Blossom Dearie, a delicate pianist, composer, arranger and singer with a helium-high voice who helped pioneer vocalese in New York and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s, died on Saturday in Greenwich Village after a long illness. She was 82.
Dearie was a regular at 52d St. clubs and the salon apartment of arranger Gil Evans in the late 1940s. Her earliest vocalese recordings for the Spotlite label in 1948 were arranged by Gerry Mulligan and featured bop singers Dave Lambert and Buddy Stewart. Dearie's first big jukebox hit as a vocalist came in 1952, when she sang the female part on King Pleasure's [pictured] recording of Moody's Mood for Love, a track that remains definitive today for its hip, carefree feel.
Later that year Dearie recorded on piano behind singer Annie Ross. But it was while working at the Chantilly Club in Greenwich Village that Dearie met Nicole Barclay, who with her husband, Eddie, owned Barclay Records in France. She encouraged Dearie to move to Paris, where she formed Les Blue Stars, a vocalese group that included four male singers and four female singers (later scaled back). Dearie and Michel Legrand (whose sister Christine was in the group) wrote the arrangements, and the ensemble recorded for Barclay. Christine Legrand would eventually form Les Double Six of Paris, a French overdubbing vocal group modeled after Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Les Blue Stars had a hit in France and the U.S. in 1954 with a French version of Lullaby Of Birdland. But Dearie was more than a fine club pianist and vocalist who could sing in French. She also was a nifty jazz composer and arranger. Her charts for David Amram and Bobby Jaspar, by then her husband, were recorded in Paris in 1955 on the Swing label. These sessions can be found on the CD Bobby Jaspar Featuring David Amram.
In Paris, Dearie met producer Norman Granz, who signed her to Verve Records. Dearie returned to New York in 1956, where she began a steady period of recording for Verve and other jazz labels. Over the course of her career, she appeared on upward of 50 recording sessions.
In the early 1970s, fed up with major record labels' disinterest in her style of music, Dearie started Daffodil Records. She also became a mainstay of the cabaret scene in New York in the 1980s and 1990s.
I never had an opportunity to hear Dearie perform live, and I sure wish I had interviewed her for JazzWax. In all honesty, I was never a huge fan of Dearie's woman-waif voice or her tongue-in-cheek approach. I also never quite understood why Dearie took so many great songs at too fast a clip, which could trivialize their meaning and rip the rug out from under the listener.
But the Dearie recordings I enjoy most I love deeply. Here are my five favorites:
It Might as Well Be Spring—was among Dearie's first recordings for Verve upon her return to New York in 1956. What I like best about the track is that she sings the song in French. You'll find it at iTunes on Blossom Dearie, a compilation.
They Say It's Spring—This original is from the album Give Him the Ooh-La-La (Verve). The 1957 date features guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones. The song perfectly shows off Dearie's soft and brushy keyboard touch, her ticklish sense of humor and her girlish innocence. The track and album are available at iTunes.
Lucky to Be Me—is Dearie at her late-1950s best. The nice-and-slow track appears on Sings Comden and Green. Recorded in 1959, Dearie is accompanied by guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. Dearie's piano and voice are sublime.
Put on a Happy Face is the best track on May I Come In?, a Peggy Lee-ish Capitol album from 1964 arranged by Jack Marshall. The studio band swings, and Dearie on this track seems to be skipping rope among the heavy brass. It's also at iTunes.
Finally, one of my favorite Blossom Dearie songs isn't a jazz tune nor is it well known or readily available on CD. The song is Dusty Springfield, which Dearie wrote in 1969 about the British pop singer's fun name and fizzy image. The song is so pretty it chokes me up every time I hear it. Arranged by Brian Gascoigne, Dearie recorded Dusty Springfield in London for the album That's Just the Way I Want to Be.
Frankly, I can't think of a better Blossom Dearie song to share with you as farewell tribute...