Blossom Dearie: Jazz songwriter, singer and pianist who worked with Johnny Mercer and Woody Herman

Friday 13 February 2009 01:00

Blossom Dearie was a sort of jazz Noël Coward. She was a gifted composer and lyricist who was adept at accompanying herself with delicate Bebop piano – a lightness which extended to her vocal performances. "She has a tiny voice," wrote Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker. "Without a microphone it wouldn't reach the second floor of a doll's house."

Dearie was a perfectionist who would work on her accompaniments and presentation for months before going on tour. Her wit had the delicacy of a surgeon's knife and the subjects of her songs were often topical, sometimes scornful and always imaginatively crafted. She wrote songs with many distinguished writers, including Johnny Mercer, Dave Frishberg and Cy Coleman. She was also unbending in her taste in music and forthright with her opinions: she strongly expressed dislike, for example, of the songs of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Dearie's father was of Scottish and Irish descent, while her mother had emigrated to the United States from Oslo. She was given her unusual name when a neighbour brought peachblossoms to the Dearie home on the day of her birth.

Dearie began piano lessons at the age of five and looked set for a classical career, but she discovered jazz and soon became an accomplished jazz improviser in a school band. After she graduated in the mid-Forties, she moved to New York and lived in a hotel with some other girl singers. She already knew the singer Dave Lambert and he introduced her to the orchestrator Gil Evans, in whoselegendary basement apartment she hung out with many other jazz greats on their way up. "Charlie Parkerlived there for a while," she said, "and you'd generally find Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan andJohn Lewis."

Eventually she became a member of two vocal groups: the Blue Flames, who sang with Woody Herman's Orchestra, and the Blue Reys, who worked for the bandleader Alvino Rey.

In 1952 Dearie moved her base to Paris, singing at the Mars Club while studying French at Berlitz. From France she travelled to London, where she shared a bill with the English jazz singer Annie Ross and eventually formed a vocal group called the Blue Stars of Paris (which later metamorphosed into the Swingle Singers). The Blue Stars had a French-language hit record with "Lullaby of Birdland".

During her time in Europe she met the Belgian tenor saxophonist Bobby Jaspar, and they were married in 1955, but the marriage broke up in 1957. She also met the US jazz impresario Norman Granz in Paris, and he recorded her there. The pair made six albums together between 1956 and 1960, before Dearie returned to New York to form her own trio.

"For the next few years I worked around New York, at the VillageVanguard opposite Miles Davis, who became a great friend, and at the original Upstairs at the Downstairs. Then I heard the album Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. I was crazy about it. I met Dudley atthe Vanguard one night while he was working there and it was throughDudley that I eventually got back to England."

"Blossom Dearie always sings good tunes and she always sings them first," said Ronnie Scott, after the first of Dearie's many seasons at his famous London jazz club in 1966. "But I don't think she wants to play here again unless the audience is muzzled or something. Every time anyone coughed she'd stop and make a fuss about it."

But Dearie and her audience prevailed. From that point onwards she not only played regularly at Ronnie Scott's, but also recorded four albums in London. She made the city her home for months at a time, using it as a base for holidays around Europe and garnering a reverent following at the same time. "When she sings in London, they arrange all the chairs so that they face her and there's not a sound," said one of her friends. "It's like being in a church."

Later in her career, Dearie played seasons in Los Angeles and other cities and in 1972 she formed herown label, Daffodil Records, recording some of her best albums for herown imprint.

She worked regularly at the Ballroom on West 28th Street in New York from 1984 to 1988 and from 1992 onwards. She also performed at the White House in 1993. In the late Nineties she was resident at Danny's Skylight Room in the city and continued to sing there regularly until 2006.

Dearie's work also extended totelevision and film. In 1973 she sangfor and contributed music to theeducational series Schoolhouse Rock and her voice and songs have graced several films, including KissingJessica Stein (2001), The Adventuresof Felix (2001), My Life WithoutMe (2003), Histoire de Marie etJulien (2003) and The Squid and the Whale (2005).

Steve Voce

Marguerite Blossom Dearie, singer, pianist, composer: born East Durham, New York 29 April 1926; married 1955 Bobby Jaspar (marriage dissolved); died New York 7 February 2009.

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