May 23, 2024

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Etta Jones, hard-edged blues sensibility owed something to Dinah Washington: Video

25.11. – Happy Birthday !!! Etta Jones, a great and permanently underrated jazz singer who for three decades toured constantly with her musical partner, the saxophonist Houston Person. 

Born in Aiken, S.C., and reared in Harlem, Ms. Jones early on developed wily devices for a small voice. She used silence, the sound of the breath, a quick yodel here and there, lyric readings that drew out or shut down syllables idiosyncratically, and a sliding pitch that made her an extraordinary blues singer. Billie Holiday was the most obvious and famous precedent for her style, and she was capable of astonishingly close Holiday impersonations, though she rarely let her audiences hear them.

But her hard-edged blues sensibility owed something to Dinah Washington, while her highly improvised phrasing came from horn players like Sonny Stitt. Ms. Jones always cited as an influence Thelma Carpenter, a onetime Count Basie vocalist who became a heavy-vibrato torch singer. Neither a shouter, a whisperer nor a bebopper, Ms. Jones clung fast to a set of jazz standards from the 1940’s and 50’s, and tunes by composers like Sammy Cahn, her favorite, whose songs are the subject of her 1999 album, ”All the Way.”

With Mr. Person, her musical partner of more than 30 years, Ms. Jones toured the country, still playing often to primarily black audiences, but also by the late 90’s appearing twice a year at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan and at international jazz festivals; she was an evergreen presence in the New York jazz world, and kept up her concert schedule until two weeks before her death.

At 15, Ms. Jones sang at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night in the summer of 1944, and immediately after her performance she auditioned for and won a job singing with Buddy Johnson, who led a 19-man band. Johnson’s group played in a common vernacular jazz style of the 40’s — a mixture of rhythm-and-blues and jump blues — and, as a second-tier group not as popular as the likes of Basie, Ellington and Eckstine, the band toured black-only clubs and auditoriums throughout the country.

Her job was as a temporary replacement for Ella Johnson, Buddy Johnson’s sister, who was on a maternity leave. When Ella Johnson returned to the band, Ms. Jones began working for different groups until the early 1950’s, among them the Harlemaires and bands, from medium-size to big, led by Barney Bigard, Pete Johnson, Earl Hines, J. C. Heard and Sonny Stitt.

In 1952 she began eight years of semiretirement, singing intermittently. Finally, in 1960, she was contracted by Prestige Records, and recorded ”Don’t Go to Strangers,” which became a Top 40, million-selling hit, changing her weekly income, as she once put it, from $50 to $750.

By the end of the 1960’s, she had developed a trusting partnership with Mr. Person, a big-toned saxophonist. In performance they developed a conversational style of answering each other’s lines. ”He knows exactly what I’m going to do,” she once said. ”He knows if I’m in trouble; he’ll give me the note. He leaves me room.” They were always billed equally, an unusual arrangement for any jazz singer. Starting in 1976, they began recording for Muse, which later changed its name to High Note, and Mr. Person became her manager and record producer through 18 records.

She had three Grammy nominations, for the ”Don’t Go to Strangers” LP in 1960, ”Save Your Love for Me” in 1981 and ”My Buddy” in 1999. But she never recorded for a major label; her temperament was decidedly unlike a diva; and outside of the small period of time around ”Don’t Go to Strangers,” she never commanded high concert fees.

Ms. Jones is survived by her husband, John Medlock, of Washington; a granddaughter, Lia Greatheart-Mitchell of Mount Vernon; and sisters Edna Taylor of Akron, Ohio, and Georgia Johnson of Aiken.

Her new and final High Note album appeared in stores on the day she died, ”Etta Jones Sings Lady Day.”

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