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Take 5! Storytellers and Crooners
August 14, 2015

On August 20, our monthly series, Take 5! will feature the Smithsonian Institution's James Zimmerman who will celebrate "Storytellers and Crooners." Focusing on jazz vocalists, Zimmerman and his ensemble will highlight the artistry of great musicians by bringing the narrative of song to SAAM's stage. Zimmerman works as a Senior Producer for Special Initiatives at the National Museum of American History. And, in his role, he has interviewed seminal jazz artists for the museum's Jazz Oral History Program. James Zimmerman took some time to fill us in about these jazz artists and their influences.
Zimmerman interviewing Oscar Brown, Jr.

James Zimmerman interviewing Oscar Brown, Jr.

Join us for an exciting evening of vocal Jazz with Storytellers and Crooners: African American Male Vocalists featuring the songs popularized and recorded by "storytellers" Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, and Oscar Brown, Jr. and "crooners" Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Bill Henderson. These African American vocalists have been quite influential to the legacy of jazz, and are worthy of greater recognition. The "storytellers" came out of the bebop tradition adding lyric/songwriting to their artistry. The "crooners" are romantic song stylists who came out of the ballad/American Popular Song tradition (with the exception of Eckstine who was also a bandleader, instrumentalist, and songwriter).

Their respective repertoires are extensive and their ability to bring new life and vivid imagery to bebop jazz instrumentals and American Popular Song remains an enthralling and innovative aspect of the American music tradition.


These vocalists loved bebop and wanted to be a part of the new, creative and energetic genre—modern jazz—introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They wrote lyrics to compositions by the composers and jazz soloists. One of my earliest introductions to jazz vocals was through the song, Moody's Mood for Love, written by Eddie Jefferson. This song, based upon saxophonist James Moody's improvisation is the first recognized example of vocalese —the art of setting lyrics to recorded jazz instrumental standards, then arranging voices to sing the parts of the instruments. That song also influenced renown songwriter/vocalist, Jon Hendricks . Having written vocalese lyrics and songs for Louis Jordan and others, extending that concept of writing lyrics for full big band jazz orchestra excited him and led to his partnership with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to establish the smashing vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Oscar Brown, Jr. was, as Duke Ellington expressed, "beyond category"; he was an intellectual, social activist whose music captured the historical, theatrical, and authentic expression of Negro culture.


While primarily know as a crooner, Billy Eckstine was a composer, songwriter and one of the first bandleaders to present modern jazz "bebop" featuring many of the jazz heavyweights we know today. In 2008, I helped secure the collection of pianist Bobby Tucker, musical director for Billy Eckstine from 1949 until Eckstine's death. This collection is available at National Museum of American History. In the early 80s, I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's recording with John Coltrane. He was a quintessential balladeer, and I cherish the time I met him at Blues Alley when encouraged me as a singer. Bill Henderson was a wonderful mystery to me who's beautiful and heart- felt interpretations resonated with the melancholy romantic in me. He is the least recognized of these artists because he chose to have a duel career tracks as a vocalist and film actor.

Posted by Jeff on August 14, 2015 in Post It


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