A few jazz musicians who sang on the side became so popular as vocalists that their instrumental careers all but disappeared. The brilliant and influential pianist Nat Cole (pictured left) is the most prominent example. Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae began their professional lives as pianists. Diana Krall’s (pictured right) success as a singer dominates her career to the point that her ability as a pianist is often overlooked. In the cases of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller, Chet Baker, Shirley Horn and John Pizzarelli, their singing and playing have more or less equal standing, but I have long been fascinated and often moved by jazz artists whose singing was occasional. Jimmy Rowles is at the top of that list. Benny Goodman rarely sang, but he was an appealing vocalist. The same is true of Zoot Sims, Eddie Condon, Lester Young and James Moody, even truer of Red Allen, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Sheldon, Clark Terry, Grady Tate and Red Mitchell. Most experienced listeners could come up with their own lists.
Whether or not they have pipes that would send a Carnegie Hall vocal coach into ecstacy, seasoned jazz players usually bring phrasing, timing and rhythmic feeling shaped by their instrumental work, as well as an understanding and appreciation of lyrics. All of that came to mind after I was sent a link that led to a YouTube video of Mike Greensill. He is best known as the husband and accompanist of the wonderful singer Wesla Whitfeld. Here is the video, with an introduction by Mr. Greensill.
While we’re at it, let’s go back to 1936 and listen to an instrumentalist who managed to keep his playing in the foreground even after his singing—and his clowning—made him a popular phenomenon.
Whether Fats Waller, like Nat Cole, would have pushed the piano aside to concentrate on his success as an entertainer, we will never know. He died in 1943 at the age of 39.