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Where Exactly Have All the Great Male Jazz Singers Gone?

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

They once were the epitome of hip: tuxedoed men with nary a hair out of place, swinging exuberantly in front a roaring big band or a sleek little combo, coolly snapping their fingers all the while.

They commanded huge fees playing showrooms across the country, the mere mention of their names--Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong--assuring turn-away business.

Yet today they are an endangered species at best, an anachronism at worst.

The once-glamorized male jazz singer practically has vanished from America’s cultural radar. Worse, the men are AWOL at the very moment that their female counterparts, as well as jazz instrumentalists of both sexes, are enjoying resurgent popularity.

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Scan the Billboard jazz charts virtually any week, and you’ll see the same names hovering at or near the top: Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Cassandra Wilson.

Then look for the men: There’s hardly anyone there. Occasionally, Harry Connick Jr., whose movie career always has bolstered his singing, turns up. More recently, there’s Steve Tyrell, a record exec-turned-crooner whose bleatings hardly can be considered jazz.

The real jazz singers, such as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling and Bobby McFerrin, simply don’t move enough recordings to earn a long-standing berth on the charts. (McFerrin’s old hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by the way, fits no one’s definition of jazz.)

What’s more, the male vocalists fully realize that they’ve been overshadowed.

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“I think it has to do with the fact that men run the bands, the clubs, the record companies--everything--and they generally prefer to see a skirt,” says Murphy, at 70 a veteran of lost record deals and long stretches of underemployment.

“And then there’s the songs--you know, the ‘moon, June, spoon’ soupy kinds of songs that a lot of people expect to hear. Those aren’t easy for a man to sing. They’re really written for women.”

Yet both the romantic nature of non-rock songwriting and the male domination of the music business hardly are recent phenomena. In fact, it was much the same, if not worse, during the era of Sinatra, Cole and Torme. So why should the male jazz singer become persona non grata?

The real answer, many believe, goes back to the great cultural quakes of the 1960s, which forced jazz musicians of all kinds--but male vocalists, in particular--to the margins of America’s cultural life.

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“When rock ‘n’ roll came in, the sound of Frank Sinatra and the sound of swinging suddenly became music that your parents listened to,” Elling says.

Even among those who still were listening to grown-up swing music when youth-oriented rock ascended, “they pretty much only wanted to hear Frank and Ella [Fitzgerald] and that level of artistry and magnitude,” Elling says. “It was almost like there were these huge, huge trees that were absorbing all the sun, and there wasn’t a lot of new growth.”

Moreover, Sinatra and Fitzgerald had learned their art in the same grueling way as jazz singers before them: by singing a relentless series of one-nighters with the big bands (Sinatra with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb and Dizzy Gillespie ensembles). The demise of the great touring swing bands meant that the next generation of talent had nowhere to go to learn the ephemeral, technically demanding art of jazz singing.

“With on-the-road schooling [of the big bands] virtually at an end by the 1950s, the lack of any other training arena in the 1960s and 1970s affected jazz singing, and all but the most tenacious fell by the wayside,” write Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold in “Singing Jazz.”

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This “hiatus of almost an entire generation,” as the authors put it, abruptly interrupted the development of male jazz singing at the very moment it had reached its pinnacle, with Sinatra’s Capitol recordings of the 1950s and Reprise discs of the early 1960s.

“The men who might have become great jazz vocalists had almost no choice--they went into rhythm and blues instead,” says Chicago jazz singer Brienn Perry.

The same could be said of women, but when the jazz industry finally reawakened in the mid-1980s, thanks partly to the protean gifts of trumpeter and jazz advocate Wynton Marsalis, the industry reflexively turned to women as leading vocalists, returning to the well-worn archetype of women as singers or “canaries,” as they were once called.

When Cassandra Wilson’s “Blue Skies” CD emerged as the biggest-selling jazz record of 1988, the record labels practically tripped over each other trying to sign women vocalists. Although Vanessa Rubin, Nnenna Freelon, Madeline Eastman, Karrin Allyson, Roseanna Vitro and scores more did not approach Wilson’s level of talent, their visibility meant that women came to dominate jazz singing in the late 1980s and ‘90s.

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It wasn’t until the mid-'90s that Elling--at the time a somewhat rough but technically brilliant Chicago jazz singer--began to reclaim a place for young men in front of the microphone. His artistically stunning debut on Blue Note, “Close Your Eyes” (1995), proved that a male jazz singer under 30 could make a valuable, innovative musical statement on a major record label.

But even for Elling, the going has been tough. Although he has been showered with critical praise and industry accolades (including several Grammy nominations and a spot on the prestigious Down Beat Critics Poll), Elling’s CDs have not been flying out of record stores.

Thanks to Krall’s enormous crossover success--she sold more than 1 million copies each of her past two recordings, “When I Look in Your Eyes” (1999) and “The Look of Love” (2001)--the record labels recently redoubled their efforts on behalf of performers such as 24-year-old Jane Monheit, who sold more than 100,000 copies of her debut CD, “Never Never Land” (2000), and twice as many of her newest release, “Come Dream With Me” (2001). Similarly, neophyte Norah Jones unloaded more than 300,000 copies of her recent debut CD, “Come Away With Me.”

“I used to get a little bit upset about it,” Elling, 34, concedes of the difference between male and female sales. “But now I think of it more as an interesting challenge, rather than any kind of depressing fact.

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“It’s not a deal breaker. It’s just a habit.... Who wouldn’t want to listen to a beautiful young lady sing? The people who listen to swinging music just have a habit of listening to women but don’t have that habit with men, and they haven’t had that habit for a while.”

The question is whether listeners ever will reacquire it. Murphy insists that “things are heating up again,” citing not only his own busy performance schedule, but the emergence of a new generation of male jazz singers, such as Elling, Curtis Stigers and the British Ian Shaw. These young artists may have made scant impression on the marketplace, Murphy says, but at least they signal that the flow of talent has been rejuvenated.

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Howard Reich is arts critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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