Picks and Pans Review: Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond

updated 02/04/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 01:00AM

by Will Friedwald

The term "jazz singer" is a vague one. Just who is one and who isn't is the subject of this nearly 500-page book, which chronicles the history of the American-born vocal art form. If this sounds somewhat scholarly, it is. But dry it isn't.

The author is a free-lance music critic who writes regularly for the New York Times and the Village Voice. Friedwald is so full of opinions, observations and minutiae about his subject that his prose is continually captivating. Pages and pages are spent analyzing the appeal of such renowned vocalizers as Peggy Lee, Mel Torme. Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. He writes valentines to Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Anita O'Day and June Christy, among others. His list of most underrated singers includes Vic Damone ("the prettiest voice in all of pop"), Doris Day and Bobby Darin ("We need only the continually popular and incessantly exciting "Mack the Knife' to remind us that Darin was easily, after Sinatra, the greatest of all Swingin' Lovers").

But don't invite Friedwald to a concert by Clco Laine, Bette Midler, Johnny Mathis, Linda Ronstadt, Buster Poindexter ("a major idiot") or Dianne Schurr. Or worse, Michael Feinstein: "By far the worst thing to happen to jazz-pop in recent years."

Included in the book are 16 pages of photographs of the greats, from Holiday to Nat King Cole to Mildred Bailey. The captions often suffer from a case of the cutes—such as one next to a publicity photo of O'Day in a tight dress: "Is Anita inviting us to kimono her house?"

But by far the book's biggest drawback is its cost. And that has nothing to do with the jacket price. After reading about some of these singers you'll find yourself at your local record store buying everything they've ever recorded. (Scribner's, $29.95)

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