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Maxine Sullivan's 100th Birthday Celebration on Riverwalk Jazz This Week

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This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Arbors recording artists Rebecca Kilgore and John Sheridan join The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band for a program devoted to Maxine Sullivan's 100th birthday called Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm.

Over a five decade career, Maxine Sullivan brought a light, subtle approach to jazz vocals that paved the way for the “Cool School" of singing.

Sullivan first came to New York in the summer of 1937. She said, “I auditioned every gin mill from 155th Street to the Onyx Club on 52nd Street." One of the owners of the Onyx, guitarist Carl Kress, gave her a job singing during intermissions.

There, she was discovered by pianist Claude Thornhill, who recorded her with a septet singing a swinging version of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond." It was a huge hit and became her signature. Maxine was still singing “Loch Lomond" to rave reviews when she was 74 years old in 1985.

While working at the Onyx Club, Sullivan met her husband, bassist John Kirby, who led his sextet, The Spirits of Rhythm. Kirby and Maxine became the first black hosts of a national radio series in 1939; Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm, a weekly Sunday afternoon broadcast on CBS.

Maxine followed up on her hit “Loch Lomond" with other vintage folk tunes: “My Darling Nellie Gray," “I Dream of Jeannie," “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," and “If I Had a Ribbon Bow." She once said, “I couldn't sing any song straight. I had no choice but to swing it."

This combination of old melodies with new rhythms became her trademark. Maxine's interpretation, with her lilting voice and precise enunciation, sounded very different from anyone else in jazz at the time. Her style suited the new small ensemble “chamber jazz" sound of the mid-1930s perfectly. In the 1940s, her sophisticated and elegant voice found a home at the popular supper club, Le Ruban Bleu, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where she sang for years.

Sullivan left the music business in the mid-'50s and became a trained nurse, but in 1968 she made a comeback, singing at festivals and playing valve trombone and flugelhorn. She appeared with the World's Greatest Jazz Band with Bobby Hackett and was a huge success at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival. She continued her career into the 1980s, recording swing standards for Concord Records, often with saxophonist Scott Hamilton.

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