Jazz Institute of Chicago

Sinatra, the musician

Sinatra, the musician
By Don Rose

He worked with scores of jazzmen in his career—including the entire Basie band—but Frank Sinatra was part of only one "pure" jazz session; that with some of the greatest players of his time. It's one of my all-time favorites: "Sweet Lorraine," from the December, 1946 Metronome All Star session.

Back then the great jazz magazine lined up as many of its readers poll winners as possible every year to cut two 78 rpm sides, rotating the labels from year to year. It was Columbia's turn then, so they permitted its star, Sinatra, the perennial male vocalist winner, to make the session. (Once Metronome assembled the unbelievable trumpet section of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro along with Charlie Parker—but that's another story.)

Frank was backed by Nat Cole on piano, Buddy Rich on drums, Eddie Safranski's bass, Coleman Hawkins' tenor, Johnny Hodges' alto, Harry Carney's baritone, Charlie Shavers' trumpet and Lawrence Brown's trombone. He sang a chorus and a half and everybody got to solo for four bars or more. It was like one of those early Billie Holiday sessions where she was just one of the horns.

Frank—who always acknowledged Billie's influence on him—never yielded that much time to other soloists before or after, but you can tell from the way he ran down the song that he was having one great time. I still have that well-worn 78 somewhere. (It was out of print for nearly 40 years until it was reissued in the 1986, six-LP collection "The Voice: The Columbia Years." The box set is on CD now.)

I'll keep listening to that one for years to come, rather than flag-wavers like "My Way," "My Kind of Town" or "New York, New York" that glut all the TV tributes. That, plus his on-going reinterpretations of the great American songwriters: the Gershwins, Porter, Mercer and Rodgers and Hart. I'll be listening to the exhilarating swingers, and the incredible personal ballads like "These Foolish Things," or the wrenching "Violets for Your Furs," which he first recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the early '40s and reinvented with equal passion in the '50s.

No, he wasn't a jazz singer as we have come to flexibly define the term through the years, but sides such as "Sweet Lorraine" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" epitomized his jazz sensibility.

He always swung in his own ingratiating way—he would never have made it with bands like Dorsey's or Harry James' if he hadn't. He frequently improvised, both music and words. Musically it was essentially embellishing the line with a few notes or a phrase, always right on the changes. Lyrically it was tossing in a word or two, changing a phrase here and there—just as Billie Holiday did. She changed so many that the big publishers didn't want her to record their prospective hit songs.

Ira Gershwin one complained that Sinatra ruined a perfect line in "A Foggy Day in London Town" when he sang "I viewed the morning with much alarm..." instead of "I viewed the morning with alarm." Well, let the poets argue—but then maybe Frank was more of a jazz singer than we thought.

No—his scatting was minimal. The young Bing Crosby—who loved jazz, recorded with Duke Ellington in the early years and later dueted with Armstrong—may have had better scat lines for his time. Sinatra was "bluesy" in a Tin Pan Alley way ("Birth of the Blues," "One for My Baby") rather than in a jazz blues way, even on a straight-ahead 12-bar blues like "Castle Rock" from a 1951 reunion with James.

On the other hand, the hallowed Ella Fitzgerald herself long knew she couldn't sing the blues. As one critic put it, when Billie sings "My man done left me.." it is an apocalypse; when Ella does, it sounds as if he's gone down to the corner for some cigarettes.

Sinatra never created new melodies as Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter did. He didn't have the voluptuous baritone sound of Billy Eckstine at his best—perhaps the richest male voice in all jazz and popular music. But he had the feel and he had the sense of time. The pivotal point came early, when he was with Dorsey and learned to breathe the way Tommy did when playing the trombone, altering and elongating the phrase through breath control, changing forever the way the American popular song is sung.

His vocal revolution, at the end of the swing era, was much like Lester Young's on the saxophone: lengthening the line and controlling the time. Listen to any Crosby recording and then to Sinatra singing the same song. The rhythm goes from two to four and you're propelled into another era—the same experience as listening to Gillespie and Parker playing alongside swing-era masters on "Congo Blues," "Get Happy" and other sides from Red Norvo's famous 1945 jam session. Later, in the '50s, Nelson Riddle's arrangements pushed Sinatra even farther along.

Some wonderful jazz musicians appear on record with Sinatra. In addition to trumpeters James and Shavers there were Billy Butterfield and especially Bobby Hackett, who plays superb intros and obligattos on the set that includes the gorgeous "I've Got a Crush on You." (No complaints from Ira Gershwin on that one!)

His pianists, too, from Johnny Guanieri to Basie to Bill Miller, who accompanied him for decades, were all strong jazzmen who kept him in a groove. Then, of course, there's the recently discovered live concert in Australia with Norvo's quintet. Sounds a lot like jazz to me.

Gary Giddins writes of a moment when Sinatra visited the Village Vanguard in New York when Zoot Sims was playing the club. Sims paused and took a moment to introduce the visitor—not as a singer, not as an entertainer, but as "a great musician." That's the way Zoot might have introduced one of his peers in jazz. That's the way most jazzmen consider Sinatra, regardless of how you label his singing: sublime music.

What a ball he must be having now, up there somewhere singing along with Billie and Ella and Sarah, maybe with Duke or Count on piano, maybe Bird or Trane sitting in. Maybe they're doing "Sweet Lorraine."

Copyright 1998 by Don Rose.
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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