After winning a radio singing contest in 1956, Yolande Bavan left Sri Lanka for the first time at age 16 to tour with jazz pianist Graeme Bell. Then in 1957 the vocalist left Sri Lanka for good—this time on board a ship bound for England.
Over the next five years, Yolande sang in London and Paris clubs, where she befriended touring American jazz musicians. In November 1958, Billie Holiday virtually adopted Yolande during her stay in Paris, and the two spent time again during Billie's final trip to London in February 1959 for a TV appearance.
By 1960, Yolande was receiving more stage and TV acting roles than club engagements. But a fateful meeting at a friend's party in early spring 1962 would force Yolande to put her acting career on hold. Within a month's time, she would go from struggling London actress to a member of one of the world's most popular jazz vocalese groups.
In Part 3 of my interview with Yolande Bavan below, she talks about how she filled Annie Ross' shoes in a London revue and then replaced Ross two years later in Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks' hot vocal group:
"After Billie Holiday left London in February 1959, I started to take on more acting roles. I was still singing, but acting parts were coming at me faster than club dates. Sometimes I was called upon to do both.
Throughout 1959, David Lee, the South African jazz pianist and composer, saw me sing at all these little London clubs with my pigtails. Toward the end of 1959, he gave me an address and told me to meet him there. So I went, and when I knocked on the door, an older gentleman opened it. I told the man I was there to meet David Lee.
We walked down to the basement and there was Julie Andrews, Tony Walton—a costume designer who would soon be her husband—David and John Cranko, the choreographer. It was Cranko's home.
David introduced me to everyone. Then he sat down at a piano and asked me to sing. I did a little improv number. I can't recall what it was. When I finished, John Cranko said it was nice to meet me, everyone said goodbye, and he showed me out.
The next day I asked David what was going on at the house. He said they were casting a revue called New Cranks. He was scoring the musical arrangements and John Cranko was doing the lyrics and choreography. Then David told me that I got the part if I wanted it and that I'd be appearing with Carole Shelly, Gillian Lynne, Bernie Cribbins, Billy Wilson and John Wade. These were all big names at the time.
New Cranks was a scatological revue updating a popular 1955 show called Cranks that had been successful in London and New York. It was John Cranko's idea—hence the name "Cranks." The original Cranks starred Anthony Newley, Gordon Heath and Annie Ross—believe it or not. By the time of my audition, Annie, of course, was singing with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks.
New Cranks was kind of wacky. They wrote this hip stuff, and I had to act, sing and learn to dance. The show opened at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in April 1960 and ran for about three or four months. I learned so much during that show. And I don’t think I ever said “hip,” “dig” and “flipped” more often in my life.
After New Cranks, my theater career really started to take off. In 1961 I was cast as Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra and I did several BBC TV dramas—one with Sammy Davis, Jr. called Day of the Fox, in which I played his Indian wife. I was doing so much theater then that I pretty much gave up club singing.
Now, much has been written about me learning all of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross songs and then cornering Dave Lambert and showing him I could sing their lyrics backward and forward. That's a great story—but it's all nonsense.
Here's how I came to join the group:
I had always been a big fan of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. And I had followed Annie Ross in New Cranks, in the role she had created, so I was more than familiar with her.
At this time, I was very close to Max Jones, the Melody Maker jazz writer, and his wife—whose sister Sandra and her husband Donnie threw lavish jazz parties at their home.
Naturally, they were very close friends with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. One day, early in 1962, they took me to hear Count Basie and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in London. Afterward, we went backstage and I finally got to meet Annie Ross for the first time. I said, 'Oh you’re Annie Ross. You did Cranks. I'm so thrilled to me you!' And Annie said, 'You’re Yolande and you did New Cranks. So thrilled to meet you!' After that we chit-chatted and then parted.
Two nights later, Sandra and Donnie threw a party. Many jazz musicians were there, including the entire Basie band. I remember there was a Dizzy Gillespie album on the record player—as background music. I was helping Sandra clear ash trays and serve drinks. Dizzy hit a high note at the end of one of the songs and, without thinking, I hit the same note.
A man whipped around and said, 'Who did that?'
I said, 'I did.'
He asked, 'Are you a singer?'
I said, 'No I’m an actress.'
'Can you really hit those high notes?' he asked.
'Yes,' I said.
He said, 'Are you sure you’re not a singer?'
I said, 'I sing a little but mostly act.'
The man was Dave Lambert. We spoke for a little, the party went on and everyone went their separate ways. A few days later I heard from Sandra and Donnie that Annie wasn’t going to travel back to America with Lambert and Hendricks. She was going to stay in London.
I thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, my phone rang at 3 am. The voice at the other end said, 'This is Jon Hendricks.' I kept saying, 'Who? Who?' He said, 'I’m calling from New York. We want you to come to New York.'
I said, 'To New York? To do what?'
'To sing. Annie Ross has left the group and we want you to come over,' he said.
'I can’t do that,' I told him.
He told me there was a plane ticket and working visa waiting for me at the American embassy. 'You leave on Wednesday,' he said.
I said, 'I can‘t come. I can‘t sing like that.'
'Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan recommended you. And so did Dave Brubeck,' he said.
'They’re all crazy,' I said. 'I can’t come on Wednesday.' After a pause, I said what the heck. 'OK, I’ll come—on Saturday.'
Jon told me to get a hold of the group's albums and memorize their songs.
So they changed my plane ticket, and I left for New York with one suitcase. I said to myself, 'I'll rehearse, they'll realize they've made a big mistake. I’ll see the Statue of Liberty and return home.'
Max Jones gave me their records and I started listening to them. I thought, how am I going to learn this? The albums were multitracked—meaning each of the singers had overdubbed different sets of vocals three times to create the sound of a big band. I tried to listen, to figure out how I was going to sing Annie's part. It was hard. I listened to the records for hours at a time and sang along with them.
My plane touched down in New York very early on the morning of May 5, 1962. When I got off the plane, Dave Lambert was there to meet me. He had been the one who had floated my name to Jon as a possible replacement for Annie after meeting me at that party. I suddenly realized they were hiring me based on a single high note.
Dave said we had to hurry to catch another plane. 'Oh, are we going to where the skyscrapers are?' I asked. 'No we’re going to upstate New York,' he said. 'There’s Manhattan, where the skyscrapers are, and there's upstate New York.'
So we got on a little plane and flew to Schenectady, New York. When we arrived, a car was waiting and took us to Union College. A concert was already in progress. Tom Paxton, the folk singer and guitarist, had already played in the first half and there was an intermission. I'd say there were about 2,000 to 3,000 students in the audience. When Dave and I got out of the car, we went backstage and met Jon.
I still had my PanAm bag over my shoulder and a plaid sari on. I wore saris because they were comfortable and were part of my culture. They also distinguished me, setting me apart, and attracted quite a bit of attention.
I asked Jon when we were going to rehearse. Jon said, 'Oh, the concert is already on.' Wonderful, I thought, I would sit in the audience and listen to them sing. Then the announcer said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
The audience cheered, and I heard the band start to play the intro to One O'Clock Jump. Jon and Dave rushed me on stage, and suddenly, there I was. So I started to sing with them. Dave kept nudging me to sing an octave higher, like a trumpet. I couldn't do it. I was too tired. But at the end I hit the high note, and everyone was very excited.
In addition to One O'Clock Jump, I think we sang Little Pony, Four and It's Sand Man. Then we went to a hotel. The next day we played Rhode Island and then went into Manhattan. We still hadn't rehearsed.
In New York, they had booked me a hotel with a tiny kitchen on 47th St., off Broadway. It was small and dark and depressing. Not long afterward we did a midnight jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a benefit for a drug rehabilitation program named after Billie Holiday. All I could think was If Billie were alive and could see me there, she would have flipped.
Many of the jazz musicians I had met in Paris and London were backstage—the Basie band, Art Blakey, Bobby Timmons and others. They said, 'What are you doing here? You're singing with Dave and Jon. Wow! We went on at about 1 am, and we were a big hit.
By then I had a record player and was listening to the records over and over again in my hotel room. Jon wrote all the new songs. He would take a popular jazz instrumental and write lyrics to them. Then he'd give me the words and the album of the original work. I'd have to listen to the instrumental and work in the words Jon wrote. He was a genius matching words to songs. Absolutely amazing.
Sometimes we wouldn’t have time to rehearse the songs. Jon would write the words, we'd run through them quickly, and then out on stage we'd go. I remember once in Chicago, Jon had just written the lyrics to Horace Silver's Come on Home. We had to sing the song at a club that night without rehearsal.
I must have done a decent job because when we got off, Sarah Vaughan was there. She said to me, 'Little did I know when I saw you in Paris.' I said, 'Sarah, I heard you referred me to Dave and Jon. Why? You hadn't heard me sing that often.' Sarah said, 'You hung around us so much. And to hit those high notes the way you did, ahhh.' Sarah was so encouraging.
Then the group went to California, first to the Monterey Jazz Festival, where we performed a scaled back version of the The Real Ambassadors, a musical about race relations written by Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola. The show never made it to the stage but was recorded by Louis Armstrong and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1961.
The only time The Real Ambassadors was performed publicly was when we did it in 1962. When Dave Brubeck and I walked into the band room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco to rehearse, there was Louis Armstrong sitting on a chair with his wife, Lucille. Dave looked at me and said, 'Did we know about this?' 'No way,' I said.
When Louis saw me, he smiled and turned to Lucille and said, 'Hey Mama, I know that face.' I said, 'Louis, I met you in Australia when I was 17 years old, with Graeme Bell.' Louis said, 'Ahhh, Graeme Bell.' Louis and Trummy Young had played with Graeme's Dixieland group when they were touring Australia back in the mid-1950s. We rehearsed The Real Ambassadors with Louis, for a few hours. He knew the score cold.
After the performance at Monterey, we went back to New York and into Basin Street East three different times. At different points, Joe Williams, Stan Getz and Ahmad Jamal were on the bill. I remember Ahmad and Stan didn't get along.
Joe Williams was always great to me. In fact, everybody was extremely respectful of me. I think it was my sari. Even Charlie Mingus used to say in his gravely voice, 'No swearing around Bavan.' I think Dave and Jon put a warning out that anyone associated with drugs were not to speak to me or contact me. I think everyone felt protective of me, and it worked.
By early 1965, I decided I had had enough. The constant touring was wearing me down. I was also amazed that jazz just wasn't as respected in America as it was in other parts of the world. I would have to wrap my sari in the kitchen of clubs with bacon fat sizzling. It was awful some of the places we played. I couldn't believe jazz musicians were treated like second-class citizens. Besides, I missed my acting.
So I gave notice. After I left the group, I stayed in New York and started auditioning for roles and spent the years that followed focusing on my TV and stage career.
Jazz has always been great to me. I adored the jazz musicians I met in London and Paris, but the person I probably respected most was Dave Lambert. He was kind, and he wasn't malicious—verbally or otherwise. He didn't have that kind of energy.
I was so devastated when he died in October 1966. Dave had gone up to a Connecticut theater to pick up his girlfriend, who was an actress. He was returning to New York on the Connecticut turnpike at 1 am when he saw this guy on the side of the road with a white handkerchief trying to flag down help. Dave pulled over and had his girlfriend use the handkerchief to warn off traffic. But a truck sideswiped Dave and the guy as they were changing his tire, killing them both.
Dave was always helping people, and jazz musicians loved him. Even Miles Davis was crazy about Dave. I remember when we were in Philadelphia in 1963. Miles was playing around the corner. I begged Dave to take me to see him. The moment Miles saw Dave, his face lit up and he put his arms around him and sent us a bottle of champagne.
My career with Lambert and Hendricks was brief—just over three years. Those were exciting times for me, even though rock and bossa nova were starting to change popular music, pushing jazz to the side. But during those years, in the very early 1960s, before everything changed and jazz was still important, I like to think that I made a contribution.
Indeed she did. Not only did Yolande enable Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks to fulfill their dates and financial obligations when Annie Ross dropped out suddenly in 1962, she also let listeners know that jazz had worldwide appeal.
Through her saris, exotic looks and graceful demeanor, Yolande showed listeners that jazz was special outside the U.S., that other cultures understood its message of creative freedom and individualism, and that the women who sang it did not have to dress like showgirls.
Ultimately, Yolande was the real jazz ambassador.
JazzWax note: When I spoke with Yolande on Tuesday, I confessed that I did not own two of the group's three albums. Since they were out of print and hard to find, I said, I was only familiar with them when played for me by friends.
Yolande then insisted I come by her apartment and burn copies and borrow a DVD of the group from 1963.
So yesterday I stopped by for a dark cup of Sri Lankan tea. Yolande is as graceful and as charming today as she looked and sounded on records back in the early 1960s. And her voice remains lyrical and soothing.
While my laptop burned the Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan discs, we listened to a range of vocalists via iTunes—from Billie and Carmen to Frank and Jo. I watched Yolande as the music swept over her, and from time to time she sang along in places. It was a special visit.
JazzWax tracks: In addition to recording with Lambert and Hendricks, Yolande recorded a fascinating rock/fusion album with Peter Ivers in 1969. Her voice on this album was at its peak as she navigated very difficult and cutting-edge vocal parts. The psychedelic album, Knight of the Blue Communion, was just re-mastered and re-issued, and it can be found here. Unfortunately it's not at iTunes, but you can sample it at Amazon.
JazzWax video clips: Once again, to see Yolande Bavan singing in 1963 with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, click here.