Friday, March 27, 2015

Sophisticated Ladies – The Great Women of Jazz

By Leslie Gourse
Dutton Children’s Books
A division of Penguin Young Readers Group – 2007

Illustrated by Martin French

A review

For the past few years Judi and I have been spending time with our cousins in Maryland.  Our cousin who is an art teacher has taken us to some of the museums in the Baltimore area. 

After walking through one of these museums, I was parusing the gift shop and came across a children’s book that had only 64 pages.  It had an attractive cover with a title: Sophisticated Ladies – The Great Women of Jazz.  I noticed that there was a large pile of these books.  While the list price of the book is $19.99, I purchased it for only about seven dollars.

After reading the first short biography in this book and viewing the illustrations, I went back to the gift shop and purchased another of these books.  I gave that book to the daughters of our cousins.  Greedy me, I kept the first one for myself.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the history of jazz has a familiarity with several artists who are men.  Why have many legitimate women artists been ignored in many jazz histories?  Cassandra Wilson answers this question in the following quotation: “the bias against women jazz singers is like racism – it doesn’t go away.”

I happen to be an amateur photographer and have an appreciation for stunning photographs.  However, I also understand some of the limitations to photography.  Colorful brush strokes by an artist clearly have the potential to create images the photographer is incapable of.  The wonderful painting of Lady Day – Billie Holliday above is just one of the exceptional paintings created by Martin French for this book.

Quotations from Leslie Gourse:

“The greatest classic blues singer of the 1920s was the tough talking, hard-drinking woman from Tennessee named Bessie Smith (1894–1937).  She stood six feet tall and never backed down from an argument.  But sometimes when she was onstage, such tenderness flowed out of that huge sweeping voice that her audience cried.  Bessie was called ‘The Empress of the Blues’ simply because no one of her time could match her.  A bold confident performer, she wove the dreams and bitterness of African Americans into her music.”

“For Ethel Waters (1896–1977), stormy weather was more than a song.  It was forever a part of this multitalented woman.  Ethel was a fine blues singer, a much-admired Broadway actress, and an Oscar-nominated Hollywood star.  She sang blues and jazz with perfect diction even though she had little education and could not read music.  One of the most popular and influential of blues singers, she was an innovator.  She was a singer who blended the music of blues, jazz, and vaudeville into a sophisticated style that could only have come from Ethel.”

“Never recognized as a superstar, Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) is highly regarded by jazz experts.  Her fellow musicians recognized her profound feeling for rhythm.  Jazz lovers admire not only the lightness of her voice but also the magical touch with a lyric.  She had a unique way of musically underlining the words as she sang them.  A trait shared with Louis Armstrong was a knack of turning the most trite of lyrics into something just plain beautiful.”

“At one point in her career, critics complained that Mabel Mercer (1900-1984) ‘just can’t sing.’  Mabel replied, ‘I know that.  I’m just telling a story.’  Many, however disagree with those critics.  Frank Sinatra said Mabel Mercer taught him all he knew about singing.  Johnny Mathis once told his audience to go hear Mabel down the block instead of asking him for an encore.”

“Billie (Holliday) rarely sang the blues, she was the blues.  Every bit of heartache she endured in her short life was in her voice, especially when she sang ‘Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”  “Some of her best recordings, however, date from 1937, when she teamed with friend and noted saxophonist Lester Young.  When they met, the Harlem nightclub circuit referred to Billie as ‘Lady’ because of the regal way she carried herself onstage.  Lester added to the nickname ‘Lady Day’ and it stuck.”

“The most beloved jazz singer of the twentieth century, Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996) was the lady with the easy, oh-so-perfect voice – simply the best.  The winner of thirteen Grammy awards, Ella had a three-octave vocal range and a style of such purity of tone that she could make her audience laugh or cry on cue.”

“One evening in August 2004, music lovers crowded the Iridium jazz club in New York City.  They had come to hear the swinging style of a survivor – Anita O’Day (1919-2006).  It is remarkable that they could hear her at all.  Once the darling of the big band era, she has survived Depression-era walkathons, failed marriages, arrests and a jail term, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and mental breakdown.  Yet her unique style is still part of the appeal of this enduring jazz singer, now well into her eighties.”

“’I’m a woman, w-o-m-a-n,’ she half sings, half talks in her sultry voice.  Then in one of her hit recordings, she describes all the things she can accomplish.  And that about sums up the life story of Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.  In the field of jazz and pop there was, indeed, very little she could not do.  Millions of her fans know her as Peggy Lee (1920-2002), the tall blond with a whisper in her voice that went on and on.”

“But Dinah Washington (1924-1963) had something else, which made her living possible.  She had a voice, a powerful instrument that some considered the best blues sound of the age.  One critic described her singing as a ‘sharp but slightly jagged knife slicing through meringue.’  Her timing was masterly, her delivery impeccable.  She often handled a lyric by half singing, half talking the words.  She could be brash and erratic offstage, but in front of the microphone her flutelike voice was caressing and demanding.”

“She had a voice that could slide from an operatic high note to a depth that made your toes wiggle.  Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was one of the most glorious of all jazz singers.  ‘Sassy’ they called her.  She was a fresh sharp-tonged lady who left her audiences believing she meant each one of them when she sang ‘I get misty just by holding your hand.’  When Sarah sang, love was beautiful and anything was possible.”

“Attending a Betty Carter concert was a powerful experience.  Like a caged tiger, she strode about the stage, snapping her fingers as she marked off the tempo.  In a rich, flexible voice, she sang above and below the written tune, improvising her own style, daring her musicians to follow.  Her diction was unique; so was her phrasing and sense of pitch.  She experimented with the modern style called free jazz.  Her devotion to the sound became an art form.  She was a jazz musician first, a singer second, but always seeking something different.  Betty Carter (1930-1998) never let her audience relax.”

Rosie (Rosemary) Clooney (1928-2002) – one of television’s biggest musical stars – thought of herself as a jazz-influenced pop singer.  Indeed, she is best known for such hits as ‘Come On-a My House’ and ‘White Christmas.’  But she counted among her musical influences Billie Holliday for her honest ability to show pain and Ethel Waters for her fine attention to lyrics.  Rosie’s rich, smooth, and deep voice caught the best of both styles, especially in her recordings on a small label, Concord Jazz, featuring the classics of Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and others.”

Cassandra Wilson (1955-Present) - This talented outspoken artist is a wide-ranging performer.  She can sound like Sarah Vaughn or her idol Betty Carter.  Her voice can be deep, dark, and seductive.  She has a sparkling presence, her hair in long blond twists swinging as she bursts on stage.  Cassandra is at home with jazz, and blues, with pop, and country western.  She can get deep into blues or torch songs and then delight audiences with her emotional version of Patsy Cline’s great country hit ‘Crazy.’  Cassandra is simply at home on stage.”

At a 1999 jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, the entire audience seemed to hold its collective breath for a moment.  That was when Diana Krall (1964-Presnt), a fine pianist with a thoughtful mastery of harmonies, turned from the keyboard to sing ‘When I Look in Your Eyes.’  This low-key diva has a husky, seductive contralto voice and an uncanny ability to tell a story in her songs.  She creates an intimate relationship between her voice and the piano, and it stops an audience cold.  Without gimmicks, she is a quietly captivating, impressive talent not yet at the top of her career.”

Perhaps this review has too many quotations from Leslie Gourse.  For me, this has been one of the best ways of celebrating the lives of these “fourteen fabulous women who changed the landscape of popular music.”  This is listed as a children’s book for those at the seventh grade or above.  At age sixty-two I guess I fall into that category.  While this book may not have been a best seller, hopefully this review might encourage more people to look at its contents.                                 


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