Vocalistics: Cascades From The First Instrument
The baton was also held fast by Ella Fitzgerald, who right from the 30s on until this day, reigned in the domain of the art of vocal music. Miss Fitzgerald was also the mistress of the ‘blues-line’ in jazz singing, yet she was also the great diva. She innovated; it’s true – especially when, with Chick Webb’s band, she swung through "A Tisket, a Tasket". In the 40s, when Bird and Diz blazed through the skies like comets, fashioning the pain of the day into bebop, Ella scatted her way through "How High the Moon" and "Lady Be Good". There was talk of ‘bop’ vocals then. Yet Ella Fitzgerald continued to ‘change’ remaining unharmed by passing fashions and trends. Her interpretations of the ‘songbooks’ of the great American songwriters – Gershwin, Kern, Berlin and Porter – belong to the greatest documents of modern American music. Indeed, in assuming the role of Bess to the great Louis Armstrong’s Porgy, I believe that Ella (and Louis, of course) has given us one of the finest lessons in the art of rendering story in song. No other singer – with the possibly exception of Abbey Lincoln today – has been able to tell a compelling story with just the use of human voice.
When she undertook the challenge of interpreting Max Roach’s tour de force, Freedom Now Suite Abbey Lincoln gave notice of ‘taking over’ the mantle of becoming the urban griot of African-America. Today she is the queen of vocalistics. Whether she is singing wordlessly – on Roach’s "Garvey’s Ghost", on the classic album, Percussion Bitter Sweet, or telling the story of "When Malindy Sings" on the same album, Abbey Lincoln brings together both the sophistication and plaintiveness of Billie Holliday as well as the raw power of Bessie Smith, and takes vocal music to a new level. In the 2000 set Over the Years Abbey Lincoln has surpassed the highest standards of vocal art. Her joyful discovery of life, "When the lights go on again" warms the heart and stirs the soul as it fills us with hope that all may yet be well someday ‘all over the world’. You hear the echoes of the end of apartheid, the joyful union of Mandela and his people and even a simple love story between man and woman come alive in that song. Lest we forget the hurt of a woman mistreated listen to "I could sing it for a song" and the tragic "Tender as a Rose". Sure in this set alone, there is evidence of who rules the empire of vocal music today – especially in the art of interpreting a story in song.
Of course it would be a stretch to suggest that Ms. Lincoln is alone at the top of the art. I write, of course, only of music written and sung in the English language. Who can ignore the magnificent contribution to vocalistics, made by many musicians who have skirted jazz for decades? I speak of some of my favorite Brazilians – Elis Regina, who embodied the art of ‘chorinho’, a vocal music not so much sung as it is ‘cried’. And there are others from that great South American contributor to the development of jazz itself. Even now my head echoes with the voice of Nana Caymmi, as she ‘weeps’ her way through a song aptly entitled (in English, of course) "No More Tears"! I hear Flora Purim too, in her interplay with Airto Moriera and that brings back memories of the memorable collaborations between Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, Ella and Duke and so many others that this cup runneth over!
This is a feeling of absolute ecstasy that only jazz can bring. And it is because the music can elicit this feeling and fuel this belief that I believe that the music that was born of the pain and joys of a dispossessed people has always belonged to the whole world. Our insularity prevented us from reaching out and discovering. The music industry has not helped otherwise either. We are too obsessed by labeling and cataloging everything. We have forgotten that we came from the same source somewhere in the Great Rift Valley. We migrated and were variously shielded or burned by the sun – in shades that may take a million new Ansel Adams to see! And, as with seeing and perceiving – with discernment – so also with hearing... And there is really only one way to do both. It is with the heart!