Jazz greats are more sensitive than the rest of us. They have to be to produce honest art. While their angst and emotional unease may not always be evident, a deep sorrow and regret often rests just beneath the surface, coloring their creative mood and expression. Jazz artists who reach for their scars when they record or perform produce breathtaking results. Their honesty and openness form an immediate bond with their audiences, allowing us to feel briefly what they live with always. Singer Helen Merrill is among the few vocalists who can channel these feelings without pretension, perhaps because her hypnotic attack has always been closer to that of a soloing musician than a glossy song stylist. [Photo of Helen Merrill by Herman Leonard]
Helen has long been known for her unfiltered passion and unrehearsed delivery Her voice isn't processed. It's a free, earthy sound that purposefully has resisted commercial buffing and mannered intonation favored by many vocalists of her generation. As testament to her legendary status, she has recorded on more than 100 sessions, including classic albums with Clifford Brown, Gil Evans, Hal Mooney, Teddy Wilson, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Thad Jones, John Lewis, Pepper Adams, Jim Hall, Dick Katz, Torrie Zito (her husband) and so many others.
In my five-part conversation with Helen, the vocalist, 78, reflects on her unsettling childhood in the Bronx; hanging around jazz clubs and befriending musicians; her big break with Earl Hines; singing with Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Gil Evans and other jazz greats; the romantic breakup that compelled her to move to Italy; living in Tokyo in the late 1960s; and the story she never told before about her Stan Getz recording in 1989:
Helen Merrill: Actually I was born in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Then when I was very young we moved to 170th St. and College Ave. in the Bronx. The area had the best school at the time, P.S. 53. [Photo of 1940s Bronx street scene by Joseph Schwartz/ Corbis]
JW: Sisters and brothers?
HM: I have three sisters. There was a boy who died before I was born, sadly. Unfortunately that set the tone for everyone’s life at home.
JW: Were your sisters nice to you?
HM: No, of course not [laughs]. We’re still fighting [laughs]. We hate each other and remain loving each other. One is six years older, and she became our mother. She took care of us. My two younger sisters were closer to me in age.
JW: Your older sister took care of you?
HM: My mother was not there. My older sister was assigned the task along with my father.
JW: Where was your mother?
HM: My mother was in a hospital and lingered for a long, long time before passing away. It’s a terrible thing to happen to young children, having your mom sick and not available. In addition, kids in school didn’t understand and asked a lot of questions or teased me. It wasn’t a pleasant time.
JW: Singing was an escape?
HM: I suppose so to some extent. My mother was an incredible singer of Croatian folk music, which has unbelievably close harmonies. It’s beautiful music if your ears can stand it [laughs]. My mother also loved the great American composers, like Jerome Kern and others. She used to play their records on her phonograph, and they were so beautiful.
JW: Where would you sing?
HM: Around the house. My mother used to sing around the house, and that was good enough for her. I had always wanted to be a singer, from the time I was 2 or 3 years old. One place I did a lot of singing was in a closet. My sisters would tell me to be quiet, so I went in there. Now they’re big fans, of course [laughs].
JW: How did you learn to sing?
HM: I learned from my mother. And my older sister was an avid listener of big band music on the radio. I’d hear Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others. I wasn’t allowed to change the dial, so I learned all the songs that way. My real interest was in the musicians, the soloists. Billie, of course, was really a musician with that voice of hers. I also loved Lester Young and Ben Webster—I couldn’t believe his dynamic range. I’d pick up all these things in a natural way. I was always very sensitive and could hear things in music that others couldn't.
JW: Did you have formal voice training?
HM: No, no. I tried to get training once. I found someone in a magazine. I was desperate to learn. But my father wouldn’t go for it. He almost threw the guy down the stairs of our home. I remember him screaming, “You’re trying to con my daughter!” So that was the end of that. I tried to play the piano but we didn’t have one. I played on a cardboard piano that I got at school. But after two months, I said, “This ain’t it.” I was just a kid.
JW: What was Club 845?
HM: [Laughs] That was a club up in the Bronx, at 845 Prospect Ave. It featured jazz in the afternoons. Johnny Johnson ran it. He was a very sweet man who could be talked into anything [laughs]. While I was there, all sorts of great musicians came in to play and listen. I ran into all the jazz stars of the mid-to-late 40s like Charlie Parker and Miles [Davis]. I didn’t know them professionally yet. I just went there after school and listened all the time and became friendly with them. A kid could go hear jazz at clubs then during the day.
JW: Did you eventually get up the courage to sing there?
HM: Yes. I talked Johnny into hiring me. This was in the late ‘40s. My real name was on the marquee: "Helen Milcetic." At Club 845, you’d sing with whomever was sitting in. That day I sang for the first time professionally with Bud Powell on piano [laughs]. Can you imagine? He was great. I remember after I started singing, he stopped playing, turned around, looked at me with the biggest grin on his face and then continued to play. It was a huge compliment and a complete surprise. I wasn’t professional yet, but when Bud did that, it gave me so much confidence. He was so sweet. When I saw him many years later in the south of France, he looked at me in his peculiarly sweet way and slowly said, “Helen Milcetic.” He had remembered my first singing date with him. Isn’t that amazing?
JW: But if your dad kicked out a singing coach, he must have been furious about you hanging around Club 845, no?
HM: My dear, my dad didn’t know anything about me going anywhere. Including out of town. When I was 16, my father worked as a tugboat captain for the New York Central Railroad. One day I took his pass that allowed family members to travel for free, and a girlfriend and I got on the train to Chicago. I wanted to hear this new singing sensation, Jackie Cain [pictured with husband Roy Kral]. Jackie was just a couple of years older than me. The conductor asked us, “Why are you kids alone on the train?” I said, “Oh, my father is sick.” So we went to Chicago for free. Like most people who are driven by their talent, I was enormously passionate and headstrong.
JW: Where did you stay in Chicago?
HM: When my girlfriend and I arrived, we found a hotel. We didn’t know anything about hotels. We even made the beds in the morning thinking we had to do that [laughs]. My father never knew about that trip—or anything else.
JW: How was Jackie Cain?
HM: She was great. I was so jealous.
JW: Was your dad a rough guy?
HM: No, actually he was very gentle. As a tugboat captain in New York Harbor, he didn't have to be too tough physically for that job. I used to talk him into taking me on the boat for rides. He wasn’t supposed to. I discovered early that I could talk anyone into anything. He’d teach me how to steer the boat. Oh, I loved that—and him. [Photo of New York Harbor in 1946 by Andreas Feininger for Life]
JW: Could you pilot a tug today?
HM: Me? Oh, no. It was just curiosity. I was on a tug just once or twice.
JW: While you were singing at Club 845, you got your first break.
HM: Yes, with Earl “Fatha" Hines [pictured], in 1952. At the time, I was sort of the jazz musicians’ choice of singer. I’d sing with everyone, and I modeled my voice after instruments rather than other singers. Musicians liked me because I had that sound and I didn’t need rehearsals. My ears were that good. But it was a step-by-step development. The problem wasn’t whether a song was in my key. Back then they had arrangements in what they called “girl’s ranges.” So I was always comfortable. I got to sing with Earl by accident. My then husband, Aaron Sachs, was with the band. I packed a suitcase with a small child in hand [singer-songwriter Alan Merrill] and traveled. Earl heard me sing and decided to hire me for his sextet.
JW: Were you petrified?
HM: No, not at all. Etta Jones [pictured] and I were in the band. We were laughing all the time. It was a band made up of very friendly musicians. There was Jonah Jones, Bennie Green, Aaron Sachs, Earl, Tommy Potter and Osie Johnson. Not bad! [laughing]. They all were so supportive. No judgment. I really lucked out. Later, Bennie Green pushed me with Quincy Jones. I had known Quincy before joining Earl. He had lived near me in New York and was part of the talented group of musicians drawn to one another. After I sang with the band and made a record [A Cigarette for Company], Bennie said to Quincy, “You have to do something for Helen.” And he did two years later when he joined EmArcy Records. Bennie was the sweetest man on this earth. I’m sorry he had such a short life.
JW: What was it like working for Earl?
HM: Earl was Earl. He was the king. He was in charge of everything. All of the band members loved him and respected his need to be in charge. We just loved listening to him play. I didn’t know enough to be scared. His piano playing didn’t throw me off as a singer. Very few things did. I think it was because I listened hard to musicians and they led me. Everything was about chord changes, chord changes, chord changes.
JW: Did you read music?
HM: No. I still don’t. My ear had to be developed. When I look back, I can’t believe I did all those things. I’m much, much shyer today than I was back then [laughs].
Tomorrow, Helen talks about singing with Charlie Parker in Los Angeles, making a demo with Jimmy Raney, recording with the Johnny Richards Orchestra, her career-changing record date with Clifford Brown, and why Brown's death in 1956 continues to have a profound effect on her today.
JazzWax tracks: You can hear Helen Merrill with the Earl Hines Sextet singing A Cigarette for Company on Earl Hines: 1949-1952, on the French Classics label. The CD has been discontinued but is available here for $13 used from independent sellers.
JazzWax clip: Helen recorded with both Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. Here's a fabulous 1965 clip of Hines and Wilson in a stride shoot-out, playing All of Me. Watch what Hines does with those hands!