Etta Jones

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The Independent Online

Etta Jones, jazz singer: born Aiken, South Carolina 25 November 1928; married (one daughter deceased); died New York 16 October 2001.

"Somewhere betrween Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington," was how the bandleader Earl Hines described his singer Etta Jones. He could have said that she was somewhere between Billie Holiday and Ella Johnson as well, and yet, paradoxically, Etta Jones's style was unique.

Because she chose to sing the same kind of subtle and demanding ballads that Sarah Vaughan did, her work has not dated. She was a musical singer with clear diction who could see a whole performance, not just her own role in it, and she took care to give major roles to her accompanying musicians. As a result it is still a most invigorating experience to hear her 1978 version of Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now", or "It Could Happen to You".

"When I first started I had to do some songs I didn't care for," she said in 1993. "But now I more or less sing what I want to sing. I want a good lyric. I don't want nonsense. I like heavy, dramatic tunes."

But she was also expert at rhythm and blues and the more sophisticated edges of pop music. Her 1960 recording of "Don't Go to Strangers" made more than $1m. She was an improvising jazz singer, too. "I never sing a song the same way again. I can't even sing along to my own records."

Few of her many albums were sold in this country but her albums won two Grammy nominations and she recorded for Prestige, Muse, RCA, Roulette and High Note records. Even so, mysteriously, her talents were largely unrecognised. Maybe she wasn't pushy enough. "All I want to do is work, make a decent salary and have friends," she said.

Despite latterly being confined to a wheelchair, she sang to her many friends in New York clubs until the end of her life and her last album, a tribute to Billie Holiday called Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, arrived in the record shops on the day that she died.

Born in South Carolina, she grew up in New York and made her first mark when, at 15, she was discovered at one of the famous talent contests at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. As a result Jones was hired in 1944 to sing with the Buddy Johnson Band, succeeding Buddy's sister Ella Johnson, who became her lifelong friend and mentor. Jones made her first recording with Johnson's band and during the Forties recorded with a variety of jazz instrumentalists ranging from Barney Bigard to Kenny Burrell and Milt Jackson. She moved on to Earl Hines's band and stayed with the pianist for three years.

In 1952 she decided to go out on her own but work was scarce and during the next few years she also worked as an elevator operator, a seamstress and at other more mundane jobs. It came as a surprise when success finally arrived in 1960 with "Don't Go to Strangers". "They told me I was all over the jukeboxes and I couldn't believe it. So a friend of mine took me to a bar. I couldn't believe it." She earned a gold record.

She was working in Washington, DC, in 1968 when she first sang with the trio of a young tenor saxophonist called Houston Person. Their music mixed with such delicacy that they decided to work as a regular team and did so for almost 29 years. "It's been a wonderful relationship. He takes care of me, he watches over me. He's just been my best, best friend." The partnership was compared to the legendary collaboration between Billie Holiday and Lester Young in the Thirties.

Person and Etta Jones reunited for their last job together in New York three weeks ago. "We didn't have any egos or anything," Person said last week. Both had sensitive musical perspective and the blend of vocal and instrumental solo was made more telling by their modesty.

Jones fought off serious illness at the beginning of the Nineties and came back for some remarkable collaborations with the younger generation of jazz musicians, including the pianist Benny Green and the blues singer Charles Brown.

Apart from her gold record, Etta Jones won Grammy Award nominations for her album Save Your Love for Me (1981) and My Buddy – the songs of Buddy Johnson (1998). She also picked up the Eubie Blake Jazz Award and the lifetime achievement award of the International Women in Jazz Foundation.

Steve Voce

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