Doris Day: Her Jazziest Moment

Remembering a singer with the voice of a friend

Doris Day (with Les Brown in the mirror) backstage at the Aquarium, New York, July 1946
Doris Day (with Les Brown in the mirror) backstage at the Aquarium, New York, July 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

There are certain singers we might consider ’tweeners, occupying some liminal space between jazz and pop. Judy Garland is one of these, though I’ve always heard the commanding jazzer’s way with phrasing in her voice. So too with the recently deceased Doris Day, ever since I first experienced her breathy melismas from “Que Sera Sera” in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Day certainly racked up the pop hits over the course of two decades, starting with back-to-back No. 1s in 1945 with “Sentimental Journey” and “My Dreams are Getting Better All the Time.” She viewed herself as a singer before being an actress, but she was equally devoted to both sides of her creative persona. In fact, Day often sang as Day characters acted, exemplifying the same ideals of a nextdoorness, we might say, that lent the feeling that one had a human angel for a neighbor. Day’s gift was in conjuring a version of this singing and acting self that was a part of our respective worlds, but just a tiny bit beyond them at the same time—though not so much as to be ostentatiously beyond, or make us quibble that ours was not enough.

Her jazziest album, and also her best long-player, is the soundtrack to Young Man with a Horn from 1950, made with trumpeter Harry James. The film featured Day as a singer who is friends with a Bix Beiderbecke-type trumpet player (Kirk Douglas), who falls for a woman (Lauren Bacall) with severe emotional issues, due to her mother’s suicide, who cares not a jot for his music or career. Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, was at the helm, and you know he understood a thing or two about love triangles. In this period, jazz films could be twaddle, lacking in nuance and the finesse of strong narrative-making, but Day’s presence does a lot to fortify that particular cause. You want to hear her sing, so you’re glad when it’s time for her to take the mic for another number, but those performances are woven into the tapestry of the story. This is art, she seems to be telling us, that is worth fighting for, and anything worth fighting for is worth having a partner in your life who will gladly and spiritedly abet the cause.

There was a trumpet-like quality to Day’s best jazz singing. I think the trumpet tells stories as well as or better than any instrument in jazz. It is the piper, the campfire narrator, the human voice rendered in brass. Are there better storytellers in all of jazz history than Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis? Day’s voice was indeed brassy, it had that outflow of warmth that became the influx of warmth for the listener. A cockle-warming voice. Harry James, meanwhile, was a very cinematic trumpeter. It’s his horn you hear in the film, and his horn that duets with and counterpoints Day’s voice on the album. If ever there were a Technicolor horn player, it was Harry James. But he keeps that horn in service to Day’s voice, which is to say, their joint music-making.

As you probably know if you’re familiar with Beiderbecke’s life, a happy outcome was not in the offing, a finale from which Young Man with a Horn swerves. Day is good at pathos but can’t really do out-and-out heartbreak, nor should she. We might say the same for a hard-bopper like Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, or Jimmy Smith. It need not be a limitation, and it certainly is not with Day.

On “With a Song in My Heart” Day channels some of the honey of early Billie Holiday, then intertwines her voice with the ascending and descending patterns of James’ trumpet, like a vine threading itself through a trestle. She has a way of singing such that her words don’t appear to have ends; they flow into each other, as if they have also ceased to have beginnings. It’s pure vocal flow, and it can be dead exciting, lines delivered less as lines and more as expressions of an overseeing jazz conduit who has our best interests at heart—as listeners, and as people. You might say that Day personified what the singing voice of a friend sounds like.

She takes “Too Marvelous for Words” at a slower pace than just about any other singer, wrapping us in a dream rather than hastening us along in a surge. Both approaches have merit, but only a singer like Day could make us feel like we should be going no faster. This is jazz singing that knows exactly what it wishes to do, then realizes those ambitions with breath control and diction—note how Day always rounds harder syllables, ear-proofing, if you will, sharp-edged consonants.

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When she sings of romance, she doesn’t sing of sex, nor even really sex to come. There is a way that a skilled singer can lead us into a future narrative that they are not explicitly singing about. You couldn’t be much better at this than, say, Ella Fitzgerald was. But the most Day seems to say—and it’s a wonderful reminder in our instant-gratification world, where we want what we think we need in that exact moment—is, quite simply, let’s see how things play out. Let’s let everything be organic. It makes impeccable sense that “Que Sera Sera” would be her most famous song, because it encapsulates the Day ethos of simply letting things be, not fudging or forcing development, and allowing life to play out naturally, as we act and sing naturally along with it. Wonderful way to sing, wonderful way to be, wonderful jazz to delight in.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.