ALTHOUGH Billy Eckstine has always been recognised as one of the most tasteful of popular singers, he also made a most vital contribution to jazz with the big band which he led for three years from 1944. The band included the greatest stars in the new jazz movement of the time - Dizzy Gillespie (who was its musical director), Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan - and it provided a platform on which the new music, bebop, could be developed.
Eckstine had one of the best voices in popular music, and his warm bass-baritone with its wide and well-controlled vibrato and clear diction was one that found approval from both jazz aficionados and from more general listeners. In his early days he used his vocal success to subsidise his big band and it was always a pleasure to see one of his records in the Top Ten, even when the songs were, to the jazz listener, turkeys like 'I Apologise' and 'I Wanna Be Loved'.
It has been a tradition that good singers can move easily from jazz or near-jazz into pop music and back. Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Dick Haymes, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat 'King' Cole and Kay Starr have all been able to please audiences in both camps, but none except Eckstine's long-time partner Sarah Vaughan and Nat Cole (one of the best jazz pianists) were able to make the transition as well as Eckstine. He was completely at home in both idioms.
After working as a night-club singer Eckstine became the vocalist in the big band led by the pianist Earl Hines in 1939. He made a close friend in Budd Johnson who played tenor sax and composed for the band. Eckstine gave generous credit to Johnson as the man who taught him to be a musician. The two of them, taken by the new music, persuaded Hines to take on Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan (whom Eckstine and Johnson could claim to have discovered). When Dizzy Gillespie, a great teacher, joined the band, Eckstine persuaded him to teach him to play trumpet. Hines gave Eckstine an additional job in the trumpet section, and Eckstine also learnt to play the valve trombone.
Although he was much liked by other musicians, he did have a tough side to him. He and the Hines orchestra suffered from discrimination when they toured the South. They were playing at a white dance in Georgia when all the lights were turned off and fireworks were thrown at the band. There was only one door out of the hall and the audience, thinking that bombs were exploding, panicked and it was amazing that there were no serious injuries. On the way back north the band travelled in what they called a Jim-Crow car. 'In those days they had segregated trains, and the black car was always right behind the coal car, so that all the dirt and dust would fly in on us. There was an old, rotten cracker in the coach behind us, and he did a lot of eating. When he got through with something, he'd open the door and throw his garbage into our section.
'When you got to Washington you'd left the South and were all right. I jumped off the train and waited for this cracker. I hit him and he slid backwards. I grabbed him and hit him again, and he started crawling under the train. 'I'm gonna whip your ass across the tracks and back under again.' '
More understandable was another kind of violence Eckstine indulged in. The bad piano is the bane of every musician's life.
'Here we come to some dance with Earl, the number one piano player in the country, and half the keys don't work. So when we're getting ready to leave, I'd get some of the guys to stand around the piano as though we were talking, and I'd reach in and pull all the strings and all the mallets out. 'The next time we come here,' I'd say, 'I'll bet that son of a bitch will have a piano for him to play on.' '
In 1940 Eckstine sang his blues 'Jelly, Jelly' on one of Hines's records and had his first hit. He also introduced new songs on radio - 'Skylark' was one - becoming the first black person to do so, made an exception because of his particularly clear diction.
When Eckstine left the Hines Orchestra in 1943, he added his trumpet playing to his act as a night-club vocalist. He worked opposite Dizzy Gillespie's small bebop band at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street, in New York, and when the club closed in 1944 Eckstine formed his own big band, which was to last until 1947. It included in its ranks Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Budd Johnson, Gene Ammons, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Lena Horne, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson and Sarah Vaughan. This was easily the most comprehensive collection of modern jazz stars ever assembled, and the music, much of it composed by Tadd Dameron and Budd Johnson, was so far ahead of its time that it is not surprising that the dancing public was not impressed. The band was an artistic triumph and a commercial failure. Sadly for history it made few recordings and most of those were of commercial ballad vocals. However, it is possible to get some idea of how good the band sounded from 'Opus X' and 'Blowin' the Blues Away'. The few broadcasts which survive are even better from the jazz point of view and they eventually appeared on record some 25 years later.
When he was forced to break up the band Eckstine returned to his career as a solo singer and by the end of the Forties had become the most popular vocalist in the United States. He signed a successful five-year contract with MGM Records which, apart from the bulk of commercial numbers, included two distinguished jazz sets with the George Shearing Quintet and with a studio band led by Woody Herman.
Eckstine, a very handsome man, was also a particularly sharp dresser. The wide shirt collars which he insisted on became a national fashion and were known as 'Mr B Collars'. On one occasion in his solo career, he was in competition with another male fashion plate, Duke Ellington. Ellington described it.
'He worked with us at the New York Paramount once, and it was a ball hearing him five shows a day. There was also a little thing going on between B and me. For four weeks neither of us wore the same suit twice. He flattered me by ordering his valet to call Los Angeles and have two more trunks shipped out immediately. By the third week people were buying tickets just to see the sartorial changes.'
Apart from working with the Ellington band on that occasion in 1966, Eckstine also recorded a successful album with Count Basie in which he recreated his blues hits, and others with Quincy Jones. Chosen as vocalist of the year, he recorded 'St Louis Blues' with the Metronome All Stars of 1953, and also worked with Maynard Ferguson's Orchestra for a time.
His popularity demanded that he devote most of his time to his night-club ballad work, and although he always remained fervently interested in jazz and still included it in his act, his enormously successful duets with Sarah Vaughan, the 1957 'Passing Strangers' amongst them, were all targeted at the non-jazz listener.
Eckstine made annual tours which covered Europe, Australia and Asia and at home he worked in the plush clubs of Las Vegas and Nevada.
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