Etta Jones was a fine jazz singer who made the most of her vocal talents. Although she had a major hit with "Don't Go To Strangers" in 1960, and was nominated for Grammy Awards in 1981 and 1999, she never became a household name on the level of her idols and principal influences, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.
She retained a loyal following wherever she sang, however, and was held in the highest regard by her fellow musicians. Her last three decades were her most productive, in both the quantity and artistic quality of her work. Her closest collaborator in that period was saxophonist Houston Person, and they cut a string of well-received recordings from the mid-70s onward, including the Grammy nominated albums Save Your Love For Me (1981) and My Buddy: Etta Jones Sings the Songs of Buddy Johnson (1999).
She was born in South Carolina, but brought up in Harlem. She entered one of the famous talent contests at the Apollo Theatre as a 15 year old, and although she did not win, she was asked to audition for a job with the big band led by Buddy Johnson (the dedicatee of her My Buddy album), as a temporary replacement for the bandleader's sister, Ella Johnson.
Johnson's band was popular on the black touring circuit of the day, and the experience provided a good grounding for the singer. She worked for a number of bands in the ensuing years, including groups led by Barney Bigard, Stuff Smith, Earl Hines, J. C. Heard, Sonny Stitt and Art Blakey, but went into a period of virtual obscurity from 1952 until the end of the decade, performing only occasionally.
In 1960, she was offered a recording opportunity by Prestige Records, one of the leading independent jazz labels of the era, and immediately repaid their faith with her hit recording of "Don't Go To Strangers", which is said to have earned the company around a million dollars. She cut several more albums for them in the next five years, including a with-strings session, and a guest spot on one of saxophonist Gene Ammons's many records.
She toured Japan with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers in 1970, but after her final date for Prestige in 1965, she did not make another album until 1976, when she cut Ms Jones To You for Muse. She began working with Houston Person in 1968. They developed an appealing, highly intuitive style of musical response, and were always jointly billed. The pair were married for a time, and he became her manager, and produced most of her subsequent records, initially for Muse Records, and then its successor, High Note.
As if to make up for lost time, she recorded eighteen records for the company, and worked steadily both in New York and on the international jazz festival circuit, including appearances in New York with pianist Billy Taylor at Town Hall and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet at Carnegie Hall. Ironically, her last recording, a Billie Holiday tribute entitled Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, was released in the USA on the day of her death.
She favoured a repertoire of familiar jazz standards (songwriter Sammy Cahn was a particular favourite). The improvisatory style of her phrasing drew at least as much on the example of horn players as singers, but owed something to Billie Holiday in its sensitivity and phrasing (she was said to do remarkable impersonations of Holiday in private). She took a tougher, blues-rooted approach from Dinah Washington or the less familiar Thelma Carpenter, a singer with the Count Basie band whom Jones acknowledged as an early influence on her own style.
She continued to perform regularly until just before her death, and still had forthcoming engagements in her diary when she succumbed to complications from cancer.
Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]
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