The Classic Lena Horne
In the time of its greatest popularity, the swing age, jazz was not clearly distinguished from the pop music of the time. Many singers who came to prominence at that time got off onto one or the other side of the fence when the border became clearer. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were the big three female vocalists to land on the jazz side (although Fitzgerald and Vaughan retained a pop personality too), while the celebrated and recently deceased Peggy Lee threw her lot in with pop.
Unusually for a black, Lena Horne hit the big time in films and ran with pop rather than jazz. But she is still remembered, if only by people with long memories, as a jazz singer of the heyday of swing, an also-ran in the field that was led by the big three.
A recent Horne release by Times Music, One for My Baby, contains ample evidence of why she was an also-ran. The title track of that anthology and Stormy Weather, the title song of her most famous film, both feature here. They are perhaps the weakest points of this one, which is happily a more authentic representation of Horne's jazz personality.
Besides them, Darn That Dream too has a distressingly sentimental sound, but because of a string ensemble accompaniment rather than the plaintive tone of Horne's voice that mars these two numbers. The string accompaniment is more muted and hence less successful in ruining the several other numbers on which it figures. And when she is not being plaintive, Horne's voice is a positive delight.
That holds for bulk of the numbers here. For the most part, the music is uptempo and Horne's voice is indeed bright and lively, accompanied by good jazz orchestration and instrumental solos, frequently from big bands but sometimes with piano, bass and drums being more prominent. Listen to the piano on How Long Has This Been Going on? or the opening bass intros on Love Me or Leave Me, I Get the Blues When It Rains or The Rules of the Road. Or look out for the combination of peppy singing and the brassy sound of big band accompaniment (especially trumpets and trombones) on I'd Do Anything, Get out of Town, Come on Strong or I Hadn't Anyone till You. Not the greatest jazz in the world, not even in that bracket for its time, but good enough evidence of a genre of jazz that at its best could combine the popular and the inventive.
Write to the editor
Posted on 18 March 2002
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