|Blossom with Tony Crombie and Alan Haven||
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1966
Complete individuality is not always easy to come by in today’s vocal performers. In Blossom Dearie it flourishes. She has a style of singing, to her own piano accompaniment, that is her own natural property. Speaking of Astrud Gilberto, Blossom said something which applies very much to herself: ‘It’s so refreshing and so different from the big belters.’ As evidenced recently at Annie’s Room and right now at Ronnie Scott’s club, hers is essentially a small voice, but it is employed in a wholly attractive, endearing way. Its quality of being somehow childlike and womanly at the same time enhances a selection of songs which are already well—enhanced, melodically and lyrically.
Blossom is by origin a country girl—from East Durham, near Albany, in New York state. In a non–musical fanilly, she instinctively played piano ‘as a tiny tot, sitting on neighbour’s knees—when I couldn’t reach the pedals.’ The singing, and piano lessons, came later. After high school, she entered the music business, playing intermission piano in various New York clubs. She also worked with vocal groups. This eventually led to her forming, in Paris, a successful group called The Blue Stars. This led to the Double Six, which, in turn, led to the Swingle Singers, renowned for their Bach interpretations.
However, Blossom is modest about her contribution: ‘I had a hard time. Being a director is not my personality, and then I had to do it in another language, which was very difficult. Also, I didn’t know that the way to write for eight singers is to write for four—and double it. So I tried everything, and I’m not very happy with what I did.’ The Blue Stars had a hit record with Lullaby Of Birdland sung in French.
“The whole group was supposed to go to the States, but they didn’t. So I went home, and stayed there. Since then I’ve been doing a solo on the night club circuit, television and albums.” Over the years, Blossom has built up a reputation in New York as an authority on new, good quality songs—and an ardent champion of the composers of them.
She gives an example of this reputation in operation. “One time I went to see Tony Bennett backstage at a club, and he said: ‘Bless, do you have any good, new songs?’ I said: ‘Well, of course, I always have good songs. I have one called Spring In Manhattan by Tony Scibetta.’ ‘Tony said: “I think I’ll record it.” I said to him: ‘Well. don’t you want to hear it first?’ He said: ‘Yes, I’d like to hear it next week. But if you say it’s good, I know it is.’ And the following week at my house, Tony the composer played it for Tony the singer. He learned it then and there, called Don Costa on the phone.
‘It was no more than one week later that they did the recording date, and put it on the market immediately. So when record companies say they can’t get a record out quickly, it’s a lot of boloney. When a big star wants to get a tune out, they can do it.’
Outstanding among the excellent songs being performed and propagated by Blossom are Why Did I Choose You? by Michael Leonard and an equally haunting ballad by Johnny Mandel, The Shadow Of Your Smile. She considers the latter to be the best song since Once Upon A Summertime. And of this 10–year–old Michel Legrand gem which she discovered and took back to New York, she says: ‘It’s perfect. You couldn’t do anything to make it better.’
Her opinion of Legrand’s song has been supported by the other singers who have adopted it—and one particular musician. Blossom recalls: ‘I worked opposite Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard, and he’d always say: “Play my song—Once Upon A Summertime.” Then Gil Evans came down to my house one day and said: “I want to hear you play it, because Miles wants to record it.” So I played it for him. Later I talked to him on the phone and he said: “That was it, Blossom—I heard you play it, and I heard the whole arrangement.”
The other Evans of jazz—the one named Bill—is also a good friend of hers. ‘When he takes his coat off. I always say: “Well, why don’t you sit down here, Bill.” And I just push the piano stool right under him, and say: ‘Now while you’re there play Come Rain Or Come Shine.’ I think he’s the greatest living jazz pianist—because he has everything.
When he wants to, he can stretch out and play choruses in the true jazz sense of the blues and wailing, and all that. Then he has the harmonic sense that I like—it’s just my cup of tea. He’s developed it to a degree I admire very much. I hear him play a song and say: ‘Well, that’s just exactly the way I wish I had played it.’ A song that I’ve been hearing for 20 years—when I finally hear Bill play it, at last I hear exactly the right chords, and I think: ‘That’s it —that’s just perfect”.
Blossom also has very positive ideas about her own piano playing. “A lot of musicians say that they couldn’t play and sing at the same time—and singers say that they couldn’t sing and play at the same time. Well, with me it’s all just one and the same thing. I don’t like to do either one separately. And musicians always like the way I accompany myself—the economy of the notes. I think Brian Lemon remarked about that to me at Annie’s.
‘I feel that I know how to complement the singing. Because my criticism of a lot of accompanists is that they play entirely too much piano for the vocalist. In fact, some day I’m going to do a comedy number in my act, with the accompanist all over the place, drowning out the singer. ‘And a lot of good jazz pianists cannot accompany singers. It’s two different things. Accompanying is a talent all in itself. If you just play 4,000 notes and a lot of useless arpeggios and things—it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a distraction.’
Likewise, from the bassist and the drummer working with her she demands nothing less than their sympathetic listening, swinging best. This—at Annie’s; she received in full measure from Kenny Baldock and drummer Benny Goodman, just as she is receiving now at Ronnie’s from Jeff Clyne and Johnny Butts.
‘I’m very fortunate with rhythm sections. I find good musicians all over. And they all like me and my music—I’m very happy about that. We all get along very well. Kenny and Benny—they’re wonderful, I wish it could have gone on longer. Jeff and Johnny are marvellous, too.’ So concerned is Blossom about achieving maximum musical results that, before she starts an engagement, she always arranges a special rehearsal with the bassist by himself. As she puts it: ‘I look for all of the qualities that a good bass player has—the sound, the intonation. And the time is very important. I need a very good bass player, because I’m not an aggressive pianist. The bass and drums have to become a part of the playing and singing.’
One of Blossom’s ambitions is to write songs herself. She should know enough about what goes to make up a good song to be able to do it. ‘The trouble is, I have such good taste in music that anything I do seems to be poor in comparison. Then I’d have to find a good lyricist—and that’s harder than finding a good composer.’ Certainly, there is no better living proof than Blossom Dearie that there are new songs around that can match up with established oldies.
‘Once in a while I do an old one, like Everything I’ve Got and I Thought About You. And I might do Tea For Two, which I think is one of the greatest songs ever written. But outside of those three—and maybe one other—all the rest of the songs that I do have been written in the last five years or so. Some of them have been written this year.
‘Everybody does the old songs, and I don’t think I can do them any better than anybody else. And I’m tired of doing them. I’m looking for new songs. But very good songs.
‘Jobim is definitely one of the most important songwriters of today. The bossa nova movement is the best thing that’s happened in ages. It’s really such good music—so refined and simple, so pretty. He’s a fantastic composer. His tune Insensitive sounds almost like Chopin to me—like a classical piece.
‘Generally, I stick to my friends—Cy Coleman and Caroline Leigh, Tony Scibetta, Johnny Mercer (my favourite lyric writer), Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, Bob Haymes and Marty Clark and some others. I’m a song plugger. They need me and I need them.’
Copyright © 1966, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.