Is It Time for a Reappraisal of John Huston’s “The Misfits”?

(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Project

The beginning of a new movie can be an auspicious event.  But for John Huston in July of 1960, it was more auspicious than usual as he was collaborating with America’s most well-known playwright and five world renown actors who had never made a film together.  The film in question was to be made in the Nevada desert where the average daily temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  As a rule, Huston thrived on difficult working conditions and nearly impossible challenges, but the making of this film was more arduous that he anticipated.  To his credit, Huston had done nearly everything right.  He had chosen to collaborate with a playwright whom he greatly admired.  He had chosen actors who perfectly represented their characters.  And he had assembled the finest assistants and film specialists for lighting, cinematography, sound and editing he could want.  What he didn’t fully appreciate, however, was the precarious mental and physical health of his leading actress, Marilyn Monroe.  Nor was he aware of Clark Gable’s health status as well.  Both fine actors had just completed exemplary films of which they were proud (Gable at age 59 completed It Happened in Naples with Sophia Loren and showed up on set looking fit and having apparently lost 35 lbs.)  Monroe had just wrapped Let’s Make Love with Yves Montand, and rumors were that she might be stealing him away from this wife, Simone Signoret.  Some might say that both actors were at the top of their game coming off successful film projects.  Did Huston know what he was getting into?  He had some awareness of Marilyn’s problems as he had been meeting with Arthur Miller who had told him of their marriage difficulties and Marilyn’s discouragement as being typecast as a sexpot; but Miller had conceived the character of Roslyn to allow his wife to play a real dramatic part, and she was honored to be asked to be in another John Huston film (she had started her career in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.) To add to her pleasure at being given this role, she had always felt that John Huston was a director who appreciated her as a talented actress. 

The media at the time was also excited about this proposed film.  The cast was considered exceptionally good:  Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach.  It had major “box office” written all over it.  In fact, another thing that John Huston had done right was to hire a writer, James Goode, to write a book about the filming of the movie and a photography team headed up by Cartier-Bresson to oversee official, authorized photos.  He felt that in this way ‘the set’ would not be over-run by media.  He had put in place the official and sanctioned writers and photographers and no one else was allowed near the filming except by special permission.  Huston had apparently selected Montgomery Clift as someone who would be soothing to Marilyn Monroe since she was known for being insecure and temperamental.  He felt that Monty would have a calming influence on her, and apparently, he was right. Monty was a good choice.  But then, so was Eli Wallach who was also very sweet and considerate.  In fact, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, Clift, and Monroe had all attended classes at the Actors’ Studio and knew each other a bit from this experience.  So, even though Gable, Monroe and Clift had not made a film together…there was a professional connection between all the actors in this film.  Kevin McCarthy, who had a much smaller role, was also a participant in the Actors’ Studio as well, and he and Montgomery Clift had attended at the same time.  So, while there may have been warning signs of impending trouble, there were also potential omens of success and camaraderie. 

What’s in a Name                                                                                                          

Arthur Miller’s title for his story which became the title of the film, The Misfits, is significant.  It was originally a short story not a play.  Miller told an interviewer that he could not conceive of a play being set in the locale of the West with deserts and mountains.  He felt that a short story could do justice to the setting and locale, and he felt that a film would even be better.  He envisioned long shots of the desert and the wild horses with the mountains as backdrop.  He had been captivated by the scenery when he had been a resident of Reno completing a 30-day stay for his divorce.  When he had been taken out to the dessert by cowboys he had met in town, he was entranced by the landscape of black and white – large expanse of white sand with black mountains in the background – he compared it to a “lunar landscape.”  He hoped that John Huston and the director of photography would be able to capture what he had seen with his eyes and what he had written about in his story.  Both John Huston and Arthur Miller as well as the rest of the cast were interviewed extensively about the significance of the title, The Misfits, and they all had interpretations of it and of the meaning of the movie. 

John Huston had the most succinct definition of The Misfits:

               It’s about people who weren’t willing to sell themselves out.

               “They will sell their work, but they won’t sell their lives, and for that reason they’re misfits.”[i]

Huston defended Reno and the West in general,

               He saw it was the last stop for the vanishing American innocent.  Miller was saying much the same thing in his screenplay.[ii]

               Gable’s character (Gay Langland):  a Reno cowboy who has frequent affairs with women in town for divorce actions, and…a man who can’t be bought and who refuses to be tied down.[iii]

Huston told James Goode:

               “What’s behind it?  It is about people who sell their work but won’t sell themselves.  Anybody who holds out – is a misfit.  If he loses, he is a failure, and if he is successful, he is rare.  The movie is about a world in change.  There was meaning in our lives before World War II, but we have lost meaning now.  Now the cowboys ride pickup trucks and rodeo rider is an actor of sorts.  Once they sold the wild horses for children’s ponies.  And now for dog food.  The is a dog-eat-horse society.”[iv]

               “The part of Gay Langland (Gable) is a point that should be underscored now, not as a preachment.  It reveals itself dramatically.  He’s the same man but the world has changed.  Then he was noble.  Now he is ignoble.”[v]

               Marilyn Monroe’s character “Roslyn had not had a child because Taber (played by Kevin McCarthy) was spiritually absent.  Then she meets Gay.  Their feeling for each other will create an atmosphere.  I personally admire that kind of guy.  Gay Langland is the modern hero or about as close to one as I have read about.  Gay has faced the responsibilities of manhood.  Perce (Montgomery Clift) too.  But there is an element of absurdity in what they’re doing is pointless, if not ugly.  Their accomplishment is subjective.”[vi]

Max Youngstein (a vice-president at United Artists) told James Goode:

               “I’ve been looking for pictures that are an affirmation of life.  There are very few people writing of affirmation.  The totality of this picture is that people can make their lives worthwhile.  These people are seriously lost in the beginning.  The little scene we saw in the rushes this morning is what the picture is about, when Eli says, ‘You have a gift for life, Roslyn.’  The public is a little fed up with downhill pictures.”[vii]

Clark Gable told James Goode his thoughts on the script:

               He had been reading (the script) in its entirely every night, saying that it was exciting, that there was so little to say, but that everything said was of importance, there was not a wasted word…[viii]

Eli Wallach told James Goode:

               “I have a great trust in John because I think he understands almost in Hemingway’s terms that man can take his licks without whimpering.  He keeps me from being self-pitying, self-indulgent, or weak.”[ix]

Guido, the character played by Eli Wallach, and Perce, the cowboy played by Montgomery Clift, were explained to James Goode by John Huston:

               “Guido is probably the most complex character in this film, a bit of a hypocrite.  He changes tune.  None of the others would.  He’d become an animal lover if he could have the girl.  He has made his compromise.  Perce on the other hand is very simple.  What he does makes no damn sense but thank God for them.  They’re awful good men.  Pity is that they’re inverted.  You’ve got to be singularly blessed to be part of anything and keep your self-respect.”[x]

Melodrama or Tragedy

One of the paradoxes of The Misfits has been since its release, is that it has never been well received or liked either by the public or the critics. For a film that had such high expectations and was heralded as “affirmative” why has it been so universally ignored or disliked?  One explanation for this rejection of the film is that fans of Monroe and Gable were saddened by their deaths following its release, and at least one Hollywood gossip writer sought to blame the film for Gable’s death. Gable participated in several apparently stressful stunts such as roping horses and in one instance being dragged by a horse (it was in fact a rope tied to a truck and he was wearing a protective suit.)  Monroe had started another movie soon after the finish of The Misfits, but that project was never completed, and The Misfits remains her last film. Many people who don’t like the film have stated that the film is depressing or sad or both.  In this case, the criticism seems to be a rejection of the film because the subject is unpleasant.  Given the fact that Marilyn Monroe had a string of successful musical comedies, it is possible that her fans did not want to see a movie that is so melancholy.  This brings us to the question Is the Misfits a botched drama that was aiming for affirmation but instead delivered sadness?  Both the author and the director were aware of the risks involved in presenting a film that lays bare raw emotions and a sense of paradise lost. For this reason, Arthur Miller and John Huston spent hours each day evaluating the progress of the story and changing the dialogue where they deemed necessary.  They were filming and rewriting the story in real time to achieve an outcome that was satisfactory to both.  Some may argue that this type of collaboration may have resulted in the film being overly managed to the point of being botched. However, neither the writer nor the director ever expressed dissatisfaction over this process, and in fact they both have gone on the record to praise their collaboration.  In much the same way, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe told interviewers that they felt that their acting in this movie is perhaps their best work.  So, if the film was not botched in the process of making it, and if the film in no way was a personal failure by the leading actor and actress, then is there another explanation for the film’s mixed fan appeal and critical reception?  Perhaps there is.  And that is what we are about to examine.

Analysis of a Film

Arthur Miller was not only America’s premier playwright in 1960 he was also a creator pf tragedies.  The Crucible, Death of a Salesman are tragedies. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy elicits “pity and fear.”  Human failure and defeat are often the substance of modern tragedy. The audience is presented difficult, sad and unpleasant circumstances which start out bad and proceed to get worse.  Oftentimes it is a matter of decisions made by the protagonist which inevitably contribute to his or her destruction.  Willfulness or unbridled conceit (Greek: hubris) has contributed to the downfall of many heroes in Greek tragedy as well as in Shakespeare’s plays. After the rise of the industrial age authors such as Thomas Hardy, and later Henry James and Edith Wharton began to elucidate the sense of fate and corrupt forces being too strong for a single individual to conquer. By the twentieth century writers were also suggesting that situations can simply be “absurd” and that human activity can be seen as meaningless.  Although much of twentieth century literature can suggest nihilism – the works of Arthur Miller and the films of John Huston do not necessarily reflect these views. Both men demonstrate an approach to literature that demonstrates courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.  Nevertheless, of the two, Huston’s work tends more towards humor and optimism whereas Miller has embraced a stronger pull towards pessimism as in his play The Crucible. There appears to be a dialectic process in The Misfits in which Arthur Miller’s essentially tragic story was reimagined by director Huston as a humanistic comedy.  The two authors had daily discussions about the direction of the storyline with Huston arguing for a happier resolution. It appears from James Goode’s book that Huston’s perspective eventually won over Arthur Miller, and the two men decided that the relationship between Monroe’s character and Gable’s cowboy would achieve a romantic resolution.  However, audiences may have been quite perplexed by this outcome since the characters of Rosalyn and Gay fought frequently with each other. In actuality, once the film makers embarked on a path of romantic resolution the director and the scriptwriter discussed the possibilities of Rosalyn engaging with either Perce or Guido.  Montgomery Cliff as Perce was always emotionally closer to Rosalyn in spirit and values than either Gay (Gable) or Guido (Wallach).  However, it is Gable’s character who appears to be the lynchpin to the resolution of the story.  Guido is an opportunist who will do whatever it takes to win but he lacks sincerity. Perce is kind and sensitive, so he does not require any change in his personality. The romantic liaison of Rosalyn and Gay Langland ensures that the film achieves catharsis.  Monroe’s sensitive character wins over the “crusty cowboy” who voices pessimism and violence in dealing with life’s frustrations. As he “softens” and relinquishes some of his hate and anger the film offers the audience a solution to the problems the movie has presented up to now of living in a callus and harsh “dog eat dog” world.  If he can see a better way to live his life, then maybe 1960 audiences could as well. Was this too easy? It doesn’t seem to fit with the style and voice of Arthur Miller, the playwright.  Did audiences reject such a simplistic outlook? Could anyone blame them?  The U.S. was immersed in a nuclear “cold war” with the USSR, civil rights in the country was in an abysmal state, and in just 3 years the American president would be assassinated, and a terrible new war in southeast Asia would unfurl. Perhaps, Aristotle was right.  Tragedy should not end in optimism. That isn’t the point of tragedy.  Tragedy forces us to see unpleasant truths about ourselves and the society we have created. Good drama has to have its own logic and not travel a path of fluctuating impulses. 

[i] Lawrence Grobel, The Hustons: Scribners 1989, p.486

[ii] James Goode, The Making of The Misfits: Limelight Editions, New York, 1986, p.32

[iii] Goode, p.38

[iv] Goode, p.44-45

[v] Goode, p.45

[vi] Goode, p.45

[vii] Goode, pp.98-99

[viii] Goode, p.47

[ix] Goode, p.69

[x] Goode, p.46


Jazz Singers – An Appreciation

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947. William P. Gottlieb, photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Nat King Cole, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947. William P. Gottlieb, photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For those who did not know that Nat King Cole had begun his career as a pianist and  jazz singer, they may enjoy several jazz-infused albums:
Nat King Cole at the Sands. Capitol Records SMAS-2434 (1966). Arrangements by Dave Cavanaugh, Nelson Riddle, and Pete Rugolo. The singer plays piano on some songs as well.
Nat King Cole Just One Of Those Things. Capitol Records W903 (1957). Orchestra conducted and arranged by Billy May.
Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays Capitol Records SW-1675 (1963) George Shearing Quintet.
In each of these recordings Nat King Cole displays a relaxed, sophisticated and skillful approach to singing with a full-fledged jazz orchestra or small jazz group. For fans of Nat King Cole’s trio days when he sat at the piano singing and playing ‘swing’ versions of his own songs and others, these jazz oriented albums will come as no surprise. Nat King Cole had a killer stride piano style and could swing with the best of them, but for the vast majority of his Capitol Records era balladeer style, these recordings show what a great improviser and jazz stylist he could be given the opportunity. Jazz arrangements can be challenging for a pop singer, but for a singer who has innate talents of melody, harmony and rhythm…well, the singer shines being at home in his element.

Tony Bennett with Ralph Burns Orchestra, Columbia CL 1301

Tony Bennett with Ralph Burns Orchestra, Columbia CL 1301

In his 1964 Jazz Encyclopedia, Leonard Feather stated:  “…Bennett is a first-class pop singer and not a jazz artist.” (p.62) To give Leonard Feather credit, in the fifties and early 1960s most of Tony Bennett’s  commercial output had been a string of big hit singles in the pop vein that were often produced by Mitch Miller for Columbia.  However, in the same inclusion, Feather acknowledged that Tony Bennett had also sung with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman…so he probably should not have been so emphatic in his statement.  Leonard Feather’s mistake was to define jazz singing too narrowly.  Jazz is an art form that has many different characteristics and qualities.  Some of the qualities of jazz singing have been described in a previous essay on this blog – they include:  having a keen sense of time, perfect pitch, an ability to use the human voice in a way similar to the qualities of a jazz musician playing a wind instrument.  Tony Bennett does all of these things in his masterful interpretation of the jazz standard Close Your Eyes (Bernice Petkere) that was recorded by him with the Ralph Burns Orchestra in 1961. The tenor sax solo in the middle of the piece is by Zoot Sims.  Bennett himself uses his voice with the strength and power of a saxophone.  There is no question that Tony Bennett is the main focus and chief soloist in this powerful Ralph Burns arrangement of this famous song.  The rhythm section of the band drives the song relentlessly and Tony Bennett soars over the changes like a masterful jazz musician until he brings the song to its conclusion by singing a perfect F minor pentatonic scale not once but twice!

The Tony Bennett - Bill Evans Album, Fantasy F-9489

The Tony Bennett – Bill Evans Album, Fantasy F-9489

To further solidify Tony Bennett’s credentials as a major jazz artist, however, one has no need to go further than his brilliant collaboration with jazz pianist, Bill Evans, in 1975 and again in 1977.  Another major characteristic of a jazz singer is the singer’s ability to hear harmony and the subtle micro-pulses of rhythm.  Bill Evans was one of the most subtle jazz musicians of his generation.  Everyone wanted to record with him.  On the other hand, however, not everyone had the ‘chops’ to interact with him due to his use of altered harmonies, displaced rhythms, and subtle alterations of a song.  A pop singer, even a great pop singer, would struggle if they were to sing with Bill Evans supplying the harmonic and rhythmic background.  Tony Bennett had no problem at all, and in fact, their collaboration raised the bar of a singer/pianist partnership.  It may never be equaled.  There are several times during these duets when Bennett’s voice provides the rhythmic propulsion to their performance, such as on The Touch of Your Lips (Ray Noble), Make Someone Happy (Comden, Green, Styne), and Waltz for Debbie (Evans).  A jazz singer not only handles the melody and the words, but he or she also colors the harmony and adds  suppleness to the rhythm.  All good jazz singers engage the tune on all these levels.  When a jazz singer and a pianist collaborate on a song, both artists interact in ways where they are both free to explore simultaneously because neither has to play the supportive role for the other unless they wish to do so.  Evans’s sense of pulse and harmony infuses Bennett’s and in a similar manner Tony Bennett’s approach to the song informs Bill Evans’ note choices and use of rhythm.  Their partnership on the classic My Foolish Heart (Washington – Young) displays subtle rhythm, colorful harmonic touches, fresh approaches to shaping phrases – it is one of the most perfect collaborations in the history of jazz duets evoking the creative partnership of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines or Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly.  Two great musicians improvising simultaneously and yet sounding as one in spirit. (Tony Bennett, 1975)

Tony Bennett told interviewer James Isaacs in 1986 that his voice teacher lived on 52nd Street in Manhattan.  According to Bennett, his teacher told him “Don’t imitate singers, imitate musicians.”  She told him to pick out the name of any jazz artist whose name was displayed on the awning of one of the local clubs along 52nd Street and emulate the style of that artist.  “So I liked saxophones, and I liked the way (Art) Tatum made a production out of a popular song.”  (Bennett, Tony Bennett/Jazz, 1987)  In this very interesting and insightful interview, Bennett also told James Issacs that once he was accepted by jazz fans he was pleased to be able to appear at jazz concerts, and he realized that he “wasn’t just a ballad singer anymore.” (Bennett, Tony Bennett/Jazz, 1987)

One of the most important qualities of a jazz singer is that singer’s ability to create elastic and pliable phrases which play with the beat of the song.  Many singers in the jazz field have this essential talent (the list is too long to enumerate but would certainly include Sinatra, Vaughan, Mel Torme, and of course Ella Fitzgerald to name but a few.)  Tony Bennett displayed this skill in the early 1950’s when he recorded with jazz groups, and over the ensuing years he has consistently demonstrated this trait when he interprets the classic songs of the great American songbook.  His sense of timing and rhythm not only informs the supporting musicians of the metric subtleties of a song but it also informs the audience of the nuances of the song’s lyrics.  Sometimes, it takes a jazz singer to enlighten the listener to the inherent beauty of a song.

Tony Bennett Jazz. Columbia Special Products CD, 1987.  Columbia Compact Disc CGK 40424. (Interview by James Issacs included in recording notes.)

Complete Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Recordings.  Fantasy, Concord Music Group, Inc.,  2009.

The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album 1975, Fantasy Records, 1975, F-9489

Tony Bennett and Bill Evans – Together Again, 1977, Improv -7117


Jazz Songs and Jazz Singers

William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Composer, arranger, and educator, William Russo wrote in his textbook on Jazz Orchestration:
The four principal elements of music are melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. Of these four, melody is indisputably the most important. It is the essence, the soul of music. And, as I shall show later…melody is connected with the human voice, from which it stems.

Maxine Sullivan, Village Vanguard 1947. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Maxine Sullivan, Village Vanguard 1947. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Maxine Sullivan was one of those singers who had all the hallmarks of a jazz singer – perfect pitch, impeccable sense of rhythm, easy and relaxed manner, an ability to float effortlessly over the chord changes of a song. Listen to her renditions of Blue Skies (Berlin), Easy to Love (Porter), and Folks on the Hill (Kern, Hammerstein III). The jazz singer fits a jazz group like a hand in a glove. She surrounded herself with great musicians who brought out the best in her singing, and she complimented them just as much with her melodious, beautiful interpretations of well-crafted songs. In the setting of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra or the Thornhill small band her voice was another instrument, and to a great extent, the most important voice in the band. George Gershwin died just as the swing era, and Maxine Sullivan’s career was getting underway, and so he never got a chance to hear Maxine Sullivan sing Nice Work If You Can Get It recorded in New York in 1937 with Charlie Shavers (trumpet) and Buster Bailey (clarinet). He would have appreciated it!
Because jazz singers possess perfect pitch and an impeccable sense of rhythm they can initiate a song with only the outline of the harmony being played. All the pianist has to do is hit the first note and the singer is off. Sometimes the singer actually sets the rhythm for the combo and the musicians follow her lead. This is certainly true in Lee Wiley’s rendition of Manhattan (Rodgers-Hart). The singer is the soloist just as when a saxophone player is backed by a combo. Unlike the instrumentalist, however, the singer conveys the meaning of the song by being able to sing the actual words. Great instrumentalists convey feeling through their playing, but the jazz singer is able to do this as well and, in addition, to sing the lyric (which is often as well-crafted as the melody of the song.) Lee Wiley’s versions of I’ve Got a Crush on You (G.Gershwin-I.Gershwin), (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with You)(Crosby-Washington-Young) and so many other classics are among the best renditions ever recorded. Her vocalizations blend seamlessly with the instrumentalists: Joe Bushkin (piano), Bobby Hackett (muted trumpet).
A big band era singer who made a successful transition to the recording studio after the end of Big Band Era was Al Hibbler. Although he had only one hit single with Duke Ellington’s band (Don’t Get Around Anymore), he had several big successes in the 1950’s with studio bands. His baritone voice is immediately recognizable and his inflections and use of pauses and idiosyncratic phrasing resembled the characteristics of big band horn players. He recorded for both Verve and Decca, big labels, and he always had great studio bands to accompany him. His version of the Les Brown classic ‘Tis Autumn (Henry Nemo) is perhaps more memorable than the original because his vocal solo is the perfect match for tenor sax soloist (likely Al Klink). This is a jazz singer’s version of the song. The strength and full range of his voice opens up the song as effectively as the featured soloist of the band.

Frank Sinatra. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frank Sinatra. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the big band era, on occasion, the featured soloist of the band was the singer. Tommy Dorsey was one of the greatest trombone artists of all time, but when he completed the opening section of the Jimmy van Heusen song Imagination, Frank Sinatra took over the vocal. His vocal is the perfect match for the perfect trombone solo. It is a continuation of the sonority and shimmering beauty of the band leader’s trombone solo. One of the hallmarks of Sinatra’s style of singing, as both Will Friedwald and and Pete Welding have pointed out, is Sinatra’s hornlike phrasing wherein the singer creates elongated phrases much as a stellar trombonist , saxophone player, or trumpeter plays with a band. His voice becomes another soloist – and, as such, he compels us to be spellbound by his creations. Other big band singers who merely stepped up to the mike and sang the lyrics straight were fine and acceptable, but their delivery wasn’t memorable or compelling. The singers with the vocal uniqueness, undisputed command of technique, instrumental sophistication quickly rose to the level of being a major jazz soloist.

Billie Holiday. circa 1946-47. William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first female vocalist to demonstrate these qualities was, of course, Billie Holiday. It was her singing that created the template for all jazz singers to follow and exemplify. Small classics such as These Foolish Things, Them There Eyes, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, When You’re Smiling, If Dreams Come True displayed the chief characteristics of a singer who wants to interpret a popular song with a jazz sensibility – utilizing rhythmic displacement, subtle changes in intonation, vocal shading, and respectful acknowledgement of a song’s lyric and the meaning of the words. Whether she sang with a big band such as Count Basie’s, Artie Shaw’s, or Teddy Wilson’s or a small ensemble (the classic 1952-55 Verve Recordings) she made her vocals shine with fresh originality, swing, and gentle shadings of harmony, melody and rhythm. Billie Holiday always acknowledged Louis Armstrong as the source of her inspiration in singing and how to interpret a lyric, and all of her work is essentially a tribute to her mentor. Because she had such a good ear for melody and harmony, and such a keen sense of rhythmic subtlety, she fit in with all the great jazz soloists of her era and sang “in the pocket” of each arrangement. The world of popular song interpretation and jazz vocals owes Billie Holiday a debt that can never be repaid, but the best jazz singers try every time they stand before the microphone. Singers such as Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Lee Wiley could vary each performance of a song because they knew precisely where they were and where they were going in a song. They can enter a refrain a half-step away from the chord tone or enter a chorus just ahead or behind the beat because, with complete assurance, they will soon be exactly on the beat and hitting all the melody notes perfectly. Pop singers can’t do this, and opera singers when they attempt to sing jazz fail miserably. Because the jazz singer can vary each nuance of a song she can keep a song fresh each time it is performed. And the audience loves this and welcomes it. The jazz singer also keeps the music fresh for the musicians she is playing with as well. The bass player and the drummer don’t have to hear the same song sang the same way each night – how boring that would be! The singer is, in fact, doing what any good accompanist (usually piano, sometimes guitar) also does by freshening up the harmony and rhythm as she sings. Arguments that Billie Holiday was ‘past her prime’ in the 1950s are defeated by what may be the single finest recording of her entire career, her rendition of You Go To My Head (Gilespie-Coots) accompanied by the great Oscar Peterson Quartet (Peterson, piano; Barney Kessel (guitar); Ray Brown (bass); Alvin Stoller (drums) and the addition of the melodic tenor saxophone stylist, Flip Phillips, and the sensitive, always creative trumpeter, Charlie Shavers. Billie’s smoky voice is as intoxicating as the lyrics. Her timing and phrasing are unforgettable – she makes this single song a classic of cabaret singing. It is the standard that very few artists were ever to reach. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1952 You Go To My Head and other classic song interpretations by Billie Holiday for the Norman Granz Verve Label astonished many female singers of the era, and inspired so many established and yet-to-be-established female artists. Two singers, in particular, soon released albums that were deeply indebted to Billie’s Verve recordings: Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee. They recorded these albums using very small combos backing them, and they chose smaller, less well known songs to sing in the manner of Lady Day. In the years that followed, their careers took them to much bigger projects, but both Anita and Peggy felt that their own finest work was when they went into the studio determined to record small, intimate renditions of memorable songs with sensitive and melodic accompaniment. And the critics have agreed.

 [Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946] William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946]
William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ella Fitzgerald is renowned for her up tempo vocal excursions of swing songs, but her ability to sing jazz also served her well for being able to convey a lyric with conviction and subtlety. Her performances of the various Song Books for Verve (Harold Alden, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter) have set a very high standard for vocal and lyrical perfection. Whether it is Gershwin’s immortal Embraceable You or the Rodgers and Hart classics My Romance and There’s a Small Hotel, her intonation, sense of phrasing, and total commitment to the meaning of the lyrics melds all the elements of vocal artistry. Ella Fitzgerald is one of a small number of singers who is able to sing the verse introduction to a standard with any skill and conviction. She makes these introductions shine.  And then, of course, there is the magnificent Duke Ellington Song Books (also part of the series) and this is where her jazz sensibilities put her interpretations apart from all the rest. The Ellington Band had many legendary singers to record the band’s popular songs, but Ella Fitzgerald and the band created classic interpretations for all time. Ella doesn’t sing as someone extra added to the band as a vocalist. She is another, integral, part of the band the vocal expression of the Ellington Orchestra and a soloist on a par with the other acclaimed members of the band.  Lastly, one only needs to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing It’s Only a Paper Moon (Harold Arlen) with the Billy May Orchestra to understand how great a jazz singer she is on an up tempo jazz standard. Her Harold Arlen Songbook with Billy May is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s best work on Capitol – roughly recorded at the same time. On It’s Only a Paper Moon, Ella displays all the earmarks of a quality jazz performance. She is totally in sync with the rhythm section throughout the entire piece, and this allows her to play with the melody and harmonies of the song at her discretion. When she returns to the song after the tenor saxophone solo, she creates all the right tonal colors from the melody and plays with the rhythm in the manner of a true jazz soloist.

Sometimes, because the jazz singer is so skillful, the conductor/arranger writes and conducts charts that offer the singer/soloist little or no harmonic/melodic support.  Listening to Anita O’Day sing Love for Sale and I Get a Kick Out of You from the album Anita O’Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May (Verve) is like watching a tightrope walker crossing between two skyscrapers without a net.  On Love May has charted a rhythmic riff for the band which supplies virtually no harmony;  perhaps his feeling was ‘you’re a jazz singer…figure it out.’  On the second song, the tune proceeds at an insanely fast pace which leaves the singer no places to catch her breath.  Billy May conducted many of the great singing legends of the period, people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and his band had top notch soloists so he basically threw caution to the wind and left the singer to fare on her own.  Anita O’Day describes quite honestly some of her difficulties working in the recording studio in her autobiography.   She is also frank about arrangers and conductors who wrote impossibly difficult charts.  Nevertheless, her Verve recordings are legendary and contain marvelous interpretations of jazz standards.  The singer did have the ability to sing under stressful circumstances and she shows a lot of grit for being part of these fabulous recordings.  The O’Day Verve records demonstrate another characteristic of great jazz singers – the ability to be a major soloist in the context of awesome talent.  The jazz singer must be able to solo like any other member of a stellar ensemble – no excuses, you either cut it or you don’t.  No special treatment for the singer.  It’s a sink or swim situation!

Singer, Chris Connor, exemplifies another essential characteristic of the jazz singer.  In her rendition of A Foggy Day (Gershwin) she uses her voice like a tenor saxophone.  She produces a full, round, resonate and breathy tone as she sings the words to Gershwin’s beautiful ballad.  If she were a saxophone soloist she would be in the school of Lester Young and Ben Webster or Stan Getz.  These soloists played with little or no vibrato and the sound they produced through their horn was exquisite, especially on ballads.  The other quality Chris Connor exemplifies is that type of saxophone phrasing where the length of the notes and the anticipation of each phrase are delicately sculpted to fit the melody.  Popular song singers just don’t think this way, but jazz musicians do.

As we have discussed, in some of the examples above, it is possible to begin to catalog some of the most essential characteristics of all good jazz singers:

  1. Perfect Pitch
  2. Precise Rhythm.
  3. Effortless ensemble singing with stellar musicians.
  4. Recognizable voice and unique sense of phrasing.
  5. Ability to use the voice as an instrument.
  6. Ability to sing the lyrics of a song in a completely heartfelt way.
  7. Ability to vary the characteristics of tone, again, much as a jazz musician is able to do with his horn.

The purpose of this essay has been to stimulate a discussion and challenge some assumptions people may have about what is Jazz Singing.  This essay is not intended to be a list of the top jazz singers of all time (that list would be too large), and everyone has their own personal preferences.  Rather, this discussion has tried to elucidate what are some of the basic and essential characteristics of jazz singing as demonstrated in a few select song choices.  Now, what are your preferences and choices?  Enjoy!



Russo, William: Jazz Composition and Orchestration. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and London, 1968 and 1974 (Phoenix Edition), p. 2.
Maxine Sullivan: It’s Wonderful. Affinity: The Swingtime CD Collection, Charly Records Limited.
Pittsburgh Music History: One of the Great Singers of the 20th Century who put the “Ing” in Swing. (1999). Retrieved from—early-years/maxine-sullivan.
Lee Wiley: Night in Manhattan with Lee Wiley. Sony Music Special Products, KW75010.
Al Hibbler Remembers The Big Songs of the Big Bands. Arrangements by Jack Pleis. Decca Records DL 78862.
Friedwald, Will. The Legend by Will Friedwald (liner notes to “The Best of Frank Sinatra – The Capitol Years”) Capitol Masters Box Set C2/C4-94317.
Welding, Pete. Sinatra’s Swinging Session!!! and more. (liner notes) Capitol Records CD – CDP7 465732.

O’Day, Anita with Eells, George.  High Times Hard Times.  New York:  Limelight Editions (Hal Leonard Corp), 1981, pages 228-232.

Chris Connor Sings The George Gershwin Almanac of Song.  Atlantic Records 2-601.  (Chris is accompanied by Ralph Sharon, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Osie Johnson, drums.)

An Ellington – Strayhorn Garden


Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Because the music of Duke Ellington is so much associated with colors, and especially the colors of flowers, it becomes a natural and easy task to incorporate the Ellington color scheme into one’s own floral landscape. The composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn also penned many compositions of his own with the names of flowers. For this reason, an Ellington-Strayhorn Garden can have interesting floral choices as well as a wide palette of variegated shades and hues. From the time he joined the Ellington Orchestra in the late 1930s until his death in the late 1960s, Billy Strayhorn contributed memorable compositions based upon familiar and exotic flowers. Between Duke Ellington’s own compositions and those of Billy Strayhorn, the gardener and flower enthusiast has wonderful colors to choose from and can arrange both indoor and outdoor plants to reflect the music of the great Ellington Orchestra. Here is but a few examples:

Morning Glory (Ellington & Stewart)
Fleurette Afrique (Ellington)
Azalea (Ellington)
Blue Bells of Harlem (Ellington)
Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn)

Passion Flower (Strayhorn)
Lotus Blossom (Strayhorn)

Lady of Lavender Mist (Ellington)

A Single Petal of a Rose (Duke Ellington)

Bird of Paradise (Ellington)

Black Beauty (Rose) Duke Ellington
White & Pink Azalea Duke Ellington Roulette LP Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

Red & White
Morning Glory (Duke Ellington & Rex Stewart)

Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn celebrated the inspiration of flowers by recording a piano duet of their composition “In a Blue Summer Garden” for the Mercer Label in 1950.  It featured two pianos and bassist, Joel Shulman.  It was released on a 10 inch 78 with another song on the ‘B’ side.

These two great American composers wrote hundreds of songs.  A modest estimate of the size of the Ellington song list would literally be in the thousands.  Flowers have always been the source of inspiration for many classical composers – Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and Schumann to name but a few.  Among the classical composers the rose gets the lion’s share of the honors.  Ellington and Strayhorn wrote some of these compositions in an impressionist mode much in the style and tradition of Debussy, Faure, and Delibes.  Many of their titles reflect this use of impressionism.

Author's Own Garden

Author’s Own Garden

Just as Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington ‘painted’ a rich orchestral landscape of tones and colors with the inspiration of flower shades, so everyone can easily enjoy creating their own arrangements of Ellington/Strayhorn flower compositions in their home as well as out of doors.  Choosing flowers based upon their compositions will surprise the flower enthusiast with the richness of hues and subtle shades of all the many different types of blue, magenta, rose, pink, violet, lavender, and many,  many others.  And fortunately, many if not all the flowers, mentioned in their songs and compositions are readily available at local nurseries or by mail order.

Peach Rose (author's collection)

Peach Rose (author’s collection)

The rose is the subject of many classical compositions and has always been a favorite theme:

Gabrielle Fauré (Les Roses d’Ispahan), Franz Schubert (Little Rose of the Field), Robert Schumann (The Rose, The Lily, The Dove).  Duke Ellington pursued this theme in several compositions for solo piano as well as for big band:

Single Petal of a Rose – solo piano

Rose of the Rio Grande – vocal by Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington Orchestra (composition not by Ellington)

Blue Rose – vocalize by Rosemary Clooney with Duke Ellington Orchestra

Black Beauty – Duke Ellington.  Originally written as a composition for solo piano (dedicated to Florence Mills) and later arranged for his orchestra.  Although not written with the rose in mind, one might wish to choose the Black Rose for one’s garden to celebrate Duke Ellington’s famous composition.  Black roses are in fact a very, very deep purple or red rose but which appears to be black.  They are true favorites of rose lovers everywhere.

Dark Rose Group (author's collection)

Dark Rose Group (author’s collection)

Some of Billy Strayhorn’s compositions featuring flowers may prove too much of a challenge for persons living in northern climates or for areas suffering from a prolonged drought such as the current state in California.  Such songs as Passion Flower, Lotus Blossom, and Bird of Paradise (by Duke Ellington) represent flowers which thrive in lush tropical areas which receive equal parts of rain, humidity, and lots and lots of sun.

In developing one’s Ellington-Strayhorn Garden the architect of such a garden may be pleasantly surprised by the appearance of hummingbirds and butterflies.  Hopefully, such a gardener may enjoy the presence of a Black Butterfly (which is also the name of a Duke Ellington composition, circa 1936).

The Duke Ellington composition Azalea written specifically for Louis Armstrong (the two played it together on their Roulette recording) signifies a flower well-known to attract butterflies.  The bright, lush colors of the Azalea is what attracts the butterfly.  Butterflies are especially drawn to the colors pink, orange, purple,  yellow and red.  Even if you do not see the Black Butterfly, many of the Ellington and Strayhorn composition flowers will attract a wide variety of butterflies to your garden.  And don’t be surprised to see hummingbirds as well!

Blue "Morning Glory" (author's photo)

Blue “Morning Glory” (author’s photo)

The “Morning Glory” (Ipomoea) is a beautiful climbing vine plant which has trumpet-shaped flowers that open during the morning or on overcast days.  How appropriate that Ellington’s composition Morning Glory was co-written by his famous trumpeter, Rex Stewart, whose characteristic ‘half-valve’ style of playing, added so much coloration to the Duke Ellington Orchestra during the time he was a member.



  1. Allen Smith. Colors for the Garden: Creating Compelling Color Themes.  Clarkson Potter, Publisher.  2006
  2. Nevin Smith. Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California. University of California Press.  2006.

3. Better Homes and Gardens.  Quick Color Gardening.  John Wiley & Sons.  2012.

4. Lambert, Eddie.  Duke Ellington – A Listener’s guide.  Studies in Jazz Series, No. 26.                 Lamham, Maryland, and London:  Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers – The State                         University of New Jersey, 1999.  Scarecrow Press, Inc.

5.  Clarke, Graham.  Success With Alkaline-Loving Plants.  Lewes, East Sussex:  Guild of Master Craftsman   Publications Ltd.  2008.