Remembering Etta Jones
Although she had a distinctive approach to vocal jazz, Etta Jones did not blaze new trails for jazz singing in the way that Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter did. Jones was an inspired craftsman rather than a high-profile innovator. She built her style out of elements that had already been incorporated into the vocal jazz lexicon by other singers: the improvisational and rhythmic ideas of instrumental jazz, the lyricism of classic pop and the tonal qualities of traditional blues. Other singers of her generation, including Ernestine Anderson, Lorez Alexandria, Ruth Brown, Della Reese and Dakota Staton, drew on these very same elements in various ways and with varying degrees of success. However, none of them quite achieved the naturalness or individuality that set Jones's singing apart.
In so many ways, Etta Jones occupied the middle ground between Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Like Lady Day, Jones had an unusually tart vocal timbre. But where Holiday's voice was relatively small and fragile, Jones's blues-drenched tone had some of the bite and power that made Washington's sound so thrilling. Also like her influences, Etta Jones did not intellectualize jazz. Her radical bending of pitch and her "when I get there" approach to the beat were not calculated devices. She sang from her heart (like Billie) and from her gut (like Dinah) rather than from her head. Improvisation came as naturally to her as breathing, and she probably had swing coded in her DNA. While there were many improvisers who took a tune further out than Jones, few were as economical in their phrasing. She did not waste notes or needlessly embellish a melody.
Etta Jones had an approach to phrasing that was wholly her own. Like Rosemary Clooney, she never had a great deal of breath control. Both singers learned to circumvent that problem by breaking songs into short phrases rather than sentences. But where Clooney would maintain an even dynamic weight within a phrase, Jones would alternately punch out or draw in a word. If you looked at her phrasing on paper, it would appear to have little in common with proper conversational syntax. Fortunately, jazz singing doesn't occur on paper.
Few singers have invested a song with the kind of gravitas that Jones brought to a lyric. Words meant a great deal to Etta Jones. In interviews over the years, she always stressed the importance of good lyrics. Whether it was a traditional 12-bar blues or a Lerner & Loewe show tune, Jones sang with an unaffected sincerity that defied traditional notions of interpretation. She was not an actor playing a scene so much as she was a storyteller sharing lessons learned on life's sometimes wonderful and sometimes bumpy road. In Etta Jones's universe, happiness was well earned, sorrow deeply felt and love long lasting.
Of course, her many gifts as a singer were largely embryonic when Etta Jones first stepped out onto a stage in 1943. In what has become the jazz singing equivalent of pulling the sword from the stone, Jones's big break came after she appeared in the amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. She lost the competition, but she managed to catch the ear of bandleader Buddy Johnson. Johnson needed a girl singer to fill in for his sister, who was temporarily leaving the band to have a baby. He hired Etta, and, within a week she was on the road. She was also only fifteen years old.