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

Luca Manning: Rising Star

Luca Manning may only have left school two years ago, but the young jazz singer with the soulful, gentle voice already has an award on his mantelpiece (Rising Star at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards), a debut CD to sell, … Continue reading

Luca Manning - When the sun comes out (front cover)

Luca Manning may only have left school two years ago, but the young jazz singer with the soulful, gentle voice already has an award on his mantelpiece (Rising Star at the 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards), a debut CD to sell, a CV that many older singers would kill for, a star-studded roster of admirers, and a dedicated entourage which includes a well-kent face from TV.

Manning, you see, is the grandson of Anita – the colourful Glasgow antiques expert on Bargain Hunt – and over the last few years, she and her daughter, Luca’s mother, have become regulars at jazz concerts in Glasgow. Indeed, from being what she described as a “rock ‘n’ roll gal,” Anita Manning now has an impressive jazz collection (“she has loads of Ella Fitzgerald records”) and has helped her grandson by offering him tips on performance, dealing with nerves and keeping energy levels up. “ ‘Eat bananas’ is her top tip for an energy boost,” laughs Manning.

It was always obvious to Luca Manning that his future lay in music – but he only discovered jazz relatively recently. Born in Glasgow’s west end, he attended Hillhead High School where, initially, he dreamt of becoming a rock star – not that he was very keen on practising his guitar.

“I was in a pop/rock band playing ukulele and writing sad songs with four chords,” he says. “I was in a choir in first year – I had a high voice and had to sing with the sopranos. The school had a fantastic, dedicated music department and there was always an outlet for music.”

At home, Manning’s listening tastes were much influenced by his mother who raised him and his older sister by herself. “Mum, who of course is now into jazz, always liked amazing voices – Sinead O’Connor, Jimmy Sommerville, people like that. Great singers with big voices. I went through a lot of phases but the constants were Amy Winehouse (who I think Anita liked first!), Stevie Wonder and soul music. I bought my first album with my mum in Fopp on Byres Road. It was Bjork – Debut and my mum said: ‘If you don’t get it, I’ll get it!’ I think I was 14 at the time.”

Meanwhile, Manning was taking piano lessons, having given up on guitar, and was encouraged by his piano teacher to sing. “I was actually champing at the bit to get singing lessons but I didn’t get any until my voice had broken”.

When Manning was 16 years old, his school suggested he sign up for the weekly jazz workshops run by the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. One of his tutors there was the pianist Alan Benzie, and when the course ended, Manning was desperate to continue learning, so Benzie took him on as a student. It was he who helped the youngster with auditions and prescribed listening material for him. “Until I did the SYJO classes, I knew very little about jazz and didn’t really know what I was getting into,” says Manning. “But the more I immersed myself in the music – the more I loved it.”

Among Manning’s early favourites was the iconic Chet Baker, whose eponymous 1959 album he will be celebrating at The Blue Arrow in Glasgow next month, as part of the club’s 59:60 series of homages to classic albums from that pivotal year in jazz.

“I instantly fell in love with Chet, both his singing and his trumpet playing,” explains Manning. I love that melancholy fragility and vulnerability; I have an emotional connection to Chet. Crooners never resonated as much with me as much. Mark Murphy’s later records are in the same vein as Chet’s – it’s a different style but he’s not afraid to stick his neck out, be himself, take risks. I also love Amy Winehouse – in fact, I think I got into her because my gran Anita was always playing her records.”

The summer school run by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland proved another invaluable experience for Manning. “I just loved learning. Jazz was like a new musical language, and I remember that it was after that summer school that I came back and told my mum I want to be a jazz musician.” Manning returned to the summer school a further two times, and one of those occasions it led to him appearing at the Proms as part of a choir of students from the course.

Along with Alan Benzie, the much-loved English singer Liane Carroll played a huge part in Manning’s development. Not only did she point him in the direction of the vocal jazz workshops run in Scotland by fellow singer Sophie Bancroft – with tutors including herself, Sara Colman and Fionna Duncan – but she also invited him to sing with her at her Christmas show at Ronnie Scott’s in 2017. She is, as Manning says, “a very generous person and musician”.

Carroll has also been a significant influence on the young vocalist. “Her singing is so honest; every word is so true and she just makes you feel something. No matter which genre she’s singing in, you are guaranteed to be told a story and she has so much fun onstage doing it. It’s infectious. She’s a very natural improviser which I love as well.”

It was during a particular listening phase around 18 months ago, that Manning – who is currently midway through the four-year jazz course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London – had the surreal experience of being invited to support the singer in question at a jazz festival gig.

He explains: “I was really getting into Georgie Fame – I love his Portrait of Chet album; he’s an amazing singer – and was listening to him a lot early in 2018. I sang one of his vocalese numbers at the launch of The Blue Arrow club and Jill Rodger, the director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, heard me and said: ‘Georgie Fame is playing at the jazz festival this year. How would you like to open for him?’”

And so it was that Manning and the similarly youthful pianist Fergus McCreadie came to be the support act for Fame last year, and then Ruby Turner this summer. (The pair have now, separately, been nominated in the Newcomer category of the prestigious Parliementary Awards, taking place in London in December.) Understandably, this was a pretty daunting experience, but Manning took his cue from his more experienced, then 20-year-old, musical partner. “We decided not to tailor the music to the person we were supporting. Fergus reminded me never to compromise as a musician. He said: ‘Let’s just do our thing unapologetically’.”

It’s little wonder, given the trust he has in McCreadie, that Manning chose to record his debut CD, When the Sun Comes Out, with him earlier this year. The original idea was not to record an album, but just to make some recordings together. “Sara Colman, my mentor and tutor at Guildhall, and I had spoken a lot and she suggested we go in and record enough material so I could make a CD if I wanted. We recorded at the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s HQ – a room that we were already familiar with – and that was a great way of minimising stress, by being in familiar surroundings. Sara sat in on the recording and helped produce which also helped me feel more comfortable and confident.”

His confidence was further boosted by the involvement of leading alto saxophonist Laura Macdonald, who had given him sax lessons at school before he took up singing. “I love her energy and her playing. We’ve always stayed in touch, and she has been a really good mentor to me. I wanted to have a duo on the CD – but then I thought it would be nice to have a guest and Laura was the first person to come into my head. And it was the idea of having her, rather than the idea of a sax. It turned out just as I envisaged: she came in on the second day and completely changed the energy. I was almost pinching myself. Everyone in the room loved it. Fergus hadn’t played with her before. We had a quick run-through. It was very much of the moment.”

The bottom line for Manning was that this debut CD was an accurate reflection of what he does in a gig. “All I wanted was honesty. I didn’t want multi-tracking or mixing, and I wanted a maximum of two or three takes. Some of the songs were new to us; some we’ve done before. There is no theme to the album but the songs are connected in a way because there are themes of home, identity and love. I was thinking about how there is pressure to release ALL new music that’s innovative and new, but I didn’t want to write ten new tunes – I wanted to do what I’d do on a gig.

“At the end of the day, it’s an honest snapshot of who I am. And I just love great songs.”

*When the Sun Comes Out is available now; Luca Manning – Chet Baker: Chet is at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow on Thursday October 24; www.thebluearrow.co.ukLuca 2 solo pic.jpg

Text (c) Alison Kerr, 2019; album cover artwork by Irenie Blaze-Cameron; portrait by Delilah Niel

Lady (Doesn’t) Sing the Blues – Again

One of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the … Continue reading

Lady Sings the Blues concert poster.pngOne of the strangest nights in the history of New York’s illustrious Carnegie Hall took place in November 1956 when Billie Holiday, the jazz singer now regarded as the greatest of them all, headlined a show entitled Lady Sings the Blues. What made it so unusual was not so much that a jazz star, and a black one at that, was going to perform at this most prestigious of venues – jazz musicians, including Holiday herself, had played on that stage before.

The difference was that this show was inspired by Holiday’s recently published, brutally frank and fairly controversial autobiography, excerpts of which would be read out during the evening – by a male journalist – in between performances by Holiday and an all-star band.

The publication of Lady Sings the Blues a few months earlier had been a big deal. To ensure maximum publicity, a new album with the same title was released simultaneously (an LP of the Carnegie Hall show would follow as well). It was made up mostly of songs associated with the singer earlier in her two-decade career plus the title track – a new song comprising a melody already written by pianist Herbie Nichols with words by Holiday. It had been the publishers, Doubleday, who insisted on the title – Holiday preferred “Bitter Crop” which comes from her powerful protest song Strange Fruit – despite her argument that she had never been a blues singer.

The book was co-written with respected journalist William Dufty, who was a close friend. Holiday needed to get the book out fast since she was in dire financial straits in the mid-1950s: she was in debt but she was unable to work in the nightclubs of New York having had her cabaret card (which permitted performers to work in licensed premises) revoked following her drugs conviction in the late 1940s.

Dufty drew on previously published interviews plus conversations between him and Holiday, and the result was a confessional style of autobiography which dealt frankly with Holiday’s drug addiction and her experiences of rape, prostitution and domestic abuse. The New York Herald Tribune said it was a “hard, bitter and unsentimental book, written with brutal honesty and having much to say not only about Billie Holiday, the person, but about what it means to be poor and black in America”.

Some jazz critics were appalled by the book, which made little reference to Holiday’s art and which – they knew – was an attempt to make some money to support her drug habit and pay off her debts, while giving the impression that she was now clean so that she could get back her cabaret card. One jazz writer who did review it positively was Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff who said that it would “help those who want to understand how her voice became what it was – the most hurt and hurting singer in jazz”.

For a long time, the received jazz wisdom was that Lady Sings the Blues was a sensationalist memoir packed with fiction. Holes were picked in it and once doubt was cast over some mistakes, the reliability of everything else was called into question. It didn’t help that there’s an inaccuracy in the very first line – one of the most shocking and attention-grabbing openers you’re likely to come across. It became a book that you would read but knew you should take with a hefty pinch of salt – and the Lady Sings the Blues movie, starring Diana Ross and not even bearing much resemblance to the book on which it purports to be based, didn’t help matters.

In recent times, the book, which sold well upon publication and has never been out of print, has been re-evaluated within the jazz world, and there’s an appreciation of the authenticity of Holiday’s voice – her streetwise language and her sassy attitude – even if her memories played tricks on her, or if she did have an agenda.

Similarly, the Lady Sings the Blues concert proved to be a big success. Reviews talked about how the audience was spellbound, and you can certainly hear from the live LP how warm the reaction was. Nat Hentoff wrote: “The audience was hers before she sang, greeting and saying goodbye with heavy applause, and at one time the musicians, too, applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, the best jazz singer alive.”

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For the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, David McAlmont – the versatile London-based singer whose group McAlmont and Butler topped the charts with the song Yes in the mid 1990s – is staging his show “David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” in which he pays homage to his favourite jazz singer and that strange yet triumphant night in 1956.

Although McAlmont, who is 52, has been a fan of Holiday for most of his adult life, he didn’t get off to a great start with her. “The first time I heard her, I thought she sounded horrible – it wasn’t even one of her very last recordings. I’d seen a picture of this gorgeous woman and wanted to know what she sounded like. It wasn’t until I saw an Arena documentary, The Long Night of Lady Day, that I understood where that voice came from – and that was when I became obsessed.”

Initially, McAlmont reckons, he was put off Holiday because he didn’t understand what singing is. “You could say that my first singing teacher was Julie Andrews – there’s a purity and clarity and pitch perfect melodiousness. That was the period when a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Bob Dylan’s or Van Morrison’s just didn’t make any sense to me. I hadn’t lived. I hadn’t fallen in love or felt hurt. I was just a kid.”

While many vocalists gravitate towards late-era Holiday when the voice had deteriorated due to her lifestyle but she still managed to put a song across with terrific style and sensitivity, McAlmont has always been more drawn to her early output.

“I love the 1930s recordings,” he says. “It’s still my favourite period – she’s having fun, she’s hip, she’s updating Bessie Smith and Satchmo and having fun with the boys. My go-to album, the one I drilled a hole into, was A Fine Romance with Lester Young. I still can’t face Lady in Satin.”

As a singer himself, McAlmont was keen to pay musical tribute to his idol. “I tried to get myself on Billie Holiday bills and tribute shows – but I kept being told ‘no’ – because I’m a man. After a few years of not being allowed to take part in anybody else’s Billie Holiday events, at the Barbican, at the Chichester Jazz Festival etc, I was lucky to meet Alex Webb [pianist and musical director] and when he asked me if I’d like to do something together, I suggested doing something on Billie. And he came up with this idea.”

For his show, McAlmont uses the material from Carnegie Hall night and broadens it out, adding some extra songs – “I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go by without singing some of my favourite Billie songs that she didn’t do at Carnegie Hall!” – and highlighting different passages from the book, although he retains the shock opening.

He also includes passages that were deleted from the book for legal reasons. The actor Charles Laughton was one of Holiday’s famous friends whose lawyer had demanded that all reference to him be removed. “Well, I like those stories,” explains McAlmont, who has clearly immersed himself in Holiday research in preparation for the show.

“In my research, I consulted everything I could find. I had a bee in my bonnet about jazz being hostile to men singing Billie Holiday and also about the way that Billie is often just thought of as a tragic figure. I’ll never forget, I met this young girl years ago and when we talked about Billie Holiday, she said ‘I love the tragedy’. I’m responding to that. The show is not a wake. There are plenty of people who do that. The show is about that night in 1956 and the book.”

So how does he approach the songs in the show; most of which were so strongly associated with Holiday that her recordings are regarded as the definitive versions? Whereas many singers paying homage to a hero tend to make a point of avoiding imitation, McAlmont – whose heroine often reinvented songs on the spot as she sang – has a different take on this.

He says: “The composition exists but when Billie Holiday takes it it’s a new composition. So in this show, I adhere to the notes she chose – if I sang them my way it would be more cabaret. The integrity of the performance is in remembering how she did it. I’m celebrating her – the show is about her and my love for her, and what she achieved.

“By writing Lady Sings the Blues, she told an American story that people hadn’t heard before and because of her talent, they listened. It’s a valuable document.

“Not only that, but by staging this show at the Carnegie Hall – because she had been banned from singing in clubs – Billie Holiday elevated jazz into an art form. Jazz was brought into a major arts base. That’s another reason why I can’t stand the Billie Holiday industry which sees her only as a tragic heroine. I won’t have it!”

* David McAlmont Presents Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall is at the Drygate on Wednesday June 19. For tickets, visit www.jazzfest.co.uk

First published in The Herald on Saturday, June 15