Vocalese pioneer Annie Ross has died

A partial transcript of Episode 19 of THE ART MOVEMENT. Click here to listen to the full radio show.

It’s time to talk about music for a bit as last week, we lost a music genius, Annie Ross, who passed away just a few days shy of her 90th birthday. She was a jazz singer/songwriter and also an actress of both film and theatre.

She was born in London, and came from a family of vaudeville performers. But they all moved to New York when she was about four. As a child, she got her start in show business relatively early and after winning a songwriting competition at age 14, embarked on a lifelong career in music.

Annie Ross is remembered as a pioneer of the vocalese style, which simply put is a style or musical genre of jazz singing in which words are added to a soloist’s improvisation. And she is particularly well remembered for her collaboration with vocalists Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, with whom she formed the vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

She contributed several of her own compositions to the groups repertoire and recorded seven albums with them between 1957 and 1962. These include the self-titled album from 1960, also known as The Hottest Group in Jazz, which I recommend to anyone who has not heard it. It’s absolutely mindblowing what these guys could do with their voices and just the chemistry and understanding that they share.

This is of course just scraping the surface of a career that included many accomplishments. She even used to run her own nightclub in London and received many accolades including the NEA Jazz Master Award, which is generally considered the highest honor that the United States bestows upon jazz artists and important figures in jazz.

The song that I will be playing right now to remember Annie Ross is one that she had originally written in 1952 and had set to a tenor saxophone solo of the same name by Wardell Gray that was recorded in 1949. The song is titled “Twisted” and a new, upbeat version was included on the 1960 album I mentioned earlier, with Lambert and Hendricks. Hopefully this will give you an idea of just what a music genius she was and just her amazing interpretive skills.

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Duke Ellington and Synethesia

Duke Ellington is one of jazz music’s undisputed icons. A pianist, bandleader and composer, he is regarded as one of the originators of big band jazz and even has a chance to showcase his genius within smaller combos. Ellington was equally great at writing music for dance halls and symphony halls, music that you could thoughtlessly dance to and challenging music that often represented heavy social and political themes. In short, there is no doubt about it; Duke Ellington is simply an artist whose influence on jazz as well as popular and classical music could never be overstated.

But was there a secret to the rich tonal palette of his music? Those sensuous melodies and daring harmonies of his works and their general originality? Well, it has been said that his talent as musician, bandleader and composer and his general unique approach to music was shaped by a condition known as synesthesia. This is a neurological condition characterized by a merging of the brain’s sensory circuitry. Ellington’s particular type of synesthesia is called chromosthesia, where sounds involuntarily evoke an experience of color.

To put it simply, Ellington could hear sounds as colors and could see colors as sound. It’s no surprise that he showed early signs of genius as a painter and that according to many sources, in his mid-teens he received a scholarship to attend New York’s prestitigious Pratt Institute but while he once had dreamt of becoming a professional painter, by age 16 he had focused primarily on music. Nevertheless, in his late teens and early twenties, as he played in several bands and even led his earliest ensembles, he ran a small business as a sign painter and poster designer. He was so successful in these various activities that he allegedly made a stellar $200 a week that allowed him to look after his own family as well as his parents, and to continue to invest in his growth as a bandleader.

Ellington continued to paint his entire life and looking at some of his work offers an interesting parallel between his representation of narrative in music and the visual arts. Take for instance “Satin Doll,” a song he composed with a little help from longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn from 1953. Ellington made a painting of the same name that depicts a central character – a combination of some of the most important women in his life. We can also see the interplay between the masculine and the feminine that is also heard in the music’s seductive harmonization.

Duke Ellington’s nephew, Stephen James, wrote in the Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington that “Given his synesthesia, it is not surprising that Duke referred to his band as his palette. He likened his stage performances to creating a new painting every night.” It is interesting to note how unlike some of his contemporaries, Ellington’s approach to bandleading was to masterfully embrace the talents of individual members rather than trying to alter the way they played to fit any given composition or arrangement. You can understand a lot about this process from his quote, whereby he expleined: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures.”

At the same time, it’s also imporant to remember that Ellington never exclusively focused on the form itself and always strived to represent some type of narrative in all his works. Ellington himself would most likely have referred to a music focusing on form as mere doodling. As he once put it: “You can’t just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art.”

30-Day Song Challenge: A Song I Like with a Colour in the Title

I’m going to do the 30-Day Song Challenge, which has recently gone viral. However, me being me, I’m going to expand on the concept to write a few lines about each of the songs I choose and why I chose them, as each of the songs I choose I am – for one reason or another – attached to.

Miles Davis, “All Blues” (1959)

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album instantly popped in my head for this entry. I would have chosen the entire album. However, that would have betrayed the entire concept of this list.

I pretty much love each track on the LP equally. But the only reason why I chose “All Blues” over “Blue in Green” is because, thanks to Oscar Brown Jr., who added words to it later, I can sing lyrics to it whenever I get in the mood.

In fact, Chet Baker has a great version of this track – with Rachel Gould doing the singing parts wonderfully.

In any case, Kind of Blue is not just a modal jazz masterpiece. It was also the first full jazz albums I listened to from start to finish in my teens. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. But given that I now work for an international jazz publication, that turned out to be quite an important event in my life.