Nothing finer than Dinah
A talented artist sometimes slots into the
grand, amorphous pastiche of sounds that we know as jazz and has the effect of bringing
all the historical parts into the present, as though some outside force were imposed on a
chaotic system of heavenly bodies to bring them into harmonious alignment.
Discovering such talents can be largely a matter of the individual listener's taste. For
example, Joe Henderson's unique tenor saxophone style represents to me a clarifying agent
that connects the classic creativity of Coleman Hawkins, the laid-back mellowness of
Lester Young, the breathy romanticism of Ben Webster, the journeyman musicianship of Paul
Gonsalves, the jagged -- but sublime -- edges of John Coltrane, and the angular terror of
early Archie Shepp.
What nourishes my regard for Henderson is his assimilation of all the various styles of
his predecessors and his ability to make them into something new, something adventurous
and something, no matter how derivative, so unmistakable that four bars of a Henderson
performance will lead me to think, "Ah, there's Joe . . . ."
Among vocalists, Dinah Washington was such a one. Though she often was called "Queen
of the Blues" -- a title also conferred upon Bessie Smith by various aficionados, an
application Dinah would not have challenged, though the comparison irritated her -- she
was more than that. And it is a historical irony that Dinah Washington's versatility, mass
appeal and untrammelled talent were the very qualities that kept her buried for so long
from the music-consuming public after her early death at 39 in 1963 from a deadly mixture
of alcohol and diet pills.
Her bluesy delivery and eccentric phrasing quite naturally bring to mind Billie Holiday;
however, let us not forget that Lady Day and Dinah were contemporaries in the performing
world. Comparisons, however odious, are inevitable. But there is no denying Dinah her
legitimate claim to the blues crown she shares with Bessie Smith, the pop sensibilities
that brought her a crossover hit with "What A Difference A Day Made" in 1959 --
the year Billie died -- and the essential difference in attitudes the women brought to
Gary Giddens, author of "Visions Of Jazz: The First Century" [Oxford University
Press, 1998] has taken canny stock of these differences and applies the same contrasts
with references to other female jazz/blues vocalists of the time. His remarks are worth
repeating here: "Dinah [in contrast to Bessie Smith's despair] ... had a sort of
laugh, a simmering ebullience, even when she sang self-pitying laments.Where Smith was
sorrowful and [Billie] Holiday disaffected, where [Ella] Fitzgerald was girlish and
[Sarah] Vaughan operatic, Dinah was gloriously carnal. She never got high-toned, unless it
was the kind of humor that lets you in on the joke." And a tip of the hat to Mr.
Giddens, whose book takes a delightfully enlightening personality-fueled approach to the
first 100 years of our music.
Dinah's ease with a variety of styles led to a set of poppish duets with Brook Benton,
most notably "You've Got What It Takes," and a smorgasbord of sessions that
featured choirs, orchestras, and sidemen that musical history has placed in the first
ranks of instrumentalists -- Lucky Thompson, Milt Jackson, Charles Mingus, Wynton Kelly,
Clark Terry, Maynard Ferguson, and even young Joe Zawinul.
Her legacy is as impressive as her influences. Nancy Wilson comes to mind immediately, or
Esther Phillips, sadly now deceased. To this list, Giddens also adds such diverse singers
as Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Ruth Brown. Consider that. And then listen again to the
wide range of Dinah's recordings. It's all there -- the gospel, the jazz, the gutbucket
blues, the cabaret, the choir-laden set pieces, the duets, the pop, the esoterica, the
stripped-down torch songs, the vocal surfing atop whatever musical wave it happened to be
her fate to catch.
And still, Dinah is underappreciated.
The cruel truth is that her versatility was a mixed blessing. She refused to surrender to
the pathos of Billie Holiday, though she could emulate it. She toured successfully with
Mahalia Jackson, but, lacking the religious commitment of that grand dame of gospel, Dinah
would not fence herself inside a genre which obviously held possibilities for her talents.
Though her life ended in a tragic way, as her great influence and rival Bessie Smith's
had, Dinah was too possessed of a sense of humor and too much worldly wisdom to ride the
hobby horse of self-pity.
The jazz consumers who are inclined to ignore her influence do so at their peril. For, as
Joe Henderson does, Dinah Washington represents something as vital to jazz as the art of
improvisation. It is her thorough understanding of the debt she owed her musical
predecessors and the classy way in which she paid that debt that puts her in the company
of Henderson in the great continuum of musical progress.
There is the past, the present and the future. And there is also the in-between. That's
where the real work gets done and that's why the likes of Dinah Washington and Joe
Henderson are, in some sense, more tragically ignored than the shooting stars who gather
the attention of the inattentive.
I honor them both and urge you to do the same.