The Village Voice January 17, 1995 Vol. XL No.3
by Will Friedwald
Reprinted by author's permission

Jackie Paris on tour with the Charlie Parker Quintette. Pictured from left to right: Tommy Potter (partially obscured), Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Jackie


Paris When
He Sizzles

Fifteen years after Lenny Bruce's death, his equally legendary mother Sally Marr, came across an unmailed letter amongst her late son's effects. Upon opening the envelope, she found a three page testimonial to the talent's of Jackie Paris, the jazz singer who'd shared a bill with Bruce for several months in 1959.

The comic was writing to implore his agent to sign Paris to a long term contract. "(My last gig in) New York was a gas, and the biggest thrill was working with Jackie Paris," Bruce wrote. "You know how much I dug him before... well, I find out he tap dances great, and plays 'the end' guitar... He is cute as a button and the audience loves him and he gets laughs. Tooo muccchhh!"

"I know he could be a star," Bruce continued, "I've never seen a singer that could talk and command the audience attention like this kid, except Sinatra or Dean Martin, and they talk about booze and broads. This kid [actually Bruce and Paris were both 33 at the time] is a hip Pat Boone."

Bruce was convinced that Paris was going to become the next "big" singer. Little did he suspect that there was no room in this particular American musical moment for a new star who only appealed to the hip and grown-up, and who wasn't part of the youth directed pop explosion. To make matters worse, Paris wasn't even your average pop singer with jazz influences. Rather he was and is an uncompromising jazz singer who happens to have an enormous --albeit unrealized -- pop appeal.

If stardom could be attained as easily as the acclaim of counter-culture landmarks like Lenny Bruce, then Paris would have long since been a jazz circuit headliner. He was also the favorite singer of Charles Mingus, who worked with him in Lionel Hampton's band circa 1949, and three years later wrote several compositions expressly for the singer, which they recorded together on Mingus's own Debut label. Further, Paris was the only singer to tour with the Charlie Parker Quintet (with Miles Davis and Max Roach). Paris was also the vocalist selected by producer Leonard Feather, Thelonious Monk (presumedly), and posterity to introduce the now standard lyrics to "Round Midnight."

It's easy to hear what Bruce, Mingus and Parker found so appealing in Paris's singing. Here is a musician saturated with the virtues of modern jazz--the harmonic sophistication, the cool attitude, the bright clean tone--who never sounds like he's doing anything way-out or complex. His grounding in the blues leads him back to the fundamentals. On a familiar piece like "Wrap Your Troubles In Your Dreams", Paris can come up with the oddest harmony lines exactly where we expect to hear the "straight" melody-as-written. Yet nothing he ever sings strikes us as weird.

Undoubtedly, it was his gift for clarity that led Mingus to concoct some of his most conventionally singable melodies and lyrics specifically for Paris. Mingus could devise as much formless abstraction as he liked--for example the entrancingly meandering "Portrait"--knowing that Paris could "sell " the number as convincingly as Sinatra could put over a Cole Porter showtune. Likewise " Paris In Blue" (included, along with "Portrait" on Charles Mingus: The Complete Debut Recordings) veers off into all kinds of odd directions. Yet Paris effectively anchors all narrative and melodic motion to the blues framework that the piece begins and ends with.

Twenty-two odd years after the 1952 sessions that produced these tracks, Mingus recruited Paris to introduce what became one of the bassist's anthems "Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love" (on Changes Two). Paris also worked steadily with Mingus's Jazz Workshop group for several months during the 60's. One night at the Village Vanguard, he recalls, he witnessed the vitriolic Mingus's temper in full force. "He chased everybody off the stand except (drummer) Paul Motian and me," Paris said in a recent interview in his Park Avenue South apartment. "The three of us just wailed on the blues for about an hour and a half before he called the other cats back."

Paris, who was born in Nutley, New Jersey, was dancing and singing from the time he was three years old. He tapped on the vaudeville circuit around New Jersey and at one point shared the stage with the legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who told him, "Son, you sure got rhythm for a white boy." It would not be the only instance of racial blur in his career. When singing with the Hampton band, the leader's wife and manager, Gladys Hampton, insisted Paris wear a chalk-white suit while the rest of the band sported what Paris remembered as "horrible orange tuxedos." Once on the road a couple racist small -town cops started harassing the Hamptonians, and Paris in particular. When they asked, "Hey, what are you?"- meaning black or white - he answered,"I'm one of the guys."

Paris first began singing jazz on 52nd street around 1947, with his piano, bass, and guitar trio, The King Cole- style trio enjoyed one of the longest gigs in the history of that center of activity. Paris also made his first singles for MGM around this time. Both Charlie Parker and Lionel Hampton first heard him in 52nd street clubs and invited him to join their groups from there.

The singer considers it a point of honor that he doesn't drastically alter a songwriter's words or music. Most of his repertoire consists of very familiar standards that he totally personalizes, not only through rhythm and phrasing, but also by using harmonies to paraphrase each line. More intimate than, say, Sarah Vaughan's very cerebral inventions, Paris's lines remain close enough to the original's tune to recognize it even without benefit of the words. This kind of respect for the songwriter's original intentions garnered him praise from his collaborators. Hoagy Carmichael, for example, once told a TV talk show host that "a kid by the name of Jackie Paris sings the hell out of 'Skylark'."

Paris came closest to a hit in 1953, when another composer, Redd Evans, presented him with the elemental, folkish ballad, "If Love Is Good To Me." "He gave me an exclusive, but I didn't get a contract or anything," Paris said. "I introduced that song [on Brunswick] and my record had just started to sell. The next thing I know, Redd told me, 'Listen Nat Cole wants to do the song and I can't turn him down.'" Cole had already made hits out of a half dozen Evans songs. "So, Nat recorded it, and though Cashbox picked mine over his. Nat's record became the biggest record in the country."

Paris claims not to be bitter about the cover, especially since Cole had long been one of his favorites. However he delights in how a friend of his who worked for Cole would stroke the singer-pianist's guilty conscience. " 'I love your record, Nat,' he'd say to him, 'but you really like Jackie's version, don't you?'" Paris solidified his relationship with "If Love Is Good To Me" by re-recording it in 1962 for his Impulse! album The Song Is Paris; Evan's tune remains perfect for Paris's sweet yet achingly soulful sound. The sensual way that he bends the coda makes clear what Sarah Vaughan meant when she described Paris as a "kissy" singer.

Paris has made guest appearances on albums by jazz instrumental greats from Mingus to Terry Gibbs to Coleman Hawkins to Donald Byrd. He's also released 10 albums of his own, four in the last dozen years, for the American indie Audiophile (Jackie Paris and Nobody Else But me) and the Japanese major Emarcy (Lucky To Be Me and Love Songs). All four concentrate on Paris's specialty--the luxuriously slow ballad. He still sings remarkably even if his voice isn't as rich and juicy as it was in the 50s and 60s (the effects of aging come through, oddly enough, on up-tempo numbers). All four new sets contain outstanding balladry: "More Than You Know", with its anguished forlorn and particularly compelling treatment of the verse, which through rubato, he invests with as much melody as the central refrain, makes for as classic a Paris perennial as "Skylark."

Strangely Paris's best contemporary album is a 1987 orchestral date that balances exciting if typically busy "up" charts by Michael Abene with haunting and sensitive string arrangements by the late Bobby Scott, including a loving treatment of Jules Styne's "Small World" that'll tear your guts out. Paris is still seeking a home for these tracks. Between gigs, which don't come as frequently as he likes or deserves, he teaches both guitar and voice as part of the New School's Jazz program.

Although his talent vastly outweighs the amount of success he's enjoyed, it's impossible to feel sorry for Jackie Paris - not only because he has the apartment of every New Yorker's dreams, but because both the singer and his music are so upbeat. He still possesses so much voice and charisma that it's easy to believe "it" could still happen for him.

Now, at 68, Paris remains one of the strongest survivors of jazz singing's glory decades, " I never gave in," he says, " 'cause I love it, man. What am I gonna do, get bitter and hate the world and kill myself? For what? I had a lot of fun. I loved every minute of it."