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Will Friedwald: Ten Years After

Lee Mergner interviews author of new book on the great jazz and pop vocalists

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald

Will Friedwald is the author of: Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond; and Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art. He was the jazz critic for the New York Sun for seven years and has written liner notes for many notable recordings. He has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly.

His latest book is A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers published by Pantheon Books. He spoke with JT about his life as a jazz and music writer, his affinity for singers and the future of print media.

What was the first piece you wrote professionally?

When I was very young, the first subject I wrote about, even before I felt qualified to write about music, was animated film. I did a bunch of pieces for what we used to call a “fanzine,” back in the pre-internet days, devoted to old cartoons and comics. I was about 13, I think. I did my first few books on vintage animated cartoons, the first when I was about 19.

What was the first piece you wrote about music or jazz?

While I was at NYU, I wrote music and film reviews for one of the attendant papers-I can’t remember what the name of the publication was, or if it was an official NYU student paper. Somehow I remember that it was an independent publication run by NYU students. I would have been 17 or so; the earliest piece I remember was a story on the MCA Jazz Heritage reissues, a series of historic jazz albums that were released en masse in the late ’70s. It all comes back to me now that I was, in fact, writing about music in the LP era. I hadn’t thought about that in a while.

Did you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?

Sure-I took journalism courses at NYU. I can’t remember my main professor’s name, but he was part of the old school-I remember he wore bow ties-the real ones, not clip-ons. In fact, that made an impression on me that I’m finally resolving right now. For the last 30 years since then, I’ve been telling myself I wanted to learn how to tie a real bow tie. I resolved to teach myself this before I did any of the “launch” events for the new book. With the help of the internet, a lot of diagrams and a lot of different videos on, I think I’ve got it-although it’s taken me about a month of practicing. (And my ties still look crummy, but it’s a start.)

The other point I remember about this professor was that he was pegged in enough to the real world of journalism to actually know Calvin Trillin. He came and addressed our class, and I was incredibly impressed. His specialty, then as now, was writing about food. I raised my hand and asked him about a couple of restaurants I knew near my Grandmother’s house in Mobile, Alabama, and he knew them all! Actually this wasn’t even Mobile, it was Fairhope, a smaller town on the other side of the bay. Very impressive.

Normally, I ask why a writer chooses a particular subject for his book, but in your case, you’ve been immersed in the field of jazz vocals for a long time. Have you always been obsessed with singers? Why do you think you’re drawn to that genre?

I do happen to love singers, but I’m not sure if that’s my favorite “instrument,” sometimes I think that I get more excited by saxophonists. I never took a singing lesson in my life, but for years and years I studied saxophone with various teachers. You’ll notice I said, “studied saxophone.” I didn’t say, “played the saxophone.” If you were to ever hear me “play,” you would know that there’s a difference. I did get as far as playing in a marching band for a while-they had me playing baritone, mainly because I’m 6′ 1″ and I was the only guy who was big enough and stupid enough to carry a low A baritone sax in a fourth of July parade in 100 degree heat. The baritone is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the parts are relatively easy in marching band music, on the other hand, the horn is big and loud enough for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing (such as moi) to inflict some real damage. But if anyone ever asks me if ever fantasize about being Frank Sinatra, my prepared answer is, no, I actually fantasize about being Frank Wess. (Or, sometimes, Frank Trumbauer.)

But I digress: I think part of the fascination with singers is that they’re the link between all the different musics-from jazz to pop to Broadway to folk to opera to western to blues, they all primarily involve the human voice. Beyond singers themselves, I’ve always been an advocate of the American songbook, and for years it’s fascinated me that Billie Holiday, Ethel Merman, Tony Bennett, and Sonny Rollins all essentially have the same repertoire-they all use the music of Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, and the other great Broadway-centric songwriters. I make the point in the book that the only really major composer of the period who was essentially indifferent to Broadway was Hoagy Carmichael. Even Duke Ellington kept trying to land a hit show. Obviously these musics and these artists have a lot in common, even if they’re generally organized in different categories. Even in instrumental jazz, more than classical music, most of my favorite horn soloists are those who have a distinct and human “voice,” the overall vocal quality in their improvisations is more like, say, a blues singer (or a standards singer) than it is like a classical violin soloist. Even in non-song-based jazz, like the avant-garde, there’s a distinctly vocal quality-I hear it in Ornette Coleman as much as I do in Lester Young. To paraphrase Artie Shaw, a lot of saxophonists, trumpeters, and trombonists are better “singers” than a lot of singers.

There are so many guidebooks to jazz out there. Why a comprehensive guidebook to jazz vocals?

This is a book about vocalists, a great many of whom happen to be jazz-inspired, but it’s primarily about singers and the songbook, and only then about jazz. Of course, if you’re only interested in jazz singers, you won’t be disappointed if you read this book, because there’s hundreds and hundreds of pages about them. You can consider the chapters on everyone else, from Ethel Merman to Vic Damone, something of a bonus, if you wish. A recurring theme in the book is the idea that jazz is one of the major tenets of interpretation (no less than improvisation); jazz techniques can help a singer can help a singer get to the emotional and lyrical core of a song. It’s sometimes said that excessive amounts of scat and embellishment can obscure the point of a song, can hide the melody or the lyrics, and while this can be the case, in the hands of the great interpreters, from Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra downwards, jazz means personalizing a piece of music and making it your own, and therefore making its message that much more clear.

But I don’t think anyone would characterize this is a basic guidebook, my friend Marc Myers described it as an “essay-pedia” (These days, everything is “wiki” this and “wiki” that, so it’s a departure to describe something as a “pedia.”) My intention was that the essays would give you the essential encyclopedia-type factoids, birth, death, and broad outlines of the career, but, no less important, critical opinion and evaluation of the work. You might look the two areas as an extension of the basic jazz format: the basic historical facts are the melody, the “head,” as it were, followed by several choruses of improvisation, where I offer my own take on these artists, what their music means and why we should listen to it. So I aspired to come up with something that’s a reference book that that one would spend quality time with. Hopefully, you can read one essay here and another one there, at a time. I’ll be surprised if anyone reads it cover to cover-that’s certainly not the way I wrote it!

What were your criteria for including some and excluding others?

My overall goal was to try and concentrate on the artists who made a lasting contribution towards the art of singing what we call The Great American Songbook. That’s the main reason it cuts across the board, from Ella Fitzgerald to Judy Garland, from jazz swingers to Broadway belters. When you think about it, Ethel Merman and Sonny Rollins do a lot of the same songs – actually, the more I think about it, the more Sonny seems like a traditional showbiz figure (no wonder he does all those Jolson songs!) The idea was to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and to include, firstly, all the major people-the Sinatras, the Fitzgeralds, the Tony Bennetts-who have obviously served as the starting point for anyone singing the songbook over the last 50 years. Then again, there were figures like Jeri Southern and Joe Mooney, who were enormously influential in terms of their impact on other singers. Both Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were major followers of Joe Mooney, yet virtually no one in the general public had even heard of him, even at the “height,” such as it were, of his career. There also are artists who were very big at a certain point, sold millions of records even, like Gene Austin, but have not, essentially, survived their era, and are practically forgotten today. Lastly, there are wonderful singers, like Nellie Lutcher and Johnny Desmond, about whom it’s hard to make any kind of a case whatever; they’re simply great and they deserve to be part of the discussion.

Obviously it’s a subjective decision; even right now, as the book is just coming out, I wish it could have been at least another 200 pages longer – there are three excellent contemporary jazz-driven singers whom I wish I’d included, namely Catherine Russell, Paula West, and Rebecca Kilgore (ironically, West plays all the big clubs but has barely recorded at all, while Kilgore makes tons of great records all the time but never works in New York). What really irks me is that there are a couple of living legends whom I’d love to include, who are still working today, like Marilyn Maye and Jane Harvey, that really should have been in there. Even with approximately 850,000 words at my disposal, I couldn’t have gotten in everybody!

How much of the material had already been written for other books or publications?

Obviously some, but overall not a whole lot. First, I absolutely didn’t re-use anything that’s been published in book form. I did take a few columns from the New York Sun and a couple of liner notes, and use them as a point of departure, but not much; besides which, even if there’s a germ of something that originated someplace else, everything here was drastically re-written, re-edited, and then re-re-written and re-re-edited, and so forth and so on, both by myself and my editor, Robert Gottlieb.

You had to balance biography with critical assessment. How did you figure out how to get the right mix?

I hope I’m correctly inferring, from the tone of the question, that I did, in fact, actually get the right mix! In the beginning, back around 2001 and earlier (I remember where I was living, on West 49th St, when I started the book), there really was no basic reference source for all this information – this was before I had even heard the word “wikipedia.” Our first thought was to include all the basic bio-factoids about all these artists, which weren’t readily available at that point, at least not in a single source. As the work evolved, it became apparent that it was increasingly easy just to go on google and look up June Christy’s birth date, but there was nothing to tell you why, for instance, June Christy’s birth date was important (unless you were Phil Schaap). The book developed into a series of essay-like entries that give you the essential facts of an artists life and career, along with evaluation and what we, back in my Village Voice days, used to call consumer guidance. What are June Christy’s most important albums and songs? When does she reach the height of her career? Who are the artists who influenced her the most? What singers who have come since have reflected her influence? Why is she important? Why does June Christy matter? What makes her different from everybody else? What makes her special? What are her key strengths and weaknesses? Most important, why should we still be listening to June Christy today? These are the issues I tried to deal with.

How long did it take to do the research for this book? How long did it take to write the book from start to finish?

I wrote and researched – and listened, and listened, and listened (and listened) at the same time. Basically, my method was to ingest everything at once, to read everything I could find, and draw on my own private stockpile of interviews and factoids, and try to listen to every artist’s entire output, or as much as I could. Thank goodness for Mosaic Records and Bear Family, who made it possible for me to listen to lots and lots of material I didn’t even own on LP.

My biggest worry was trying to get all the facts and factoids straight, not easy when you’re dealing with 200-300 artists (I don’t have a final tally). In the last year, I started sending out sections to experts I knew, hoping they would help me find mistakes and prevent them from getting into the finished work-but of course, that happens. I’m resigned to it.

The total time was ten years-I started at the end of 2000, worked on throughout 2001 and right up to now… the last additions and changes were made as late as September, two months ago. When we had our book launch event at the Algonquin, Altie Karper head of production at Pantheon, said to me, “You realize, Will, that now we can’t make any more changes!”

But yes, it really took ten years… in fact, the essential writing was mostly done from 2001 to 2005, then I spent five years adding to that, re-writing, editing, adding additional essays, fixing the ones I had. The hardest thing, in a book that took so long, and covered so much ground, was constantly updating it-for the important contemporary singers, like Diane Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, I had to update their essays every time they released a new album; for older artists, I had to add in new reissues-there were a whole bunch of important Ella Fitzgerald albums in the last 10 years; other times, as with Lena Horne and Chris Connor, who both died in the last year, I had to add in that information as well, unfortunately. Keeping it current was a big job!

Did you learn anything new or surprising in your research for the book?

Yeah, baby! All kinds of stuff: I became interested in various singers who sing in different registers and different voices for various reasons. It occurred to me that Fats Waller was actually a vocal quartet in himself, he sang like a baritone one moment, then he was screaching in falsetto the next. Surprisingly, the other singers who do that most effectively had, you would think, nothing to do with Fats Waller: Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. More recently, Andy Bey does that, he sings way down in the basement for part of a song, but then, in the next line, he’ll go way up to the roof! The same singer, the same track.

Speaking of Fats Waller: I was thinking about how he and Louis Armstrong were easily the most influential singing musicians of the 1930s; Armstrong for a great deal longer. There are, famously, dozens of horn players who tried to sing like Pops, but where were all the singing pianists who took Fats for a model? I couldn’t find any, not until Nat King Cole, and that’s really a different animal. Then, it occurred to me, that there was an entire school of African-American women who were deeply influenced by Fats Waller: Cleo Brown, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher, Rose Murphy, Hadda Brooks. They all use Fats as a point of departure, So I built a whole essay around them, I called it the “Femme Followers of Fats.”

What is your take on editing? Do you feel editors to be a help or hindrance? Why?

That’s like asking, “What’s your take on trumpet players?” Some of ’em are great, some of them stink! Most of the editors I’ve worked with at newspapers and on books have been extremely helpful. I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.

Bob Gottlieb, who conceived this book with me and then shepherded it through ten years of writing and editing, is the greatest of them all, as far as I’m concerned. He really helped this book take shape, become something other than a ten-foot stack of manuscript. Thanks to his judicious editing, it’s not just a bunch of random essays going off in their own directions, but it really has a consistency and an overall direction. If this book is something greater than the sum of its parts, then that’s entirely due to Bob.

Over the years, I assume you’ve gotten to know personally many of the singers and jazz artists out there, many of whom you have to write about. How does knowing an artist personally affect your critical judgment? Do you ever “recuse” yourself from reviewing someone you know?

Ah yes, it’s a slippery slope, my friend! It comes up more in newspaper writing than in a book (especially where there’s a historical focus, as in this one). Obviously, you avoid anything that could be a potential conflict. When in doubt, ask your editor (see previous question).

Which jazz and music writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?

Who’s to say I “came up?” Life is a series of lateral moves-at best! My hero and mentor was always Gary Giddins, mostly for making the act of writing about music seem like such a worthwhile and exciting thing to do. He always was (and is) my hero. I closely read all the greats-Feather, Balliett, Otis Ferguson, the late George Simon was very encouraging. I am also proud to say that the major living veterans of the JJJ (Jewish Jazz Junkies)-Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff (well, an honorary JJJ)-all return my phone calls and /or e-mails. They’ve all been nicer than I have a right to expect.

Which jazz and music writers do you enjoy reading now?

I’m very proud to count guys like David Hajdu, Larry Blumenfeld, Francis Davis, Martin Johnson, Nate Chinen, Ben Ratliff, Bill Milkowski, and Marc Myers as my friends, if not necessarily my peers (though not for lack of trying on my part). And Christopher Loudon, of course, after reading that wonderful review! And I continue to read Gary religiously, when he writes in Jazz Times or anyplace else.

What non-fiction or biographies outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?

I’m just reading Bob Gottlieb’s new biography of Sarah Bernhardt, which so far looks wonderful. There are new books on Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia that I hope I can get to soon.

What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books) and its effect on jazz and music criticism?

Obviously, my heart is in the print media. That’s what I always have written for, right up to now. But I have to admit, as far as writing about music goes, whatever slowdown the print industry has gone through has not been much of an issue-there’s probably more writing about music now than ever. As a kid in the ’70s, I just read the music coverage in the Times and the Voice, but now on the internet I find myself reading jazz coverage from all over the country and the planet; there’s lots of stories and stuff happening in all kinds of places. In a funny way, the web has made it tempting to be more narrow. It’s now possible to read just music or even jazz coverage in a way that one never could before.

What’s next as far as another book project?

I’m open to suggestions!

Originally Published