A lot of my jazz friends like to argue that the drum was the first instrument. I argue that it was the human voice.
To be sure, one can maintain that the heartbeat is the basis of all music, that the very notion of the orchestra is modeled upon the living, breathing, reproducing, miraculously intricate symbotic system of the human body and -- with backward reasoning -- my pals present me with the model that, except on special concert nights, allows no room for the vocalist until the posters are printed, the seats sold out and the publicity all in place.
As a player of instruments, I concentrate on the mechanics of the tool, with varying degrees of success. But if you hand me a theremin, I'll get you some music out of it, albeit clumsily.
Maybe that is my blind spot. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight -- or hearing and, therefore, a great deal of enjoyment -- of the whole orchestra for the sake of too much concentration on picking out the cello, my favorite melancholy sound in the classical tradition.
The voice never interested me much until I made that hard left turn into jazz. Up to that time, I had done too much steeping in the popular music that existed before the days of rock 'n' roll, and, frankly, Scarlett, I didn't give a damn until Elvis showed up. "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?" Please!
Even when Elvis hit the music lover's consciousness, it was easy to overlook his vocal talent, because it was overshadowed by the attendant social phenomenon he represented.
But after slogging through the patched history of teenager music from the first days of rock 'n' roll until the scourge known as disco hit the airwaves, I'd pretty much given up on delicacy in the human vocal cords, except in the opera, in which I had not a lick of interest.
But, courtesy of a music-loving friend, along came jazz -- and it was jazz for real, not the supermarket music that passes for it sometimes -- and that's when I discovered that Ella Fitzgerald probably was the finest instrument ever recorded. Interestingly, I began to pay attention to the phrasings of Billie Holiday, the pert and perky stylings of sassy Sarah Vaughan, the moodiness of Carmen McRae, the streetwise humors of Anita O'Day ... June Christy, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett ....
And I realized they were blending their instruments -- their voices -- in with the journeyman efforts of their sidemen and melding with the band. The singers, I realized, weren't something separate from the band. The best of the vocalists are another set of instrumentalists in the combo, and they occasionally step to the front for a solo turn.
Just as the boundaries of musical instruments were pushed by the adventurers, such as John Coltrane, who wielded them, vocalists have their pioneers as well.
Blossom Dearie, who couldn't possibly be mistaken for anyone else, is arguably one of the first to practice "vocalese," a phenomenon that went hand-in-hand with be-bop, in which the vocalist either sang scat -- a la Ella -- or pursued vocal experimentations with sets of lyrics written especially, and usually after the fact, for compositions designed as strictly instrumental.
Blossom Dearie's eccentric delivery showed promise with "Moody's Mood For Love" back in 1952, but the sales potential was squelched by the immense popularity of King Pleasure's rendering of the same tune at the same time.
King Pleasure (born Clarence Beeks) also deserves a niche in this voice-as-instrument rumination, for he is the other contender for the title of first practitioner of vocalese. And his popularity seems to have dwarfed Blossom Dearie's.
But the most popular vocalese stars were Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, whose best rendering of the form is a fugitive piece, "This Here," by Bobby Timmons, the instrumental version of which was popularized by Cannonball Adderley, in whose group Timmons once served. I can't offer any advice in obtaining the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version except to urge scouring the cutout bins of your local record shop.
Dave Lambert has long since died. Jon Hendricks has soldiered on and still takes many gigs each year around the world, keeping alive the tradition of vocalese, most recently in company with Annie Ross for a tour that recalled many of the grand days when the voice was an instrument, too.