The New Jazz Singers: Next Generation of Female Vocalists Keeps the Faith with Sarah, Ella, Billie

By Kinnon, Joy Bennett | Ebony, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The New Jazz Singers: Next Generation of Female Vocalists Keeps the Faith with Sarah, Ella, Billie


Kinnon, Joy Bennett, Ebony


The art of jazz singing is a uniquely American art created by African-Americans. Neither R&B nor blues nor rock nor rap nor pop nor hip-hop, jazz singing is a unique combination of all these genres and others, including folk and opera. A handful of singers, notably Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, carried that art to the peak, soaring to heights that defy easy description.

Within recent years, a number of solid jazz singers have continued that tradition, notably scatmaster Betty Carter, the smooth and soulful Shirley Horn and the always innovative Abbey Lincoln. This middle generation is still carrying the jazz torch, but the death of the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, has triggered new concerned on whether a new generation will continue to uphold the great jazz legacy in the post-Vaughan/post-Fitzgerald period.

At least five "new" singers have given notice that no one will have to eliminate the jazz category from the music stores: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Rachelle Ferrell, Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon and Cassandra Wilson. Opinions differ on the relative merits of these singers. Some critics are rhapsodic about three-time Grammy nominee Dee Dee Bridgewater, who has been a major star in France for the last 10 years, and legendary vocalist Joe Williams says that Dianne Reeves is the heir apparent to the Fitzgerald/ Vaughan legacy.

But the jazz diva's career garnering the most attention is Cassandra Wilson, who is breaking records and adding more awards to her mantel than anyone can count. Although some "jazz police" as Wilson calls them, say Wilson is not a jazz singer in the traditional sense, some believe she has inherited the Fitzgerald/Vaughan mantle.

William observes that to keep the great jazz tradition alive, African-Americans must work to make the next generation aware of its existence. "It needs to be studied in high schools and colleges. I've been going to schools and talking to kids, telling them about the greatness of the tradition and that we must continue to study and carry on the great art of the masters, men and women like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Rushing and Billy Eckstine."

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER's career has a certain duality. Both a singer in the great jazz traditions and an actress, a star in Europe and invisible at home, she has flourished in her artistic exile. In the last two years, she has returned to the U.S. to loud acclaim and solid bookings. She has been called the one great jazz singer of her generation, on of only two or three under age 60. In 1995 she released a CD, Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, which produced her third Grammy nomination. She also was nominated for the Grammy for her Live in Paris and Keeping Tradition CDs. An accomplished actress as well, Bridgewater has pursued a parallel career in musicals which started with The Wiz in 1974 (Tony Award for Best Actress in a Second Role). Recently, Bridgewater became the first Black actress to play the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which was staged at the Mogador Theatre in Paris.

RACHELLE FERRELL'S talent need no hype. The compose, lyricist, arranger and vocalist brings all of her gifts and her 6 1/2-octave voice range to a concert. She is a rarity in the music world, holding recording contracts on both pop/R&B and jazz labels. Her 1992 self-titled debut went gold and still stands on the R&B charts after more than three years. She was awarded a Pollstar award as best new adult contemporary/jazz artist in 1994. Ferrell consistency sells about major concert halls, and her success was predicted by none other than Dizzy Gillespie, who reported told her parents, "Rachelle is gonna be a major force in the industry," Her Blue Note jazz debut CD first Instrument topped the Billboard jazz charts in 1995. "I chose this title to remind people that the voice was and is the first instrument," she says. …

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