Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whither The (Male) Jazz Singer?

"A Lot Of Livin' To Do" as performed by Sammy Davis Jr. came up today, and it got me wondering: where are the male jazz singers? I could name a dozen living female jazz singers, but the first and only male name that comes to mind is Michael Bublé -- a singer who, like Diana Krall, I have little use for, and thus hesitate to acknowledge as being in the "jazz" camp.

Then again, had I been a little more sentient when he was alive I might have been reluctant toward Sammy, too.

Sammy gets the jazz award in hindsight. The guy had some kind of attitude when it came to music. Where other people might try something, he DID it. In fact he often did something he wasn't asked to do -- like give Nixon a hug -- but even that earns him hindsight kudos. Bang bang, daddy-o.


paul bowman said...

I'm not keeping up with jazz the way I'd like, but three come to mind. The older generation aren't all gone, for one thing: there's Nat Cole's undeservedly lesser-known brother Freddy Cole, in his 70s still a great performer. A little younger, there's the incomparable sweetness of Andy Bey's voice. And a little younger still, the great Kevin Mahogany.

Oh, yeah, there's this guy. For some reason he doesn't come immediately to mind. Why in the world is that?

paul bowman said...

What about Kurt Elling? Just a male Diana Krall?

Whisky Prajer said...

Weeeeeell ... in this group Kevin Mahogany was an introduction. But I don't know if any of these guys, deserved laureates all, have a fraction of the same public notice that Diana Krall gets. And it's not because they aren't great at what they do and who they are. I think (to coin a phrase) it's a "zeitgeist thing" and that for a man to capture the public imagination as a jazz singer it would take someone with the same "too much is never enough" attitude as Sammy Davis had. I think that's what I was close to suggesting

paul bowman said...

I have to say that I wouldn't be able to come up with as many women as the male names I've dug from memory, mostly from radio listening, here. I'd be kind of stuck at Diana Krall, though like you I'm not much interested in her. (Her husband, on the other hand -- that's something I'd like to see you talk about some time.)

Male voices are the ones that stick with me most, I suppose. On the other hand, Bublé I would hardly be aware of at all but for my little sister's taste in that kind of thing. (She's 21 -- and for her, in spite of anything I have to say about it, that is jazz.)

It's a singer who, like Freddy Cole, actually belongs to the generation all but gone who appeals to me most. It's not a question of talent essentially. You get the feeling with people shaped in the period from the '30s to the '50s that jazz is the sound, the modern thing. Then that falls apart in the '60s, for better or worse. Some find ways to move on, do something new, ditch the old ride; some -- like Monk -- don't.

Zeitgeist is the right explanatory category, I guess.

Davis 'betrayed' jazz too, with so many others, didn't he? By the time the great entertainers were done (and/or dead), there wasn't much left for instrumentalists to step into, let alone singers, aside from some imitative Broadway belters. The oddity of Davis, maybe, is the peculiar way he did it, the way he adapted peculiar gifts to the chaos he was part of. He still looked something like jazz, even if there was nothing left of it as he'd known it. I don't mean him disrespect; I've always liked his image (not to mention his voice). But to me, he & his Hollywood circle seem symptomatic -- differently but no less than, say, that other famous Davis & his NY-based circle -- of the incapacity of postwar society to hang on long to a musical culture built in the 1st half of the century.

Okay, just yammering here. I love the topic. Not really capable of running very far with it, unfortunately.

Ride on, Mr Reimer. -- ha.

Whisky Prajer said...

Freddy Cole has a very powerful presence when he performs. You get the sense that this music pulled him through the turmoil of the last 60 years, and it's damn well going to pull him through whatever comes next.

As for the Davises, Miles did better than Sammy when it came to staying au courant. If you contrast Sammy singing something as hopeless as "I'm Over 25 - But You Can Trust Me"(w) with Miles' Live-Evil, well ... you've got to feel a little sorry for Sammy.

His aim was to be a pop singer, which he certainly nailed in the early part of his career. But I expect his overnight transition from hip-cat to establishment square probably haunted him to his dying day.

Still, we'll always have his guest appearance on All In The Family.

paul bowman said...

It's good to dwell some on jazz's dual nature, the pop tendency being really just as significant as the hard, virtuousic tendency from beginning to end. (Pop vs. Bop? -- Suddenly the obvious phrase. Somebody must have coined it, & exhausted it, long ago.) The end, somewhere along the way in the 60s or 70s, coming when the two tendencies finally weren't essentially parts of one thing, feeding on each other, anymore -- and rock, &c., could push what was left of it off to the side stages.

The truth is complicated, of course, and I really don't want to appear as someone who thinks it's something outside of it that was the source of demise of jazz as it was, the vital mid-century side-door-culture phenomenon. In some way, surely, the tensions inherent in it were at least half to blame in its undoing. And it has to be said that some of the general societal character that bore jazz along at its height of vitality, when it was hottest, when it was coolest, up to when Nat Cole and John Coltrane still would both belong somehow and strains from Latin America & Europe simply blended in, are not things we would wish to have lived on with it, if it could have lived on. I don't really bemoan the loss of jazz, any more than I really buy the idea that jazz taught in schools of music today amounts to something as wonderful.

I am glad, at any rate, that when I've reached a point in life where some of this history is particularly meaningful to me, a handful of those 'cats' who were there in the '50s (e.g. Freddy Cole, Billy Taylor) -- or their graying protegés -- are still committed to this thing, still in love with it. Glad, turning it over yet again, for the Marsalises & Kevin Mahogany & Chick Corea & so on, even if it's not the same thing.

Whisky Prajer said...

It does seem ironic to think there was a time when jazz was considered subversive and corrupting. Rock 'n' Roll was too, of course -- but no longer. But while the latter has lost its teeth, the former still has profound emotional depth which I find very gratifying.

Not that I'm giving up on rock anytime soon, mind you.

Joe Buster said...

Look outside the American box boys :) Australia has produced some great male vocalist namely Vince Jones & James Flynn. Check them out..