Amidst the entire Blue Note catalogue of around 350 titles, only two albums were lead by singers, both issued in 1962: one by Sheila Jordan, wife of Blue Note pianist Duke Jordan (they separated the same year) and one by jazz singer Dodo Greene. Both albums were released in the relatively unknown 9000 series, are stamped Van Gelder and Plastylite, on New York labels.
BN 9001 Dodo Greene: My Hour Of Need
The Dodo Greene album is often described in auction as “rare”, not uncommon for records which didn’t sell many copies. The line up includes Ike Quebec, probably my least-favourite Blue Note tenor player. However Popsike did clock up one auction where the record fetched just short of $500, and a mean auction value around $50, so it has some followers, just not many.
BN 9002 Sheila Jordan: Portrait of Sheila
The Sheila Jordan album is more commonly found. Steve Swallow, long term collaborator with Gary Burton and Carla Bley, appears on bass, the other players less familiar.
Jordan was a contemporary of Charlie Parker, and her scat/bebop singing was modelled on Parker’s lines, into which she introduced lyrics. Parker reportedly introduced Shiela on stage as “the singer with the million dollar ears.” Her varied recording career followed the one Blue Note, with titles for Eastwind, SteepleChase, ECM, Blackhawk and Muse. She is still with us, age 87.
Blue Note 9000 series
The Blue Note 9000 series contained only two releases – those above – and the experiment in vocal albums was discontinued. Alfred Lion found there was no appetite for jazz singers among the regular buyers of Blue note Records.
Singers? LJC Opinion Alert!
Jazz is a form of music in which instruments are the prime vehicle of emotional expression, and a canvas for improvisation which gives free reign to those emotions, which evolve spontaneously. It is an art form requiring significant technical skill and ability to improvise in a group setting.
Song lyrics on the other hand are a pre-written narrative, story-telling, in which words (not instruments) are used to describe emotions. Songs tend to be dominated by the subject of relationships, or polemics. Music is relegated to accompaniment of the singer, who takes centre stage.
Genres like soul, folk, rhythm and blues, and pop have a more comfortable fit with vocals. The music is a background to the lyrics. BB King, I’ve got sweet little angel… Bob Dylan Blowin’ in the wind, Soul – teen dating songs, James Brown Get on up, like a fax machine. Yes, there are a lot songs about fax.
The early jazz repertoire often drew on standards derived from show-tunes, a launchpad for improvisation, the song merely the opening melody. Later, melody no longer lip-sync for words, but tunes in their own right.
When the jazz was in the ascendant, singers represented less than 1% of modern jazz record releases. Jazz is a performance art with its own identity and boundaries, that separate it from pop vocal and other forms of music. With just its few exceptions, a definition of modern jazz could be, explicitly, music without vocals.