Around the time that Corky Hale became a first-call studio harpist in Hollywood in the mid-1950s, she recorded two superb small-group jazz albums: Herbie Harper and Corky Hale Plays George Gershwin and Vernon Duke. On both 1955 albums, Corky was featured playing the harp almost like a guitar—displaying a swinging technique, gorgeous chord phrasing and smart line improvisation.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back in January, when I posted about jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, I included a capsule section on the history of the jazz harp. Foolishly, I overlooked Corky, at which point the West Coast emails began pouring in. So I emailed Corky to apologize. In short order, I received the following from her...
"Although I was originally known as the 'jazz harpist,' I was also Billie Holiday's piano player for a time in the late 1950s, and I played piano in Clark Terry's band.
"A camera crew came over from London several months ago to film me for a documentary on Chet Baker. I'm playing harp on several of Chet's albums in the early '60s. When I lived in Rome I was the alternating piano player on the Tempo di Jazz TV show with Romano Mussolini. Chet was once booked on that show, and it was a pretty funny happening. He walked in, was intruduced to Romano and said, 'What a drag about your old man.' Classic Chet."
Corky is way too modest. In fact, she played harp on nearly every major West Coast jazz-pop date that called for one, including albums in Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook series, Chet Baker Sings and Plays (1955), Anita (1955) with Anita O'Day backed by Buddy Bregman's orchestra, June Christy's Misty Miss Christy (1956) and sessions by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. And this is just the tip of her jazz and pop discography.
"In 1957, when I was singing with Freddy Martin at the Coconut Grove in L.A., Jerry Gray heard me singing on our nightly radio remotes. He called and asked me to play piano and sing with his orchestra at the Dunes in Las Vegas. So I went.
"While we were out there, we were rehearsing and Jerry told the band that there had been a last-minute change and that a guest artist was going to be on the bill. Well, in walks Billie Holiday. As she comes in, she gave me a long look, like, "This is the piano player? You're kidding, right?" It was like an old movie. Billie was accustomed to seeing someone she knew on piano, and here was this petite, peroxide blonde. [Photo above of Billie Holiday and Corky Hale at Jazz City in 1957 by Ray Avery/CTSImages]
"We ran through a few songs and, long-story short, she loved me. She said, 'You’re my little girl.' After the first night, Billie said to me, 'When we finish here, we’re going to do Jazz City in L.A.' And we did. We went into Jazz City for a couple of weeks. The drummer was Bob Neel, but I can't recall the bassist. Red Mitchell’s wife Doe did Billie's hair each night. They were close friends. And I remember that José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney were in the audience for our entire run. [Photo above by Ray Avery/CTSImages]
"How did I manage to hit it off with Billie so fast? As a singer, I've always listened carefully to vocalists when I accompanied them on piano, providing a comfortable cushion. I never played through their vocals and always provided tasteful support. Billie liked that and my voicings. [Pictured above: Frank Sinatra and Corky Hale]
"So much so that after our Jazz City run, she wanted me to accompany her on her tour of the Philippines. But I turned her down. At the time, she was married to her fourth husband, Louis McKay, who was a pretty rough character. I didn't want that kind of trouble so far from home."
Now, about those two sessions I mentioned on top: The first, Herbie Harper, featured Harper (tb), Paul Sarmento (tu), Charlie Mariano (as), Jimmy Giuffre (ts,bar), Jimmy Rowles (p), Harry Babasin (b), Irv Cottler (d) and Corky on harp.
Her leadership date, Plays George Gershwin and Vernon Duke, included Corky on harp, piano and flute on different tracks along with Buddy Collette (fl, ts), Larry Bunker (vib), Howard Roberts (g), Red Mitchell (b) and Chico Hamilton (d).
Both albums swing with rich beauty and taste. After all, you didn't get to play with those cats unless you had what it takes—and some. Even more remarkable—Corky was only 19 years old at the time.
JazzWax tracks: Both Herbie Harper and Plays George Gershwin and Vernon Duke are out of print and hard to find. But I trust someone will post a comment alerting readers where they can be found.
Among my favorite contemporary recordings by Corky are Corky (1998) and Corky and Friends: I'm Glad There Is You (2009). You've got to hear what Corky does with the harp on Yesterdays (from Corky), backed by strings and a rhythm section. Her vocal tracks are equally warm and cozy.
JazzWax clips: Here's Corky on Vernon Duke's There's an Island in the West Indies from 1955. That's Buddy Collette on flute. Dig Corky's swinging solo!
And here's Corky on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the late '60s, backing Tony Bennett on For Once in My Life, teaching Carson a thing or two, and then singing This Is the Life. Pure talent, charm and grace under enormous pressure...