Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thought Is the Blossom

"Ask me how do I feel, me with my quiet upbringing. Well, Sir all I can say is if I were a gate I'd be swinging..."

Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," particularly when performed perfectly by my beloved Blosson Dearie, is about the happiest sound ever made by a living thing in the history of the world. There may be better songs, though not many, and there certainly were "better" singers, but Blossom was the best none the less.

I found her in a used record shop, back when they still made records. The girl in the glasses pictured on the sleeve looked as cool as a Central Park breeze in Spring. "Give Him the Ooh-La-La." How could I not want that?

At first, she seemed something of a novelty act; a supper club singer with little girl's voice and a pretty style on the piano, singing silly and sophisticated songs with equal insouciance, a bright, light tone and, here and there, a charmingly innocent wink. I used to add her to mix-tapes to play at work, just to bust up the heavy atmosphere of importance that lingered after the last note of a Carmen McRae ballad or a Bill Evans solo. "Who's that?" was a common response from customers hearing her for the first time in French, and I loved being able to answer, "That? Well, that is the great Blossom Dearie."

Only after I owned four or five records, mostly the Verve reissues to begin with, then the later little label records and the live recordings, and had really started listening, particularly to the later stuff, did I begin to appreciate just what Blossom brought with her to the bandstand and the piano-bar. She wasn't a cabaret cocktail singer, like Julie Wilson or a habitue of the jazz club. She was not one of those girl singers aging into jazz, the style growing intimate to fit in smaller and smaller venues, until all the years on the road, and the rise of Rock & Roll took the pep out out of their step, and smoke burnt out their upper range and put the blues back into the ballads. I loved those ladies; The Margaret Whitings and Keely Smiths, or the great Rosemary Clooney in her second, better singing life, recording the great American songbook, not so pretty anymore, not so young, not so happy and meaning every word now. That wasn't Blossom. And she wasn't one of the jazz divas, like Ella, or Sassy, or Billie, who made the great music using themselves up to keep up with and one up the boys in the band. Blossom wasn't that kind of musician, she wasn't that kind of artist, that wasn't her jazz. But she was an artist, I discovered, rather late in my appreciation. The truth was, I loved her before I really listened to her. Maybe I had to be middle aged before I could hear anything more than a charming wistfulness in Blossom when she sang Billie's "Lover Man" without Billie's chops and bruises and history. But, unlike all the imitators of Billie Holiday, I don't know that it would have occurred to Blossom to drink from that bitter cup. Not her style, tragedy -- all that acting! Blossom was never not just Blossom.

Blossom had taste, eschewed any vulgarity or imitation, knew her limitations and her own mind, and that last was what made her so good. Blossom Dearie was a jazz intellectual. Not like Anita O'Day, a jazz musician who sang every idea she ever had, but uniquely an intellectual, a smart kid, who sang and played okay, but who understood every song she sang, expressed her curiosity about the music and the words with happy discovery, with sympathy, with a cool enthusiasm that never lost its youthful zeal. Blossom Dearie seemed to adore the songs she sang, even when they were sad songs. She became hilariously famous for stopping in mid performance to correct a mistake, or tell someone to put out a cigarette, to let the waitress put down that noisy drink. What she was doing might have been a small thing, and she knew that, joked about it, and about herself for trying to do it with what was, realistically a relatively small talent, but she was serious about her art. Her joy in those songs was aesthetic, but unlike, say Betty Carter, she wasn't self indulgent or a show off. She wasn't a snob. She was never professorial or defensive. She seemed actually to never quite believe her luck in having the opportunity to share something as delightful as "Down With Love," or "Thou Swell" with her audience. She wanted to communicate to her listeners sincerely, just how good she knew "This Is a Fine Spring Morning" was. She never made a fuss, didn't have the fireworks for that sort of thing, but she made an occasion out of every musical conversation.

Listening to her tonight, knowing the chance of further conversation is over, I can't help but feel I've lost a friend. When Rosemary Clooney died, I cried because I just loved every wonderful, excessive, lovable inch of that huge lady's big self; her voice, her musicianship, her humor, her survival, her song. Rose was a Holiday, and when she died, the world seemed considerably more workaday. When Blossom Dearie died, it was more like the lights got turned off before I was ready to let the evening end. The woman understood intimacy and made an art of it. How likely am I to find that again?

"Some men like me 'cause I'm happy, some think I'm snappy, some call me 'Honey,' and some think I'm quite funny, but Ray Brown told me I was built for speed. You put 'em all together -- everything a good man needs."

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