Chris Connor is easily one of the most underrated jazz vocalists of the Post War years. If you are familiar with Chris' recordings and intimate vocal style, you know this isn't an overstatement. She's that extraordinary. Yet Chris' legacy remains stuck in the shadow of Ella, Sarah, Dinah and Carmen. She also frequently finishes third in name recognition behind Anita O'Day and June Christy, two other breathy-voiced vocalists who sang with Stan Kenton. That's a shame, since in many ways Chris is more of a saloon singer than both band vocalists and a far superior stylist.
The reasons for Chris' under-the-radar status are simple: She eschewed pop, and for years was tarred as a June Christy [pictured] sound-alike. Which is thoroughly unfair, as Dizzy Gillespie remarked at a concert years ago. While both Chris and June had deep husky voices (the breath hits your ear just before the note), Chris' renditions have greater feeling and meaning. And unlike June's uneven Capitol output, which for me includes way too many thickly arranged maudlin tunes, Chris' Atlantic catalog remains consistently bright and superb across the board. The roster of jazz musicians who have played with Chris [pictured, right] says it all—Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Hal McKusick, Phil Woods, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Oscar Pettiford, Hank Jones, Don Lamond, George Duvivier and the list goes on and on.
In Part I of my conversation with the legendary vocalist, Chris talks about growing up in the Midwest, the instrument she learned in high school that helped her with her phrasing, her first stage performance, double-dating with Bobby Brookmeyer as teens, and her first job as a Snowflake:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Chris Connor: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. My mom was a homemaker and my father was a telegrapher for Western Union. He taught me Morse code. My sister, Fran, was about eight years older than me. Due to the big age gap, she always looked out for me. We got along like two sisters you’d never believe. We never had an argument. Never raised our voices. She brought out the best in everyone. When I was growing up, our family lived in a house and then an apartment.
JW: Was your dad a great guy?
CC: Yes he was. But my parents were much older when they had me, and my dad was always at work. I only saw him in the evenings. My mom was very sweet.
JW: Who had a bigger influence on you, your mom or your dad?
CC: Neither one, musically. They weren’t against me singing when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. But they never encouraged me or discouraged me. They just let me go my own way, which was very good. They did me a big favor.
JW: What made you decide to become a singer?
CC: I don’t really know. My sister said I started singing when I was just 6 years old. My grandmother’s name was Ramona, and at that time, Ramona was one of the most popular songs going. So at an early age, I used to hum Ramona. I couldn’t sing the words, but I hummed it. I don’t know where my talent came from. Out of the blue.
JW: But you were musical from an early age.
CC: In high school I had the first chair in the band’s clarinet section and was the school’s top player for four years. In high school I used to go down to the local record shop. In those days you could go sit in a booth, put on some headphones and listen to all the records you might want to buy. So I spent all of my spare time listening to Peggy Lee [pictured], Sinatra, Ella and Sarah—I still listen to them today, and they’re still the greatest. When I listened to those records, I listened hard. I listened not just to the melodies but to the words and the phrasing. Sinatra’s phrasing was the best. Peggy also was one of my favorites. She not only could sing like an angel, she wrote great songs, too.
JW: Did you go to the Kansas City jazz clubs?
CC: All I remember is that my dad took me to many live performances. I probably heard Charlie Parker and didn't know who he was. I was aware of the jazz scene there, though.
JW: Why did you bother with the clarinet?
CC: To learn how to read music. That's the only reason I joined the school band. I just assumed that reading music would be important if I eventually decided to become a singer and that it would help with my phrasing and breath control.
JW: Did you enjoy singing at this point?
CC: I loved to sing. My first performance was in a school play. I had the lead and I sang in Spanish. I had just taken Spanish lessons and sang Amor, which was popular in the mid-1940s. That was the first time I sang in public. Whether or not the audience loved my singing I don’t know. They applauded. That's all I knew.
JW: Did you know Bob Brookmeyer, who also grew up at about the same time in Kansas City?
CC: Yes, we'd double date together, Bob with his girlfriend and me with my boyfriend. We were all about the same age. Bob was already very musical.
JW: What was your first singing job?
CC: My first real stage experience was singing with the big band at the University of Missouri at Columbia. I didn’t go to the university. Writers and critics have gotten this wrong over the years. I just sang with the band led by Paul Cherches, who taught music at the college. Paul was looking for a girl to sing on the weekends for campus dances. He had stock arrangements of all the popular Stan Kenton tunes. This band was perfect for me, since I already had my sights set on singing with Kenton. At this point I was out of high school and living near the campus in Jefferson City, Missouri, with my sister and her husband. Singing with that band really helped me. It gave me the spark and confidence to sing professionally.
JW: During this time, did you model your voice on any other singer?
CC: No, I did not. I had to be my own woman and do it my way. I was influenced by June Christy and Anita O’Day, of course, but I never tried to copy them.
JW: What was your first big break?
CC: In 1949 I decided to move to New York. I knew that if I were going to get a shot, it would likely happen there. I knew a road manager at the time who knew Claude Thornhill's road manager. He tipped me off that Claude was going to hold auditions for singers. So I showed up at Nola's Studios near Birdland. Gerry Mulligan was one of the arrangers. I sang, Claude [pictured in 1949] liked me and I was hired as one of the four Snowflakes, Claude's singing group. I quickly became the group's lead vocalist.
Tomorrow, Chris talks about leaving Claude Thornhill in 1952 to join clarinetist Jerry Wald's band, the career-changing New Orleans radio remote that was heard in California, and who recommended her to replace a departing June Christy in Stan Kenton's band in 1953.
JazzWax tracks: Chris spent time on and off with Claude Thornhill between 1949 and 1952, and was a member of the band's Snowflakes choir group in 1949. But it is hard to pinpoint her on live recordings from the period. As for my claim that Chris often was a more intimate singer than June Christy, take a listen to both singers' versions of Angel Eyes. They can be downloaded at iTunes. You'll find Chris' version on the album He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (1956) and June's on Duet, with Stan Kenton at the piano (1955). To my ear, there's no comparison. See what you think.