Weekend Extra: Players Who Sing

A few jazz musicians who sang on the side became so popular as vocalists that their instrumental careers Nat Cole at the pianoall 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,Diana Krall w mic 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.

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  1. Joe Lang says

    I was always impressed with George Shearing’s occasional vocals. especially a very touching “I Remember,” the Sondheim song about remembering things that had not been seen by the singer in a long time.

    Currently, one of the best musicians who also sings is bassist Nicki Parrott who has done about a dozen vocal albums over the last several years. Unfortunately, most have been released on a Japanese label, and are difficult to obtain over here. She has a terrific feel for lyrics, in many ways reminiscent of the gloriously understated style of Peggy Lee.

    Another cat who occasionally vocalizes is trumpeter/cornetist Warren Vache. He does not sing a lot, but his phrasing when he does is as impeccable and creative as his horn work. Listen to his version of “Not Exactly Paris” on his “Dream Dancing” album.

    • Terence Smith says

      Yes, Joe. Shearing’s vocals are effortlessly great.

      Anybody who is not moved by George Shearing’s vocal of “It’s Christmas Time” is not fully human. It’s on the CD, Christmas with the George Shearing Quintet.

      And Fats Waller can give Ray Charles competition, with a mood unique to himself.

      About Ray Charles and Nat Cole: Are they pianists who sing, or the other way around?

  2. Dick Unsworth says

    Thanks for letting us hear Fats Waller a second time. For me, he was a great player whose vocal additions gave us bumps and ya-das of his own sort. So sad that he died at 39, when I was only 12 but trying early to play jazz bass. I was tall enough that I could actually play a 3/4 bass and did. And of course I kept my cds nearly for ever.

  3. Mike Harris says

    He never sang (“All the singing’s in the playing,” as he once put it) but he did everything else for sure, so with deep respect and gratitude, let’s salute Bill Evans on the 33rd. anniversary of his death.

      • Terence Smith says

        Mike Harris,

        Yours is a point well taken. Doug’s, too.

        I was thinking recently that of all the beautiful vocals of “Danny Boy” ever sung,
        the Evans versions are the best. And he somehow sang them out of the piano.

  4. Bruce Armstrong says

    Just a reminder that Woody Herman’s vocals were an important ingredient to the success of the “First Herd” in the mid-1940s. Woody’s vocal on “Laura” was a commercial success for him as was “I’ve Got The World On A
    String” with it’s great Ralph Burns arrangement and Flip Phillips tenor solo.

  5. says

    There’s also Oscar Peterson–we did an Afterglow show that featured some of his vocal sides several years ago:


    His vocals sounded very much like Nat King Cole’s. Peterson later told a story about Cole coming to hear Peterson perform one night when the pianist was doing some vocal numbers, and telling him afterwards—“I’ll make a deal with you—I won’t play the piano if you don’t sing.”

  6. Bob Godfrey says

    Lewis Nash sounds great singing with Sacha Boutros on her recent album. Pete McGuinness, who might be a Canadian, is a great trombonist and arranger, and an even better vocalist.

  7. Terence Smith says

    Mike Harris,

    I love your linked Keith Jarrett “vocal”. It just might be a conscious tribute to Bill Evans. If so, it is a perfectly realized remembrance for Bill, suitable for September 15. Or any other day.You probably know that a Norwegian pianist named Morten Ravn Hansen has published a nice transcription of this and several other choice Jarrett solos, including “Danny Boy” and two others from the Tokyo Solo DVD.

    Your link just gave me the great experience of listening to the Jarrett version back to back with Bill Evans’ 1962 10:42-minute “lost session” solo. Which seemed to demonstrate that in the Universal Mind’s language there are no final statements. This time, in Jarrett’s solo I heard maybe absolute focus. In the Evans “Danny Boy” I heard Evans to be endlessly surprising himself with new vistas of color and feeling. And as he attempts an ending, twice, a feeling that even more needed to be said.

    I can’t adequately express my gratitude for the Evans legacies, and my gratitude to you, Mike Harris, for preserving the SECRET SESSIONS. I listened to Volume 6 today, thankful that I could hear that version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and its other gems. As Gene Lees, I think, correctly noted, there is an ever-increasing audience each of whom has had a feeling of recognition: that Bill Evans seemed privy to their innermost inexpressible feelings. And as we listen, we can hear more every time.

    Bill Evans would love the Jarrett Tokyo Solo DVD.

    PS– I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that ( among other things ), just by being himself, Bill Evans taught pianists how to play ballads, how to really sing them. I think vocalists today sing a little better, just because Bill Evans happened. And Evans is one of those who, like Jarrett, found a unique singing touch on his instrument. They are so unique to themselves. They are beacons to others to find their own uniqueness.

  8. Terry Martin says

    The mention of Woody Herman’s vocals reminded me of the controversy surrounding a tune “Oh Gee! Say Gee! You Ought To See My Gee Gee from the Fiji isle.” Was it Woody? You can just see him with a straw hat and cane, with the striped jacket.
    And Richie Kamuca did a version of ‘Dear Bix’.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Herman sang that dreadful, amusing, song when he was a child performer in Vaudeville. Kevin Whitehead told the story and played a sample of Woody’s much later anonymous recording on a broadcast of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air on Woody’s 100th birthday.

      Kamuca (1930-1977), the tenor saxophonist, sang “Dear Bix” on this album with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. The song’s composer, Dave Frishberg, is the pianist on other tracks. Evidently, this fine album, Kamuca’s last, is available only as a vinyl LP.