Jazz Institute of Chicago

One of the greatest

One of the greatest
by Steve Voce

With his total domination of the popular field, it was not necessary for Frank Sinatra to declare himself as a jazz musician. Yet he shared with Nat 'King' Cole the distinction of being one of the greatest jazz musicians of his time. He and Cole developed in parallel the only two important vocal conceptions of the Forties.

On the face of it Sinatra was a conventional and indeed conservative singer. Having chosen only the best material, his interpretation of the lyric of a song was the cornerstone of his success. Some other great jazz singers, like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé, improvised on the melody of a song as instrumentalists would.

This style never suited Sinatra and he never considered it. But he nevertheless projected his voice like a jazz horn and the majority of his albums were drenched with potent jazz feeling. Every aspect of his interpretation of a song was so powerful and individual that major jazz musicians like Lester Young and Oscar Peterson used to listen to Sinatra's recording of a song before playing it themselves.

Although he had made his mark earlier with the Harry James band, it was from the moment when he appeared with Tommy Dorsey's band in 1940, that Sinatra revolutionised popular singing. His total command gave him a freedom of interpretation and sensitivity that made Bing Crosby and his disciples sound obsolete by comparison. There were new qualities of imagination and a natural poise in Sinatra's singing that put him ahead in his field. Since no one else was ever to have qualities like his remarkable timing and naturally clear intonation, he was never to be caught.

It was that intonation that gave him the mastery of one of the most sophisticated instruments of the Forties—the microphone. Widely regarded as a distortion of the human voice, singing with a microphone, as Gene Lees has written, did not make singing unnatural: it restored naturalness to it. While the microphone magnified the failings of many singers, to Sinatra, with his superb ennunciation, it was the perfect medium, taking any strain away from his voice by allowing speech-level singing.

It was a case of gilding the lily when the singer worked with jazz units like Count Basie's, because he had such an inherent rhythm and jazz timing that any reinforcing of it was superfluous. The ultimate perfection of Sinatra's work was achieved with the arranger and orchestra leader Nelson Riddle. The combination of Sinatra and Riddle with an intense concentration on using only good material raised the quality of popular music to a uniquely high level that is unlikely to be achieved again.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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