Female jazz artists have always faced a greater challenge balancing their social and professional lives than their male counterparts. In addition to fending off unwanted advances, many have had to carve out time to date, marry, have and raise children, and pay attention to spouses—all while giving jazz the enormous emotional commitment and concentration it demands. For singer Helen Merrill, these two sides of life often bumped up against each other. After enduring a tough marriage and divorce in the mid-1950s, the vocalist had to find ways to compartmentalize the past and cope with new strains while remaining focused on her talent and career.
The music business certainly didn't make life any easier. By 1960, the industry had broken into two large moneymaking blocks: adult pop and teen rock 'n' roll. For most female jazz vocalists, that meant recording more commercial albums to land radio airplay, stimulate sales and earn a living. Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan all had to record these types of albums. Pure jazz was becoming a tougher sell.
In Part 4 of my conversation with Helen, the legendary vocalist talks candidly about balancing her personal and professional life, recording for Atlantic Records in 1959, moving to Rome in 1960, returning to the U.S. in 1964, re-marrying, and moving to Tokyo until the mid-1970s—a 15-year period during which she recorded many superb albums:
JazzWax: What was it like to be a woman in the male jazz world in the 1950s? Were musicians constantly pursuing you?
Helen Merrill: [Laughs] I never had any problems. I found a way early on to turn people off when I had to.
HM: By being aloof and behaving like someone’s little sister. I’m sure many men had crushes on me, there’s no question about that. But I was more focused on the music and didn't want to be bothered. I guess I really wanted to become famous and make money so I wouldn’t have to run around the world doing gigs here and there. Which wound up happening anyway to some extent [laughs].
JW: Let's back up for a second. How did you hold off musician admirers without hurting anyone's feelings?
HM: I was able to switch how I was perceived, from a love interest to a sister. It was a self-protection mechanism on my part. By positioning myself as their sister, musicians became more protective of me. And they were.
JW: In 1959, you recorded American Country Songs, which seems like an odd choice coming off your jazz albums.
HM: The whole music business was changing. I had just signed with Atlantic Records, and they wanted me to do the album. So I did. Which was fine. I like Country music. But I wasn’t completely passionate about the material.
JW: Who signed you to the label?
HM: Nesuhi Ertegun. He knew I wasn't making any money and wanted to help. He thought a Country album might work. So I did it. Which was fine.
JW: In 1960 you abruptly moved to Italy. Why?
HM: Why? OK. Things like this are always so convoluted. Leonard Feather had invited me to London to sing with Dudley Moore, the late comedian who back then was a lovely jazz pianist. It was a radio show. So I went and took my son Alan with me. I wanted to get away.
HM: I had ridiculous romance problems and had to get away. After singing with Dudley, I went to Belgium, to a jazz festival, where I met the pianist Romano Mussolini [pictured]. He invited me to go to Italy to record. So I decided to break my Atlantic Records contract, much to Nesuhi's disappointment, and moved to Rome. I couldn't handle returning. The romantic breakup I had experienced at home was too painful for me. Today I look back and think what a fool I was to have let it affect me that way.
JW: That’s a big move over a relationship.
HM: I never could handle rejection. I needed a clean break and wound up learning more about myself as I went along. When I look back on that relationship today, I realize it wasn’t passion that caused me to get involved that way. It was something else in my makeup. When I look back on it, I realize the person I had a crush on was a foolish man. I also have no idea why I would have thrown away so much for that, but I did. Anyway, the breakup turned into a wonderful professional relationship with Romano and so many others. Which was much more fun
HM: I lived in Rome, and my son went to school in Switzerland, which was very expensive. So I had to keep working.
JW: Tell me about Mussolini.
HM: He was a good pianist. Very simple. He was self-taught, but his musical sense was perfect. Though he was a son of the Italian dictator, he was a gentle and sweet guy, and he loved jazz and music. He had heard it in the castle where he had grown up. He had a friend I worked with who was a great pianist, Renato Sellani [pictured]. He’s still on the scene playing today. I also worked with arranger Ennio Morricone. These guys were the greatest Italian jazz musicians of the day, and I worked with them over and over again while I was there.
JW: Were you appreciated in Italy?
HM: For sure. I also did big-time television music shows there. I was a little star in Rome, but again I had no idea what to do with the stardom. I know it sounds nuts, but it was true. I recoded Parole e Musica, which was very popular. I also did a TV series and sang on the soundtrack to Smog, an Italian movie. The music was composed and arranged by pianist and composer Piero Umiliani. He was a really nice man, too. I had great musical experiences in Italy, especially with Morricone. We recorded an album called Estate, and his arrangements were fabulous. Even today Ennio's things are out there. To be able to work with him again would be a miracle.
JW: What did living in Rome teach you about Helen Merrill?
HM: If you were a woman alone back then, it was not a great place to be. The men were very forward. It was very lonely to live there. But the experience taught me there's more to life than music and that the simple life is just as interesting, sometimes more so, than a faster one. Up until that point, everything in my life had been music, all the time. Rome let me catch my breath, so to speak.
JW: You traveled to Japan in 1963?
HM: That was just a tour. I was still living in Rome. After I recorded In Tokyo, I was invited to do concerts in Japan and I accepted. But I canceled at the last minute out of fear. I had no idea the trouble I caused the promoter.
JW: You returned to New York in 1964. Why?
HM: It was time to come back. As I said, living in Europe was very lonely. When I returned, I recorded The Artistry of Helen Merrill, which vibraphonist Teddy Charles put together. Bassist Teddy Kotick was on there. He was a Slav. I think Czech. We had much in common. I’m of Croatian descent, so we both had a fine understanding of sadness and what that mood is all about. Teddy was a wonderful bass player. The following year I recorded The Feeling Is Mutual with Dick Katz. I love Dick and those recordings I made with him. He created a great mood on there, with Thad [Jones], Jim [Hall], Ron [Carter] and Pete [LaRoca]. [Pictured from left: Ron, Jim, Dick, Helen and Thad]
JW: During this period did you get a sense of what other jazz singers thought of you?
HM: Oh no. I kept myself away from any criticism, positive or negative. As I told you, my sense of rejection was very strong. I knew that there was a lot of envy of the respect that I had garnered among musicians. So I always played myself down very, very much.
JW: In 1966 you moved to Tokyo. Why?
HM: I had married a senior executive at United Press International who was head of the wire service’s offices throughout Asia. We met in Japan, and I moved there. Living in Japan made a big difference in my popularity there.
JW: By enhancing it?
HM: No. Actually just the opposite. Audiences then didn’t know what to make of me. I was a famous jazz singer living in Japan, and audiences didn't understand why. I think they would have been more excited about me if I was living in the U.S. and touring in Japan. Because I lived there, I was accessible and perhaps a little less exotic as a jazz singer. It's strange, I know.
JW: You recorded quite a few albums there.
HM: My favorite was Helen Sings, Teddy Swings in 1970. It was the easiest record date in the world. Teddy was so great. So I was very loose. There were no problems. I knew exactly where he was going to go while singing. Thelonious Monk was in Tokyo then and heard we were recording, so he came by. He loved Teddy. He sat in the booth while we recorded and hung out in the studio on our breaks. He really didn't say much. He was very quiet. It was great having him there. I had spent so much time years earlier going down to hear him in Greenwich Village. I had sharp ears and could hear everything he was doing. Teddy was a big inspiration for Monk. [Pictured: Teddy Wilson, Helen, Thelonious Monk and bassist Larry Ridley]
HM: Earl was a stylist. He was his own person, and as a singer I had to engage his talent. He wasn't accompanying. He played chords, mostly, and fills while I sang. Teddy was a more sophisticated player. That 1970 recording was the easiest date in the world for me.
Tomorrow, Helen talks about her life living in Japan; returning to the U.S. in the mid-1970s; producing albums for pianists Sir Roland Hanna, Tommy Flanagan and Al Haig; and why she felt uneasy during her 1989 recording with Stan Getz.
JazzWax tracks: Helen Merrill in Italy (1960-62) is a rare CD that pops up from time to time on the web. I have not heard it. But her Parole e Musica is available here for about $32.
The Helen Merrill-Dick Katz Sessions has just been issued as a single album from Mosaic Records and includes The Feeling Is Mutual (1965) and A Shade of Difference (1968). The Mosaic release ($15) is truly extraordinary and can be found here. In particular, A Shade of Difference is sensitive and deep, and it features one of the finest vocal interpretations of While We're Young.
One of my favorite Japan dates is Helen Merrill: Bossa Nova in Tokyo, which includes Fly Me to the Moon, So Danco Samba, A Man and a Woman and others. The 1967 session features great Japanese jazz musicians and goes for about $32. You can find it here.
Unfortunately, I don't believe that Helen Sings, Teddy Swings ever was ever released on CD. The LP is available from time to time on the web.
JazzWax clip: While Helen Merrill in Italy (1960-62) is hard to come by, here's a clip from her Parole e Musica album featuring two tracks recorded in Rome in the fall of 1960. You'll hear Why Don't You Do Right and a super smart medium-tempo arrangement of Night and Day...