And now, for something lighthearted. Let Tape Five take you back to the days when people appeared to be having a disproportionate amount of fun, despite the fact that alcohol was illegal. (Obviously, people in places beyond America had other problems besides Prohibition, but they weren’t the ones having all that glamorous fun.) Although, to the rational history buff, it’s clear that the era was actually pretty rough for most people who inhabited it, we’re still helplessly compelled by its images. The art deco design, the music, the movies and movie stars, the gangsters; we can’t get enough reliving those high times. Nostalgia is a little bit of a cottage industry and updating the sounds of swing music for modern ears is one little niche of it. It isn’t a huge fad, but it’s definitely a community with a market for it. And, really, you couldn’t ask for anything more fun.
I’ve been listening to a lot more Nina Simone lately. I can’t say that I’ve just discovered her; she is a legend who doesn’t need to be ‘discovered’. But I’ll say that I’m really feeling her music in a way I didn’t before. It’s all part of trying to slowly learn more about jazz. Simone established herself as one of the great jazz vocalists at a time when being a great jazz vocalist was becoming a less and less relevant position. Singing and composing jazz was a tenable way to become a star in the 50’s when Simone began her career. But while the cultural changes of the following decades made most jazz musicians fall out of popular regard, Nina Simone managed to become more important and prominent. This was thanks to her involvement in the civil rights movement, her outspokenness, her socially conscious and politically charged writing, her Afrocentric personal style, and her general reluctance to be made polished and nice (as so many black entertainers had been forced to do in order to enter into the public sphere). Though her more politically charged songs may be what she’s best known for today – and for good reason – they’re the tip of the iceberg. She wrote and sang with unprecedented honesty about the specific burdens of being a black woman, but she could just as easily elevate the most basic love song. There is no message in this particular song that isn’t found nearly verbatim in Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. The difference between ersatz sentiment and genuine soul lies in the delivery.
When it comes to the standards, it’s hard to know where to start. A standard, by definition, cannot belong to any one singer. If there’s no definitive version of a song that’s been sung by hundreds, how do you even narrow down the field? I find that in these cases, Ella Fitzgerald is the best place to start. Not least because she made a point of recording all the major songs from all the major composers. She sang ALL THE SONGS. Maybe not literally, but not for lack of trying; her ambitious Songbooks project did a pretty thorough job covering most of the popular music of her time. She didn’t just sing them either – she sang them as well as anyone’s ever sung them. From Ella you can go on and find whatever version suits you, in whatever style you prefer, from performers ranging in stature from Holiday and Sinatra to Toni Tennille. But yeah, good rule of thumb, always start with Ella.
Here is a rare video of Ella Fitzgerald performing live, in what appears to be a rather large venue full of white people. The sound quality could be better, but overall it’s a very good glimpse of the star. Unfortunately, any such clip is a rarity, concerts not being frequently documented in those days. The shortage of video footage of greats like Ella is painful, especially for young fans raised in the age of minute-by-minute updates, but it does make you appreciate what we do have. I’m sure that seeing Ella Fitzgerald in her nightclub days was something else, but those are moments remembered only by eyewitnesses, and glimpsed only in still photos today.
“I’d rather be lonely than happy with somebody else…”
Billie Holiday pretty much exemplifies the figure of the masochistic torch singer. She didn’t invent the trope, but she did it better than anyone. When Billie sang that she’d forgo any and all future worldly pleasures in favor of mooning for some man who don’t treat her right, you damn well believed her. Holiday suffered a lifetime of heartache and went through a series of relationships that could be called tempestuous at best. Although the attitudes prevalent in the torch song genre seem today like a sick symptom of a society that valued women – black women especially – for their capacity to withstand abuse, no one could question that Holiday’s songs were emotionally sincere. And we also have to admit that those are sentiments that at one low point or another, we’ve all found ourselves relating to strongly.
Classic Billie Holiday to soothe your troubled soul. Billie Holiday was a troubled soul herself, with a lifetime of sorrows on her shoulders. She just straight-up had a bad life. She was one of those people who was born into eternal night, and no amount of fame or money could set her free. So how is it, with all the heartbreak and pain she had to pour into it, that her music should be so soothing? I can’t say it’s uplifting; that pain is in there, after all. But there’s something in her voice that’s like a salve, easing the spirit. Did she sing to soothe herself too? Possibly – a lot of people do. Despite all her personal demons, she had the gift of making other people feel better.
I think this Cole Porter song has been sung by literally every single jazz singer who ever lived. That may be hyperbole, but it feels right. The list goes on and on, and with so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Picking between Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, Maurice Chevalier, Kirsty MacColl, Nellie McKay, Ella Fitzgerald, Bryan Ferry, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Diana Krall, and too many other to mention is a tough task. If you’re a jazzbo, you know that each and every one of those people bring their own touch to it. For the uninitiated, it may all sound like much the same thing endlessly repeated. I’m not a true fanatic, but I can distinguish the styles of my favorite artists. Nonetheless, I wasn’t able to listen to every version of this song – I got bored after two or three. In this case, I prefer the more upbeat renditions. It’s an interesting song lyrically, in that it’s a breakup song with a positive message. It’s a song for shrugging off your heartache and moving on, and it begs for a little swing. For that I like the sassiness of Peggy Lee, who always had a bit of a winky bad girl vibe. And of course, I always gravitate towards Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s vocal prowess can’t be beat, and she always sounded as if she was enjoying herself, even when she sang very sad songs. Those are just two great perfromances, and there are dozens of others that are equally good, if you want to spend an afternoon listening to the same song over and over.