25.11. – Happy Birthday !!! Etta Jones retained a loyal following wherever she sang, 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.
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, as a temporary replacement for the bandleader’s sister.
Johnson’s band was popular on the black touring circuit of the day, and the experience provided a good grounding for the singer. Etta stayed with Johnson’s big band for a year and then went out on her own in 1944 to record several sides with noted jazz producer and writer Leonard Feather. In 1947, she returned to singing in big bands, one led by drummer J.C. Heard and the next with legendary pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines, whom she stayed with for three years. She worked for a number of bands in the ensuing years, including groups led by Barney Bigard, Stuff Smith, 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, and immediately struck gold with her hit recording of “Don’t Go To Strangers.” 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.
In 1968, at a Washington, D.C. gig, Etta teamed up with tenor saxophonist, Houston Person and his trio. They decided to work together and formed a partnership that lasted over 30 years. 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.
Her closest collaborator in that period was Houston Person, and they cut a string of well-received recordings from the mid-70’s onward, including the Grammy nominated albums “Save Your Love For Me,” (1981) and “My Buddy: Etta Jones Sings the Songs of Buddy Johnson” (1999). They developed an appealing, highly intuitive style of musical response, and were always jointly billed. The pair was 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.
She favored a repertoire of familiar jazz standards; 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.
Unfortunately, her physical health began deteriorating, yet she re-emerged in the early 1990s with a new passion for life and a spirit for musical adventure. She took on more solo gigs and began collaborating with young musicians such as pianist Benny Green and veteran bluesman Charles Brown. 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. 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, in 2001.