Being Vocal On the Instrumentality of Cliques

On April 16, St. Peter’s Church was hired to host a memorial for one of the masters of the Great American Songbook, Barbara Ann LeCocq, a.k.a. Barbara Lea. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Lea’s career began in the 1950s upon her graduation from Wellesley College. Her first recording was in 1953 under the alias of Midge Barber. By 1956 she was named Best New Singer in the International Critics’ Poll of DownBeat magazine. During the 1960s, though, she recorded nothing while she pursued a career as an actor, ostensibly to overcome stage fright. She returned to singing in the 1970s and soon became highly revered among aficionados of American cabaret as “The High Priestess of Popular Song.” She, like most cabaret singers, worked primarily with jazz musicians, which was reflected in the list of speakers and performers who attended her memorial, including jazz pianist/vocalists Daryl Sherman (who hosted the event), Ronny Whyte, and Bob Dorough, as well as vocalists Marlene VerPlanck, Melissa Hamilton, Karen Oberlin, Sue Matsuki, Annie Dinerman, and Joyce Breach. Impresario George Wein and cabaret entertainer Steve Ross played piano and sang. Pianist/composer Dick Miller played and remarks were delivered by cabaret clubowner Jan Wallman, impresario Jack Kleinsinger, journalists Roger Schore, David Hadju, Peter Wagenaar (read by Hamilton), and Nat Hentoff (read by Sherman), jazz scholar and musician Loren Schoenberg (also read by Sherman), and talent agent Lewis Chambers (who was also Lea’s acting coach). Pianist Tedd Firth, guitarist James Chirillo, saxophonist Harry Allen, and bassist Boots Maleson were the house accompanists (although Dorough played for Hamilton’s closing “I’m Glad There Is You”).

I only met Lea a few times in the cabaret supper club Judy’s while I was playing bass there, usually with pianist/composer David Lahm and his wife, the late Judy Kreston. She would usually be sitting with Jan Wallman, who previously ran Judy’s when it was called, appropriately, Jan Wallman’s. One of the things that struck me about her was how other cabaret singers gravitated towards her table to socialize and talk about their milieu, their cabaret clique. This was when I realized how insular the world of cabaret performers, especially the singers, is and how necessary this clique of artists has become in identifying and preserving a tradition of American popular song that has informed so much of the music industry of the 20th century. One of the speakers at Lea’s memorial (I probably should have been taking notes, but wasn’t) said, “Music without lyrics isn’t really alive.” Although I don’t agree with the statement, I do agree with his assessment that the way a melody is delivered to our culture is with the words that are ascribed to it. I flashed back to discussions I had had with Anne-Marie Moss, who dedicated an entire evening to explaining why a great tune like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” is almost never performed as an instrumental and with Betty Carter explaining why she put the song’s introduction in the middle. It was about a point of view, described as universally in the song’s words, being personalized by the performer. This was driven home in Lea’s performance of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” as a poem-like dirge during the memorial’s video presentation. Jazz singers like Lea, Moss, and Carter define a large portion of our social conscience as a musical clique.

But it is a clique that is larger than any group that might assemble at Judy’s or The Algonquin or Feinstein’s or Zeb’s Place or Kitano or Roulette. It is a clique that is identified by the way it produces music, by what Melissa Hamilton calls “sustained speech,” by singing, and includes artists like Tom Buckner, Judi Silvano, Jon Hendricks, Fay Victor, Theo Bleckmann, Andrea Wolper, Miles Griffin, Vicky Burns, Lezlie Harrison, and so many more. On Saturday afternoons I play at an open-air market on 116th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcom X Boulevards with the Satchmo Manaan Quartet. This is a vocalist intensive group that plays music from the Great American Songbook usually associated with African American culture. While there are, inarguably, rifts in American society associated with concepts of racial inequality, it is also a fact that one of the “places” where these rifts are forged is in music, especially sung music. But most of the jam sessions one goes to in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, feature instrumentalists. This seems to illustrate an attitude among musicians where singers are considered “less than” by those who play upon the technological marvels that were originally designed to accompany voice. This has an effect, I fear, of amplifying the sociological rifts mentioned earlier. Looking at the Great American Songbook, how rarely African American composers (not to mention Native American composers) are represented beyond Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Oscar Brown, Jr., Stevie Wonder, and Billy Holiday are given token mention, but too often their messages include commentary about the rifts and are dismissed as “political.” This cliquing from the outside, by the culture machine that benefits the most from these rifts, is what gives the idea of cliques a “bad name.”

To be continued…

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3 thoughts on “Being Vocal On the Instrumentality of Cliques

  1. Andrew Strauss

    “Music without lyrics isn’t really alive”

    Well, Brahms would be pissed to hear that, now wouldn’t he? All joking aside, there’s a lot to chew on in this post, and I think it touches on some issues that I ponder often. To borrow an example from the European art music world, which I believe isn’t all that different than Jazz, one only has to go back as far as the 19th century to find examples of the profound influence of vocal art on instrumental music. I mean really, take your pick, from Chopin to Schubert, from violinists to pianists (with the notable exception of Busoni, the great contrarian who thought the piano was essentially a non-legato instrument which should not imitate the human voice) I would argue that singing was THE paragon of music-making at that time in Europe. What I would be interested to know is whether Ratzo considers a living oral tradition (which is how I would describe the cabaret singers listed above) to be a clique. You see, I believe this attitude is near the heart of the current musical crisis. At least in the “Classical” realm, tradition is viewed as something fundamentally corrupt. Music must be broken down through analysis and then reconstituted through technique. Gone are the days of interpretive tradition passed from master to pupil. The musicologist Robert Philip has written an indispensable book about this phenomenon called “Performing Music in the Age of Recording.” Ultimately, his argument has less to do with the impact of technology on performance, treating early sound recordings as a body of evidence for the shift in attitudes toward the musical past. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but from my conversations with friends who’ve recently attended Jazz programs at conservatories and elsewhere, it seems Jazz has undergone a similar institutionalization of teaching which places the emphasis on “universally accepted” technical standards instead of performance tradition. If cliques fall into the latter category, than I’m all for them, as we can never resurrect an oral tradition that has perished due to neglect. Just ask any Classical musician. If they’re honest, like Robert Philip, they’ll tell you just how dire the situation really is.

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  2. Ratzo B Harris

    Great comments, Andrew, but I understand a great and fundamental difference between European art music and American jazz. While I do agree that vocal music, especially leid, was vital to 19th Century European art music, the socio-economical fiber of the two are fundamentally different. I’m not familiar with Philip’s work, but I know from first-hand experience that recorded music has been a traditional tool for establishing performance standards and the development of technique. While jazz was not beholden to the record industry for its inception, by the 1920s, it was indispensable for its propagation. There has been a trend towards an academic institutionalization of jazz over the past 30-40 years, but only as a kind of “highbrow vs. lowbrow” stratification. Instead of the entertainment industry being the locus of the larger jazz ensembles (“big bands” and “symphonic” jazz bands) as it was in the 1950s and -60s, and the “radio orchestras” of Europe in the -70s and -80s, academic institutions are increasingly becoming a place to bring new works. I don’t see this as a trend that will kill the big-band, though. It actually seems to inspire more interest in them and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a real shift towards consumer support of venue-based organizations like the Village Vanguard Orchestra, or the Westchester Swing Orchestra. The Tea Lounge in Brooklyn has been featuring different big bands on Monday nights for quite a while now with great audience turnouts. The sad part about academic jazz programs is that they’re beholden to admission regulations that require students to pay large sums of money to participate in them, a situation that might get worse before it gets better, and has the unfortunate effect of denying the hosting institutions access to a community-focused artist base, which is still a vital clique in jazz performance.

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    1. Andrew Strauss

      Thanks for the reply, Ratzo! I concede the socio-economic divide between Euro art music and American jazz. To clarify about the vocal influence on Classical music, I was thinking more of
      performance than composition(and the two were much more closely allied in the 19th century); one example might be a violinist imitating the portamenti of famous singers. I think the chief similarity between European and American genres (and all types of music for that matter) is that musical knowledge gets handed down orally from one generation to the next. Maybe I’m just fixated on orality, but all of my favorite artists are living embodiments of some sort of direct, person-to-person tradition. Regarding jazz, I would ask you these questions: is it possible to learn orally from a record? Is it possible to transmit an oral tradition in a conservatory environment? I’d like to offer a parallel to your academic big-band example. Did the flourishing of conservatory culture in the 20th century kill the symphony orchestra? Hardly. Did it irreparably damage a precious musical heritage? Almost certainly.

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