Who's a diva, anyway? 

A long time ago, when both the Earth and all of us were younger, the entertainment world deemed it sufficient that extravagantly popular artists were "stars."

But the appellation that denoted heavenly consonance soon enough became inadequate and it waxed necessary for press agents, advertising copy writers and, by extension, even critics, to escalate the level of discourse. Thus, "superstar" became the most frequently heard adjective or noun applied to the latest flash in the pan on the pop charts, especially during the late 1960s, when music was uncentered and adventurous in all genres.

Sometime around 1970 (I date it as the first touchstone to the later dubious achievements of Elton John, who arrived about this time, and who led to the eventual popularization of disco), the legends of music were not big enough to satisfy the appetites of the phrasemakers who feed the voracious promotional machine. 'Twas then I first heard the term "megastar," and I've never paid attention to a publicist or an ad-copy writer since.

I think of the "stars" of the earlier era -- James Dean, Elvis Presley, Katherine Hepburn, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, for example -- and measure them against the "superstars" of the later era -- Herman's Hermits, The Monkees, Strawberry Alarm Clock, ad infinitum, ad nauseam -- and find nothing to compare. All is contrast because there is a very great difference between "food" and the "idea of food." One nourishes; the other only begets longing. It's as simple as that.

And once the "megastars" came along -- well, then it's a question of "Ma, hand me the scorecard, because I don't know who I'm a-readin' about here. I've never heard of any of 'em."

In music, the hyperbolic designations are usually employed in the service of critics who are bereft of other, more accurate means of describing the artists to whom they refer. An exception to this tendency to hyperbole, I am happy to say, seems to be jazz. Jazz critics are a canny bunch and the best of them know their subjects and understand the history of their music. These same critics also tend, whatever their ages, to be individuals who have followed jazz through its lean periods, when the music itself was deemed too complicated or too intellectual -- or simply too far out -- to interest a popular audience.

Happily, those lean days seem to be behind us, as our music has a gained a respectability it has deserved since the days when it gestated in the incubator of the blues. And, just as happily, newcomers to jazz are finding in it the musical nourishment that is missing from the mere filler flung into the airwaves by the likes of Kenny G.

But, as I investigate the entertainment possibilities of the Internet or see stories in the press, I get uncomfortable with the increasing appearance of the word "diva" as it is applied to just about any popular female singer.

Mr. Webster informs me that the term is defined as a leading woman singer, and he further notes that this is especially true when it applies to those who perform grand opera. This latter definition comports with my lifelong understanding of the word. I don't flinch when someone refers to Maria Callas as a diva, but when, as it happened a few days ago, some blockheaded entertainment reporter applies the epithet to Janet Jackson, then I get cranky.

Jazz critics always have been much too devoted to their music to cheapen it with faddish hyperbole, and I can't think of many circumstances, even recently, when the greatest of the female jazz singers have been saddled with the "diva" label, though a great many more of them deserve it than Barbra Streisand, or Celine Dion, or Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, as remarkable as those women's pipes may be.
Jazz women always have preferred substance to surface and their independence of style and depth of emotion proves the point beyond a doubt. Billie Holiday, on the strength alone of "God Bless The Child," shines brighter in the musical firmament than women who can hit higher notes or sound less smoky or have a more metronomic sense of time.

The same is true of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Anita O'Day, Abbey Lincoln -- well, you know who they are. And because you do, you also know that any one of those women would no doubt have giggled at the notion of being a diva. All they ever sought as performers was bringing justice to the song.

And that's enough to gain my undying devotion.

So, jazz lovers, caveat auditor. If the next diva to pass across your musical radar screens turns out to be, in the breathless prose of pop critics, "the next Janet Jackson," it's a pretty good bet you can give her a pass.