Pantheon Books has given A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald a beautiful outer design, with a simple but effective cover that uses art and graphics with consummate skill. Your interest is peaked. But then you open the book and your heart sinks. This really is just a guide after all, with an alphabetical listing like so many others, the text laid out in two tight columns per page using small-sized type. Something that started out so grandly a few moments before winds up looking in reality just like a Leonard Maltin guide to the movies.
But then you start reading and all misgivings melt away. Guides can sometimes be informative, sometimes fun to read, sometimes vapid and annoying, but rarely do they have the depth and comprehensiveness that Friedwald has brought to his subject (and when you check out his photo and see how young he is, and all he's already accomplished, you'll be astounded that anyone that age could have possibly learned so much, even if all he did was concentrate on a single subject, which he hasn't). The point size of the type may be minute, but Friedwald's prose bursts with detail and insights unlike any other such guide you might choose to consult.
Because his focus is on the singers, there are only a handful of Jewish performers here (the expected ones — Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Mel Tormé, Eydie Gormé, Bob Dylan). But Jews are everywhere throughout this book — generally populating the background — because a great deal of what these singers performed was written by Jews, especially if we're talking about the golden age of popular songwriting.
Take the appropriately lengthy entry on Ella Fitzgerald. Friedwald addresses — then clears away — the criticism that the great Ella, who was proverbially known as the First Lady of Song, didn't have any idea about what she was singing, that she was never cued into the meaning of the lyrics. The author finds this critique, which, at a certain time had wide currency, ridiculous, unworthy of taking seriously. Then he writes:
"Though she was never as textually specific as [Frank] Sinatra nor as 'sad' as [Billie] Holiday, Fitzgerald was always emotionally true to whatever she was singing: She could make you walk on air with a happy song and want to walk on razor blades on a downer. She sang the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Burke, and any other Tin Pan Alley poet as well as anybody else in the canon of great jazz and pop singers, and there's no indication that any of these gentlemen was anything but delighted with the result."
Or you can go the entry on Sarah Vaughan, who some would say was the only singer who gave Ella a real run for her money in terms of "first-lady" status. Friedwald looks into Vaughan's "church roots," which the author says are apparent in everything she ever did — and then the majority of the jazz and pop songs he cites were written by Jews.
Decoration of the Highest Sort
Vaughan's "melismas [i.e., a succession of different notes sung upon a single syllable] and other decorations of her singing have much in common with the gospel style. Martin Williams once referred to this aspect of her artistry as 'an opera singer without an opera.' He might just as easily have called her a gospel singer without a church — though hardly without a prayer. When she sings 'Maria' from West Side Story (on You're Mine You), it's my idea of angels singing the 'Ave Maria.' It's instructive to remember that, in the first half of the 20th century, traditional black spirituals were regarded as the first American 'art' music, and that concert singers both black and white in the '20s and '30s — when Vaughan was growing up — were almost as likely to include 'Motherless Child' as they were to sing Schubert lieder.
"And although Vaughan holds one 'Maria' for more measures than any other human being could count, let alone sing, the performance is more than operatic — it's downright spiritual. Lines like 'The most beautiful sound I ever heard' take on religious overtones, and her reiteration of the word 'Maria' (itself a distinctly Catholic reference) assumes the quality of a chant. When she gets to the line 'Say it soft/And it's almost like praying,' she takes lyricist Stephen Sondheim at his word, employing the aspect of her artistry that's usually reserved for ecumenical works like 'The Lord's Prayer.' (The way she expresses the same idea in a different song reveals an entirely different attitude. The line 'I started praying' occurs in 'Moonglow' and also on You're Mine You, but there the implications are far less ecumenical. As with other tracks on the album, such as the Cy Coleman hits 'The Best Is Yet to Come' and 'Witchcraft,' the mood on 'Moonglow' is light and swinging.) 'Send in the Clowns,' the super-spectacular set piece of her final decade, is also sung like a hymn, overdecorated to the hilt with melismas and flourishes galore."
In this book, which runs to 800 tightly packed pages, Friedwald even makes space for a small section on "Singing Songwriters," among them one of my favorites, Harold Arlen, who was born Hyman Arluck, the son of a cantor.
Writes the author: "Much has been made (by myself, certainly) of Harold Arlen's involvement with the world of jazz, perhaps a little too much. He and Gershwin were the only members of the Broadway Big Six who were capable enough instrumentalists to support themselves as musicians before their ASCAP royalties began coming in. The comparison with Gershwin is revealing: The older man came up through the world of songwriters and song publishers, while Arlen entered the music industry by means of the dance bands, which at the time were very close to — and often indistinguishable from — hot jazz. Both men approved of and encouraged the use of their music in the jazz community: Gershwin was flattered when, even during his lifetime, jazzmen found endless new uses for his chord sequences (notably 'I Got Rhythm'). On the other hand, they didn't have to rewrite Arlen's melodies: Just as Arlen wrote them they sounded jazzy enough."
I've quoted at length to give some sense of what Friedwald has accomplished here, but in reality what I've cited amounts to only a fraction of the erudition on display throughout these pages. And for those who can't get enough of this lore, Friedwald writes in his introduction that he's hoping that this book will be the first of many editions. "It's a dream of mine to revisit and update it every six or seven years — whatever the traffic will allow — and that … it can be something of a perennial. I hope to keep revising it, to update the sections on those artists who are still alive and active and to rediscover vintage performers who may have fallen through the cracks the first time around."
Fans of great singing should make their way to this work in droves. Not only will they be entertained, but perhaps their sheer numbers will convince Pantheon that Friedwald's wish should become a reality whenever the author suggests.