By age 17, Jackie Cain was earning a living in Chicago as a big-band and small-group singer. But unlike many up-and-coming club singers who emerged during the late 1940s, Jackie had not spent a single day on New York's 52nd Street. Instead, the Milwaukee native listened carefully to records, studied with a vocal coach and sang with local jazz groups, one of which featured pianist Roy Kral. At first, Roy was hesitant to accompany a female vocalist. But once he heard Jackie, the pair were inseparable. The couple worked tirelessly on songs to create clever modern voicings, and the formula kept them steadily booked into clubs. Eventually they caught the ear of nationally known jazz artists, including Charlie Ventura, who hired Jackie and Roy in 1948. [Photo of Jackie Cain and Charlie Ventura in 1948, top, courtesy of Jeff Austin]
When you talk to Jackie today, the first thing you hear in her soft melodic voice is a firm Milwaukee accent. The second is her kindness. Jackie is as sweet to talk to as her records sound, and she's just as upbeat and excited about music and life. Though she still misses her husband Roy, who died in 2002, Jackie is as positive and as joyous as ever.
In Part 2 of my interview series with Jackie, the legendary vocalese singer talks about working with Roy on what would become their signature style, joining Charlie Ventura's band, and why Ventura held a grudge for the entire time they were in his band:
JazzWax: When your appearances with Roy in the George Davis Quartet started to fill seats at Jump Town in Chicago, did you quit Jay Burkhart’s band?
Jackie Cain: No. I sang weekends with Roy [Kral] and George, and I worked with Jay’s big band three nights a week.
JW: In Chicago, when you were singing with Roy, were you two romantically involved at this point?
JC: Oh, no. Roy had a girlfriend at the time, and I was just a kid. Well, not exactly a kid. I was 17 years old but more emotionally mature than most people my age. I was into music and had spent time hanging around with musicians who turned me on to the records of Billie Holiday [pictured] and other great singers.
We were just close friends at first.
JW: Which of the two bands did you enjoy singing with most?
JC: Both were great, but the energy was more exciting with George because of Roy. One night at Jump Town, Chicago radio host Dave Garroway [pictured] came in to hear us. I think the club owner was going to buy time on his station so more people would become familiar with his club. Jump Town was kind of out of the way, on the west side of Chicago.
JW: What did Garroway think?
JC: Dave was real taken with us and started talking about us on the air. It was about the time he was gung-ho about Sarah Vaughan [pictured]. He was the one who dubbed her The Divine One. He had a midnight radio show called The 1160 Club, which reached Evanston and other towns near Chicago at night. Dave had this great radio voice and was very charming on the air. He had a great way of explaining things, and everyone loved him.
JW: Did you start to get press?
JC: I don’t know, but we started getting more business at the club. And we were getting a lot of radio talk, thanks to Dave. So we were booked solid into Jump Town for some time. During this period, the club started attracting big-name jazz musicians, like Miles Davis. He was there in 1947, just after he won Esquire's New Star award. We were working at the club at the time. [Photo of Miles Davis by Herman Leonard]
JW: Did you meet Davis?
JC: Oh yes. We met him that night. And we knew Miles through the years after that and always got along with him. Some people didn’t, you know. Soon, Dave Garroway started putting on concerts once every couple of months.
JW: Where were they held?
JC: At the Morrison Hotel [pictured]. It was a big, nice wonderful room with a stage and a good space for the audience. He’d book big names but he'd also feature local talent like us. The headliner was always the group coming through town. One time he booked Charlie Ventura. Roy and I had already started playing with vocalese arrangements and thought what we were doing could sound good with Charlie.
JW: How did you both begin singing vocalese?
JC: We had heard Davey Lambert and Buddy Stewart's records with Gene Krupa’s band, and Charlie Ventura had come out of Krupa’s band. One night, after listening to What's This? I said, “Hey Roy, why don’t we try to do something like that, only our own thing? You could write something.” So we gave it a shot.
JW: How did you become so hip so fast?
JC: Just naturally. I had listened to a lot of jazz records. You see, I had always tried to learn solos from musical instruments. One was a solo on an Allen Eager tune. Listening to instrumental solos inspired us. Roy would write out a solo and I’d sing it. We were very lucky because Roy and I sang in the same range, which was rare. I may have had a little more in the high end, but we were very close.
JW: Did Roy know how to sing?
JC: Not at first. He had never sung before. I taught him how. He was a natural.
JW: How did you teach him?
JC: I had had a good vocal teacher in Chicago for about a year. My coach provided me with good ways to develop the voice and build up the diaphragm, and to sing on the breath.
JW: How does that work?
JC: On the first chorus we’d do a verse that set up the vocalese. I always worked out my own solos. Years later at record dates, I would go into a room that was empty to find a way to phrase my solo. Phrasing is all-important in singing. You always try to make it like a conversation, with commas and punctuation. That’s how you try to think about it when you’re phrasing while singing. So we'd take the first chorus straight. On the second chorus we’d use our voices as instruments, which is what vocalese is all about. Roy wrote all of that out.
JW: How did Roy work?
JC: He’d start by soloing on the song on the piano. Just blowing. When he found nice little phrases, he'd write them down. That’s how we’d develop the things we sang.
JW: How could you follow what Roy wrote if you didn’t read music?
JC: First Roy would play the song for me so I could learn the melody notes. Then he'd play for me the lines he wrote. He'd play them once or twice. If there was a phrase that was especially difficult, we’d take it slow. As we worked through it, we’d speed it up to the correct tempo. After that, we’d work on the syllables. We wanted to hit the syllables in the song's words the way instruments would. Once we had that down, we’d sing the entire song together. In some cases I had short solos in songs. But I never felt comfortable doing that. I preferred singing together with Roy. It was more fun running those tight harmonies.
JW: How did you and Roy come to join Ventura?
JC: When we learned Dave Garroway was using him in a concert with us, Roy and I looked at each other and said, “We better do good.” We realized that we might be able to get a break through the concert. Of course, unbeknownst to us, we did.
JW: How did that happen?
JC: A good part of Charlie's band, including Buddy Stewart, Shelly Manne, Lou Stein and Kai Winding, gave him two weeks' notice right around the time he hit Chicago. By this point, Roy and I had moved from Jump Town to the Bee Hive, a better-known club on the south side of Chicago. Charlie and his manager, Don Palmer, wanted to hear us before the concert. They also were probably scouting for band replacements.
JW: Were you and Roy nervous when Ventura and Palmer showed up?
JC: Not at all. We were comfortable. Once we knew our routine, we knew it. We just did the best we could, like we always did. We always wanted to be consistent, and it was fun to try our best. There was a lot of improv with Roy on piano. We'd do a chorus followed by piano. Then we’d go into a freer singing part.
JW: What did Ventura and Palmer think after hearing you?
JC: They really liked us. After the concert, we got a call from Don asking if we wanted to join Ventura’s band.
JW: What did you think?
JC: We were ready for it. It was the next step and we were excited to tour. We didn’t think of it as a move to the big time, just a great opportunity. We were just happy to be doing something different.
JW: Why, were you tired of the Chicago club scene?
JC: No, not at all. But repetition and endurance are the two tough guys as a singer. When you sing, you’re not pressing a button down on an instrument and blowing. You’re using a part of your body. It’s much harder than people would imagine. And singing the same thing night after night can wear you down.
JW: Where was your first gig with the Ventura band?
JC: Charlie wanted to start the new band at the Blue Note in Chicago. He wanted Roy to write the book for the opening. Charlie also brought in his brothers. One played the baritone sax, one played tenor and the third played trumpet. Charlie wanted to help his brothers and inspire them and help them get started in the music business. So Roy wrote these charts and rehearsed the band. We found that the Ventura brothers could play well. The baritone and trumpet players were very good. The tenor player wasn’t as good as the other two.
JW: That sounds like a pretty grueling day.
JC: By the time we opened at the Blue Note, we were tired. Roy was up late writing. We rehearsed and then opened that night. Somehow we managed to pull it off. After doing a few jobs with his brothers, Charlie realized that it was going to be too tough. To pull it off, Charlie could see that they’d need too much attention and that he'd have to be the father figure. He’d have to tell them what to do and everything. He knew it was too big an order. He did keep Ben, the baritone sax player, though.
JW: The Ventura band changed while you were there.
JC: Yes, the new band had a lot of bop guys, including Boots Mussulli, Conte Candoli, Kenny O'Brien and Ed Shaughnessy with his two bass drums. We had a good time touring all over the country. And we were getting a lot of press.
JC: Mostly, but things got messy just after we joined the band. We were going into the Royal Roost in New York in the summer of 1948. So Charlie hired Virginia Wicks, a big publicity agent, to work on his name and get the band a bigger following.
JW: What happened?
JC: Charlie told us that we needed to meet with a guy from a big New York newspaper at the Royal Roost the next afternoon. Charlie said the guy was going to come in at a certain time to interview the band and take pictures in the club. So we went down there. Roy, me and the band were on time, but Charlie didn’t show up. So this guy who was sitting there started asking Roy and me how we met and how we got into music. He was writing all this stuff down.
JC: About an hour later. When he saw the guy talking to us, Charlie was kind of miffed. It wasn’t our fault. He was late. When the article came out in the paper, the headline was The Voice-Horn Blend. It was the truth, so I didn't know why Charlie was so angry. It was his band. He hired the people. Why should he be jealous of us? But he was. Charlie was a great guy and we loved him and had fun with him. But he took his issues out on us. He didn't talk to us the entire time we were with the band after that.
Tomorrow, Jackie talks about the famed "Bop for the People" concert with Ventura in May 1949, how she and Roy came up with the vocalese for Euphoria, when their relationship turned amorous, leaving Ventura's band, getting married and starting a family—all while singing in clubs and making records on the East and West coasts.
JazzWax tracks: Jackie and Roy's earliest recording with Charlie Ventura were captured at the Royal Roost in August 1948 and featured Conte Candoli (trumpet), Bennie Green (trombone), Charlie Ventura (tenor sax), Ben Ventura (baritone sax), Kenny O'Brien (bass) and Ed Shaughnessy (drums). The LP is available at eBay.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of the Charlie Ventura group in California, probably in early 1949, with Jackie and Roy singing vocalese on the first chorus and the outro chorus. That's Gene Norman's announcement for the May 1949 Pasadena Concert—but then the track appears to splice to another live date...