Every right to sing the blues

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Billie Holiday sings her heard out in her later years. Photo: Don Hunstein.

At first it was a form of light relief: someone to sing a few songs and break up the real business of playing jazz. Then it became the fashion, so every band in the 1930s – the swing era’s heyday – suddenly had to have a singer. For women it was a chance to be part of the musical revolution that had been sweeping the world since 1920, given the wall with which most collided when trying to join the massed ranks of male instrumentalists.

A survey of reviews in the mainstream US music press and African-American papers during jazz’s first three decades found that female musicians were more readily accepted and respected by blacks than whites. As Sherrie Tucker suggests in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, within white culture women playing instruments were perceived as novelty acts or, were it anything other than the piano, akin to cross-dressers. This attitude persisted, spreading like a pestilence to rock’n’roll in the 1950s. Today the female member of any ensemble outside of the classical arena is still more likely to a singer than an instrumentalist, and when a woman does play an instrument she is more likely to play piano, harp or instruments close to the female vocal range such as violin or flute. This gender-coding partly has its roots way back in Victorian middle- and upper-class domesticity, and how a girl or woman was properly expected to entertain family and guests.

Before about 1970 women instrumentalists were widely obliged to join all-female bands in order to work, and the opportunities for such bands were often drastically slimmer than for their male counterparts. As Tucker points out the importance of other roles occupied by women, such as teaching, have been undervalued, despite the impact of someone like Alma Hightower, who trained two of jazz’s ultimate greats, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, when they were children.

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A younger Billie. Photo supplied.

Even the importance of women who became major stars has been downplayed. Billie Holiday, for instance, is widely acknowledged as one of jazz’s supreme vocalists, and among the most important singers of the 20th century across all idioms. Her influence stretched to two major artists who at first glance might seem almost polar opposites: Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra.

Miles was jazz’s ultimate chameleon: the super-hip trumpeter and innovator who changed the context in which his horn was heard almost as often as he changed his sharp suits. Frank, meanwhile, was the skinny, knockabout, blue-eyed bourbon drinker who went in and out of fashion like the width of trouser legs, even as he straddled singing and cinema, jazz and showbiz, all as a superstar.

Of course Holiday – nicknamed Lady Day by her key collaborator, the magnificent saxophonist Lester Young – did not spring from a vacuum. She absorbed the genius of Louis Armstrong, and then turned the gas down until her voice burned with the bluest of blue flames. Her revolution changed perceptions of phrasing, emotion, range and power. She proved that neither a barnstorming voice nor impressive range were critical to artistic success and popular acclaim, and her supremely elastic rhythmic sense allowed her to float a line against the pulse, and then snap back on to the beat to give a crucial word added weight. Miles Davis said he overtly emulated her rhythmic approach in his early years.

Sinatra based his career on it. He toyed with the phrasing in ways that were witty, highly musical and often emphasised the inherent innuendo in many a love song. He acknowledged Holiday as his “greatest single musical influence” and, a year before she died in 1959, as “the most important influence on American popular music in the last 20 years”.

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A youthful Betty Carter. Photo supplied.

Yet more significant than Holiday’s uncanny rhythmic sense – and an aspect of her influence that has been partly airbrushed from history – was her emotional impact. While the slow blues had been a part of jazz from its inception, Holiday imparted a bittersweet quality to the melancholy songs she sang that was entirely new. Indeed one could claim she invented sad jazz. She could make songs ache with desolation without becoming angst-ridden. With exceptions (such as New Orleans funeral marches) jazz had tended to be much more celebratory in mood, and was primarily dance music until the mid-1940s. Holiday opened up new swathes of emotional territory that culminated in her heart-shredding masterpiece, Strange Fruit, about lynchings in the “gallant South”. Such music paved the way for Miles Davis to provide his own haunting soundtrack to life’s set-backs and sufferings. Others would follow.

Among them were some of the other acclaimed female jazz-singers. Sarah Vaughan proved that the control, range and purity of tone of the classical singer could find its place in jazz expression and improvisation. Betty Carter sang ballads slower than anyone else, giving her time milk each syllable of its meaning. Abbey Lincoln used her regal bearing and brilliant vocal gifts to square off in the distressing fight for civil rights.

As did another whose contribution has been undersold: the firebrand Nina Simone, a dazzling pianist who could sing with such tempestuousness that even her accompanists would be ducking for cover. In her earliest days of working in bars Simone had done what came naturally, performing the classical pieces she learned as a piano student as well as playing and singing jazz and blues songs. It was all music, after all, and this attitude underpinned her whole career. Jazz, r’n’b and more were completely intermingled, so a concert might swing from the Animals to Jacques Brel, and from George Gershwin to Bob Dylan. The upshot was that Simone, like Holiday, became an under acknowledged revolutionary, in her case a pioneer of genre-bending, long before it became the key musical frontier it is today.