Eartha Kitt (1927-2008). Eartha Kitt, the first American pop singer to break the seduction barrier in the early 1950s and perform songs with a liberated sense of entitlement and sexual prowess, died on Christmas Day. She was 81.
Though never considered a pure jazz singer, Kitt was more of a naughty narrator with an exaggerated vibrato in the European tradition. Yet Kitt had a warm, rich tone that put her on par with any pop singer of Tin Pan Alley standards.
Throughout the 1950s, Kitt built her persona on a purring mimicry and smoldering intensity that was half theatrical, half calendar girl. Despite popular acclaim, Kitt felt most comfortable as an outsider, going out of her way to create just enough uncertainty about who she was and what her lyrics meant to keep audiences guessing. Upon hearing Kitt's rendition of Santa Baby (1953), for example, the listener is never quite sure whether she's the kept woman of a sugar daddy or the paramour of Old St. Nick himself.
The ambiguity of Kitt's intent is part of what made her so endearing. As an African-American performer who boldly used her sexuality as a burlesque prop during the racially charged 1950s, Kitt managed to defy definition and escape typecasting. In the public's mind, she wasn't black or white, an r&b singer or a pop crooner, American or French. In fact, Kitt didn't fit any mold, preferring instead to carve out her own niche as a transcontinental chanteuse with a fetish for luxury goods and pampering.
With facial features as angular as the fins on a '59 Cadillac, Kitt came across as an untamed spirit who was both down to earth and high maintenance. While her unrestrained vocal attack on songs could border on parody, her emotional honesty in front of a camera eventually made her a symbol of defiance and strength.
But her shoot-first personality also could get her in trouble. In 1968, during a White House luncheon, Kitt's unvarnished comments to Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War reportedly brought the president's wife to tears. ("You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.")
The result was an unofficial blacklisting by the music industry, a ban from which Kitt never fully recovered. By the time Kitt restored her reputation in the late 1980s, she was considered more camp than a serious pop-vocal legend.
Yet Kitt's brassy nerve at that White House luncheon made its mark, emboldening black and white entertainers to openly criticize presidents on a wide range of issues. In later years, Kitt's image as a steely outsider who was comfortable with herself provided gay audiences with strength and solace.
Personally, I've always preferred Kitt's songs sung in French. I love the high-style, fashion-forward sound of her voice, and no one can top those rolling French "r's" and the passion she brought to performances. And there's nothing quite as endearing as watching Kitt laugh at her own out-there performance at the tail end of songs. To get a feel for this exciting sound, download the French songs off Miss Kitt to You at iTunes.
Here's a quintessential clip of Kitt from 1962 (watch those hands!):
Billy Taylor. Bret Primack ("The Jazz Video Guy") has posted a superb video interview with Billy Taylor on the pianist's interactions with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Go here to view Bret's nine-minute clip. And to see Bret's NYU film school project and directorial debut from 1971, go here. It's pure New York in the very early 1970s. Interestingly, this pre-dates Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver by five years.
Bill Evans. I asked Jan Stevens of the Bill Evans Web Pages to provide a bit more detail on the audio clip he posted last week of Bill Evans singing and playing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town:
"It was recorded in Stockholm on August 23, 1964 at the AB Europa Film Studios (that's the date that Verve provides). However, these sessions were a part of dates Bill was doing with vocalist Monica Zetterlund (with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker), and those tracks are said to have been recorded on August 29th. The vocal track I featured appears on that gigantic rusted metal case outrage of a package that was The Complete Bill Evans on Verve box set.
"Bill, of course, recorded Santa Claus in January 1963 for the Solo Sessions project and again in December of that year for what became Trio '64, with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. Bill also double-tracked the song later in 1967 for the second Conversations release."
Jazz and the Beatles. Matt Leskovic last week offered a terrific roundup of jazz interpretations of Beatles songs at Jazz.com. Go here to see Matt's "Dozens" list and review.
"The Coca Cola Company sponsored what appears to have been a 12-hour broadcast of it's Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands featuring near 40 different orchestras broadcasting live from various military and war related facilities from all over the U.S. on the NBC Blue Network.
"I have read allusions to this program, but have seen very little documentation and heard no broadcast. Is this another landmark in big band and Swing music that has been essentially forgotten? One source says it is the longest broadcast in radio history. Here's a segment from the Chicago Daily Tribune radio log for that day.
"What a production! I wonder whether it was the first jazz festival heard live over the air."
Editor's note: When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I worked for J. David Goldin [pictured], founder of Radiola Records. David knows more about old radio programs than anyone else I can think of. At his site here, you'll find contact information. If anyone knows about the existence of a recording of this show, it's Dave.
Old record labels and covers. If you're as nuts about old record covers as I am and you want to know a little history about the small labels of the mid-1940s, John sent links here, here and here to pages at a site devoted to Continental, Remington, Plymouth, Masterseal records.
Movie bloopers. Director Raymond de Felitta's post last week at Movies 'Til Dawn detailed the editing process of his upcoming film, City Island. He also paid homage to the famed building on the Warner Brothers lot where the editing took place. Scroll toward the bottom of his post and you'll find a fabulous video clip of Hollywood bloopers, featuring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and others blowing their lines. It's a hoot.
Gal Costa and Cassandra Wilson. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff will interview Brazilian singer Gal Costa and jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson on stage at the Times Center in New York on Sunday, January 11th, at 2 pm. Tickets for JazzWax readers are $25 each if you type in the access code NYTED when ordering here.
The pairing of the two singers should make for interesting conversation, juxtaposing the care-free passion of Costa's Latin approach and the patient intensity of Wilson's soul-jazz influences.
Costa, 63, has been recording since the early 1960s and helped pioneer the Tropicalismo movement, which combined bossa nova, rock and Brazilian folk. One of my favorite Costa albums is Gal Costa Today, a CD recorded in 2005. Consisting mostly of ballads, you get to hear the singer in a reflective mood, which suits her voice perfectly.
Wilson, 53, came of age in the soul-jazz era of the 1980s, weaving a humid ballad style with the vocal impressionism of Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. One of Wilson's most fascinating albums is Traveling Miles (1999), on which she sings the music of Miles Davis, including Seven Steps to Heaven, Run the Voodoo Down and Never Broken. Both albums mentioned above are available at iTunes.
Moment of gratitude. A special thanks to Jon Foley, who early each day generously makes time in his schedule to proof JazzWax from California, catching my typos and sparing me too much embarrassment. From time to time, Jon, who has been reading JazzWax from day No. 1, also regales me with recollections of the great jazz concerts and club dates he has attended since the early 1950s, only to produce a sigh of envy on my end. Many thanks, Jon.
And a special thanks to all who have spent time in the past year reading JazzWax and sending me emails in praise of a post, to add more information, share recollections, clarify statements, or just take issue with something I've written. The web never ceases to amaze, and I'm always surprised and grateful to learn that there are so many readers in the U.S. and throughout the world. The online jazz community is a special one, indeed.