In Memoriam: Jazz Artists We Lost in 2020

In this final post of 2020, we pay tribute to the jazz greats who passed away, during this very eventful year. Included is a playlist of some of their memorable performances.

We already know that 2020 was an exceptionally cruel year. And its effect on the jazz world was especially painful. With many of our music’s greats already at an advanced age (albeit vibrantly, for many) and with a brutal virus spreading around, that hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions, far harder than other segments of the population, we knew it could be a tough year for our heroes. Sadly, at least a quarter of those on our list are said to have been suffering from Covid-19 related symptoms, at the time of their death.

So let us pay tribute to those in the jazz world that we lost in 2020. This is not an exhaustive list and I mean no disrespect or slight to the memory of anyone, who was omitted.

  • Tony Allen – Drummer/Percussionist – Musical partner of Fela Kuti for many years. Considered to be the father of the “Afrobeat” style of drumming
  • Ronald “Khalis” Bell – Saxophonist. Founding member of Kool and the Gang
  • Cándido Camero – Cuban percussionist. A pioneer of Afro-Cuban music
  • Jeff Clayton – Saxophonist. Co-leader of the Clayton Brothers (with brother, John). Co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (with Jeff Hamilton)
  • Jimmy Cobb – Master Drummer. Known for his work with Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and Wes Montgomery (Smokin’ at the Half Note)
  • Freddy Cole – Vocalist and Pianist. Younger brother of Nat “King Cole. An excellent vocal stylist in his own right.
  • Richie Cole – Saxophonist. Known for “Alto Madness” and his work with Eddie Jefferson and The Manhattan Transfer
  • Stanley Cowell – Pianist and Record Company Founder. Excellent, if underrated jazz pianist. Known for his work with the Heath Brothers and co-founding Strata East Records
  • Stanley Crouch – Writer and Critic – Wrote for Jazz Times magazine, for many years. Associated with Wynton Marsalis. Sometimes controversial columnist and author
  • Manu Dibango – Cameroonian Saxophonist. Best known for his 1972 soul-jazz smash hit, “Soul Makossa”
  • Andy González – Bassist.  He successfully bridged the Afro-Cuban and jazz worlds. Co-founded the legendary Fort Apache Band (with brother Andy) and Libré (with Manny Oquendo)
  • Henry Grimes – Bassist. One of the leading free-jazz bassists during the 60’s. Returned to a successful career in the 21st Century.
  • Onaje Allan Gumbs – Pianist/Keyboardist. Worked extensively with Woody Shaw, Phyllis Hyman, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Also recorded some fine contemporary jazz albums.
  • Jimmy Heath – Saxophonist/Flutist. Co-founder of the Heath Brothers (with brothers Percy and Albert). Played with everyone from Miles to Hargrove. Exceptional composer/arranger.
  • Frank Kimbrough – Pianist. Outstanding N.C. born post-bop pianist. Known for his work with Joe Locke and the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.
  • Lee Konitz – Saxophonist. A leading influencer for many decades, in the cool-jazz, bebop and avant-garde idioms. Played on Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool”.
  • Mike Longo – Pianist/Keyboardist. Worked with Dizzy Gillespie for years, as well as leading his own group, the Mike Longo trio.
  • Johnny Mandel – Composer and Arranger. Winner of multiple Oscars and Grammy awards. Composed “Theme from MASH”, “The Shadow of Your Smile”, “Close Enough for Love”.
  • Ellis Marsalis – Pianist and Educator. A major influence on many on the New Orleans jazz scene. The father of Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.
  • Lyle Mays – Keyboardist and Composer. Longtime musical partner of guitarist Pat Metheny.
  • Jymie Merritt – Bassist. Most notable for being the bass player with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, from 1957 – 1962, one of their most influential periods.
  • Gary Peacock – Bassist. Well respected and prolifically recorded leader and sideman. Worked notably with Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Albert Ayler, and Paul Bley.
  • Bucky Pizzarelli – Guitarist. Master of the seven-string guitar. Prolific artist who worked with everyone, from Benny Goodman to Anita Baker. Father of John and Martin Pizzarelli.
  • Charli Persip – Drummer. In addition to leading his own band, he worked notably with Dizzy Gillespie’s bands of the late 50’s and early 60’s, as well as with Red Garland.
  • Claudio Roditi – Brazilian Jazz Trumpeter. Worked with Paquito D’Rivera and Dizzy’s United Nations Big Band, in addition to his own impressive career as a leader.
  • Wallace Roney – Trumpeter. Gained immense popularity in the 90’s, after working alongside Miles Davis and receiving the legend’s blessing. Former husband of the late Geri Allen.
  • Annie Ross – Vocalist and Actress. The “Ross” in Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the most influential jazz vocal group of all time. Also, an excellent vocalist, in her own right.
  • Ira Sullivan – Trumpeter/Flugelhornist/Saxophonist/Composer. Active from the 1950’s – 2010’s. Remembered mostly for his work alongside trumpeter Red Rodney.
  • McCoy Tyner – Pianist. One of the greatest and most influential pianists of the last four decades of the 20th Century. Pianist in the classic John Coltrane Quartet. A legend.
  • Eugene Wright – Bassist – “The Senator”. Known primarily for his role as the bass player in the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet. Was the last surviving member of that group.

We have also included below, a super sized Spotify playlist, that includes a sampling of the music of many of those that we honor. In the case of Jymie Merritt, the best representation of his artistry came from some of his work in the group that he is most closely associated with; the Jazz Messengers. We’ve included “Moanin'”, their signature performance. To hear Merritt at his best, skip to 7:00, near the end of the tune, when he digs into a hard groovin’ bass statement, accompanied only by Blakey and Timmons comp. Sweet!

Enjoy the list and honor the music of those who have joined the ancestors, then remember, that the music can only continue to survive and thrive, if you give love and attention to those who can still hear you give it, our living artists. Let’s strive in 2021, to support those who still play this music despite everything that is against them. Now more than ever, they need to hear your love and support; especially in the legal purchase of their music.

Happy and prosperous New Year, to all.

Annie Ross Obituary

Annie Ross, who died last week in New York, crammed several careers – and lifetimes – in to her 89 years. A restless, energetic and driven performer, she had showbusiness in her blood, and a need to entertain which lasted … Continue reading

Stars in Scotland 090Annie Ross, who died last week in New York, crammed several careers – and lifetimes – in to her 89 years. A restless, energetic and driven performer, she had showbusiness in her blood, and a need to entertain which lasted her entire life, from her childhood debut with her parents in music hall to the intimate weekly jazz concerts she gave in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room up until recently.

Ross was accomplished in many areas: as an actress, a lyricist and, of course, as a singer. Had her career ended in the mid 1950s, she would still have earned her place as a jazz pioneer because by the age of 22, she had introduced a new style of singing: vocalese, which involved using her voice to mimic an instrument, and set lyrics to existing instrumental solos. Her big hit, Twisted, a song with music based on a tenor sax solo to which she set droll lyrics, put her – and vocalese – on the map, and ensured her place in jazz history.

Born Annabelle Short in Surrey, in 1930, Ross became part of the family act as soon as she could toddle. May and Jack Short were already an established team, billed as Short & Dalziel, which played on the music hall circuit.

At the age of four, Ross’s talent as a singer and mimic inspired her parents to take her to New York where May’s sister, Ella Logan, was already working as a singer. There, Ross – whose family hoped she would be the next Shirley Temple – won a radio talent show; the prize being a movie contract with MGM. After accompanying her to Hollywood, Ross’s mother returned to Scotland, leaving her daughter in her sister’s care.

The early movie career only comprised two films – one of the Our Gang series of shorts (in which she sang a swinging version of Loch Lomond) and the Judy Garland movie Presenting Lily Mars (1943). As she hit her teens, her relationship with her aunt – who described her as “a handful” – became acrimonious and Ross, determined to make a career in music, began to dream of escape.

Aged 14, she won a songwriting competition with Let’s Fly, which was subsequently recorded by the great American songwriter Johnny Mercer and which demonstrated her witty way with lyrics. Three years later, Ross returned to Glasgow for what proved to be an unhappy reunion with a family she no longer knew. She later admitted that she only felt any kind of love for her brothers Bertie and Jim.

After briefly treading the boards as part of The Logan Family in Scotland, Ross made her London stage debut in the musical Burlesque. Shortly afterwards, in Paris, she appeared in cabaret and began to hang out with jazz musicians. She made her first recording, Le Vent Vert there, in 1949. A relationship with the African-American bebop drummer Kenny Clarke produced a son, Kenny Clarke Jr. (He died in 2018.)

In New York in the 1950s, following the success of Twisted, which was released in 1952, Ross was a fixture on the jazz scene, performing at the legendary clubs on 52nd Street and even subbing at the famous Apollo Theatre for the great Billie Holiday, the troubled singer who went on to become a close friend.

She made notable recordings with such luminaries as Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan but her most important recording was the1958 album Sing a Song of Basie, on which she joined fellow singers Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert to perform a collection of Count Basie big band arrangements to which Hendricks had written words. Apart from a rhythm section (led by Nat Pierce), this landmark album featured no instruments; the three singers – collectively known as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross – recorded their voices four times each to simulate the entire Basie band. Over the next four years they recorded a total of seven albums.

Ross, meanwhile, began a double love affair – with the doomed stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce and with drugs. By the early 1960s, after an overdose, she quit New York and came to Scotland where she kicked her habit with the help of her brother, Jimmy.

For a very brief period in London in the mid-1960s, she ran a popular Covent Garden nightclub called Annie’s Room with the actor Sean Lynch, whom she had married in 1963. They divorced in 1977 by which time she had declared bankruptcy and lost her home. Lynch died soon afterwards in a car accident.

After appearing in a string of British films and TV series during her marriage, Ross returned to the States, where, in the 1980s and early 1990s, she appeared in a semi-steady stream of films, among them Superman III (1983). Her most important role, however, was in Short Cuts (1993): director Robert Altman created a character – of a jazz singer – specially for her. She spent the rest of her life in the US, and became an American citizen in 2001. In 2010, she was named a “Jazz Master” when she was honoured by the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts body.

Throughout her career, Ross made sporadic appearances on the musical theatre stage, notably the 1956 hit show Cranks (which Princess Margaret loved so much that she attended more than once), The Threepenny Opera (1972) with Vanessa Redgrave and Barbara Windsor, and The Pirates of Penzance (1982) with Tim Curry.

She starred in Dave Anderson and David MacLennan’s musical The Celtic Story (2002) during one of her many visits back to Glasgow, and took part in a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2005.

However, it was as a daring jazz singer with a swinging, sassy style that she will be best remembered, certainly by audiences who saw her at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in 1994 and 2007, or at either of her two concerts at Oran Mor in 2012, when she returned to Glasgow for the premiere of No One But Me, a documentary about her life.

She mesmerised the audience with her still deep and powerful voice, her sense of swing and the way she turned every ballad into a gripping mini-drama, investing the lyrics with raw emotion and prompting listeners to hang on her every word.

Annie Ross, born July 25, 1930; died July 21, 2020