Down Beat, November 1, 1944
“Visionary Scoring Put Boswells Over”
by JOHN LUCAS
(Second of a series of two articles)
There is often a close affinity between singers and instrumentalists, especially if they are superior musicians, either classical or jazz. Bing Crosby closes his record of Someday Sweetheart, for instance, with a coda taken from the final phrase of a chorus Bix had improvised years before on Trumbauer’s platter of Way Down Yonder In New Orleans. It was the Boswell Sisters who first allowed white accompanists to play freely, whatever they thought fitting. The Dorseys, among their favorite jazzmen, even played some of the trio’s parts on a number of discs. They were never, Connee insists, told what notes to play on solo choruses. This was a big step. Indeed, the complete rapport established between all concerned is a brilliant feature of the Boswells’ recorded work!
The girls faked a lot of their stuff, too, even on wax. Usually they worked out the intros, and often Connee began by determining the appropriate ending and then working backward from that. All three girls took over the melody, continually shifting it back and forth among themselves. Their unorthodox harmonies, worked out in ignorance of what was expected and sometimes just spontaneous, baffled music teachers but entranced jazz musicians. Naturally, all these things tended to influence band orchestrations enormously! Glenn Miller even wrote many arrangements from Connee’s dictation. “Arranging music is a lot of fun, says Connee, “not that I want to change every pretty melody, every jivey number.”
Names Backed Style
Connee worked out the trio’s arrangement of Shout, Sister, Shout, by Clarence Williams, late at night under a pale blue light. It was very advanced for its time, a masterpiece in the Boswell Sisters’ repertoire. There are three parts, three melodies, and the chant effect is exceptionally startling. Often Connee and her sisters were taunted for their novel treatments. Victor Young and Nat Schildkret, Connee recalls, always stood up for the girls and their musical ideas. So did Tommy Dorsey, using his trombone as a flit-gun to frighten off those who scorned or objected. Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Artie Shaw, Manny Klein, Jack Purvis, Dick McDonough, Chauncey Morehouse, Jimmy Dorsey, and Bunny Berigan are a few of the great jazzmen who most frequently accompanied the Boswells. They all approved heartily! Martha was always the pianist. When this band went on the air with the Boswells, no one wanted to lead it. Every man wanted to play! Connee had to lead it herself. “My motto,” says Connee, “was – let the guys alone!”
Obviously, Connee loves to sing. That is, first of all, what makes her so good. “A singer,” she says, “is living the song.” There are four things about her singing that make it so wonderful: her quality, her phrasing, her diction, and her versatility. No jazz vocalist has a warmer quality than Connee. It is slightly nasal, a thoroughly negroid quality, but it is never pinched. Her phrasing is the result of a natural feel for the music, and she often phrases more like an instrument than a vocalist, a true jazz characteristic.
The tremendous ease with which she sings, perhaps her finest attribute, is partially the cause and partially the result of her superb phrasing. Her diction is typically New Orleans, like Wingy Manone’s or Nappy Lamare’s, but far more cultivated. Every word she sings can be clearly heard and easily understood, something few singers achieve today. Her amazing versatility is the real indication of her ability. Like Bing, Connee can put over any type of tune. Blues, like Mr. Freddie Blues and Fare Thee Honey with Ben Pollack, she sings authentically. Ballads, like Stormy Weather, she interprets magnificently. Jump tunes, once the Boswells’ specialty, are right down her line.
Style Still Tops
The length of her popularity has been due directly to her style. I mentioned before that she uses no tricks. Tricks pall on any audience in the end. Connee has never adopted licks such as Ella Logan, Helen O’Connell, or Ella Mae Morse employ today. She has never needed them. She is much better off without them. She will outlast them!
I have forgotten to discuss the handicap under which Connee has always worked. I have forgotten simply because Connee’s singing tends to make one forget it rather than to emphasize it. As with Art Tatum and Django Reinhardt, it is the music and not the handicap overcome that counts. Connee is a great singer, and that is all I need to know! The Boswell Sisters were also great as a team. They have had a significant influence on much of our music.
Both Decca, in the Brunswick Series, and Columbia have excellent albums of the Boswell Sisters.