability to scat, or the quality of the instrumental accompaniment, but the way a singer ”hears the beat” — a skill that affects both the shaping of melody and, as Friedwald rightly stresses, the interpretation of a lyric. By this standard, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra are paragons of jazz singing. So, of course, are Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, for example, sometimes has been faulted for her unemotional approach to the lyrics she sings. Here is Friedwald’s rejoinder: ”We don’t need to cry all the time. We need singers like Fitzgerald to remind us that our great songwriters wrote music as well as words. Our pulses race when Fitzgerald starts to scat. Will she follow the melody? For how long? Will a fragment of another tune momentarily pop into her head? Will she slow down the tempo, double it, or suspend the beat altogether? If this isn’t drama, I don’t know what is.” Friedwald’s enthusiasms are balanced by his antipathies. Michael Feinstein ”makes Nelson Eddy look like Bobby Darin.” Dianne Schurr ”is truly the Steven Spielberg of singing.” And Judy Garland is ”stiff as a board from note one.”
As even this small sample of his one-liners may suggest, Friedwald has some pretty odd tics. A musical neoconservative, he has nothing but contempt for what he calls ”kiddie pop,” by which he means rock. Proudly ignorant of country & western as well as rock & roll, he credits Bing Crosby, of all people, with launching the country record industry — a risible mistake. And there’s something about Friedwald’s unbuttoned style that is, to be blunt, nutty, and sometimes even offensive: ”That isn’t fur on her voice,” he cracks of Connee Boswell, ”honeychile, that’s pubic hair.” Still, if music like Boswell’s, or Nat King Cole’s, or Peggy Lee’s, holds any charm for you, then Friedwald’s book will prove indispensable. There is simply no better guide to the art of jazz singing. A-