The secret shame of a jazz critic

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions