Of all the major singers of the late 20th century, Nina Simone was one of the hardest to classify. She recorded extensively in the soul, jazz, and pop idioms, often over the course of the same album; she was also comfortable with blues, gospel, and Broadway. It’s perhaps most accurate to label her as a “soul” singer in terms of emotion, rather than form. Simone was an eclectic who brought soulful qualities to whatever material she interpreted. These qualities were among her strongest virtues; paradoxically, they also may have kept her from attaining a truly mass audience. The same could be said of her stage persona; admired for her forthright honesty and individualism, she was also known for feisty feuding with audiences and promoters alike.
The first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most powerful of all time, Bessie Smith rightly earned the title of “The Empress of the Blues.” Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today’s listeners (which is not true of any other singer from that early period). At a time when the blues were in and most vocalists (particularly vaudevillians) were being dubbed “blues singers,” Bessie Smith simply had no competition.
Back in 1912, Bessie Smith sang in the same show as Ma Rainey, who took her under her wing and coached her. Although Rainey would achieve a measure of fame throughout her career, she was soon surpassed by her protégée. She perfected her powerful delivery in the cabarets of Philadelphia and Atlantic City where she was a frequent attraction. In 1920, Smith had her own show in Atlantic City and, in 1923, she moved to New York. She was soon signed by Columbia and her first recording (Alberta Hunter’s “Downhearted Blues”) made her famous.
Though he never received any exaggerated title, Jimmy Smith certainly ruled the Hammond organ in the ’50s and ’60s. He revolutionized the instrument, showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process. His Blue Note sessions from 1956 to 1963 were extremely influential and are highly recommended. Smith turned the organ into almost an ensemble itself. He provided walking bass lines with his feet, left hand chordal accompaniment, solo lines in the right, and a booming, funky presence that punctuated every song, particularly the up-tempo cuts. Smith turned the fusion of R&B, blues, and gospel influences with bebop references and devices into a jubilant, attractive sound that many others immediately absorbed before following in his footsteps. Smith initially learned piano both from his parents and on his own.
Smith was born in Norristown, Pa., and attended the Hamilton School of Music in 1948, and Ornstein School of Music in 1949 and 1950 in Philadelphia. Smith began playing the Hammond in 1951, and soon earned a great reputation that followed him to New York, where he debuted at the Café Bohemia. A Birdland date and 1957 Newport Jazz Festival appearance launched Smith’s career. He toured extensively through the ’60s and ’70s. His Blue Note recordings included superb collaborations with Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine, among others. He also did several trio recordings.
It is to McCoy Tyner’s great credit that his career after John Coltrane has been far from anti-climatic. Along with Bill Evans, Tyner has been the most influential pianist in jazz of the past 50 years, with his chord voicings being adopted and utilized by virtually every younger pianist. A powerful virtuoso and a true original (compare his playing in the early ’60s with anyone else from the time), Tyner (like Thelonious Monk) has not altered his style all that much from his early days but he has continued to grow and become even stronger.
McCoy Tyner grew up in Philadelphia where Bud Powell and Richie Powell were neighbors. As a teenager he gigged locally and met John Coltrane. He made his recording debut with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet, but after six months left the group to join Coltrane in what (with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) would become the classic quartet. Few other pianists of the period had both the power and the complementary open-minded style to inspire Coltrane, but Tyner was never overshadowed by the innovative saxophonist. During the Coltrane years (1960-1965), the pianist also led his own record dates for Impulse.
A fine swing-oriented tenor saxophonist, Ventura is best-remembered for his attempt at popularizing bebop during the tail end of the music’s mid- to late-’40s heyday. Born Charles Venturo, one of thirteen children in a musical South Philadelphia family. His first instrument was C-melody sax. He switched to alto before eventually settling on tenor. Ventura left his day job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1942 to join Gene Krupa’s band. He became a featured soloist with Krupa, playing with the drummer from 1942-1943 and 1944-1946 (working in the interim with guitarist/bandleader Teddy Powell). Ventura achieved considerable popularity while with Krupa, winning a Down Beat magazine award as best tenor saxophonist in 1945.
One of the most popular saxophonists of all time (even his off records had impressive sales), Grover Washington, Jr. was long the pacesetter in his field. His roots were in R&B and soul-jazz organ combos, but he also fared very well on the infrequent occasions when he played straight-ahead jazz. A highly influential player, Washington was sometimes blamed for the faults of his followers; Kenny G. largely based his soprano sound on Grover’s tone. However, most of the time (except when relying on long hit medleys), Washington pushed himself with the spontaneity and chance taking of a masterful jazz musician.
Grover Washington, Jr., whose father also played saxophone, started playing music when he was ten and within two years was working in clubs. He picked up experience touring with the Four Clefs from 1959-1963 and freelancing during the next two years, before spending a couple years in the Army. He moved to Philadelphia in 1967, becoming closely identified with the city from then on, and worked with several organists, including Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond Smith, recording as a sideman for the Prestige label. His biggest break occurred in 1971, when Hank Crawford could not make it to a recording date; Washington was picked as his replacement, and the result was Inner City Blues, a big seller. From then on he became a major name, particularly after recording 1975’s Mister Magic and 1980’s Winelight; the latter included the Bill Withers hit “Just the Two of Us.”
Ethel Waters had a long and varied career, and was one of the first true jazz singers to record. Defying racism with her talent and bravery, Waters became a stage and movie star in the 1930s and ’40s without leaving the U.S. She grew up near Philadelphia and, unlike many of her contemporaries, developed a clear and easily understandable diction. Originally classified as a blues singer (and she could sing the blues almost on the level of a Bessie Smith), Waters’ jazz-oriented recordings of 1921-1928 swung before that term was even coined.
A star early on at theaters and nightclubs, Waters introduced such songs as “Dinah,” “Am I Blue” (in a 1929 movie), and “Stormy Weather.” She made a smooth transition from jazz singer of the 1920s to a pop music star of the ’30s, and she was a strong influence on many vocalists including Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, and Connee Boswell. Waters spent the latter half of the 1930s touring with a group headed by her husband-trumpeter Eddie Mallory, and appeared on Broadway in 1939 in Mamba’s Daughter and in the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky; in the latter she introduced “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Good for Nothing Joe,” and the title cut.
In later years Waters was seen in nonmusical dramatic roles, and after 1960 she mostly confined her performances to religious work for the evangelist Billy Graham. The European Classics label has reissued all of Ethel Waters’ prime recordings and they still sound fresh and lively today.