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A Biographical Guide To the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

David Rickert By
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A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers

Will Friedwald

Hardcover; 811 pages

ISBN: 9780375421495

Pantheon Books

2010

Be prepared to spend a fair amount of extra money if you pick up Will Friedwald's A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. Friedwald, one of the greatest writers about jazz today, writes about singers and albums with such enthusiasm that you may feel compelled to purchase many of the CDs he mentions And with remarkable accuracy, he'll be right. The CDs he raves about are the ones you'll likely love as well.

If you assume, then, that Friedwald's new book is not a dry tome akin to the Grove Dictionary, you'd be right; the Biographical Guide is lively, funny, opinionated and addictive. It's partly biography, to be sure, but it's also a buying guide, enlightening history and just flat-out terrific prose. The title doesn't suggest it, nor does the layout of the text with its daunting two columns per page. But it's best to view this book as a collection of essays on the major (and not so major) players in American singing rather than a place to turn for quick facts.

The book is set up like any encyclopedia, with alphabetical entries for all the performers mentioned. Most get their own section with some of the smaller names grouped together with similar artists. Even newer artists like Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble get their (sometimes grudgingly) dues. Astonishingly, these entries are fairly long; Friedwald spends a whopping ten pages on Ella Fitzgerald, nine on Frank Sinatra, while smaller names like Lee Wiley get only four pages. Thus there's a lot more here than names and dates. In keeping with the title, Judy Garland and Barbra Striesand, who are certainly on the fringes of jazz but with both feet squarely in pop, get their own entries. Friedwald also gives a nod to major players in other genres, like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.

But it's the jazz performers who are the focus of the book (those who, in Friedwald's estimation, have spent much of their career with the Great American Songbook). Friedwald apparently has listened to every single vocal jazz record out there and is able to give a balanced (if at times overly enthusiastic) assessment of each recording's place in the body of work of the artist and the genre (he has also known quite a few of them personally.) Friedwald is also able to find the links between stars, showing how one influenced the other (and in some cases, how one thought to be an influence actually wasn't). His description of the styles of singers is dead-on and definitive, from Blossom Dearie's "soft sweet voice, understated style, and intimate setting" or how Jo Stafford is "the Mona Lisa of pop music, happy and sad at the same time." Most of his assertions of the greatest jazz records are hard to find fault with, although he's not afraid to take a risk with what some would call questionable claims. To claim Lullabies of Birdland as superior to any of Fitzgerald's Songbook series, for instance, or Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin is one of the greastest jazz vocal albums ever is something that many might find curious.

But no matter. Friedwald has created a compelling and addictive work in a field he has dominated for a couple of decades. No one writes about jazz singing like he does, and he has now created an enduring work that belongs on the shelf of any jazz fan. It's the kind of book that you will compulsively dive into, not read straight through, finding delicious passages about your favorite artists and most likely discover some new recordings and artists that you have never heard. A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers lacks slightly in the area of reference—it's difficult to look up recording dates and discographies—but as a collection of fine writing on jazz it's a stunner, a career-defining work that will be a definitive collection for years to come.

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