Only a true music lover can list his top 50+ albums on the spot, from the heart, not taking a breath. Author Will Friedwald is one such writer. The level of musical detail in his new release The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums (Pantheon) is matched only by his obvious love for the art form. Jazz lovers everywhere will gain a broader understanding and appreciation for the historical greats whose vocals reached in high places on the charts and in our lives.
What inspired you to write this?
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums is the conclusion of a three-part series of books conceived by myself and my editor, Robert Gottlieb. We started with Stardust Melodies in 2002, a book about songs, then followed that with a much larger book about singers, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Vocalists, published in 2010. After writing about songs and then about singers, a book about albums seemed to be the next logical step.
What were your major sources of research?
A wide range of sources, from vintage trade magazines to historical interviews to published biographies and memoirs. As often as possible, I was able to draw upon my own discussions with the participants, including some of the actual artists like Tony Bennett, Doris Day and the late Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney. But also I’ve been in contact with producers like George Avakian and the late Mitch Miller, as well as arrangers like Pete Rugolo and others.
How long did it take to write?
I first started to put this together in about 2009, just after The Biographical Guide had been put to bed. Of course, I did a lot of other work during these last eight years, including about 300-350 stories for The Wall Street Journal.
Of all the artists, name a few of your very favorites and why?
They’re all my favorites! By that I mean every artist and every album represented here is one that I happen to love personally. There’s nothing in this whole book that’s there, for instance, because I considered it historically important but I don’t love personally. I listened to these albums over and over, hundreds of times in some cases, and there was no way something I didn’t love all to pieces was going to make it through that kind of scrutiny.
Did you always have an encyclopedic interest in jazz and pop vocal artists?
I’m not sure if it’s for me to describe my own interest as “encyclopedic” – that’s for someone else to judge.
I think my interest and approach is just right, neither too casual nor too obsessive. And yes, I’ve always had about the same degree of interest in these legendary artists, whether it’s obsessive or however you wish to describe it!
Do you feel “jazz” and “pop” have a lot of overlap; is that why you combined into one book?
Both of those terms are relative and highly subjective – so are “classical” and “folk” music, and there’s always overlap. The unifying factor in the great majority of these albums is that they all draw upon what we describe as “The Great American Songbook” for their basic source material. Not 100% of the time and not on every album, but by and large that is the starting point.
How did you decide which albums deserved to be included?
That was relatively easy: Bob and I just started making a list – and at least 50 albums leapt into our minds immediately. Originally, we were going to title the book The Fifty Greatest Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, but by the time we were finished with the list of albums that we both felt absolutely had to be there, we had arrived at something closer to 57 albums.
When did you become enamored of jazz? Do you play any instruments?
I’ve been an avid listener and follower since well before I was ten years old. I’ve struggled on various instruments including three different members of the saxophone family, but to say that I can actually “play” them would be too bold a claim. And no, I don’t consider myself a singer – not by a long shot.
When did you start to write books?
I wrote a few early books on film. The first was published when I was about 19, in 1981. My first book on jazz was Jazz Singing, published about 1988 when I was 26.
What makes a great album; one that flows together and makes sense in the order of its songs; thematically, etc.?
Probably that it amounts to more than a sum of its parts, in other words, that it adds up into something more than a bunch of great individual songs; they add up to a cohesive whole, and if not an actual story, functions as a kind of narrative.
Then too, there are other kinds of wholes: the great team-up albums like Ella And Louis, The Tony Bennett – Bill Evans Album, Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson…they don’t necessarily tell a concrete story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but they are albums with a unique and special sound.
Are you a “label nerd” – all about the personnel and other factoids?
At one point I was, but lately – I (rather famously) de-acquisitioned my entire vinyl collection (this was back in 2009) which at that point was approximately 14,000 albums.
When I moved about a year ago, I put the whole CD collection into storage. I decided that I don’t actually need the physical artifact. The content, i.e. the music itself, is more important to me than the storage channel. (Of course, studying the so-called “meta-data” on ancient vinyl and shellac can still lead to a lot of interesting and worthwhile new discoveries.)
Do you feel albums worthy of the distinction of “great” are still being made today?
The albums in this book aren’t just “great,” they’re also historically significant, and that’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to judge in the present tense. I hear new albums that I like all the time. Do I hear something that people will still be listening to in 50-60 years, or that could potentially change a person’s life? That’s impossible to know!
Very attractive cover- how was that decided upon?
You’d have to ask the designer, whom I have never met, and whose name I do not know. In all my experience as an author, I have never been consulted as to design choices. But thank you, I quite agree.
The direction of jazz/pop today, in your opinion?
I think the music is in a very healthy state, the nature keeps changing. As I always say, most people think that the word “jazz” is a noun, but in reality it is a very active verb whose meaning and whose larger implications are constantly shifting.
Thanks for letting me do this!
Photos courtesy of Pantheon/Penguin RandomHouse and the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017