Are Krall and Monheit Jazz Singers?

As long as I can remember, there have been bristling arguments among musicians, critics and aficionados about the qualities that define jazz singers. Was Bing Crosby among the elect? Yes, by my criteria, whenever he wanted. In any case, he was a natural swinger, even when he talked. Frank Sinatra? My suggestion to any aspiring singer, male or female, is to listen to Frank Sinatra With the Red Norvo Quintet/Live in Australia, 1959 (Blue Note) and Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris (Reprise). Meeting Billie Holiday on the street and hearing her say “Hello” was jazz to me. Or, for a less fragmentary definition, Carmen McRae accompanying herself on piano—as she used to long ago at Minton’s in Harlem—brought it all together.

But now we come to the much publicized Diana Krall and Jane Monheit. I’m not suggesting that they be compared with Billie, Carmen, Anita O’Day, the later Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter or Lee Wiley. But listen to them along with Maxine Sullivan, Etta Jones or that remarkable minimalist, Blossom Dearie. Pee Wee Russell’s definition of jazz playing also includes jazz singing: “A certain group of guys—I don’t care where they come from—that have a heart feeling and a rhythm in their systems that you couldn’t take away from them, even if they were in a symphony organization.” (Like Maxine, Etta and Blossom.)

Diana Krall’s time is, at best, sluggish. If you wanted to pat your foot to her singing, it would fall asleep. In the July 5 New York Times, Neil Strauss was much kinder: “Sometimes the effect was something like that of stepping into a wading pool warmed by the sun. It’s a safe, comfortable body of water, an easy place to relax and drift off without worrying about drowning, but it lacks a deep end.” In reviewing her performance at Carnegie Hall during the JVC Jazz Festival, Strauss added that “she always erred on the side of caution.” Even the most subtle jazz singer—Lee Wiley in “Down to Steamboat, Tennessee” being a prime example—couldn’t be called cautious. On the contrary, they got so inside the lyrics as to make you remember desires, erotic and otherwise, in your own life that kept the music in your head after it stopped. Jazz people get inside you. There can be no “sound of surprise,” in Whitney Balliett’s phrase, in a wading pool.

Jane Monheit’s success is a triumph of savvy management and publicity—the right clubs and television spots aided by scribes who have temporarily suspended their jazz judgment. In the Sept. 2001 issue of JazzTimes, Lara Pellegrinelli was not beguiled. Writing of Monheit’s “predictable and narrow” lyric interpretations, she went on to note precisely that “Monheit’s rehearsed, theatrical quality has less in common with jazz musicians than torch singers, cabaret artists and those who sing musical theater.” But even in that milieu, she is nowhere near the same league as Mabel Mercer (a key influence on Frank Sinatra) or, among male cabaret performers, Hugh Shannon or the nonpareil Charles Trenet, who sang and wrote as magically as Fred Astaire danced. And, by the way, if Krall and Monheit can find a copy of Norman Granz’s album of Astaire singing—backed by top-of-the-line jazz players—they can learn a lot about inner jazz rhythms.

Another unsolicited suggestion for Monheit and Krall and other singers with jazz eyes, as Lester Young might have said, is to spend a good many hours listening to him. Lester told me once that he never played a ballad until he first became intimate with the lyrics, and his preferred way of doing that was to listen to Frank Sinatra recordings. In jazz, whether singing or playing, the basics are: swing (implicit or as pulsing as a heartbeat); feeling (which can’t be taught as such because it comes out of your life and how deeply you understand who you are as you keep changing); and your own unmistakable sound, which comes out of the preceding elements.

Krall and Monheit have nothing that interesting to say about themselves in their music. As Jo Jones used to say, in jazz you can’t fake who you are—or who you’re not. Furthermore, Krall and Monheit don’t have the chops to make it on bravura, which is sometimes impressive technically, though not for long. Can you imagine what would have happened to Krall and Monheit if they were in a cutting session with—at their prime or near it—Anita O’Day or Betty Carter or Kay Starr? Years ago, in the small hours at Minton’s, both Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald were in the audience. The crowd—like an audience at the Colosseum—insisted they go at it. And they did, for an hour or so. It was an exhilaratingly close match. I had the nerve to give the edge to Sarah because of her astonishing instrument, but Ella also stayed in my head for days.

Jazz singing is much more than a craft. Like jazz playing, it is—as Valerie Wilmer put it—as serious as your life. And sure, there are gradations in capacities, but to merit being called a jazz singer you have to have something to say—your own story—as it moves you then and there. Arrangements tailored just for you—and, in Krall’s case, a carefully constructed aura of taking yourself seriously—won’t help if you don’t know when and how to let yourself go.

Originally published in December 2001

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