People love to tell me who I sound like, who they “hear” in my voice, and most often they say Billie Holiday. Now I love Billie Holiday, what Jazz singer doesn’t, and I have spent a lot of time studying her recordings, but I would say that most of my Billie Holiday influence is a residual effect from spending my entire life devoted to Dinah Washington (who loved Billie). I couldn’t tell you when I first heard Dinah, I was too young to remember, but I can tell you about the first record I fell in love with and the first record that made me realize I loved singing.
I grew up in a house that listened only to Jazz. When I was born I only heard Charlie Parker’s “Bird with Strings” for many months, and then slowly other albums were introduced (including “The Amazing Bud Powell” volumes). All of these albums were LP’s or LP’s copied onto a cassette tape, and they all belonged to my father. My first “record” of my own was a gift from Clark Terry, and it was “Louis Armstrong Sings Disney” on a CD (ahh, new technology). I still didn’t have a Discman, so my father made a cassette of the CD so I could listen to it on my pink, yellow, and green Walkman. I really loved music and I spent most of my time with my father listening to records, going to gigs, and going to record stores (remember them?). We had a copy of Dinah Washington “Sings The Fats Waller Songbook” on LP, and I had discovered it and liked it when I was about 4 or 5 years old, and one day when we went into the record store I was looking through the racks and I came across “Dinah Washington For Those in Love” on CD. I thought I had STRUCK GOLD, because not only did it have Dinah on it (whom I liked), but it also had Wynton Kelly (a favorite pianist of mine) AND Clark Terry (whom I loved and knew!). My father purchased it for me that day, and it became the first album I had picked out for myself.
I religiously listened to that album for many years. I memorized every solo and every song, and later when I was about 12 years old Clark would have me sing the solos for people at parties as a sort of parlor trick. Her voice on that record, the arrangements (by Quincy Jones), the ensemble playing and the solos are PERFECT in my opinion. It is a perfect record. Tune selection is great and the “feel” to each tune gives just enough variety without ever losing the beauty of the overall performance.
After that record I bought every record I could find of hers and that is really saying something, because the woman has a huge discography. She was a “crossover” artist in her day, meaning she went from Jazz to R&B to early Rock and Roll, and recorded a lot of novelty tunes and jukebox hits as well as Jazz records. I think it’s this reason that has kept her out of the Jazz history books and out of Jazz fans minds today. Most young vocalists will claim influence by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, even Nancy Wilson – but you don’t hear many people say they love Dinah. I think it’s a shame really, because with the loss of her in the music I think we have seen the loss of the blues in the Jazz Vocal Tradition. By that I don’t mean only “the blues” as a song form, but also the inflection of the blues in the voice, no matter what kind of song you’re singing. She was a master storyteller, and really that’s what Blues and Jazz is all about.
I hope you listen to some Dinah today! She will make you happy, she will make you sad, and you’ll love her for both.
Here are some of my favorites:
Also, if you’re looking to learn more about Dinah there is an excellent biography by Nadine Cohodas: Queen, the Life and Music of Dinah Washington
Thank you for reading and please comment if you’re so inclined….