Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

A new biography of Frank Sinatra comes out, and all everyone wants to know about is the mafia, Lucky Luciano, the horse's head sequence in The Godfather based on the story of how Frank got his part in From Here To Eternity, the contract on his life, the casinos and the bad behaviour.

A new biography of Frank Sinatra comes out, and all everyone wants to know about is the mafia, Lucky Luciano, the horse's head sequence in The Godfather based on the story of how Frank got his part in From Here To Eternity, the contract on his life, the casinos and the bad behaviour. It's all slightly apart from the real reason that Sinatra continues to fascinate - his music.

Some still think of Ol' Blue Eyes as merely a crooner. But Sinatra: The Life helps make a case for the singer to be classed, if not as a 100 per cent jazz singer, then at least as one whom jazz can claim as a lifelong associate.

Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan show how the 17-year-old Sinatra ran away from home and immersed himself in New York's 52nd Street scene. Nobody knows where he lived in this "missing year" of 1933. But the authors write of him hanging around the Hickory House jazz club "listening to Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Nat 'King' Cole, waiting for a chance to sing". He heard Billie Holiday, whom he later described as "the greatest single musical influence on me. I was dazzled by her". When two men talked over her at the Onyx Club, Frank silenced them with his fists.

In a 1958 article for Ebony magazine, Sinatra revealed that he was currently being inspired by Lester Young, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, Johnny Hodges and Art Tatum. He also mentioned Chico Hamilton, Miles Davis and Max Roach as musicians he was into at the time of writing. "He was like a musical sponge from the age of 17 to 23," says Summers, "and the most exciting thing happening then was jazz."

Sinatra learned the art of phrasing from Tommy Dorsey, the trombonist in whose 1940s band he made his breakthrough. Later he became punchier, even abrupt. Listen to his 60s recordings with Count Basie, and the extension over bar lines and sudden emphasis on single notes reminds one of a great bop soloist. "I've waited 20 years for this," he said.

Discussing Sinatra's partnership with the arranger Nelson Riddle, the authors identify jazz as having been "holy writ to both of them".

"You could go and hear him five nights in a row and songs wouldn't be quite the same every night," says the clarinettist Ken Peplowski. "If that's not jazz, I don't know what is."

As those mafia types forever connected to Sinatra are given to saying: capiche?

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