A Conversation with Vocal Legend Annie Ross

Rhythm, spirit and imagination

Lambert, Ross, and Hendricks in their prime
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Annie Ross
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When Annie Ross penned lyrics to a Wardell Gray blues solo 60 years ago, she had no idea she had created a classic. “Twisted” is a slippery, winding tale she crafted in one night, becoming a cornerstone of the vocalese genre. Readings by Mark Murphy and, notably, Joni Mitchell, have cemented its place in jazz history. The spirited London-born singer/actress has always had a knack for entertainment and performance since age 4, culminating with the iconic ensemble Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

I caught one of Annie’s shows this summer at her weekly gig at the Metropolitan room in New York City. Hearing Annie’s set was a lesson in swing timing and phrasing. I was compelled to interview my vocal hero. Thanks to Tardo Hammer, her dutiful pianist, she agreed. What she revealed was fascinating. Her story is rich. Ross’ body of work has had a profound impact on my singing and teaching career. For the past 15 years, “Twisted” has been the first vocalese I teach my students.

Roseanna Vitro: Going back to your earliest recollection of music, what is the first thing that you remember?

Annie Ross: My mom and dad were vaudevillians in Scotland. They had five kids. As soon as we could walk, we were on stage. So that was my very early training. When I came to New York at age 4 ½ on a vacation with my mother, father and elder brother, I won a contest with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

RV: What kind of contest was that?

AR: It was a radio show and Paul Whiteman was the bandleader.

RV: My first jazz teacher in Houston was a singer with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. He shared many stories about the band.

AR: Who was that?

RV: His name was Ray Sullenger. Ray sang in the style of Mel Tormé and Nat Cole. He played several instruments and taught jazz to many singers in Houston.

What numbers did you sing with the band?

AR: I sang a jazzy rendition of “Loch Lomond.”

RV: After the radio show, I imagine your parents were super excited. What was your next move after winning the contest?

AR: That’s when I moved to California with my aunt.

RV: I’ve read many people believed that was your mother.

AR: That was my mother’s sister, but she used to call me her child. She was my guardian, but I used to say that she was my mother. I called her Mother, but my real mother was in Scotland by then. My aunt was a singer, and her name was Ella Logan. She played me a record of Ella Fitzgerald. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I wanted to sing like that.

RV: Nobody’s ever sung like Ella. You were lucky to have had the opportunity to hear Ella at such an early age.

AR: Yeah.

RV: I’ve seen your appearance in Our Gang Follies and you were cute as a button, full of life, and a born entertainer. [Editor’s note: Ross appeared in Our Gang Follies of 1938, a musical short, under the name Annabelle Logan.] Do you remember anything about your work with in Our Gang Follies?

AR: Yes, it was big fun.

RV: Did you start school in L.A.?

AR: Yes, in Beverly Hills. It was Hollywood at its best.

RV: Did you study singing when you were in school?

AR: No, but I eventually wrote the school’s song. It was at Hawthorne School.

RV: Who influenced you as a songwriter?

AR: I was very influenced by David Rose and the L.A. musicians. My aunt knew all these musicians and introduced me to them.

RV: Were you reading about singers or performers at the time?

AR: No, I was listening. It was all about listening, which is what jazz singing is about.

RV: So you were more of a poet, a writer and a singer at that point, but it just came naturally. You always knew you were going to be an entertainer, because of your family background?

AR: Yes, it’s all I knew how to do.

RV: The world of jazz singing is forever grateful to you for your beautiful sound, lyrics and rhythmic feel. It must please you to know almost every vocal jazz student is influenced by your precision and lyrics to the classics “Twisted” and “Farmer’s Market.” “Twisted” is frequently the first vocalese an aspiring young jazz singer learns in school and you sat down and wrote it one night! So, fast-forward to when you were 14, when you won another contest with the song “Let’s Fly.”

AR: It was interesting about that contest. It was for the local school, Hawthorne. Johnny Mercer was at Capitol at the time. He heard it and chose it as the winner. I wrote it with a guy and I have no idea if he is alive or dead. I haven’t heard from him again. His name was David Ball. Johnny Mercer recorded it with Paul Weston and the Pied Pipers, one of whom was Jo Stafford, who never hit a false note.

RV: Oh yes, no one ever never heard a flat note from Jo Stafford. It must have been so exciting at fourteen years old to win the contest.

AR: Yes, and the most thrilling part of it all was to have the great Johnny Mercer (who in my estimation was big, big, big), choose to record it.

RV: As a 15-year-old, which singers (besides Ella, of course) spoke to you?

AR: Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine. I listened to everybody. I listened to operatic singers. There was a Brazilian lady who sang South American folk songs and she was dynamite. My aunt married a guy and he was away so much that she found comfort in buying a record collection. In that collection was Billie Holiday. She hit like a ton of bricks when I heard her singing “Strange Fruit.” I was raised in a liberal household. What I found so compelling was her truth.

RV: Yes, you could hear Billie’s pain.

AR: You can hear many things.

RV: Were there any books that made a significant impact on you at the time?

AR: I read a lot. I loved The Sun is My Undoing. [©1941 by Marguerite Steen]

RV: As you grew and developed into your late teens, did you pursue deeper music studies with theory or piano?

AR: When I was 15, I had the first sheet music of “Laura.” It employed a system of naming the extended harmonies with chord symbols that was new at the time. My aunt didn’t want me to study singing, because she didn’t want me to have a “manufactured voice.” And I could see her point. I didn’t always agree with her, but she was an incredible singer.

RV: Did you have any recordings of her?

AR: There are recordings of her, one with Frank Sinatra, and in Finian’s Rainbow.

( Ella Logan, 1954 “Look to the Rainbow”)

RV: When I heard your show at the Metropolitan Room in New York City, it was inspiring to hear your impeccable time, deep swing, plus your punctuation in the swing. In your early recordings, you were sailing through vocalese solos like they were nursery rhymes. Listening to your phrasing is a master class in swing.

AR: Ah, that comes from years and years and years of listening.

RV: If you could put your finger on it, who inspired you rhythmically?

AR: Ella.

RV: I’ve never heard you imitate Ella’s licks in your recordings, say, like Mel Tormé, who adopted a few of Ella’s licks. When I listen to your early work or any of your work for that matter, there are none of the affectations I hear in Mel’s responses to Ella’s influence. You embraced and digested Ella, while keeping your sound true to your own horn-like vocal sound. Which instrumentalists influenced your unique style?

AR: Well, I met all the musicians in Paris. I met Bird. I met Dizzy. They were masters. We were all together in Paris.

RV: When you met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in those early years, were you simply listening and doing gigs or did you also have a practice routine?

AR: No, and I don’t practice now, either. Jazz is improvisation, and that’s what I try to do. Like last night on my gig at the Metropolitan Room, I asked for requests. I believe if you can just hit it, right away, that’s what the value is. That’s what jazz is. Somebody asked for “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we did a knockout version of it. We don’t rehearse. My guys don’t use music. It’s purely ear.

RV: I was most impressed with your trio. I’ve known Tardo [Hammer], Neal [Miner] and Jimmy [Wormworth] for years, although we haven’t worked much together. What struck me watching them with you is the love, care and respect that they have for you-whatever you’re doing, they are following you.

AR: Oh, yes. It’s called listening. And you didn’t get to hear Warren [Vaché]with us.

RV: No, I didn’t but I know Warren. He’s ‘salty and sweet and I love working with him. When you left Hollywood in high school, did you go to Paris from there?

AR: No, I dropped out of high school and went to Scotland, because I hadn’t seen my family in years. Then I was working in London in a club when I got a call from Hugh Martin, who wrote “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” He asked me to join a vocal trio he was putting together with him and another guy, so I went to Paris and joined them.

RV: Oh, man, that must have been so much fun! So there you were in Paris at such an early age singing with Hugh Martin’s group and meeting some of the greatest musicians in jazz history.

AR: Yes. I met Billy Strayhorn.

RV: What a thrill to meet the great Billy Strayhorn. Did you enjoy working in Paris with Hugh’s group? What did you learn working with a vocal group versus your solo singing?

AR: Yes, I enjoyed working with the group very much. It was great fun. Well, I learned how to sing together with one other person, then with two other people-ensemble singing- and it wasn’t easy, but it was great.

RV: So you’re singing in Paris, having a blast, performing and meeting great musicians. When did you meet [producer/manager] Bob Weinstock ?

AR: We met at his office at Prestige Records in New York. I knew a piano player, George Wallington, who wrote “Lemon Drop.” I was working as a waitress. I knew George’s wife and she said, “You need to meet somebody who can be your manager and help promote you.” She knew Bob Weinstock, and she took me to meet him. He said, “Here’s a pile of records. Take them and choose one to write words to. When you’ve finished, bring it to me and I’ll tell you what I think.” So I was there the next morning with “Twisted.”

RV: That’s such an amazing story. Many of our best composers and lyricists labor over their lyrics and you just happen to choose Wardell Gray’s solo out of a pile of records?

AR: I went by the title. I loved the title and just sat down and scratched it out.

RV: So Bob Weinstock dug it and the rest is history.

AR: Then, I recorded it with Percy Heath and the group: Teacho Wiltshire (piano), Roger Ram Ramirez (organ) and Art Blakey (drums).

RV: That’s when DownBeat noticed you.

AR: Yes, DownBeat gave me the “New Star” award.

RV: After that, did you feel pressured to write more vocalese lyrics right away?

AR: No, I wasn’t even in the country when the DownBeat award hit.

RV: Did you have a process you used to write your vocalese lyrics?

AR: I don’t have a process. That’s a new word that’s come into play. I listen to something. I learn it. I study the lyrics. And then I do it. So I don’t really have a “process” as such.

RV: When you recorded with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, Sing a Song of Mulligan, what was that like?

AR: We cut one side and Chet Baker went to the toilet and never came back. So, we got Art Farmer.

RV: Art Farmer was beautiful player and a lovely man. I first met him when I first moved to New York and shared a loft with Fred Hersch. Art and Sam Jones would come over and play. It was a beautiful thing. Did you like the recording you made with those cats?

AR: I liked it, but I don’t listen to myself a lot. I like to do it, listen to it, then put it away.

RV: Let’s talk about Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Are the stories true about a singer named Georgia Brown, from the Basie group? The story I heard is she missed a rehearsal and that’s when the group became three?

AR: In a word, no. She was brilliant. She wanted to be in the group. There was some discussion about it before Jon [Hendricks] and Dave [Lambert] and I did what we did. We decided we only wanted one girl and two guys. She was pissed. Georgia wasn’t a jazz singer; she was jazz-influenced. But she was a dramatic singer and she was wonderful. I told her she shouldn’t sing the blues. She never got over it.

RV: Looking back at the birth of vocalese, to whom do you attribute the beginnings? King Pleasure, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, and Eddie Jefferson?

AR: All of us. But no one had ever done anything with a trio. One of the great memories is when they called and asked me if I would coach the singers Jon had hired for Sing a Song of Basie. They had already recorded the singers. The producer was tearing his hair out because he didn’t have a product he was pleased with. The time and money had been spent. Dave Lambert said, “We’ll do it together-just the three of us.” I didn’t know exactly what was planned, but standing in front of the speakers when they had recorded three or four tracks, when they played it back to us, it was brilliant!

RV: Yes, well, you three created jazz history right there, and it was brilliant. Dave Lambert-what an amazing talent.

AR: And kind, with big ears. Huge ears.

RV: Do you have any standout favorites of the vocalese you did with the group?

AR: Everything.

RV: What an amazing accomplishment. What a thrill. Another fun lyric of yours is “One Meatball.” Could you shed a little light on how this funny song came about?

AR: Well, I love Josh White. I heard Josh sing it and I thought it was so great. And that’s where I came from.

RV: Annie, from your vast experiences through the years, is there anything you would offer young singers today as solo artists or performing in college jazz ensembles and groups?

AR: It’s called listening.

RV: Listening. OK, I will repeat your mantra. In our sound-byte world, I think there’s more talking than listening.

AR: Listen to everything that’s out there, and select what you want to sing and go for it.

For more information visit Annie Ross.

I want to thank Annie Ross for taking the time for our chat. This interview primarily covers Annie’s early years. I look forward in the future to Annie’s memoirs and many stories and wisdom from a life fully lived. Annie’s vocal sound, her tone, expression, deep swing, phrasing and marvelous lyrics will continue to influence generations of jazz singers to come.-Roseanna Vitro

A very special thanks to my esteemed team. I could not pursue my goals without your help:

Elizabeth Tomboulian, assistant, transcriptions, editing

Jeffrey Levenson, friend, teacher, editor, producer

Paul Wickliffe, III., editor, recording engineer, producer
JazzTimes Magazine and Lee Mergner for your support