Jazz Birthdays: Lee Wiley (1915) and Yusef Lateef (1920)

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Lee Wiley was a song stylist who, beginning in 1939, focused on songs from the Great American Songbook, way before that term came into being. She usually interpreted them complete with the verses, which added considerably to her story-telling impact. She was backed up mainly by musicians in the Chicago-style and Eddie Condon groups, such as Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman and Jess Stacy, but also by such musicians as Red Allen, Billy Butterfield, and Fats Waller. As an example of her jazz singing, I’ve chosen “I’ve Got the World on a String” from 1940. Tony Flood tells me that Murray Rothbard once told him that Lee Wiley was his favorite singer.

There is a considerable difference between a pop and a jazz vocalist, although singers cross the line in both directions making it hard to place some singers in one group or the other. Sinatra, for example, has many pop renditions, but he also has done excellent jazz singing with Count Basie and Red Norvo, just to name two. The jazz singer interpets the song personally, backed up by jazz musicians and a jazz beat, whereas the pop singer takes it much more straight. Among female jazz vocalists are singers such as Lee Wiley, June Christy, Chris Connor, and Helen Merrill who tend to stay with slower to medium tempos and have a cool and unhurried approach to the music. Billie Holiday charged her singing with great emotion, blues feeling and jazz reinterpretation of melody, with Armstrong having deeply influenced her. Later female vocalists extended their interpretations to horn-like scat improvisations like Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Betty Carter, Carmen Macrae, and Sarah Vaughn.

Yusef Lateef in his earlier years was primarily a tenor saxophonist and flute player. Later he added oboe, bassoon and unfamiliar world music instruments. He became an early exponent of Eastern influences and world music. Lateef is an accomplished musician, no matter what elements he is employing. For an example of his oboe work, hear “Love Theme from Spartacus”.

5:19 am on October 9, 2012