Was jazz diva Dinah Washington on par with B. Holiday, E. Fitzgerald and S. Vaughan?

I’m conversant in the songbooks of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, but have just a passing familiarity with Dinah Washington.

Wiki tells me she had unparalleled “diction and phrasing,” and wore the title of “Queen of the Blues,” though she recorded many jazz and pop standards. She was famously moody, flirtatious and imperious, and counted seven husbands in her brief lifetime before dying of an overdose at 39.

But while Lady Day, Ella and Sassy get their props, Dinah seems somewhat overshadowed. Long question short, was her stature as a jazz singer equal to that of the other three legends?

Well, I for one, have never been a Billie Holliday fan. Judy Holliday I love . . . But as a vocalist, I find Billie overly mannered and self-indulgent.

Now Bessie Smith, she could sing.

It’s not hip to say it, but I’m still trying to love Lady Day. Her later years found her with a really tortured voice and mannerisms–so much so, that I wonder if a newbie with Billie’s later voice could have made it in the field. I’ve often felt that her voice was great for the blues, less so for the old jazz-pop chestnuts. She often rode on the very edge of vocal control, during those late years.

Still, making that confession among Certain People earns one a scathing look normally reserved for knuckle draggers. Jazzists are hopeless snobs.

My rule of thumb has always been:

  • Billie Holiday sang within the song - it was less about her voice and more about her interpretation. Her voice is challenging; anyone who doesn’t cop to that is in denial. I love her work, but understand why others don’t

  • Ella Fitzgeral sang on top of the song - it was all about her voice and what she could do musically within the melodic and harmonic context of the song, with interpretation a little behind that

  • Sarah Vaughn was right in the middle - balanced between interpreting the song and dazzling vocals.

Dinah and other vocalists like Dakota Staton, Bettye Carter, Annie Ross and others were great. I don’t know enough to know exactly why Billie, Ella and Sarah rose to a higher level, but each are entirely worth learning about…

I think it was Nat Hentoff who commented that when you appreciated Sarah and Ella more than Billie, then you truly began to understand jazz singers.

(No slam to Billie, who was the most beautiful victim; she was pain personified. But.)

There’s many wonderful jazz singers – I’m also partial to Carmen McRae and Anita O’Day, among others and I truly dig all the other fine ladies already mentioned – Dinah was likewise a very special singer and especially where the blues were concerned, nobody sang the blues like Dinah. She did have great pitch and perfect diction and could sing, as she boasted “Anything, anytime, anywhere.”

All these ladies – with the exception of Anita O’Day, still going strong at 80-something! – all have left the stage. I’m grateful we have recordings to remember them by.


PS Eve, I’m surprised you’re not more of a Libby Holman fan. Or Lee Wiley. :slight_smile:

I should also mention longevity factors into this as well: Dinah Washinigton died in her early 40s. While she had been in the business since she was in her early teens, she was not recorded as much as some other ladies. Both Ella and Sarah were with us longer and made a bigger impression.

And you’re also talking straightahead jazz (Ella and Sarah) as opposed to a more rhythm and blues kind of sound, which also limited Dinah’s reach somewhat.

I think there’s a clip of Dinah Washington (as well as a great Anita O’Day session) in the movie “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.” It’s out on DVD and well worth your time for all the artists on it as well as a glimpse of what jazz and people were like in the 50s. It’s the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, back when women wore tea dresses and gloves to attend afternoon concerts Guys wore jackets and ties and hats. A bygone era, that’s for sure. Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden were the headliners that year; Mahalia Jackson closed the show. Lots of other great performances there as well and fascinating to look at and listen to.

Anita O’Day!

I’d never been really in to jazz singing, preferring the blues, but I remember going to the movies once and catching, as part of a double feature, a film called Jazz On A Summer’s Day, covering the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

I was mildly enjoying the jazz when, a little way through, Anita O’Day came on. She then proceeded to completely blow me away with the most wonderful rendition of scat singing I’ve ever heard.

Incredible lady, incredible voice.

Apparently Anita (or Anita’s webmaster) is keeping track of the elder ladies of jazz, see here:

Anita O’Day

You’ll also find out what Annie Ross and Chris O’Connor are up to.

Anita has a new album out – some great sidemen on it – recorded when she was 86. It’s . . . well, compared to what wuz it’s difficult to listen to, but there’s obviously a dance in the old dame yet. I know few artists still producing meaningful work at this stage – hell, if I live to be this old I’ll be lucky not to be sitting in the corner dribbling – so you have to give her credit for swinging.

Sara Vaughn’s the one I have trouble with. For a long time I couldn’t put my finger on it, because she has a beautiful vocal tone.

It goes back to a Charlie Parker quote about improvisation: “The audience has to know what’s coming about 50% of the time. More than that, they get bored, less than that they get confused.” When Vaughn puts her own inflection on a melody, in terms of runs, grace notes, etc. she never, ever surpises me, and I get bored.

Holliday is good, as is Bessie Smith, but I don’t get the deep love for either of them.

Ella. Now THERE’s a singer. I recall a number of years back, there was a television special saluting Sammy Davis, Jr. Every prominent black entertainer was on it. Whitney Houston sang, doing her thing. Then old-as-dirt Ella slowly hobbled out (she was still several years away from losing her legs to diabetes) supported by Michael Jackson and someone else, and proceeded to tear that place DOWN. Put Whitney in her place, I can tell you that.

And to get back to the OP, Dinah Washington is at least as good, if not better, depending on your taste, than everyone mentioned in the thread so far. If her stature seems not as high, it’s pure hi-fi snobbery. Most of the recordings I’ve heard of her are of very primitive quality.

Carmen McRae is one of my faves. Quite the ego. She long felt she belonged in the pantheon with Holiday, Fitzgerald, Washington and Vaughan. Once compared herself to the others, adding, “…and I know I’m better than Betty Carter.”

Chris Conner was another gifted vocalist.

Oh, if we’re gonna get into the white girlies who sing the blues, give me Libby Holman, Marlene Dietrich, Marion Harris . . .

Ella - yes. Except that sometimes it’s too much about the voice and not enough about the song. And sometimes she makes the most amazing phrasing gaffes - “Spring can really hang you (audible breath) up the most”. I mean! She couldn’t do better than that in the studio? But still, I can listen to more of her stuff than anyone else’s.

Annie Ross and Carmen McRae - oh yes. Almost never a false note, and the song always comes through. Not exactly a jazz singer but on the edge of that crowd, I also like Wesla Whitfield.

But when my local jazz radio station puts on a Dinah Washington song, I have to turn it off until the song is over. Something about her voice goes through my head like a dentist drill. And no, it’s not about fidelity, in fact I’m grateful that the fidelity isn’t any better!

There is a famous quote, attributed to clarinetist Tony Scott:

“With a singer like Ella, when she sings ‘My man has left me,’ you think the guy’s going down the street for a loaf of bread. But when Lady [Billie Holiday] sings it, man, you see the bags are packed, the cat’s going down the street, and you know he ain’t never coming back.”

I agree, sometimes it’s as if she isn’t really aware or cares what the lyric is. But sometimes it she does interpret the song, and it’s very powerful.

Any Nina Simone fans in the house? I love Ella Fitzgerald (and Annie Ross to a lesser extent), but there’s nobody like Nina.

As far as more modern female jazz singers, I happen to like Judy Niemack (a scat-singer in the Ella tradition who nobody ever seems to have heard of) and Holly Cole (in the same vein as Diana Krall and Norah Jones, but better IMO).

Holly Cole is the real deal.

No disrespect to the more popular pretty ladies. Some of them can actually sing, though they are marketed more for safety than for music’s sake. But let’s not argue that here. :slight_smile:

Here’s someone else you never heard of, she’s the modern-day Dinah Washington. http://www.evilgal.com/

Holly Cole? Exquisite voice. But check out Patricia Barber, if you like jazz stylists.

I have to say the thing I find off putting about Dinah Washington is the timbre of her voice. I find it to be a bit shrill, nasaly and grating with a machine-gun vibrato that at times is really just not pretty. But certainly that’s just my opinion.

I also find that I don’t care for Billy Holliday for various reasons that have already been stated here.

But if we’re going to talk about modern singers then I have to put my vote in for Karrin Allyson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Those women will scat your pants right off. Damn fine singing indeed.

And there are a couple of really young jazz singers out there who I’m looking forward to listening to as they mature - Jane Monheit and Renee Olstead (though I don’t know how dedicated Renee is to singing, she’s also an actress)

And as a side note with regards to scat singing, I made a compilation CD for my sisters of my favorite scats by various artists. If you get a chance, check these out:

Kurt Elling - Nature Boy and Double Blues (with Orbert Davis)
Mark Murphy - Stolen Moments
Karrin Allyson - Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, All or Nothing at All
Ella Fitzgerald - Live at Montreaux 1977 with Tommy Flannigan - Billys Bounce and One Note Samba (though the whole CD is just awesome)

There’s another singer whose name escapes me. I’ll have to find that now.

You can take the girl out of Chicago . . .

Dee Dee Bridgewater is incredible, I agree.

I’m gonna lose all my hipness points here, but you know who I really, REALLY like when it comes to vocal improvisation? Mel Torme.

I’m not ashamed to admit it.