This piece was commissioned a few years ago for the inaugural issue of a new journal that never took off, so I’m sharing it here.
I came to jazz singing and lyric-writing from a background as a fiction writer and performance artist. As a wordsmith, I’m particularly attuned to the quality of repertoire and the way singers negotiate lyrics. When I was invited to write about twelve of my favorite jazz vocal albums the hardest part was to choose twelve out of hundreds of worthy contenders. This is in no way intended as a list of “best” vocal albums, just twelve personal favorites I felt I had something to say about.
Mark Murphy, “Stolen Moments” (1978)
What exactly makes a singer a “jazz singer.” To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I hear it.” Mark Murphy was, to my ears, the quintessential jazz singer. I first became aware of Murphy when this album came out in 1978, by which time I was already familiar with most of the better-known jazz singers. Murphy’s original lyrics to Oliver Nelson’s jazz standard “Stolen Moments” quickly became popular with jazz radio deejays, and I first heard it on New York City’s WRVR. As soon as I heard the track I thought, “This is the very definition of jazz singing for me, a virtual template.” All right, at 22 I probably didn’t think those exact words, but something like it. And the rest of the album doesn’t disappoint either.
Murphy was a fearless singer. He took the kinds of chances that would sound ridiculous on lesser singers (and often does, I won’t name names). His rhythmic fluidity is virtually unparalleled among male singers, and his scat singing is convincing even to a scat skeptic like myself. Murphy treats the changes of a tune like a lover in a complicated relationship: he may caress them, settle into them, and then all of a sudden challenge them, push them, playfully, of course. He bends a tune, a lyric, to his will while knowing full well he’s respecting the tune’s own “will” at the same time. It’s a tightrope walk, stretching the limits of a song while respecting the integrity of the melody and lyric even as he’s radically altering what’s on paper.
I could have chosen any number of albums to represent Murphy at his best; the slightly later “Bop for Kerouac” comes immediately to mind, where he interpolates readings from Kerouac into bebop tunes and ends the affair with a heart-rending rendition of “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” one of the most affecting ballad performances ever recorded. But “Stolen Moments” finds Murphy really climbing the peaks after a nearly 25-year recording career. Its repertoire represents just about all aspects of Murphy’s art: original lyrics for jazz tunes, vocalese (a standout is a version of Annie Ross’s lyrics for the tune “Farmer’s Market”), goose-bump inducing ballad performances (“We’ll Be Together Again,” a favorite among jazz singers, and the lesser known “Again”), and the Brazilian repertoire he would continue to explore with more sensitivity than any other English-language singer, represented here by Jobim’s “Waters of March” and Dori Caymmi’s “Like a Lover.”
Of all the singers before him, I think Murphy’s rhythmic and harmonic gambits owe most to Mel Torme. Interestingly, when Torme was interviewed about jazz singers by jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in the mid-sixties, he was adamant that he didn’t consider Murphy a true jazz singer. I love Torme too, so I was startled and disappointed to hear that, and I can only chalk it up to jealousy on The Velvet Fog’s part. Thankfully, there will always be room for both Murphy and Torme among the ranks of the unquestionably authentic top-tier jazz vocalists.
Billie Holiday, “The Commodore Master Takes” (1939, 1944)
When I was thirteen, both of my maternal grandparents died. When we went to their apartment to rummage through their effects, and I found a number of 78 rpm records, among them a Commodore disk of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Lover Come Back to Me.” I had heard the name Billie Holiday (perhaps, I’m ashamed to admit, via Blood, Sweat & Tears), but I think this was the first time I had heard her voice, as our “hi-fi” turntable still had a cartridge that could be flipped to a 78 needle. To be honest, I can’t remember my reaction to the music at the time, and I didn’t own my first Billie Holiday album until four years later, 1973, when Columbia put out a double LP of her early recordings.
Like the moon (which she wished on in Dorothy Parker’s lyric), Billie Holiday’s career had many phases, from the youthful ebullience of the Columbia years to the weathered profundity of her fifties recordings. The Commodore sides fall in between those two periods, with the first four tracks on this compilation overlapping with the Columbia recordings. And that, indeed, is an essential part of the Commodore story.
It was the “troublesome” tune “Strange Fruit,” a lament about lynching, that led to Lady Day’s association with Milt Gabler’s independent label. Columbia producer John Hammond, who helped the careers of many black artists but could also be insufferably paternalistic, thought that recording this political material would be ruinous to her career (ha!), so he let her record the song, which had become a signature tune during her long stint at Café Society, out of contract, along with three other sides, for Gabler’s label in 1939. Hammond, incidentally, also accused Ellington of abandoning jazz with “Black, Brown & Beige.”
The 1939 session featured a tight band led by trumpeter Frankie Newton along with other cohorts from Café Society. In addition to “Strange Fruit,” this session also featured the first recording of “Fine and Mellow,” basically a variation on her earlier “Billie’s Blues.”
By the time of the 1944 sessions, after she had left Columbia, Holiday was, I believe, at the peak of her vocal art. There was a depth to her interpretations hinted at in the early recordings, but now in full flower, and her voice had not yet succumbed to the ravages of her lifestyle. And all the material she recorded was top-flight, as opposed to many of the throwaway tunes she had been given to record not so long before.
On the 1944 dates she’s accompanied by another fine group of musicians, this time led by pianist Eddie Heywood, a subtle stylist who sounded the right notes for a singer who had recorded so much with the elegant Teddy Wilson. Some of these tunes she had recorded earlier, like “I Cover the Waterfront,” “He’s Funny that Way,” and several others, but these versions are more relaxed, more sophisticated. Among the standout debuts are what is possibly the definitive version of “How Am I to Know?” (lyrics by Dorothy Parker), and a beautiful, unjustly neglected song called “I’m Yours,” with a lyric by Yip Harburg. But all 16 tracks are treasures.
Anita O’Day “Sings the Most” (1957)
For Anita O’Day a song was an elastic object. Her rhythmic and harmonic fluidity was so audacious yet fine-tuned that her interpretations were akin to musical sculpture in real time. She was the quintessence of the improvising jazz singer and an inspiration to so many other vocalists.
O’Day, who chose her stage name because it’s Pig Latin for dough, and she hoped to make plenty of it, started as a big band singer, and many of her albums were recorded with big bands and full orchestras, but for me her natural habitat was the small jazz group, which gave her more room to move, which is why I chose this album with the Oscar Peterson Trio to represent her art.
Peterson, who could be showy with his prodigious pianism in his own recordings, was a fine accompanist for a number of singers during the fifties, on record and sometimes with Norman Granz’s JATP tours. I once saw Peterson interviewed on TV and he credited Hank Jones with teaching him how to be a sensitive accompanist. I can’t think of a better teacher.
One often hears that many of the great jazz singers improvise like horn players, but sometimes, I think, they take it too far, try too hard to sound like a horn at the expensive of the lyric. O’Day instead walked a fine line that made her performances so electric, riffing on the changes with the freedom of a horn player while always (all right, usually) respecting the lyric. The results are a kind of alchemy.
When it came to swing, she had few peers among vocalists, and this album focuses on that side of her art. The opener is a very playful Gershwin medley of “’S Wonderful/They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Her remarkable reinventions of familiar tunes were marvelously captured in the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” where she plays cat and mouse with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” On “Sings the Most” her performance of “Love Me or Leave Me” takes a similar path. “Them There Eyes” is a feature for her scatting talents.
There were more profound ballad singers, to be sure, and what’s often most interesting for me in her slower performances is her choice of material. For instance, she does “I’ve Got the World on a String” at ballad tempo, not its usual mode. “Tenderly” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” are certainly respectable performances, but they don’t give me the goose bumps I get from nonpareil ballad masters like Shirley Horn and Rebecca Parris. “Stella by Starlight” starts in its usual slow tempo but turns into a mid-tempo swinger in the second chorus. And she swings “We’ll Be Together Again,” a song that’s almost always performed as a ballad.
Lee Wiley, “A Night in Manhattan” (1950)
If ever there was a singers’ singer, it’s Lee Wiley. Her direct, understated delivery with a touch of Oklahoma twang along with her reverence for a lyric has been an inspiration to countless interpreters of the Great American Songbook, especially those who straddle the worlds of jazz and cabaret.
She was a successful radio performer in the early thirties, but by the forties had become more a cult artist, recording the first single-composer songbook albums for small, independent labels, and that’s when an album was really an album, i.e. a set of 78s in a book of slipcases.
Her early-fifties Columbia recordings, compiled in this album, are considered her greatest achievement by many of her admirers. The original 10-inch LP of “A Night in Manhattan” contained all eight full band sides, featuring cornet soloist Bobby Hackett with Joe Bushkin and his swinging Strings. For the 12-inch release, four tracks from her Vincent Youmans and Irving Berlin songbooks from the following year, featuring the duo pianists Cy Walter and Stan Freeman, were added.
Wiley always sang at a simmer; she never belted. Her performances were sensual lullabies. Among the standout tracks (for form’s sake, because, really, all of them are standouts) are Bushkin’s own “Oh, Look at Me Now,” which had been an early hit for Sinatra, Victor Young’s “Street of Dreams,” and the virtual title tune, Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan,” which was not included in her earlier R&H songbook album. The two-piano version of “More than You Know” is another highlight. A particular favorite of mine is “Sugar”—Billie Holiday’s version from the thirties is joyful; Wiley’s is bittersweet.
This was something of a comeback album for Wiley, and there are numerous live recordings from the period of much of the same material. She continued to record throughout the fifties, and then pretty much stayed retired, except for a few scattered appearances and recordings, until her death in 1975.
Ella Fitzgerald, “Pure Ella” (1950/1954)
Most rankings of great jazz singers have Ella at the top of the list, and while I won’t quibble with that, I listen to her far less than many other singers. Her musicality, taste and chops are undeniable, yet many of her recordings lack certain qualities that draw me to the singers I most connect with. I prefer singers who mine the depths of emotion, like Billie Holiday, singers who dazzle with their rhythmic and harmonic risk-taking, like Anita O’Day, and singers whose subtle musicality puts a great lyric across without pyrotechnics, like Lee Wiley and Irene Kral.
On the two duo albums she recorded for Decca in the early fifties with the exquisite pianist Ellis Larkins, Ella achieves the last of my ideals, with beautiful and direct interpretations of great American standards. She would revisit the duo format a little later with her piano accompanist Paul Smith, and then, decades later, in a series of fruitful collaborations with guitarist Joe Pass.
A lot of the credit for the success of these recordings goes to Larkins, one of the most tasteful of accompanist/collaborators. Like Hank Jones, Larkins takes his inspiration from the elegant playing of Teddy Wilson and brings it up to date with the harmonic innovations of bebop.
The first of the two albums compiled on this CD is “Ella Sings Gershwin,” eight songs by George and his lovely wife Ira, as an old blooper would have it. Eight tracks was standard for early 10-inch LPs. Their next meeting, in 1954, would yield the 12-track LP “Songs in a Mellow Mood.”
The Gershwin tracks are, without exception, among the greatest recorded examples of vocal jazz, or, for that matter, of any American vocal music. These versions of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “How Long Has this Been Going On?” are gold-standard.
“Songs in a Mellow Mood” finds the duo in top form again, this time with a program drawn from a number of great American songwriters, though overall I think the Gershwin set is easily the stronger of the two. On “Stardust” and several other tunes, Ella improvises more than she had on the Gershwin album, and in this setting I just don’t think it enhances the performances. But on a CD full of such riches, these are minor reservations.
Nat “King” Cole, “After Midnight” (1957)
Jazz purists often bemoaned the fact that Nat King Cole, one of the great swing pianists and small group leaders, “abandoned” jazz to become a mere “pop singer.” Backseat listeners are always happy to opine about how an artist should run his career, but while Cole may indeed have been a great pianist, there’s no denying he was also one of the most natural and appealing of singers, a great communicator and song stylist despite a relatively limited range (roughly two octaves). He sang as if he were talking to each individual listener, in the most comforting of voices. And with this natural gift he was able to reach a vastly wider audience beyond the world of jazz aficionados. With the big bucks he made as an internationally renowned singer he was able to provide quite nicely for his family and assure his place as an American cultural icon.
With the “After Midnight” sessions, recorded in the summer of 1956, we get the best of all worlds. Cole sings a program of fine songs, some he’d been singing for years, from the piano, with his trio and four guest soloists, all great jazz players: Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet), Willie Smith (alto sax), Stuff Smith (violin) and Juan Tizol (valve trombone). There are also some nice solo spots for John Collins, Coles’ guitarist, who conjured a beautiful sound but was usually only heard in the background (he had previously been part of Art Tatum’s trio). On the original 12-track album, each of the soloists appeared on three songs. Subsequent releases in the CD-era included previously unissued songs and alternate takes. I’d say that among jazz-oriented Cole fans, this is the Coley grail.
Cole stalwarts include “Sweet Lorraine,” “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” all with Edison on trumpet. Edison, a veteran of the Count Basie orchestra, had one of the most recognizable trumpet sounds, especially when he played with a mute. He did a lot of studio work for Capitol in this period, and can be heard taking brief solos on a number of Sinatra’s recordings.
For me, it’s the lesser-known tunes that are the biggest treat. “You’re Looking at Me,” which features Smith on alto, is a charming tune by Bobby Troup, who also wrote “Route 66.” Smith also plays on “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head,” an easy swinger I don’t believe I’ve ever heard from any other singer, and I know nothing about any of the writers, Hadamik, LaVere & Nast. Oscar Levant’s wistful “Blame It on My Youth” is better known, but hardly a shopworn standard, and Cole’s performance, augmented by a lyrical Tizol solo, is stunning. Tizol also appears on his own “Caravan.”
Stuff Smith’s visceral and expressive violin sound is a great foil for Cole’s voice and piano, especially on “I Know that You Know,” where he trades fours with Nat.
The only clunker on the original album, for me, is “The Lonely One” (Hambro & Heller), which seems to have been an attempt at a follow-up to “Nature Boy.” It features Tizol, as does “What Is There to Say,” one of the unissued tracks. The latter really should have been chosen for the album instead of the former.
The album was critically acclaimed from the start, but Cole had more hits to make. It’s a shame he never did another album like this, a gift that we have this one.
Carmen McRae & Betty Carter, “Duets” (1987)
Sarah Vaughan’s nickname may have been “Sassy,” but this recording features two of the sassiest women ever to sing jazz, and the combination is pure delight. These duet performances were recorded at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, where the two artists had previously recorded stellar solo albums. While both were consummate jazz singers, there were enough differences in their approaches to add another level of fun to the proceedings through contrast.
Of the two, Carter was less well known outside the world of jazz. Known as Betty “Bebop” Carter earlier in her career, she was one of the most adventurous song stylists, playing with time and changes like a lioness stalking her prey. And she became more audacious as the years passed. To be honest, while I admire her brilliance, I sometimes find her late-career song interpretations too extreme, as if it were irrelevant what the lyricist had written. In this set with McRae she sometimes tones it down a bit, and sometimes the full Betty seems to work in counterpoint.
Carmen McRae was also rhythmically and harmonically adventurous, but her stretches always took the lyric into account, often offering wry commentary with her phrasing. She was one of the most affecting of ballad singers, weighing every word and holding the listeners ears in the palm of her hand. On uptempo tunes she could swing like few others while showing the changes who was boss.
And together, Carmen and Betty had a ball, playing with and off each other. The pair uses the standard “What’s New” to introduce themselves to the audience, and it becomes all about how much they dig each other. When she sings, “But seeing you is grrrrand,” we get the first taste of Carmen’s playful growl.
On the set’s first ballad, “But Beautiful,” the two interweave their vocals, both stretching time and space. Carmen’s solo feature on “Glad to Be Unhappy” is a great example of her ballad brilliance. The two get to show off their rhythm chops on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” which features both singers scatting. And this is where Carter leaves McRae, who didn’t often scat in her own performances, in the dust.
The proceedings close with a couple of Ellington tunes. On “Sophisticated Lady,” both show their devilish side. Carmen’s phrasing of “dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant, is that all you really want?” is priceless, as is the response, from both, of “no, no, no, no, no” that follows.
The CD reissue on Verve also includes three bonus performances by McRae alone, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Bill Henderson, “With the Oscar Peterson Trio” (1963)
Over a nearly 60-year career, Bill Henderson only recorded intermittently, and this album was perhaps his most high-profile record. Not that Henderson had been twiddling his thumbs between albums and live appearances, as he was also a very active film and TV actor.
The first thing that strikes the listener about Bill Henderson’s voice is its slightly raspy, comforting timbre and his understated, spot-on interpretations of the lyrics he sings; you might say he’s a song actor. In this mode, he’s somewhat reminiscent of Nat King Cole; at his best he sings a song like breathing out and breathing in. But often he’ll follow up a simple reading of a lyric immediately with a furiously swinging chorus, where he’ll run changes in a manner closer to Mel Torme or Mark Murphy.
The Oscar Peterson Trio provides the perfect accompaniment to Henderson’s voice, with Ray Brown’s bass effectively out front in some of the arrangements. Henderson’s performances are hip in the best sense, totally natural, without a sign of artifice.
The repertoire suits Henderson’s voice and style perfectly. Some of the tunes are recent hits, like “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Stranger on the Shore,” which had been an instrumental hit for British clarinetist Acker Bilk. There are the evergreen standards too, like “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “At Long Last Love.”
One of the most effective tracks is “The Lamp is Low,” based on a melody by Ravel. It’s a classic example of Henderson’s ability to croon like a gentle lover on one chorus, and to swing like a motherfucker on the next.
Irene Kral, “Where is Love” (1975)
She was one of those singers who made it sound effortless. Her art was a kind of minimalism. She didn’t create drama through big gestures, through grand displays of passion or technique, but rather by singing a song as if it were singing itself, by revealing the drama of the song, not imposing her own drama on it.
Irene Kral, who died way too young, of breast cancer, has become a cult figure among singers and aficionados of great songs. Fans speak of her with awe and reverence. Yet she’s far from a household name. Never was one.
Her choice of material was impeccable, as was her choice of accompanists. “Where is Love” is a duo album with the simpatico pianist Alan Broadbent. This setting suits her beautifully.
The repertoire includes stellar versions of several songs from the ranks of the hipster (in the original sense) singers and lyricists of her generation, including Blossom Dearie’s “I Like You, You’re Nice,” Bob Dorough’s “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers,” and the exquisite “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” with lyrics by Fran Landesman.
There’s not a dud in the bunch. Among the highlights, for me, are a stunning medley of “Lucky to Be Me / Some Other Time,” from “On the Town,” and what may well be the definitive version of “Never Let Me Go.”
There’s really no need to say more.
Dakota Staton, “At Storyville” (1961)
Dakota Staton was surely one of the most underrated and versatile of jazz singers. She had a big success early in her career, with her first album, “The Late Late Show,” in 1957. This was before the line between jazz and popular music had been drawn. She maintained an active career for another fifty years, but later on she often played second-tier jazz clubs, like New York’s Angry Squire (I know it was second-tier because I sang there too!)
This live album was recorded at George Wein’s legendary Storyville club in Boston, and I think it’s perhaps the best introduction to Staton. A few of years after this, due to the lack of work opportunities in the U.S., she left for England, where she lived for the rest of the sixties. Another great American singer, Mark Murphy, was living and working in the U.K. at the same time. It was a kind of reverse British invasion.
“Dakota Staton at Storyville” displays all aspects of her art, and she mastered all of them: the funkiest of blues, uptempo swingers, and torch songs. But another thing that makes this recording so special is the presence of an uncredited reed player. The backup band is listed only as the (pianist) Norman Simmons Quartet. The mystery reed player, who is heard on tenor sax, flute and oboe, is the great Yusef Lateef. If Lateef’s very personal styles on tenor and flute weren’t enough, the presence of his third horn, the oboe, assures a positive ID. Lateef is the perfect foil for Staton, especially on the blues numbers, where his brawny, gutbucket tone is right at home. It’s a match made in the same heaven as Billie Holiday’s early recordings with Lester Young and her later ones with Ben Webster.
“Mean and Evil Blues” is an excellent example of Staton’s blues chops, and it shows that she was a peer of such singers as Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. Another blues, the set closer, “Play Your Hands, Girls” has a forties R&B rhythmic feel, as does her party-vibe rendition of “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” where the audience joins in the festivities. The R&B groove is there from the start, with the version of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” that opens the album.
Lateef switches to flute for the album’s first torch song, “This Is the Beginning of the End.” Other songs in this vein are “The Show Must Go On,” “Music, Maestro, Please” and “It’s the Talk of the Town.” On these tunes, Staton weighs every word, communicating the song’s message like a great actress, in much the same way as Mabel Mercer, except that Staton actually sang! These slow tunes feature all of Lateef’s horns (though not all at once).
The program is rounded out by several swinging jazz performances, including “Saturday Night,” an early Sinatra hit, Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Easy to Love,” where Lateef’s tenor sounds as if he’d been paying attention to Coltrane.
Surely there’s a place in the jazz vocalist pantheon for the multifaceted Dakota Staton.
Jeanne Lee & Ran Blake, “The Newest Sound Around” (1962)
In the summer of 2000 I saw Jeanne Lee sing standards with the Mal Waldron Trio, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. I stayed for two 45-minute sets that were nothing short of revelatory, among most mesmerizing performances I’ve ever witnessed, and I came out of the hall with tears in my eyes. Lee would die of cancer within months. I became obsessed with her, searching out all her recordings over the next several years.
I was familiar with Jeanne Lee before that show, but this was an aspect of her art I had somehow missed. I had seen her live and heard her on record for decades, but always in a more “outside” mode, with musicians like Gunter Hampel (her husband for some time), Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. In this work Lee often used extended vocal technique and blended poetry, her own and others’, into her performances. I didn’t know that she had performed and recorded with Waldron a number of times before, or that her first album was a mix of standards, spirituals and blues, albeit with a twist.
“The Newest Sound Around” was the first recording for both Lee and pianist Ran Blake, who had met when they were both students at Bard College. Its execution finds the territory where jazz meets the European art song, and Blake’s signature crepuscular style was already firmly in place. It certainly hints at the work Lee would do later, but it’s nonetheless quite accessible, despite the unconventional accompaniment peppered by dissonance (granted, I can’t hear this with 1962 ears).
Lee’s voice is supple and sensual, her range, sensitivity and control remarkable. Perhaps the most seductive of the tracks is “Laura,” the David Raksin film theme with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Lee’s performance here is at once ethereal and earthy; her wordless improvisation isn’t quite scat, but more like a lullaby sung by Mother Nature. The duo’s deft use of space, tension and release is a wonder to behold. They take a similar approach to the other standards, including “Lover Man,” “Summertime,” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.”
Blake and Lee each have a solo track on the original album, with Lee’s feature a hauntingly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Also included on some CD releases is a somewhat less effective rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The two become three with the addition of bassist George Duvivier and lighten up the proceedings with “Evil Gal Blues,” where Blake takes a decidedly Monkish solo. Duvivier also appears on the delightful “Season in the Sun,” by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf (not to be confused with Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”).
Already Lee was engaging with Mal Waldron’s music, and a CD version of the album, first released in 1987, includes a stunning rendition of his composition “Left Alone,” with lyrics written by Billie Holiday when Waldron was her accompanist (though Lady Day never recorded it). Also included is Waldron’s “Straight Ahead,” with words by Abbey Lincoln, as well as Lincoln’s lyric for “Blue Monk” (all three had been recorded by Lincoln the previous year). The two Waldron tunes were not on the original LP release, but certainly not for lack of quality.
Joe Lee Wilson, Livin’ High off Nickels and Dimes (1974)
I first heard this album a couple of years before it was an album. This was recorded in 1972 during an on-air performance at the studio of WKCR, the Columbia University radio station, which had, and still has, the most adventurous jazz programming in New York. I can’t remember if I had yet heard any of Joe Lee’s recordings with Archie Shepp, though I did buy Attica Blues that same year.
What struck me was an amazing, booming baritone that communicated utter joy. And when the album was finally released, through the auspices of WKCR deejay Fred Seibert, one of the tracks, a cover of Norman Mapp’s “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul,” became something of a radio hit on New York’s WRVR.
Around that time, Wilson opened his loft venue The Ladies’ Fort, on Bond Street, just a block from Sam Rivers’ better-known Studio Rivbea. As a late teen I was a regular visitor to both lofts and got to know Joe Lee a bit. He was a sweet, generous man, like his voice in the flesh. I was pleased to catch up with him many years later at a jazz room in a billiard parlor in Greenwich Village, on one of his rare visits from overseas (he lived his last decades in the U.K. and Japan). I also remember seeing Joe Lee at the bar at the Village Gate in 1975, during a Mingus gig. He was talking to saxophonist George Adams between sets about having to go on welfare again, and I thought, with 19-year-old indignation, what kind of country is this where a great artist like this has to go on welfare?
Joe Lee Wilson’s obscurity, even in the already obscure circles of jazz, is mind-boggling. His instrument was one of the most powerful baritones in all of jazz, and his ebullience was infectious. He was a master of multiple aspects of the music: smile-inducing workouts on uptempo tunes, gutbucket blues, vocal contributions to free jazz recordings, and moving ballad performances. He recorded rarely, and perhaps the fact that this was a casual radio performance rather than a formal record date gives it the homey feel that makes it my favorite of his albums.
“Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul,” makes me smile from ear to ear every time I hear it. “You Make Me Want to Dance” is a similarly joyous uptempo tune. Another delight in this vein is Wilson’s version of Horace Silver’s “Strollin’.” His ballad brilliance is on display in “God Bless the Child” and especially “It’s You or No One,” a gem of a performance.
My ears are richer for having listened to Joe Lee for over forty years, and my life is richer for having known him, however casually.