The secret shame of a jazz critic

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The Independent Online

I was the jazz reviewer for The Times for about 15 years, and during all that time I had a dark secret which I could reveal to nobody, for fear of losing all credibility.

I was the jazz reviewer for The Times for about 15 years, and during all that time I had a dark secret which I could reveal to nobody, for fear of losing all credibility.

I couldn't stand Billie Holliday's singing.

To everyone else she was the ultimate artist, bringing musicality and incredible emotion to every song.

To me, she sounded a bit sour, self-pitying even, with the gift of making almost every song sound the same. I tried to like her, I really did, but I failed, I failed, I really did.

Luckily for me, she was long dead, so I didn't have to review her. (I reviewed only live events, unlike my contemporary critic on The Daily Telegraph, Philip Larkin, who stuck to recorded jazz and never wrote about any live jazz.)

Since I gave up reviewing jazz I have mellowed, and softened, and got more mature, and yet my feelings about Billie Holliday are totally unchanged. To this day I really don't like her singing, and find it bitter and mouth-puckering.

To make it worse, I have gradually realised over the years that it isn't just Billie Holliday I find hard to take. Deep down, I don't think I really like any female jazz singing at all. I can't take Blossom Dearie. I can take Nina Simone even less. I found Sarah Vaughan very cold - actually, I always thought she had a cold. There are bits of Ella Fitzgerald which I admire, and occasionally I have warmed to Anita O'Day and Rosemary Clooney, but the only female singers I have ever had the slightest soft spot for in jazz have been long-forgotten songbirds like Annette Hanshaw (a little-girl-lost voice from the 1920s) and Lee Wiley (an amazingly warm, sexy voice from the 1930s).

There is obviously something terribly wrong with me.

So it was a good thing that I was doing jazz reviewing at a time when jazz singers were a rare breed and getting rarer. (I have sometimes thought that the most wonderful thing about Miles Davis was that he was the first great jazz trumpeter who never wanted to sing.)

I remember having to see Carmen Macrae once, and I once also reviewed Sarah Vaughan, and they were great singers, and I wrote about them reverently, but they left me entirely cold. There was also the odd young female singer who mixed with the advanced crowd, like Norma Winstone, but most of the singers around were the last of a dying breed, and now ...

And now you can't move for female jazz singers. Whoosh! From nowhere, 10 or more years ago, young women have started to emerge singing the old standards, and sometimes playing the piano as well, and it was Diana Krall this and Diana Krall that, and then it was Diane Schuur and after that it was Claire Martin and Clare Teal and Kate Dimbleby and Amy Winehouse and Stacey Kent, and these days you can't move out of the house without stepping on a jazz singer, and jazz singing is now so hip it's painful.

How things have changed from the day, 30 years ago maybe, when I had to interview a female jazz singer who begged me not to use the word jazz in the piece. "Don't call me a jazz singer!" she said. "I'll never work again!" Nowadays the label will open doors, and you even find singers like Helen Shapiro reinventing themselves as jazz singers.

The lively jazz programme on Saturdays on Radio 3 called Jazz File is compered alternately by Claire Martin and Stacey Kent, both jazz singers, and the guests are often singers as well - the last one I heard featured a long conversation between Claire Martin and new jazz singing star Gwyneth Herbert - and although I am glad that jazz is no longer quite as male-dominated as it was, and it was quite an amiable chat, I still find myself pathetically unable to understand why the singer has taken over again.

Don't even talk to me about Jamie Cullum.

Yours sincerely, grumpy old ex-reviewer.

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