There’s no business like jazz business


Jazz singer Ethel Merman Wikipedia CC

Given that a lot of my Facebook friends are musicians (and jazz musicians at that), you could get into an endless debate about who is or was the best. Moreover, one could have a lengthy dialogue about what is jazz and is it the same as blues?

It’s not hard to find lists of the top jazz singers of the 20th century. Pundits frequently put Louise Armstrong on top of the list, closely followed by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. Female jazz singer lists are usually topped by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone (Ed: what about Joni, eh?)

I cannot go past Nina Simone. Ironically, Nina was a precocious piano player who was told by the owner of the club where she was engaged that she had to sing as well. Whoever that person was (he wanted two for the price of one), unwittingly gave the world one of the best song interpreters of modern times.

A few of the songs Simone made famous (I Put a Spell on you, God bless the Child, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood) were rocked up and recycled in the 1960s and 1970s by bands like The Animals, the Alan Price Set, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blood Sweat and Tears.

Technically speaking, you’d say Simone was a blues singer, much as you could argue the same for Billie Holiday (who wrote God Bless the Child) and Bessie Smith. Yet you will frequently find them lumped in with the jazz genre.

What brought this topic to mind was a gig our versatile choir has this morning at Warwick’s Jumpers and Jazz festival, a two-week extravaganza featuring live music, yarn-bombed trees, art exhibitions, car rallies and more.

Jazz bands and performers who sign up for Jumpers and Jazz cover a wide gamut of the genre. In the main street, where residents are offered free entertainment, the standard is always high. In 2021, we hosted Brisbane’s hot young gypsy jazz band, Cigany  Weaver, most of them Conservatorium graduates and stunningly talented. I feel fortunate to know a few of these young musicians, but compared with their vast musical knowledge and technical expertise I am but a mere strummer.

The brand of original jazz Cigany Weaver play arguable belongs the Manouche genre. Each year there is an Oz Manouche festival in Brisbane. Gypsy jazz is of the style made famous by Django Reinhardt. (Ed: ex-Shadows guitarist and WA resident Hank B Marvin is a devotee of gypsy jazz and often attends this festival,)

A Manouche band typically sets up a solid tempo while the virtuoso instrumentalists in the band take solo turns. Improvisation is the key to this sometimes wild music. The soloists often take the song and its melody far away from its core and somehow (I don’t know how), the band eventually manages to pick up the tune again and play out the refrain.

For our part, East Street Singers, the acapella group we rehearse with on Thursday nights, are doing an eclectic mix – from Bill Bailey and Chattanooga Choo Choo to the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields ballad, The Way You Look Tonight.

The song comes from a 1936 movie, Jazz Time, but in this innovative version from 1991, Steve Tyrell and orchestra interpreted the song as a soundtrack to a compilation video featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (singing) and dancing.

The Way you Look Tonight was originally performed by Astaire, someone I always knew of as a dancer, but he could also sing and play piano at the same time (although there is no record of him doing all three simultaneously).

Breaking this song down to four vocal parts is another exercise altogether. I do so admire the arrangers who took on these classic compositions by the old pros and re-invent them for an unaccompanied choir. In this case, William C Stickles arranged it for SATB (choir shorthand for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass).

Stickles, a pianist, composer, arranger and teacher, died in 1971, aged 89. If you think about that for a moment, he’d have been in his 50s when The Way You Look Tonight was first published. US-educated, Stickles studied in Europe for seven years and worked with Isadore Braggiotti, a voice teacher in Florence, for five years. I gleaned this much from a 1971 obituary in the New York Times. Stickles was prolific and left a vast library of choral arrangements. He is best known for the choral arrangement of the Lord’s Prayer. In his twilight years he arranged many of the songs from West Side Story.

This of course is information of interest only to (a) those who are required to learn the arrangements and (b) people who like to trace things back to source. There is also giving credit where it is due.

You could say with some surety that many of today’s jazz singers, including Sinatra-influenced crooners Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jnr and Mark Tremonti, steeped themselves in the aural history of jazz. You can hear a lot of Frank’s phrasing in their voices and (if watching video), see it in the way they move. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. When we were rehearsing jazz songs at choir a few weeks back, the name Ethel Merman came up. We were rehearsing Gershwin’s I got Rhythm, the song which made Ethel Merman a star. The alto to my right and I immediately began trying to imitate Ethel’s brassy, emphatic way of singing.

Ethel was known for her distinctive, powerful voice, and leading roles in musical comedy stage performances. So far as I know, no-one has managed to carve a career out of trying to sound like Ethel. She had a loud voice and excellent enunciation. You will hear it in your head if you think about Anything Goes, Hello Dolly and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). An old school singer from Queens, New Jersey, Ethel forged a career on the stage, in an era where in musical comedy you had to be heard at the back of the theatre. Ethel tried to imitate vocal styles of stars of the times (Sophie Tucker, Fanny Bryce), but found it hard to disguise her inimitable voice.

If you didn’t know, TNBLSB was in the musical Annie Get Your Gun and was a massive hit, primarily because it is reprised four times during the show (“let’s go on with the show”). In the songwriting world, we call this kind of song an ‘earworm’. Sorry about that.

Further reading: Just as I formed the idea for today’s blog I found one from two years ago which delved into the history of the 5/4 time signature (‘Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to
Problems that upset you, oh’).*
Despite the esoteric topic, it is quite entertaining!

*Andrew Lloyd Webber

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