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Kay Davis, Coloratura, Soared in Wordless Songs with Duke Ellington

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Kay Davis Kay Davis, who wove her haunting soprano tones through many of Duke Ellington's records in the 1940s, often using her voice as an instrument within the orchestra, died on Jan. 27 at her home in Apopka, Fla. She was 91.

Ms. Davis performed with the Ellington orchestra from 1944 to 1950. As a member of a trio of female vocalists—the others were Joya Sherrill and Maria Ellington (no relation)—she offered the maestro an opportunity to reprise something he had long relished: wordless vocalization.

“She was a classically trained coloratura," Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said in an interview on Tuesday, noting that Ellington had used “the high-register female voice as instrumental color" in the middle and late 1920s. Among the best-known wordless works was “Creole Love Call," sung by Adelaide Hall in 1927.

“With Kay Davis, he returned to this practice," including revisiting “Creole Love Call" in 1944, Mr. Schaap said. “And he took a work that featured the trombone, 'Blue Light,' renamed it 'Transblucency,' and blended trombone with her highest-notes coloratura voice."

While “Transblucency" may be her signature piece in the genre, Ms. Davis recorded several other noteworthy wordless vocals—many accompanied by the renowned trombonist Lawrence Brown—including “Violet Blue," “Minnehaha" and “On a Turquoise Cloud."

Kay Davis was born Kathryn McDonald in Evanston, Ill., on Dec. 5, 1920, one of three children of Samuel and Katherine McDonald.


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