The pianist and singer Joyce Collins died recently in Los Angeles following a long illness. She was 79. Highly respected in jazz circles, Collins played with a sensitive touch and subtle use of chords. Her singing was an outgrowth of those values, with attention to interpretation of the meaning of songs and, as Marian McPartland put it, “…deep feeling, a way of lingering over certain phrases, telling her story in a very poignant way.” Collins’s recorded debut as a leader had Ray Brown on bass and Frank Butler on drums. Earlier, she worked with Bob Cooper and Oscar Pettiford, among others, later toured and recorded as a pianist and vocalist with singer Bill Henderson and played with Benny Carter. Collins’s following included many musicians who sought out her gigs, which became increasingly rare in recent years as she depended increasingly on teaching for a living. Most of the recordings under her own name and with Henderson have become collectors items going for elevated prices on Amazon or as bargain LPs on eBay, but one of her best, Sweet Madness, with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Ralph Penland, is still in print.
Collins was born in Nevada and went to college in northern California, but not for long, for a reason I explain in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
…Joyce Collins, like Desmond, was a musician not majoring in music. Dave Brubeck heard her in 1947 playing in a bar in Stockton, where she was a student at Stockton Junior College. He thought she was too good a musician for Stockton J.C. and recommended that she move to San Francisco and study with his piano teacher, Fred Saatman.
“I don’t know why,” she said, “since I didn’t know who he was, but I took his advice. I went to San Francisco State, enrolled as a liberal arts major, called up Fred Saatman and started with him.”
She found herself in two classes with Paul Desmond, one on Shakespeare, another on the American novel.
“I’d go plugging along, never missed a class, studied hard. Lucky to get a C. He rarely came to class. He’d breeze in, always looking sleepy. Literarily brilliant, but sleepy. And of course he got A’s. I was so shy and so in awe of him, I was tongue-tied. It was hard for me to make conversation, but I always used to say to him, ‘We’re the hare and the tortoise.’ He was so witty. He was talking to a girl and I kind of overheard him, and he said, ‘There’s a vas deferens between us.’ I thought it was the wittiest thing I’d ever heard. It went around. People quoted that.”
For more about Joyce Collins, including a rare piece of video, see Bill Reed’s blog, The People vs. Dr. Chilledair.