Interview: Will Friedwald (Part 1)


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Will Friedwald is one of the most knowledgeable writers on American Songbook singers. Will's byline appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, and he's author of eight books, including revealing works on Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Will also is one of the nicest and most generous people around, and in this business, that's saying something.

Will's latest book is A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon). The subtitle of this 811-page bedside companion could easily be The Will Friedwald Reader, since each entry is akin to a friendly journalistic essay. Like all solid authorities and essayists, Will wriggles into his subjects, providing sharp analysis and little-known details as he takes strong positions. This is what makes Will so pleasurable to read. That and the fact that Will strives to entertain, much like the singers he writes about.

For example, here's how he opens his entry on Jo Stafford: 

“Maybe it's me, but as much as I love Jo Stafford, I find that of all the major jazz-influenced pop vocalists, she's the hardest to talk about, or, rather, the nature of her appeal is the hardest to pin down. In a way, it's easier to talk about what Jo Stafford isn't rather than what she is: She isn't warm and friendly, for instance, like her contemporaries Rosemary Clooney or Doris Day—there's no mistaking that they sing so obviously from the heart and never leave us wondering why we like them so much. Neither does she belong with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, two great jazz singers who, in Ms. Stafford's description of Fitzgerald 'give more weight to the melody than to the lyric.' Perhaps she is the spiritual foremother of those cool and reserved singers like Chris Connor and Jeri Southern, who make you look a little harder to find the emotion; it's there all right, but like the silver lining, you have to look for it."

In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Will, 49, he talks about his new book and the differences between pop, jazz and cabaret singers:

JazzWax: Instead of writing an encyclopedia, your book actually is a loving and enjoyable appreciation of dozens of jazz and pop vocalists.
Will Friedwald: When my editor, Robert Gottlieb, and I first discussed the book, we envisioned a conventional encyclopedia. Short entries on lots of artists. But the book gradually evolved into something else.

JW: Why?
WF: There's a lot of information out there on the Internet and elsewhere, and it no longer seemed to serve any point to just offer the most basic biographical outline of a given artist.

JW: What did you two decide?
WF: Rather than providing barebones entries of artists, it seemed more interesting to provide full-scale evaluations. The plan wasn't to omit the important facts of a performer's life but to tell you why that artist is interesting and what makes him or her special or different.

JW: Ultimately what the reader has in hand is a comprehensive collection of engaging essays.
WF: I was trying to create a reference book that you didn't just refer to but you could actually read for enjoyment rather than just research.

JW: What exactly is the difference between a jazz singer and pop singer?
WF: This was a long-running discussion that I had with the late Mel Torme. Mel argued that when we talk about “jazz singers," we're talking about a gradual degree of jazziness. 

JW: What does that mean?
WF: Torme believed there were relatively few “pure" jazz singers. When asked to name one, he'd often say that the closest he could come was Betty Carter. Interestingly, he didn't put himself in that category. He felt that jazz was an important ingredient in his music but that it was hardly the whole dish. 

JW: What then defines a jazz singer?
WF: A pure jazz singer would be someone who did virtually nothing but improvise, who almost never sang any kind of pre-written melody or even words—someone who just got up there and scatted spontaneously with a rhythm section. Mel didn't necessarily regard even Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan as pure jazz singers 100% of the time. 

JW: What do you think?
WF: A great many popular vocalists who sing the great American Songbook have a degree of jazz in their music. And there was a lot of pop even in canonical jazz singers like Fitzgerald and Vaughan. They improvised more than most singers, but they also sang the melody straight, they sang pop songs, and in their day they competed for the same audience as other singers. They also weren't working in an exclusively jazz context. 

JW: And the reverse is true, yes?
WF: Absolutely. Many of the major artists we consider pop stars had a great deal of jazz in their work.

JW: For example?
WF: Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Peggy Lee—who was always a jazz singer and a pop singer at the same time—Jack Jones, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Nancy Wilson, and even Perry Como. All knew where the beat was and had something of a jazz sensibility, just as Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae had a pop sensibility and made pop records from time to time. 

JW: To what do you attribute this mixing?
WF: Nearly all of the major pop stars of the '40s and '50s came out of the big bands. It's hard to imagine that some of that sense of swing wouldn't have rubbed off.

JW: Which singers best express this jazz-pop fusion?
WF: Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who were the greatest pop singers of all time. They certainly were the greatest artists to perform the songbook, and both had very heavy, career-long connections to the jazz world.

JW: So where do you draw the line? 
WF: You listen for jazz elements—primarily rhythmic ones. Ultimately, it's all about degrees, but a great many of the pop artists with the longest-lasting followings are often the ones with the greatest degree of jazz in their music.

  JW: How would the two different types approach the exact same song?
WF: It's a question of degrees. Tony Bennett is a pop singer, yet much of the time he's so jazzy that it doesn't really pay to distinguish between him and a more traditional idea of what a jazz singer is, like, say, Jon Hendricks. The main difference might be in this case that Tony Bennett has better chops. 

JW: But not all pop singers had a jazz background.
WF: True. The difference between the two types is primarily rhythmic. Ethel Merman and Mabel Mercer didn't necessarily feel the urge to swing, although Bobby Short certainly did. And not all superior pop singing is connected to jazz. The main idea is to personalize a song, to bring it to life and to make it your own. There's a lot of pure musical value to both Merman and Mercer. But they weren't solely dramatic and theatrical.

JW: How did you handle the differences between the types in the book?
WF: There wasn't a need to do so. It seemed to make more sense to make the book about everybody who sang the American Songbook rather than delineating or making it all-jazz singers or, for lack of a better word, all non-jazz singers. 

JW: How many degrees of separation are there between jazz and cabaret singing?
WF: Cabaret isn't so much a musical genre as a geographical definition. If singing takes place in a cabaret room, it's considered cabaret. Paula West is one of the great living jazz singers, yet her career path has taken her mostly through venues like The Plush Room, The Oak Room and Feinstein's. If I were to play you one of her records, you would think she's a jazz singer. Yet she's considered a cabaret singer because she primarily works in cabaret rooms. Cabaret is kind of the great equalizer. It's a place where a lot of artists from a lot of divergent fields wind up sooner or later, from Nellie McKay to Judy Collins.

JW: What's essential for a cabaret singer?
WF: If rhythm is the most important element of jazz, the main ingredient with cabaret is intimacy. Whether you're a '70s singer-songwriter or a Broadway leading lady or a Brill Building or Motown veteran, you have to create that immediate connection with the audience.

  JW: Is jazz and pop singing different today than in the past?
WF: The word “pop" doesn't mean today what it did 50 or even 70 years ago. If a pop singer in 1940 was Dinah Shore, a pop singer today is Katy Perry or even Aldous Snow.

JW: Jazz also is defined differently today.
WF: Yes, absolutely. “Jazz" means something completely different than it did years ago, although it's also fashionable to see the whole history of jazz as more of a direct continuum. The music keeps evolving and so do definitions. Almost all of the singers who sang in the big bands would have been considered pop in 1938. But by today's standards they'd be classified as jazz. Diana Krall might be regarded as a jazz singer today. But compared to a relentless improviser like Leo Watson, she would have been considered pop during World War II.

Tomorrow, Will talks about the cultural shift that caused jazz and pop to have less significance, why certain singers weren't included in his new book, and why the American Songbook is an endless source of material for singers today.

Five picks. I asked Will Friedwald for a list of 10 favorite little-known albums by jazz and pop singers. Here are 5 of the 10 on his list. The balance will appear tomorrow. In alphabetical order:

1. Lorez Alexandria: Alexandria The Great (Impulse)
2. Tony Bennett: Hometown, My Town (Columbia)
3. Nat King Cole: St. Louis Blues (Capitol)
4. Johnny Desmond: Easy Come, Easy Go Lover (Coral)
5. Joe Mooney: Joe Breaks the Ice (Hep)

JazzWax pages: Will Friedwald's A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and  Pop Singers (Pantheon) can be found here.

JazzWax note: Tonight, Will will be discussing his book in the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 7 p.m. Admission is free, and books will be available for sale and signing.

JazzWax clip: Here's Satin Doll from Lorez Alexandria's Alexandria the Great (1964). She's accompanied here by Wynton Kelly (p), Al McKibbon (b), Jimmy Cobb (d), Paul Horn (as,fl) and Ray Crawford (g)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.


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