The human voice is music’s only pure instrument, jazz singer Nina Simone once wrote – it has notes no other instrument possesses.
“It’s like being between the keys of a piano,” Simone wrote in a draft of an unpublished autobiography recently discovered in a Library of Congress collection. “The notes are there, you can sing them, but they can’t be found on any instrument. That’s like me.”
Simone’s simple, typed note captures an essential truth about the art of jazz singing – the subject of a new exhibition at the Library of Congress.
“Jazz Singers,” an exploration of the lives and work of such great artists as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Simone, opened in the Performing Arts Reading Room foyer in the Madison Building last week and runs through July 23. An online exhibition also includes additional material.
The exhibition was curated by Larry Appelbaum, a senior reference specialist in the Music Division, and directed by Betsy Nahum-Miller, a senior exhibit director in the Interpretive Programs Office.
The exhibition includes video clips candid snapshots, musical scores, personal notes, correspondence, drawings and watercolors covering more than nine decades of a uniquely American art form – and reveals something about what makes a jazz singer a jazz singer.
“All of these singers have something unique that is expressed with soul, creativity and artistry,” Appelbaum said. “What it really comes down to is their ability to tell you a story with music and lyric. They’re all great musical storytellers. And to see and hear how they created in the moment – interacting, swinging and improvising with others – is not just impressive and inspiring, it’s the essence of what jazz is about.”
The Music Division holds about 30 special collections of jazz materials documenting some of the form’s great figures: Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Dexter Gordon, Billy Taylor, Shirley Horn and Gerry Mulligan, whose sax is on permanent display outside the Performing Arts Reading Room.
“Jazz Singers,” drawing on those and other collections, reveals the men and women who made the music and their vital, vibrant and sometimes painful lives.
Trumpeter and singer Chet Baker became a soft-voiced icon of cool West Coast jazz in the 1950s – his recording of “My Funny Valentine” remains a much-loved milestone even six decades later. But Baker also was a self-destructive soul, a troubled side illustrated in the exhibition with a false-alarm suicide note drawn from a recently acquired cache of material.
“I’ve been trying to kill myself for a month by shooting speed balls with large quantities of cocain [sic] and heroin,” he wrote. “I’m now down to about 120 lbs and not looking well.”
The exhibition shows happier times, too: Abbey Lincoln appears relaxed and casual at home in a contact sheet of photos, Johnny Mathis writes Horn to say how much he loves her work, Mary Lou Williams offers McRae suggestions of material to cover, and 13 video clips showcase performers doing what they do best.
Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington perform together in a rare clip from the 1959 Bell Telephone Hour, Holiday sings “Travelin’ Light” on a French television show and others clips feature McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, The Mills Brothers, Jimmy Rushing, Fats Waller, Johnny Hartman, Luciana Souza and Jeri Southern.
“I wanted people to get a sense of the many different approaches to singing jazz, to feel it,” Appelbaum said. “Once you take in the exhibit, you’ll hopefully gain a deeper appreciation for what these artists accomplished and what it means to be a jazz singer.”
“Jazz Singers” encompasses what Quincy Jones called “the roots to the fruits”: early artists such as Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Ethel Waters, midcentury masters Holiday, Nat “King” Cole, McRae and Betty Carter and 21st-century performers Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant.
Each generation, Appelbaum said, assimilates what’s gone before and produces creative artists who stretch the musical boundaries. No singer before Armstrong had taken such a daring and virtuosic approach to time and syncopation. Decades later, many performers incorporate aspects of other genres, such as hip-hop or R&B, into their style.
“Ask a creative jazz singer who they’re listening to and you might be surprised at how wide their tastes run, from jazz to classical, pop and dance music, to the latest from the underground,” he said. “We live in a shuffle age and tastes increasingly transcend traditional ideas of genre. …
“Everyone has their own way. It’s really about the individual and having your own voice.”