Vocalistics: Cascades From The First Instrument
“ Now the search ought to be on for the ”
Here’s a conundrum! The human voice – the veritable first instrument of jazz or any genre of music, for that matter – assumes its role as a bashful second fiddle to the brass and woodwinds that practice the art. Yet it just gets curiouser. You soon realize that much about the sounds exclusive to ‘jazz’ are explained by the fact that horn-blowers have continued to imitate the sound of the human voice! A poignant example: the moaning, growling and joyful sounds of the trumpets, saxophones and trombones of the Duke Ellington orchestra. Spin any disc of the Duke’s great bands featuring Bubba Miley, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown or Johnny Hodges and you will know what this means.
Jazz, more by accident than design, has become almost exclusively an ‘instrumental’ music, its standards and criteria deriving from the realm of ‘the instrumental’, rather than the art’s vocal, blues-based roots. So, you have the jazz instrumentalist trying to sound like the human voice, while – conversely – you find that many a jazz vocalist continues to try and handle his/her voice like a trumpet, a trombone, or – especially today – a saxophone!
When did we forget the seduction of the vocalist? Perhaps we didn’t. We just got lazy and forgot what the Pied Pipers to the human soul sounded like. Or perhaps we have simply been steamrolled by the commerce of the music industry, and have found little time to hyperventilate and be swept away by a vocal set. Time was when the great voices of our music would not let this happen... When, spurred on by their epiphanies, the great vocalists stepped up and delivered their poignant jazz psalms, like arrows shot straight from the heart. We listened in awe. We were entranced. It was almost as if we were mesmerized... just like watching a sunlight dust dance. As if each word has its own special and secret music egging it on. A unique rhythmic play... an invisible kinetic energy that simply leaped out from a hidden world, caressing the voice that was wrenched from – or burst forth – from deep within the singer’s heart, and definitely not from his or her throat or lungs!
Go ahead and spin any of the discs containing the entire legacy of the Empress, Bessie Smith on Columbia. Feel the volume and sheer majesty of her voice capture the space in your heart; destroy the false sense of what you may have thought to be fictions past. For sure, the joy and pain bursts out as from an ancient well. You almost feel the soul wrenching itself away from a skin it dreads to inhabit. You can feel the hurt that many of her generation and those that continued to follow, carried like a great badge of courage through the ages, and also held up as a mirror to our societies as we went on to plunder the dignity from each other’s lives.
Then we heard it in the small, supple and sensitive vocalistics of Billie Holliday. There was no other interpreter of the cascading human emotions of the dispossessed, as Billie Holliday. Her cornerstone of protest against racial discrimination – "Strange Fruit" – a great wailing, allegorical tale of ‘strange fruit’ hanging from a tree, i.e., the body of the African American – an almost indelible image of our cruel past. She ‘cried’ the song – yes Billie Holliday did! In her plaintive understatement, we wept in our mind’s mind more bitterly than we would if we were assaulted by a grand passionate unrestrained expression in an operatic ambience! In Billie Holliday’s classic understatement the weight of life was almost always an internal avalanche that was set in motion by a ‘little girl’ voice. Yet we were somehow forced to feel the full weight of its emotional assault on our senses. Always the elemental sadness of the voice, juxtaposed by the visage of that big beautiful woman, who – it appeared – had carried the burden of history in her heart too long. Suddenly the scars of her life leapt out at you. And the joy at being released from this weight through the art of the song... As suddenly as you were assaulted, were you set free by a voice so pure that everything else – including the physical presence of the singer seemed to vanish, leaving behind just the song and the multiplicity of its emotions. There was also pathos in Billie Holliday’s voice. You hear it in "Tell Me More", which she recorded in 1940, with Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson. But it was also the charm and urbane elegance, the suppleness and sophistication in the understatement of her vocals. That was the greatness of the musician that is Billie Holliday. It also speaks of the greatness of her singing; the vocalistics with which she was able to transform life itself...