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.

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.

After a year, Ella Johnson returned to her brother's band, and Etta Jones started her solo career. However, she was hardly an overnight success. In fact, she was not an over-year or even an over-decade success. Her first records for Black & White went nowhere. A series of sides for RCA Victor flopped as well. Jones worked clubs on 52nd Street and sang with bands led by Pete Johnson, J.C. Heard, Barney Bigard, Luther Henderson and Sonny Stitt. Her longest association was with the Earl Hines band from 1949 to 1952. During these years, Jones resisted efforts to push her toward the more commercial R&B market. She was determined to find success on her own terms and that meant singing jazz.

Unfortunately, determination alone doesn't pay the bills. As the world of nightclubs and big bands began their slow fade to black in the 1950s, Jones found herself taking day jobs to carry her through the dry spells. She worked as an elevator operator, a seamstress and an album stuffer. In 1956, she finally got the chance to make her first long-playing record. Unfortunately, The Jones Girl...Sings, Sings, Sings, released by King Records, came and went without notice. Jones remained an obscure jazz singer struggling to make ends meet.

All of that finally changed in 1960 with the success of "Don't Go to Strangers," the title song from what was only the singer's second LP. "Don't Go to Strangers" sold a staggering one million copies. What makes that feat so impressive is that neither Jones nor her record label, Prestige, thought they were making a hit record. Don't Go to Strangers is a jazz album featuring a quintet of first class musicians and a collection of very good tunes. There is nothing even remotely commercial about the album. However, in one of those inexplicable whims of the marketplace, "Don't Go to Strangers" struck a chord with audiences, and Jones found herself in the somewhat unique position of having a hit record with a good song. Don't Go to Strangers established her as a jazz star even as the title song brought her audiences usually more interested in pop and R&B.
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