‘Straightahead’ is her way

Eighty-year-old Helen Merrill – a singing testimony to the durability of great art and great jazz – brings her unique singing qualities to the Opera House in Tel Aviv on November 19.

November 12, 2010 17:02
Jazz singer Helen Merrill in concert

311_female jazz singer. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Helen Merrill has been putting out emotive vocals for almost 60 years. Now 80, Merrill will bring her unique singing qualities, and three sidemen, to the Opera House in Tel Aviv on November 19, as the opener for this year’s jazz series there.

A quick rundown of Merrill’s biography and discography indicates that she is a veritable living and singing testimony to the durability of great art and great jazz. The list of people she has performed and recorded with over her long career to date reads like a Who’s Who of the fraternity’s pantheon.

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Iconic musicians like saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, to mention but a few, have all benefited from her peerless capacity for vocal expression.

“Working with Clifford Brown really set me on my way. That made the jazz world sit up and take notice of me,” recalls Merrill in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home. That was back in 1954, when Merrill and Brown were just starting out.

“People sometimes ask me how come I got to record with Clifford. But they forget we were just a couple of young kids. No one knew us back then.”

Brown was killed in a car crash in 1956, at the age of only 25, but he had already acquired star status. His work has influenced many leading trumpeters over the past half-century. Merrill’s 1954 record was called, simply, Helen Merrill and was produced by Quincy Jones.

“Quincy is a genius, a magician. Everything he does is magic,” says the singer. The record certainly did the trick and Merrill began performing and recording regularly, both in the states and all over the world.

Merrill certainly got an early jump on her musical career.

“I always knew I was going to be a singer, from very early,” she says. “I got my musicality from my mother.” Sadly, her Croatian-born mother died when Merrill was just nine.

“She sang, but not professionally. She looked down her nose at women who were professional musicians. There was something very strict in her upbringing in Croatia, and she brought me and my sisters up the same way. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. I thought that was strange.”

The teenage Merrill was enthralled with some of the jazz singers of the time, even though she couldn’t initially get her enjoyment of them firsthand.

“I loved Billie Holiday. I remember standing outside a club where she was performing on 52nd Street in New York and catching her singing – I was too young to go inside at the time. That was the great advantage of being a New Yorker, there were just so many great jazz musicians playing there back then.”

Years later, Merrill got to know Holiday, and even performed at a club Holiday owned, even if it wasn’t an entirely positive experience in sonic or sartorial terms.

“I was given an electric bass player to sing with. What did I know about electrical instruments? I couldn’t really manage that. And he wore green shoes. That really freaked me out.”

Still, Merrill has come a long way in that respect since then. “Today I don’t mind what they wear, as long as they are good musicians.”

Merrill began performing when she was 14 and hit the road two years later, paternal anxieties notwithstanding.

“My dad was worried about me, being surrounded by strangers, but I convinced him I would be OK, and I was. The other musicians protected me, but it wasn’t easy being a singer so young and sometimes I wonder why I persisted."

“It was like a compulsive thing. I loved it. Making a living was hard and people were very competitive, especially managers.”

When she wasn’t on the road, Merrill would try to get to as many gigs of the greats playing in the Big Apple at the time. One was Charlie Parker, who had heard Merrill perform and was suitably impressed.

“Once I went to hear Charlie Parker together with [jazz vocalist] Etta Jones. Bird [Parker’s nickname] saw me in the audience and said: ‘Come up here, Helen, and show these people how we do it in New York.’ I think Etta was a bit upset he didn’t call for her, but I had absolutely no fear. I just got on the stage and sang with Charlie.”

Interestingly, many vocalists, when asked about the musicians who influenced them, often cite players of various instruments and not necessarily fellow singers. Merrill’s sources of inspiration include tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and altoist Johnny Hodges, both of whom filled long-time berths with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Webster was known for the richness and warmth of his playing, and Merrill’s voice has similar qualities.

“I love listening to Hodges playing ‘Daydream,’” says Merrill. “I remember seeing him play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He seemed so detached when he played. He was totally wrapped up in the music. I could listen to him play ‘Daydream’ a million times. That really moves me.”

More than anything, Merrill says she looks for musicians’ abilities to express themselves through their art, a quality for which the singer herself has gained great renown.

“I loved the blues singers, especially from the Deep South, from places in the hills and all over, not from the big cities. They expressed themselves naturally and with great feeling. They weren’t trying to impress anyone or play to an audience; that was just the way they were."

“I also like folk music, simple music. I look for people’s ability to express just what they feel, with honesty.”

Having been on the scene for so long, Merrill has witnessed many changes in jazz, both in terms of personnel and in the way the musicians go about their business. While appreciating many of the younger crop, Merrill is not entirely taken with all of them.

“Jazz today has changed. People still express themselves, but they are very schooled, and they depend more on technique, I don’t always hear the depth.”

One of the “younger” artists Merrill rates very highly is 64-year-old trumpeter-composer Tom Harrell, who, besides being a torchbearer for the art form, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

“Tom has an amazing gift, especially for someone who is so sick. His gift for music comes from some place we don’t know. Then again, all artists are a bit crazy, but also lucky. I get to see the world, which I love, and I don’t just mean to travel – I really get to see places. Anyway, I could never do a nine-to-five job. That just isn’t me,” she says.

Merrill has enhanced her personal cultural baggage over the years with long sojourns outside the States. She has spent time in Italy, France and Scandinavia, also in Japan. It all adds spice to the mix, and Merrill’s audiences and listeners are the beneficiaries.

Of all the areas of jazz endeavor, singing is the most demanding. There is no instrument to hide behind and there is an element of the singer laying his or her soul bare to the audience. But Merrill took to her chosen line of work with gusto and tries to maintain the highest professional standards irrespective of anything else that might be happening around her.

“Of course, today I express myself differently, and that is often down to the musicians I work with. They bring about change, and I learn from them. And, yes, I have had a lot of life experiences, but I try not to bring that with me into a performance."

“I sing about universal feelings, although personal things do sneak in sometimes. My husband died recently, and sometimes it is very hard for me to sing. But I always look ‘straight ahead.’ I have had great experiences, and I want to tell a story in my own way – through words.

“I don’t do scat – and I want to look forward. It’s useless to look back. Straightahead is my way.”

Helen Merrill will perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House on November 19 at 9:30 p.m. For ticket reservations: (03) 692- 7777. For more information www.israel-opera.co.il

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