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Sara Gazarek Remembers Annie Ross

The singer pays tribute to a vocal jazz pioneer (7/25/30 – 7/21/20)

Annie Ross
Annie Ross

I think I speak for many of us when I say that this past year has felt like a tumultuous and far-reaching sea of loss and grief. Political and social unrest aside (and not even taking into account the familial and financial losses we’ve all endured), we’ve said goodbye to more living legends than my heart can handle—and we’ve witnessed the closing of doors to more venues than I care to count. And yet … here we are. Left to make sense of the broken pieces of our ship, and to learn from the torrential storm that we have somehow endured.  

Months after it was announced that we’d lost the great vocalist/actress/composer Annie Ross, I continue to find myself learning from the ways in which she embodied this concept—how she continued to rebuild the proverbial ship and persevere in the face of the storm.

Annie, long revered as a chic and witty vocalist with an octave-leaping, fearless approach to her intuitive musicianship, was born to Scottish vaudevillian parents. Her mother purportedly went into labor during the intermission of one of her performances and returned to the stage for the second show—thus instilling the concept of determination from Annie’s first breath.

By age three, Annie had already begun her career as a performer, and by 14 had worked extensively in Hollywood as an actress, even gaining attention from Johnny Mercer for her composition “Let’s Fly.” When she was 22, Prestige Records owner Bob Weinstock asked her to write lyrics to Wardell Grey’s iconic solo on the song “Twisted.” Annie returned the next day with the smart and ingenious words to what would soon become her most iconic work (and go on to be performed by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Mark Murphy, and more). Even at such a young age, her ability to get out of her own way to deliver the most artful representation of her talents could potentially serve as inspiration to us all.

Annie would go on to sing, record, tour, and write with the genre-defining, Grammy-winning group Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross—challenging our understanding of the role of the vocalist by writing lyrics to, performing, and improvising bebop repertoire and beyond. The group embodied the musicianship, sound, and value system of some of the most iconic instrumental groups of their time. Annie’s willingness to see beyond what was expected of her, and to deliver something greater, will forever remain as a reminder that individuality and innovation are at the heart of growth and transformation.

In the years that followed, Annie battled a 12-year heroin addiction, engaged in a small handful of affairs, opened a successful jazz club, published a cookbook, declared bankruptcy, took a few movie roles, began (in 2006) a weekly residency at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan that lasted 11 years—and told writer James Gavin, “People say, ‘You still smoke?’ I say to them, ‘Honey, I am over 80 years old. I can do whatever the hell I please.’”

In the end, we lost Annie four days before her 90th birthday. Although she had been suffering from emphysema and a heart condition, her friend and former manager Jim Coleman says she passed in her sleep. Truthfully, I can’t imagine she could have gone any other way. This tenacious, strong, inventive, resilient, adaptable, hard-working creative visionary fought to the end to keep her ship sailing—in the face of countless twisted cloudbursts. And I know, as I continue to look ahead at these foreboding clouds in front of us, I’m grateful to have the guiding light of Annie Ross as the centerpiece, showing us how to come on home.

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats