Today, I am pleased to share a special contribution by G. Bruce Boyer, a gentleman of many talents.
Formerly the men’s fashion editor for Town & Country, Esquire, and GQ, Mr. Boyer has written multiple men’s fashion books of note, including Fred Astaire Style and Gary Cooper – Enduring Style. He also happens to be an avid Jazz fan with a unique depth of understanding of the roots and legacy of the industry’s most prominent musicians. In the following, Mr. Boyer will share his knowledge and passion for the talents of Jimmy Forrest, Johnny Hartman, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra.
For more about Jazz, please also see our post on 30 Jazz Albums You Must Have Listened To.
There are two things you have to understand. First, that the tenor saxophone was the instrument of choice for R&B, Rock, and Jazz musicians at Mid-Twentieth Century. Not the guitar, not the piano, not the trumpet. The tenor sax.
And second – and I really do hate to use a much over-used word here, except that it really applies – is that the iconic song of all three genres of music was the same: the bluesy, driving, sensual, and urbane Night Train. The song was written by a tenor sax man, in an age of incomparably great sax players. That man was Jimmy Forrest.
The aggregation of talented sax players at mid-century was staggering. There was Coleman Hawkins, the father of them all and a musician whose influence stretched from the time he made his first recording with Mamie Smith’s Hound Dogs in 1923 til today; and the incredibly hip and sensitive Lester Young, who liked to play behind the beat rather than pushing it like the Hawk did, and whom Billy Holiday considered her best accompanist. Then there was Ben Webster, who played a ballad like no one else, and Illinois Jacquet, whose solos on such wild numbers as Flying Home have never been bested.
And after them, but still in the ‘50s, came Zoot Sims and Eddie Harris, and the marvelous school of “ honkers and shouters” like Earl Bostic (whose favorite accompanying instrument was a vibraphone), Sil Austin, and Red Prysock who were part Bop, Part Rock, and part swing, and the infinitely creative and complex John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt. Not to leave out Cannonball Adderley, who made so many genres and influenced his own, and from whom a sax playing friend of mine tells me “there is always something to be learned”. In justice, the list could go on and on some of the most artistic sidemen and studio musicians who ever recorded.
And then there is Jimmy Forrest. Musicologists, as well as fans, have always had a hard time putting Forrest into one or another particular genre, he seems to have taken his influences and developed his style from everywhere. He was born in St. Louis in 1920 and went on to play seemingly with every great jazz band, from Fate Marable and Jay McShann to Ellington and Basie. By the early ‘50s, he had his own band, specializing in fast-driving R&Bs and bluesy ballads. He wrote and recorded the iconic Night Train in ’52. It was an instant hit, played at University concerts and as background for strippers in burlesque houses. By ’55 every high school band in the country had Night Train in their repertoire. Late in the evening it was played in every smoke-filled club with a live band across the USA. It was great cabaret music to accompany late-night loneliness and Scotch.
Jimmy Forrest’s style is a bit hard to pin down because he seems to understand so much and mixes it up so well. He had come through Swing and Bop, R&B, and Rock ‘n Roll. He was perfectly capable of taking an old folk tune like Annie Laurie or a pop chestnut like That’s All and make it pulsate like a particle accelerator. Or he could be laid back, meditative, and lyrical. On ballads like “Yesterdays” or “These Foolish Things” he is as plaintively soulful as it gets. He could bop with the best of the new school, but always knew that melody was what Old School, foot-tapping, home cooking jazz was all about.
Critic Joe Goldberg, in his liner notes to the album Out of the Forrest, addressed this question of labeling and says, “I would have to call Jimmy Forrest’s jazz roadhouse music.” It’s a good call. As critic Tom Wilson seems to agree in his liner notes for Most Much!: “Many of today’s super-hip Jazz youngsters have forgotten that jazz is supposed to emotionally stimulate as well as intellectually edify.” Jimmy Forrest is certainly able to get you up off your troubles. Somebody say “Amen”!
A Selection of Albums in No Particular Order
And you can see Jimmy Forrest in action on the video Last of the Blue Devils, which also happens to be the greatest jazz video ever made.
He was John Coltrane’s favorite singer and the smoothest cat with the warmest voice that ever crooned. It’s just that there didn’t seem to be enough room for him coming up in the postwar music scene. He had to fight for attention with Billy Eckstine and Nat Cole, not to mention all the white crooners crowding the microphone. Not to mention that Afro-American singers just didn’t cross over to white audiences that easy. There was Nat King Cole, there was Billy Eckstine, and … well, there was basically Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine. Or was there some other reason Johnny Hartman couldn’t get a break? This is a man in need of a biographer.
Particularly since today he’s enjoying something of a resurgence with younger fans of classic jazz singing. Most of his work is available on CDs. But for a long time, if you mentioned the name Johnny Hartman, nobody seemed to know who the hell you were talking about. And he remains, as critic A. B. Spellman says on one of his liner notes, “one of the most neglected singers of the middle Bop era.” And preeminent jazz writer Will Friedwald gives his authoritative vote to Hartman when he says “he was one of the greatest interpreters of love songs that ever lived.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
I was among the vast crowd that knew nothing of Hartman til a friend turned me towards that incredibly smooth, warm, sensually undulating voice that must have been heavily influenced by both Eckstine and Sinatra. I quickly realized that the Coltrane-Hartman album was one of the greatest jazz presentations ever committed to recording. Their rendition – for it is a collaboration – of the searingly beautiful “Lush Life” is a highly prized work of art; it’s doubtful there will ever be a better version of that haunting song. You can trust me on this one.
Hartman was born in Chicago in 1923, the same year a four-year-old Nathaniel Cole’s family moved there from Montgomery, Alabama. Both men would grow up on the Southside and study the piano, and later sing. The road that Nat “King” Cole took was to form his jazz trio and cause minor sensations in the small clubs around town. Johnny took a stint in the army and then started gigging jobs fronting for Earl “Fatha” Hines, then Dizzy Gillespie. He cut a few sides with Erroll Garner. Finally, he went out on his own.
He made albums sporadically, one in ’47, another in ’65, played the Newport Jazz Festival in ’75, and made his last recordings in ‘80. The great collaboration with Coltrane – the only time the John Coltrane Quartet ever backed a singer to my knowledge – came in a single-session taping on March 7, 1963, every song but one done in a single take. There’s more sensitivity, more emotional subtlety, more musical finesse in that collection of songs than any ballad album I can think of. And that includes Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” album, which I’d always thought was as good as it would ever get in recorded ballads.
But for much of his career, Johnny Hartman couldn’t seem to crack the mass record-buying audience. He spent several years working in England. When he finally returned stateside, he recorded with several labels, albums that went nowhere. He seemed to be always scuffling, to use Friedwald’s word for the activity. Johnny Hartman died in New York City in 1983. But his body of work, while nothing as vast and prolific as Cole or Sinatra, is not unsubstantial, and he never made a bad album. Like Sinatra, he had impeccable taste and relied mainly on the Classic American Songbook for his material. His way with a ballad like “You are Too Beautiful”, “My One and Only Love”, “My Ship”, or his sublime version of “It Never Entered My Mind” is simply incomparably cool. What a shame, for him and on us, that he never got that immediate recognition he so richly deserved.
Ray Charles Finds His Voice
Last June, it was the eleventh anniversary of Ray Charles’ death, and it’s still hard for me to realize that there won’t be another album to come. I still wonder what he might have done with some standards he never found time to tackle, or what his approach to some newer stuff would have been.
On the other hand, Charles was prolific indeed, and we’re so lucky to have what we have. To recount his accomplishments would be an extreme case of restating the obvious. But what is perhaps worth noting on this anniversary is what he did with the music as he first found it. To consider some of the roots of Ray Charles.
As a young person growing up in the 50s, I didn’t think too much about the roots of the music I listened to. I simply enjoyed listening and dancing to it. It became what I think actors mean by “sense” or “body” memory: the enjoyment went from my ears right into my body, and I learned the song viscerally. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later that I read the distinction that the great poet and music critic Phillip Larkin had made about jazz: that there is a difference between a listening audience and a dancing audience, and until after World War II and the birth of Bop jazz music was very much involved with dancing. I was first and foremost part of a dancing audience. If it didn’t have a beat you could dance to, it wasn’t really music was my feeling.
We all danced to Ray Charles, who had a long list of hit records even before his breakthrough hit What’d I Say came along. But listening now I can put the great Ray Charles into a context that I couldn’t then, and I’ve come to understand why the good folks at Atlantic Records entitled the three-volume set of his 1950s recordings The Birth of Soul. Soul, as Ray Charles came to experience and relate it, was a hot amalgam of jump blues, West Coast ballad style, and Gospel, and it’s those elements of Black music that come uniquely together in these early recordings. It’s as though Brother Ray was an offspring of Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, a good dose of The Dixie Hummingbirds and Swan Silvertones, a bit of Nat King Cole, and some Amos Milburn and T-Bone Walker thrown in for good rockin’. He was, in that sense, both the culmination of these styles and forces, as well as the result of mixing them together.
Different cuts from that Atlantic collection reflect the different influences, as well as clearly show the incredible meld that came out of it all. Most obvious is the similarity between Ray Charles blues ballad style and voice to that of the super-smooth blues stylist Charles Brown. It’s so close that on Vol. 1 (1952 – 1954), three cuts – “The Midnight Hour”, “Losing Hand”, and “Funny But I Still Love You” – sound in every way like Charles Brown. You have to listen intently to know it’s Ray Charles singing and not Brown. And then it sounds like someone doing a perfect imitation of Brown. Not to forget, as it happened, that both were incredibly accomplished pianists. As of course was Nat Cole, another singer-pianist that Ray imitated for a while.
Charles Brown (who was born in Texas, 1920) was ten years older than Ray, and his career started a half-dozen years before Ray’s. He had begun recording with The Three Blazers in 1944, and by that time was already developed as a smooth blues stylist, as evinced by the song “Driftin’ Blues” on that first date, which became an immediate hit and remains a classic of the blues ballad genre to this day. Along with these warm blues ballads, he put his urbane stamp on versions of standards such as “Harbor Lights” and “Cottage for Sale”. He had that smooth, laidback, West Coast saloon style down better than anyone. Those recordings evoke a feeling of the urban smoky night clubs of the 1940s better than anything I can think of, short of a Humphrey Bogart film.
Ray Charles started recording in the late 1940s and didn’t hit the R&B charts til 1951. “Losing Hand” was recorded in May,1953. But that session also produced “It Should Have Been Me”, which is a talking jump blues that Louis Jordan would have been proud of; as well as “Heartbreaker”, with its echoes of T. Bone Walker’s “Bobby Sox Blues”. But those numbers were realistically just a brief look backward, because it was during that same session that Charles recorded “Mess Around”, a song so much in the present (that is, the present 1953), a song which so much shows he’s already found his own voice that his days of imitating Jordan, Brown, Nat Cole, or anybody else were over. Virtually over at least, because he continued to mix the blues with gospel – as many solid church members were horrifyingly aware – but he had definitely found his own voice. It didn’t matter whether he sang and played with a fast, pulsating beat or an agonizingly slow one, we loved it all. That session also produced “MaryAnn”, with its Latin beat and swing bridge so characteristic of the 50s. But “Mess Around” was Rock ‘n Roll, it was swingin’ Soul, and it was the figurative birth of Ray Charles.
It took til 1959 for Brother Ray to cross over to the general white audience with the huge hit “What’d I Say”, but by that time he was already a legend in the Black community for over half a dozen years and easily identifiable. Disc jockeys, juke joints, house parties, auditorium dances, and outdoor concerts had already racked up countless hours of “This Little Girl of Mine”, “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, “Swanee River Rock”, “That’s Enough”, Yes Indeed”, “I Got a Woman”, “Drown in My Own Tears”, “Night Time is the Right Time”, “Rockhouse”, and a dozen more solid tunes. After 1953 nobody would have confused him with Charles Brown. Or anyone else. Brother Ray had found his voice.
A Basic but Pointed Discography for the Birth of Soul
The Dixie Hummingbirds: Complete Recorded Works, Document, 1996.
The Very Best of T-Bone Walker, Rhino, 2000.
One Last Word on Sinatra
There’s been so much written about Sinatra, what’s left to say? His life, his career, his art have all been scrutinized by very competent critics. It seems fairly impossible to have read all the books, and then to realize that there will probably be another two or three published before I finish this sentence. Has any other jazz musician garnered so much attention? Even withstanding his other career as an actor?
And yet, as far as I know, there’s still something of a mystery about the very core of his appeal. I keep thinking about Sinatra’s choices. Not his career choices, or his choices of wives, or film scripts, or even his choice of musical material. I keep thinking about his lyrical choices, the choices he makes in every line of the lyrics he sings. Jazz, like acting, presents an unending and continuous series of choices for the performer. In music, you
Pull up short or drag it out. Come down hard on this word or that one, this beat or that one. Enjamb the lines, or leave lots of space around each one. Push an extra phrase or two in between the beat. And that’s just the beginning. Every jazz singer avails him or herself of these devices in forming their own style. Some of these become signatures, or gimmicks.
Sinatra, although never really resorting to gimmicks, was capable of using every device in the book and inventing more than a few of his own. He was astute, creative and had tons of experience. But what’s so curious about his choices is that they seem so right, so obviously on the point that he completely imposes his interpretation on the song and on us. Can we account for this by simply saying it’s his confidence with a lyric, or his innate intelligence? Other great jazz singers – Tony Bennett comes instantly to mind — make extraordinarily interesting, often surprisingly interesting choices when singing a lyric. We marvel. It’s great, we say, I would have never thought of that. But with Sinatra it seems to be the very opposite. We merely nod and say yes. How he seems so often to get it right in the pocket remains something of a mystery. At least to me. His choices seem almost inevitable both at the time and in retrospect. We can hardly grasp that they were choices, they imprint themselves so deeply into our minds. It’s the mystery of art, and of the artist.
A Very Select Discography of Single Albums
Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!! And More (Capitol)
I Remember Tommy (Reprise)
Come Fly with Me (Capitol)
Sinatra – Basie: An Historic Musical First (reprise)
A Swingin’ Affair! (Capitol)
Nice ‘n’ Easy (Capitol)