The Entertainers

This issue is a thematic meld of sorts. It includes our annual Personal Farewells special section, where the peers and disciples of recently departed jazz greats play writer, and an ode to iconic female vocalists. But what this book really celebrates is performance—artists who live to connect with an audience, players and singers who are also proud to be entertainers, musicians who place a high premium on accessibility (yet not necessarily commerciality). Let’s hear it for the hams.

In Farewells we lead off with the late guitarist and inventor Les Paul, whose fleet-fingered picking was countered by a natural onstage ability as comic and storyteller—a skill that never left him, whether he was trading quips with Mary Ford in 1950 or Nicki Parrott in 2004. As Frank Vignola articulates in his piece, Paul was a certified pop star, and his studio innovations and namesake instrument revolutionized all sorts of popular music. The irony of a top jazz and vocal-pop artist inventing the premier hard-rock tool is often underscored, but it makes perfect sense. Aside from the functionality of the Gibson Les Paul—it is one remarkably durable, versatile slab of wood—there’s a philosophical correlation there as well. Showmanship is showmanship, and Paul’s Django-inspired runs thrill just as easily as the turbocharged blues of historic Les Paul players like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons or Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. And it doesn’t take a musicology dissertation to draw lines from Paul’s multitracking to today’s laptop wizards.

Like Les Paul, drummer Louie Bellson is remembered in Farewells as an unfailingly kind man who saw musical virtuosity as something to delight the ears and the eyes. Saxophonists Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman both passed in January 2009, and both rose to prominence honking in Ray Charles’ band. Their terse solos stand today as textbooks on how to punctuate an R&B rave-up and bring the crowd to a fever pitch.

There are born performers at every turn here: Larry Appelbaum chats up multireedist Anat Cohen in Before & After, a deeply rhythmic improviser who dances and sways as she solos. In columns, Nate Chinen ponders the historical arc of big bands, a format that will retain its power and sense of spectacle even in its most experimental incarnations; and Nat Hentoff gets excited over Vince Guaraldi, a sharply underrated pianist and composer whose melodies for the Peanuts specials are some of our most indelible.

Of course, vocalists have typically been jazz’s most accommodating figures, and we’ve got them in spades: in Opening Chorus, the adaptable avant-gardist Theo Bleckmann and the Blossom Dearie-evoking Texan Kat Edmonson; in Farewells, the late Dearie herself, Chris Connor and “Catwoman” Eartha Kitt. By coincidence, Kitt’s eulogizer is also our cover subject, Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Bridgewater is one of jazz’s zaniest personalities, but her often-bawdy antics are interspersed among genuinely moving performances—as befits her experience in musical theater. As a singer her muse is restless, and she’s ably tackled inspirations ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Horace Silver to Parisian café music and African griot songs. Her latest venture, detailed in John Murph’s story, is a dedication to Billie Holiday. My personal favorite is her rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” That song—apt for a chameleon like Bridgewater—provided show-stopping moments at two of her concerts I’ve witnessed. (Other highlights revolved around manic comedy: At one gig I recall her channeling one persona after another, from sex kitten to nebbish New Yorker, like a Broadway hopeful at workshop.)

Simone is also covered in this March JT, in an excerpt from a new bio, though her role as an entertainer is a bit more complicated. After diving into the civil rights movement, she used the stage as a pulpit to enthrall, educate, motivate and, some would say, instigate. But sometimes the most thrilling shows are also the most confounding.

Originally published in March 2010

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