The Jazz Singer
Jazz Mythology, in Words and Music
This record offers insight into the larger-than-life personalities of the great jazz instrumentalists. The Pittsburgh-born singer Eddie Jefferson learned solos from famous recordings note for note, and then wrote riffs featuring the musicians in key roles. His version of "So What," which opens this album, transforms Miles Davis's solo from Kind of Blue into an essay about jazz manners, referring to the trumpet player's penchant for leaving the bandstand after finishing his turn. Jefferson's paraphrase of Lester Young's "Paper Moon" imagines the hip tenor saxophonist leading an interplanetary expedition. "That hummin' and hummin' and hummin' and hummin' you hear is just the motor of my rocket, dear," he sings at one point, adding "have no fear." And his "Body and Soul" immortalizes Coleman Hawkins, using the squiggly shapes the saxophonist set down on the legendary original: To Jefferson, he "sounded like a band of angels in the sky, and I have never ever heard a sweeter tone."
Jefferson (1919–1979) was among the first to use this approach, which came to be known as "vocalese." Though he's got a decent voice and an animated manner, his key contribution is his lyrics, with their expertly turned evocations of club life and wild onomatopoeic flights. A tap dancer at the start of his career, Jefferson's first break came when he wrote words to James Moody's recording of "I'm in the Mood for Love," which became a monster hit. (One of several versions Jefferson did is included here.) The jazz world took notice: Jefferson's narratives have, in some cases, become the primary jazz-vocal texts.
Most of The Jazz Singer was recorded in 1959, with a few dates in 1960 and '61. This was a time of exploding creativity in jazz. The music was evolving rapidly, and clubgoers were treated to feats of astounding instrumental dexterity on a regular basis. Jefferson's adroit wordplay captures that sense of possibility, and the feeling of pure slackjawed awe that went along with being on the scene when it was happening.
Released: 1965, Inner City (Reissued 1993, Evidence)
Key Tracks: "So What," "Moody's Mood for Love," "Lester's Trip to the Moon."
Catalog Choice: Letter from Home.
Next Stop: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross: The Hottest New Group in Jazz
Book Pages: 394–395