Wither Goest the Male Vocalist?

I’ve been listening to male vocalists lately and wondering if it’s a vanishing breed. Not that the male voice has ever been as prominent as its female counterpart over the past century or so. Consider the greats: Nat Cole, Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, Big Crosby, Tony Bennett, Little Jimmy Scott, Mel Torme, Johnny Hartman

Then look at the list of the gals: Ella, Sarah, Billie, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Nancy Wilson, June Christy, Julie London, Irene Kral, Diana Krall, Nina Simone, Dee Dee Bridgeport, Esther Phillips, Anita O’Day, Chris Connor, Sheila Jordan. I’ve known hard core record collectors who collected female vocalists. I’ve never met a collector of the male voice. A lack of respect for the guys or just slim pickins?

Distinguishing between jazz vocalists, pop vocalists, and pop vocalists with jazz chops and phrasing breaks the fellas into even smaller camps. Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, for instance, were great jazz singers, but neither was exactly accorded household recognition status. Harry Connick, Jr. is a popster with exceptional phrasing and timing, such that he might be called a jazz singer in some quarters. Al Jarreau walks the line between jazz and pop and ruled the roost 20 years ago. Even guitarist George Benson made some impressive waves in the 1970s and 80s. And where do you put Bobby McFerrin, other than in the genius category?

Jazz vocalese starts with Louis Armstrong, of course. If for no other reason, he will be praised from now until the last note is sung for his ability to mimic the horn (the hallmark of the "jazz" singer) and for "inventing" scat singing. His was and ever shall be the quintessential "jazz" voice. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald surely would agree, given that both derived so much from "Pops". Bing Crosby gets some props in there, too. He and the old man were fast friends and even room-mates at one time. Crosby learned how to make each utterance an important one from the master. Was Frank Sinatra a jazz or pop vocalist? Comes down to it, who cares? His work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey was wonderful, though he hit his stride in the 60s and 70s, particularly on his own Reprise label. "The Summer Wind" is my favorite Sinatra tune, and only a handful of singers have come close to being as swinging and articulate as he was on this gem.

Some jazz singers, like Mark Murphy or Jon Hendricks, have stuck to their guns, while others, like Andy Bey or Joe Williams, have had no problem walking on the pop side, though realistically that may have been more a matter of fate than intention. Johnny Mathis is a pop singer with impeccable timing, superb phrasing and a voice like warm honey. Jimmy Rushing was a blues singer who hit his high mark working with Count Basie. As is the case with music in general, the more camps we identify, the more fragmented music becomes. As Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. There has been a boatload of great male vocalists over the course of jazz history, even though calling some jazz singers might be a stretch. Given the dwindling population of jazz singers, pulling these musical hairs really serves no purpose. There are those who would question whether or not Tony Bennett is a jazz singer. Again, I say who cares? Either way, he’s better now than ever before. You may remember that Sinatra called Tony his favorite singer.

What makes the male voice appealing? Not just timing and phrasing, it’s the timbre, the tone, the masculinity of the voice. And the airwaves are conspicuously void of these tones. Outside of Tony Bennett, who do you hear on the radio these days? Mr. Connick, Jr. continues to enjoy enormous popularity, and there are a few a very few other significant male singers, but there are still more women vocalists of note working. Contemporary stylists Nnenna Freelon, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Barbara Ware, Diane Witherspoon and others are more frequent visitors to jazz radio playlists than any male vocalist that comes to mind. The comparative void of male vocalist in jazz is not for lack of testosterone. After all, the vast majority of jazz musicians are men! It’s a first class mystery.

Kevin Mahogny and John Pizzarelli are among the few current torch bearers for the male voice. Pizzarelli, son of the famed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, has the added appeal of being a fine guitarist himself. With a vocal style akin to a higher registered Harry Connick, his is a decidedly pop jazz take. His most recent work with George Shearing ("The Rare Delight of You," Telarc), as with past work, is heavy on standards. He covers Benny Goodman, Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, etc., and does it with an obvious passion for the era, for the style. Mahogany, who also coincidentally records for Telarc, approaches the tradition from a different perspective. He sings with the power and the creativity of a young Joe Williams and, on his latest ("Pride & Joy"), pays tribute to soul stars from Marvin Gaye to Steve Wonder to the Temptations, often in unison with a superb vocal ensemble. Mahogany is a man who clearly loves to sing and is open to all the permutations of the art of singing. Little Jimmy Scott has been recording his wonderfully unique vocalizing since 1949, but has found a bigger and more appreciative audience over the past five years or so. His "Mood Indigo" (Milestone 00) is one of the great vocal albums of the past decade. He followed with "Over the Rainbow" and "But Beautiful" for the label. But, at 75, Jimmy’s hardly one of the contemporary voices that will keep the male voice a vibrant entity in jazz. Given that his voice is frequently mistaken for that of a woman, he’s that much less a power in the male vocal camp. He transcends gender. He’s just a great singer. Nat Cole’s youngest brother Freddy has gained much wider exposure since signing with Telarc in 2000, but, again, at 71, he’s not here to take the male voice into the future.

And of course, there’s ahm Surely there are enough other significant male vocalists out there to fill a Volkswagen? There must be! Where have all the singers gone, fellas? If you’re out there you need to hire a much better press agent.

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