Remembering Etta Jones

Mathew Bahl By

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Improvisation came as naturally to her as breathing, and she probably had swing coded in her DNA.
There always seemed to be something indestructible about Etta Jones. You could hear it best on up-tempo tunes when she would swing with a joyful abandon and an almost godlike authority. But even when she sang the most tragic and heart wrenching of ballads—and she sang more than her share of tragic, heart wrenching ballads—Jones conveyed a resilient inner core. You knew that when the crying and heartache were over, she would pick up the pieces and move on. She was a survivor. So when the news filtered out that Etta Jones had passed away on October 16, 2001, due to complications from cancer, it seemed like it had to be a mistake. But, as we have come to learn in recent days, the saddest, most unbelievable news often turns out to be all too true.

The death of Etta Jones is first and foremost a terribly painful loss for her family and the many people who personally knew and loved her. But it is also a loss for her fans and for people who care about the art of jazz singing.

The jazz community has become all too used to saying goodbye to our heroes. And when we lose an artist, we often find ourselves returning to our CD collection with ears sharpened by sadness. After re-listening to Jones's prodigious output, two things became clear: first, Etta Jones was a great artist, and, second, we didn't say that out loud nearly often enough when we had the chance.

But then Jones was never the kind of person who craved publicity or praise. Although she was one of the few real jazz singers who could boast of a million-selling record, 1960's "Don't Go to Strangers," Jones had an almost willful disregard for careerism. In a business filled with narcissism and fragile egos, she was the very opposite of the self-obsessed diva. On stage, she was a warm, considerate performer who genuinely tried to please her audiences and generously shared time with the instrumentalists. Off stage, she may very well have been one of the nicest people in jazz. She always had time to speak to fans after a performance or to support up and coming musicians. Although she endured her share of personal difficulties—including an earlier battle with cancer and the death of her daughter—she never wallowed in her troubles or exploited them for the sake of publicity. "All I want to do is work, make a decent salary and have friends," she once told a reporter. Fortunately for us, she was able to accomplish a good deal more than that.

Etta Jones was one of the most consistent singers in jazz. While she began her career in the 1940s, it was the success of Don't Go to Strangers in 1960 that firmly entrenched her in the jazz community. In the four decades that followed, she was a constant presence on the road and a frequent visitor to the recording studio. Her recorded output is generally thought of in terms of the three labels with which she enjoyed extended associations: Prestige in the early 1960s, Muse from the mid '70s through the mid '90s, and finally HighNote from 1996 onward. Although distinctions can be drawn between these eras, in terms of the strength of the material and the quality of her performances, they are all parts of a greater whole. Unlike some other singers, Jones's gifts largely survived the ravages of time. Although perhaps slightly less limber, her voice in the '90s sounded pretty much like it did in the '60s.

However, her sound and style in the 1960s were quite different from what they had been in the 1940s. When she was 16 years old, Etta Jones made her first records for the Black & White label under the supervision of noted jazz writer Leonard Feather. Feather had produced Dinah Washington's first recording session, and he was clearly hoping to mimic that success. Feather scheduled the session for December 29, 1944, exactly one year to the day after Washington's first session. He also included two of the songs, "Evil Gal Blues" and "Salty Papa Blues," that Washington had recorded at that first session. But while Feather was trying to conjure another Dinah Washington, Jones was channeling an entirely different singer.

Etta Jones's love affair with music began in 1939 when she first heard Billie Holiday's record of "Fine and Mellow" (the flip side of the now-iconic "Strange Fruit"). Lady Day became the young Etta's inspiration and her greatest influence. It is hardly surprising that the teenage Etta Jones sang so much like her idol at that first recording session. It was a debt Jones freely and happily acknowledged. Of course, she admired other singers as well. Ironically, it would be her attention to Dinah Washington's work that would help the young Etta move beyond her Holiday-derived mannerisms. She also expressed great admiration for Thelma Carpenter and especially Nat Cole. Almost every one of Jones's albums contains at least one song recorded by Cole. Needless to say, every one of those same albums also features one or more songs associated with Billie Holiday. In particular, Jones carried the song "Fine and Mellow" with her throughout her career like a cherished heirloom. The tune appeared on her most successful record, the 1960 LP Don't Go to Strangers, and she recorded it again in the 1980s for Muse. It also appears on her final CD, Etta Jones Sings the Songs of Lady Day, recorded earlier this year. That last performance of "Fine and Mellow" contains a glimpse of Jones's startlingly accurate impersonation of Holiday, which serves to underscore both Lady Day's initial influence and the degree to which Jones had achieved her own identity.

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.
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