Thursday, 22 January 2015

JAZZ ICONS #12: Helen Merrill


I fall deeply into the music. I hear a lot of information when I sing.  Back then and today, I'm able to go into a hypnotic state when performing.   Even to this day it takes me about 15 minutes to come out of whatever it is that permits me to go up there.  It’s kind of a self-hypnosis that I think a lot of performers probably have.  I don’t do it knowingly, you know.  It just happens.  I start out nervous but then just close my eyes, start singing and that fearful part of me disappears. But I’m still terrified before I go out on stage.  On the positive side, that feeling, as painful as it is, keeps your adrenaline in the right place and keeps your passion alive.

Interview by MARC MYERS 
published on his website JazzWax
2 February 2009

The question 'What makes a singer a jazz singer?' can be a difficult one to answer.  Many people –– artists and fans alike –– assume that a jazz singer is somebody who performs selections from 'The Great American Songbook' (that is, classic songs written by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin et al) with full orchestral accompaniment, usually in arrangements that are both pleasing to the ear and satisfyingly 'safe' in the artistic and all-important commercial sense.  But to categorize such performers as 'jazz singers' is misleading.  You may adore Rod Stewart's version of These Foolish Things or swoon over Carly Simon's rendition of All The Things You Are but to call these artists 'jazz singers' makes as much sense as it does to label jazz performers like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday 'rockstars.'  The question is not simply one of repertoire, backing and arrangement.  To mistake what is often no more than a blatantly commercial attempt to milk the 'So-and-So Sings Standards' cash cow for a jazz performer's uniquely personal interpretation of the same 'standard' material is to do the performer and the music itself a grave disservice.  

Jazz singing, like jazz itself, is about digging deep into yourself and making the music express more than its literal surface meaning, the idea being that the interpretation of the material should be as individual as the artist performing it is capable of making it.  The greatest jazz singers –– Vaughan and Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong in his creative heyday during the 1920s and early 1930s –– were capable of making any song they performed unmistakably their own, bringing something to the lyrics and melody that made them as profound as they were moving, as inimitable as they've proven to be both popular and enduring.

Helen Merrill is a textbook example of what separates a pop singer from a jazz singer.  Her voice is as hauntingly expressive as any of the arrangements created to accompany it, her deeply personal, never predictable interpretation of each lyric a kind of masterclass-in-action in how to wring the maximum amount of emotion from language that, for all its beauty, is often mired in the worst type of sentimental cliché.  She transcends the limitations of the material and succeeds in transforming it into something far more subtle and expressive, emotionally and artistically, than the sum of its parts might at first seem to indicate is possible.  She has the ability to make the listener believe that she's singing to them and only to them –– a gift, as any vocalist will confirm, that only the most talented performers can genuinely be said to possess.  Merrill's style is so intimate, her delivery and intonation so quintessentially feminine and alluring, that listening to her can sometimes make the listener feel like the aural equivalent of a spy or a Peeping Tom.

You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To (1961)
 & unknown musicians
Live in concert at 'Le Festival de Jazz d'Antibes'
Juan-les-Pins, France 
 July 1961

The singer was born Jelena Ana Milcetic in the Chelsea section of Manhattan on 21 July 1930 and grew up in the New York City borough of The Bronx, the second of four daughters of a Croatian immigrant and his wife.  She was raised largely by her elder sister, who assumed the role of primary caregiver when her mother fell ill and entered hospital, where she remained for several months prior to her death.  It was Merrill's mother, who enjoyed singing Croatian folk songs and often did so round the house before becoming sick, who inspired her love of music and her own desire to perform.  As a girl she would climb inside closets to practice so as not to irritate her father and sisters while attempting to imitate the jazz performers she heard on the radio each day.  'I’d hear Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and others,' she told music journalist Marc Myers in a 2009 interview.  'I wasn’t allowed to change the dial, so I learned all the songs that way.  My real interest was in the musicians, the soloists.  Billie, of course, was really a musician with that voice of hers.  I also loved Lester Young and Ben Webster –– I couldn’t believe his dynamic range.  I’d pick up all these things in a natural way.  I was always very sensitive and could hear things in music that others couldn't.'  Although she never learned to read music and never received any formal vocal training, Merrill had a fantastic ear and an irrepressible willingness to learn from the many professional jazz musicians whose paths she was soon fortunate enough to cross.

The venue for these meetings was the 845 Club in The Bronx whose owner, Johnny Johnson, she talked into giving her a job as an 'afternoon fill-in act' when she was barely into her teens.  The club was a popular daytime hangout for many of the city's top jazz musicians and it was here that the budding vocalist would meet and be befriended by era-defining artists such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and legendary be-bop pianist Bud Powell.  She was also heard at the club by Earl 'Fatha' Hines, the bandleader who first rose to prominence as Louis Armstrong's pianist back in the 1920s.  Hines soon hired Merrill as the second singer for his band, a decision no doubt influenced by the fact that she'd briefly worked with the Reggie Childs Orchestra in 1946 and that her new husband –– the saxophonist Aaron Sachs whom she had married in 1948 – was then working for him as a member of his reed section. 
The two years Merrill spent with the Earl Hines Sextet would prove to be fortuitous ones for her career, allowing her to record for the first time (a 1952 track titled A Cigarette For Company) and introducing her to many of the musicians –– including trombonist Bennie Green and a struggling young trumpeter-turned-arranger named Quincy Jones –– who would become instrumental to the launching of her solo career.  (Before this could happen, however, she gave birth to a son named Alan on 19 February 1951 - a son she would go on to raise largely alone following her separation and 1956 divorce from Aaron Sachs.  Alan Sachs would grow up to become a successful singer in his own right under the name 'Alan Merrill.'  In addition to becoming the first non-Japanese popstar in Japan, he also co-wrote the rock anthem I Love Rock and Roll for his band Arrows – a song that would later be covered by, among others, Joan Jett and Miley Cyrus and go on to earn him a fortune in royalties.)  1953 saw Merrill record her first solo single with guitarist Jimmy Raney and bassist Red Mitchell for the tiny Roost label –– a date that earned her a contract with the nationally distributed Mercury label and its new jazz subsidiary EmArcy Records for whom her friend Quincy Jones had recently begun to work as a staff arranger and conductor.    

It was Jones who would both arrange and conduct Merrill's debut 1955 LP for EmArcy, the self-titled vocal jazz classic Helen Merrill which also featured the flawless playing of a relatively unknown trumpeter by the name of Clifford Brown.  The album would make Merrill and Brown two of the most talked-about figures in modern jazz and remains the singer's best known and biggest selling album, having earned her and itself cult status in Japan in the six decades since its release.  Yet the circumstances of its recording were anything but extraordinary.  As the singer herself explained:  'We were both a little frightened by it allI think he [Clifford Brown] felt the same shyness that I did.  So he was very protective of me, musicallyWe didn’t talk much at those sessions.  We just smiled at each other a lot.  What we had to say to each other was unspoken.  It came through the music, and you can still hear that unspoken conversation on there today.'  Like everyone who knew and worked with Brown, Merrill was devastated by the young trumpeter's 1956 death in a car accident.  'When talent like that disappears in a flash,' she later remarked, 'you can't believe it.  You deny it.'  She was in the studio, about to begin recording her second EmArcy LP with arranger Gil Evans and producer Bob Shad, when the news reached them that Brown had been killed.

Yesterdays (1954)
DANNY BANKS [flute]; JIMMY JONES [piano];
OSIE JOHNSON [drums]; QUINCY JONES [arranger] 
Recorded in New York City
24 December 1954
 From the 1955 EmArcy LP Helen Merrill

That recording session was cancelled but the album, featuring Evans' complex orchestral arrangements and released later that year as Dream of You, would see Merrill gain many new fans who had been attracted by the carefully fabricated 'torch singer' image EmArcy had created for her.  The same formula was used for her third LP, Merrill at Midnight, this time featuring the arrangements of film score composer Hal Mooney.  Like its predecessor, this LP also failed to transform her into the crossover 'pop' artist that EmArcy and its parent label Mercury had envisioned her becoming.  After recording a final album for Mercury –– released in 1958 as The Nearness of You and featuring some stellar piano work from Bill Evans and two 1959 LPs American Country Songs and You've Got a Date With The Blues for the Atlantic and Verve labels –– albums which likewise failed to transform her into a crossover artist – she left the USA for London, performing on BBC Radio with pianist Dudley Moore (the same Dudley Moore who worked with fellow comedian Peter Cook and starred in the 1979 film 10 with Bo Derek) before traveling to Belgium to sing at a festival there.  It was in Belgium that she met pianist Romano Mussolini, the jazz musician son of the former Italian dictator, and received an invitation to perform with his quartet in Rome.    

The Italian capital would remain Merrill's home for the next four years –– an arrangement that got her out of her contract with Atlantic Records, allowed her to distance herself from the ongoing pain caused by a recently ended love affair, and saw her place her son in a Swiss boarding school.  Rome was also a popular destination for many visiting American jazz musicians during the early 1960s, many of whom, such as trumpeter Chet Baker and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, she would perform with in addition to performing and recording with many of Italy's finest jazz musicians.  In addition to recording a bilingual album, Parole e Musica [Words and Music], for RCA Italia and performing live on national television, she also found time to contribute a few songs to the soundtrack of the film Smog directed by Franco RossiDespite all this activity, she found life in Europe lonely and, following a second tour of Japan which she quickly abandoned for personal reasons, returned once again to New York.  Back in the city she knew so well and loved so much, Merrill immediately returned to the studio to record a new LP of folk-based material, featuring several of her old musical collaborators including guitarist Jimmy Raney and drummer Osie Johnson, released in 1965 as The Artistry of Helen Merrill.  

My Only Man (1962)
From the Italian film Smog 
Recorded in Rome, 1962   

1965 also saw Merrill record what was arguably her finest LP since the release of her debut album a decade earlier.  The Feeling Is Mutual, arranged by pianist Dick Katz, brought to the fore all those qualities –– seductive intonation, a gentle if pervasive sense of melancholy, flawless renderings of what were by now very familiar lyrics to most music lovers –– which had originally made her stand out as a vocalist's vocalist and a quiet if commanding force to be reckoned with.  A follow-up LP titled A Shade of Difference –– for which Katz once again handled the piano and arranging chores was released in 1968 and earned similar accolades from the critics for its combination of interesting and challenging material meticulously performed by a singer whose voice had somehow become even more alluring and expressive with the passing of the years.  

By then Merrill was living in Tokyo, which had become her new home following her 1966 marriage to Donald J Brydon, an Asian-based executive employed by the US newspaper syndicate United Press International.  Tokyo would remain the couple's home until the mid-1970s, allowing Merrill to capitalize on what had become her cult status there with regular concert and television appearances and her own weekly program on Japanese radio.  She also continued to record, accompanied by many well-known Japanese musicians such as Masahiko Satoh and by visiting US artists like pianist Teddy Wilson.  Their 1970 release Helen Sings, Teddy Swings was, in her words, 'the easiest date in the world for me,' with the (non-playing) presence of another piano legend, Thelonious Monk, adding considerably to the pleasure of the occasion for everybody.

Lonely Woman (1968)
HELEN MERRILL [vocal]; DICK KATZ [piano, arranger]
THAD JONES [flugelhorn]; HUBERT LAWS [flute]
JIM HALL [guitar]; RON CARTER [bass]
from the 1968 Milestone LP A Shade of Difference


By 1976 Merrill was back in the US, living first with her husband in Chicago and then, following their 1979 separation, back in her 'spiritual home' New York City.  The 1980s saw her branch out into production, producing albums for pianists Tommy Flanagan and Al Haig to which she also contributed several 'guest' vocal tracks.  'I left the composer and song choices to the musicians,' she explained.  'I sat in the booth and determined the takes and the track order.  It’s my taste on there.  But I didn't have to do much with those guys, they were so brilliant.'  1980 also saw the release of her new solo LP Casa Forte, a Latin-tinged offering arranged and produced by Torrie Zito –– a pianist who, twelve years later, would become the singer's third husband.  

The latter years of what would prove to be a particularly tough decade for jazz saw Merrill attain 'living legend' status among her peers and audiences alike, prompting her to record with other 'legends' like Stan Getz and an ailing Gil Evans, with whom she revisited the arrangements of their 1956 collaboration Dream of You for an award-winning 1987 LP titled, naturally enough, Collaboration.  She also took the unprecedented and wholly unexpected step of recording four 'songbook' albums featuring the work of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter –– a move that may have been inspired by the sudden resurgence of interest in standards spearheaded by Linda Ronstadt and other pop performers who had begun to revitalize their stalled careers by mining this treasure trove of familiar, highly melodic material for albums tailored to a new generation of listeners who were neither aware of nor particularly interested in exploring more challenging jazz-based interpretations of it. 

Standards were, of course, far from being new or uncharted territory for Merrill.  This was the music she'd been performing all her life and was still performing –– in live settings if not as frequently in the studio – as recently as 2013, with her final LP Lilac Wine appearing in 2004.   The one thing that's remained consistent throughout her career has been her unwillingness to compromise her artistic integrity – something, she freely admits, that probably cost her the chance to become the kind of universally admired diva that Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and her former label mate Sarah Vaughan have become since their respective deaths.  A life spent in the shadows may have been something Merrill was prepared for all along, if the following remarks, made during an interview she gave to DownBeat columnist Don Gold in 1957, are anything to go by:

I'm not dissatisfied with the degree of success I've foundI guess I don't have a burning need to be everybody's favorite singer.  I try to do what I can to the best of my ability and in the best taste I can.  I'm fortunate I was able to do what I want to do and make a good living at it.

I would disagree with this statement on one point only.  It's we, the fans of Helen Merrill, who have been the fortunate ones.  She's given us everything we could possibly demand from a jazz singer for more than half a century and remains, for my money, one of the world's most gifted and memorable vocalists. 


To read the full five part HELEN MERRILL interview conducted by jazz journalist MARC MYERS and published on his website JazzWax, please click HERE.  To read an earlier interview by JOAO MOREIRA DOS SANTOS, published on the All About Jazz website in November 2006, please click HERE.  

You can also listen to more great music by HELEN MERRILL on YouTube by clicking HERE.  

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

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