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Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs

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I always knew I would be a singer from a very young age. It was also more than that I thought singing would open the world to me, which it did.
Helen MerrillOne of the most distinctive jazz singers ever, Helen Merrill started singing professionally sixty years ago when her warm voice paired with the Reggie Childs Orchestra in 1946. But that was just the start of a long and vivid story which would lead the talented young daughter of Croatian immigrants to make history in jazz by recording with [trumpeter] Clifford Brown and [arranger/bandleader] Gil Evans in the 1950s. A story which includes the opportunity of sharing the stage with luminaries like [saxophonist] Charlie Parker, [trumpter] Miles Davis and [pianist] Bud Powell, singing with [pianist] Earl Hines and living in different countries, from Italy to Japan. Enough for one to want to know more about this great lady of song? Well then, read on...

All About Jazz: Looking back to these sixty years of so many songs, records (more than forty), important musical partnerships and shows all over the world what's the balance of your career?

Helen Merrill: I have a personality that feels that each day is the beginning of something new and so, the balance of my career is always filled with possibilities, both positive and negative. I am not good at taking care of my career which keeps me in a kind of limbo.

AAJ: After all these years is there still any country where you have never been to and would like to sing?

HM: I have dreamed about China since I was a little girl. I read so many books about that country when I was a child. I even recorded a Chinese song. I think my accent was not very good.

AAJ: Well, let's go back in time. You started your career singing at the 845 Club in the Bronx while you were still in high school. When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer and how important was this club in your career?

HM: I always knew I would be a singer from a very young age. It was also more than that I thought singing would open the world to me, which it did. The 845 Club was very important because it verified my talent. Bud Powell was the pianist, Kenny Clarke, the drummer and lots of soloists all quite well-known in the world of music.

AAJ: It was the end of the Big Band Era, but you did sing with the Reggie Childs Orchestra during 1946-1947. What did you learn from this experience that you could later use in a small group context?

HM: Anything to do with performing music was exciting to me. I learned to sing with a band, which was not difficult. I had to beg my father to let me travel with the band, which he did after a lot of persuasion.

AAJ: How and when did Jelena Ana Milcetic become Helen Merrill? Is there any important event surrounding the choice of your artistic name?

HM: I now feel that the name Merrill was a big mistake. But in those days everyone changed their names, and so did I. It was in a childish moment, my girlfriend had a boyfriend with that name and it sounded so good to me at that time—very American.

AAJ: What singers were you listening to when you started your career? Did you have any idol which you would like to emulate?

HM: I never had a singer as an idol. I listened to many musicians and my idols were [saxophonists] Ben Webster, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges. These people knew the lyrics of the songs and interpreted the music with the meaning of the song in mind adding their own special feelings. My mother was my real influence. She felt music from a very spiritual place. A private place that was all her own. This kind of music can have no teacher—it came from her birthplace which was the island of KRK in Croatia. From that, I permitted my own experiences to lead my interpretation of music. I do not believe that art should emulate or we would still be looking for clones. We learn from one another and from there go on our own journey.

AAJ: Sometimes you have been seen as a mix of June Christy's soaring intensity and Sarah Vaughan's flexibility. Do you agree in any way with this comparison?

HM: Sarah was awesome and my favorite. Her voice was a musical instrument and her gift was enormous. My focus was on instrumentalists. I am flattered that you compare me with other wonderful singers but I have always been myself. Always taking lots of chances...

AAJ: Your very first album, Helen Merrill (Emarcy, 1954), had a very special guest—Clifford Brown—and also quite an arranger and producer: Quincy Jones. What memories do you have of this recording? Were the songs recorded with all the musicians playing together or with overdubbing?

HM: My recording with Clifford was a very natural event. No rehearsal, no meetings. Clifford was shy and so was I. We were in the same room and Quincy wrote the arrangements and made everyone feel like family. Quincy actually put Clifford and myself together. He has always had a mystical ability to put the right people together. I think Clifford plays his emotional best on our album.


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