Eddie Jefferson Remembered

Classic Arts Features   Eddie Jefferson Remembered
A reflection on the life and music of the founder of Vocalese, who will be celebrated in a special jazz at Lincoln Center program Nov. 9-10.

The late, great Eddie Jefferson is credited with inventing vocalese, a technique where a vocalist sings original text to a previously recorded instrumental composition or solo. The term is a pun on vocalise, a vocal exercise common in classical music.

Jefferson's best known vocalese was his lyrics to the swingin' "Moody's Mood For Love," by James Moody, a.k.a. Moody. Jefferson worked with Moody from 1953 to 1957 and again from 1968 to 1973.

Jefferson explained the song's evolution in a July 1976 Cadence Magazine interview: "King Pleasure heard me in Cincinnati when I was working at a place called the Cotton Club with Jack McDuff. He was a bass player then and he switched to piano — later organ. When we got off from work we used to go upstairs and jam, and Pleasure would be around and he heard 'Moody's Mood For Love', and he went to New York and somebody heard him singin' it. Weinstock, I believe, recorded him. Then when they heard what the source was, they asked him to come back and do some more. He said 'I don't have anymore, Eddie Jefferson is the writer of that, a dancer in Pittsburgh.' They sent to Pittsburgh and got me. If they hadn't heard him do it, I might not have ever been heard of in this field. So I attribute to King Pleasure one of the reasons why I'm out here today, doin' this."

James Moody offers his historical encounter with Jefferson: "I went to an engagement in Cleveland, Ohio, and word was out that I was looking for a singer. Eddie Jefferson came and tried out and sang 'Moody's Mood For Love' and I said 'You got the gig.' Later on I found out he was the one who wrote the lyrics, not King Pleasure. That's how we met. I had a double-plus because I found out he wrote other lyrics to solos, things that Miles did and others." Jefferson's other lyrical contributions included "Parker's Mood," "Filthy McNasty," "Freedom Jazz Dance," "So What," "Body and Soul," and many more.

"He was a wonderful person," Moody confides. "He would put on his bathrobe, get a quart of ice cream, get in bed and turn on his Victrola and write lyrics." But it was the magic of "Moody's Mood For Love" that made history. "The instrumental that I did on alto saxophone in Sweden in 1949 became a hit," says Moody. "Eddie put lyrics to it and then that became a hit in 1952. So, I had to have someone sing it. Everywhere we played was jam-packed."

Eddie Jefferson was born August 3, 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and died tragically after a gig with saxophonist Richie Cole, when he was shot outside of a Detroit club on May 9, 1979 by a disgruntled dancer with whom he had once worked. Jefferson's as a dancer and vocalist paved the way for singers to come.

"My dear friend and father Eddie Jefferson was the greatest jazz singer to ever be born on this earth," said Cole. "He created an entirely different style of jazz ... he's the founder or Godfather of vocalese. I will miss his passion of jazz and friendship forever."

Saxophonist Charles McPherson played on Jefferson's 1969 LP Come Along With Me (Prestige Records). It seems that Jefferson had a soft spot for the saxophone. McPherson explains: "Sax is such a prominent, high-profile jazz instrument, and some of the great innovators were saxophone players and great soloists. There are great trumpet players, too. But maybe Eddie did align himself more with the sax. The sax certainly sounds like the human voice more than some other instruments. So maybe that's a subtle reason for why he worked with saxophone players."

Pianist Eric Reed brings his trio along with vocalists Carla Cook and Allan Harris to The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 9 and 10 to celebrate "The Genius of Eddie Jefferson." (For more information, visit www.jalc.org.)

"I've always been blown away by Eddie Jefferson's work," says Reed. "I first became aware of it from a Dexter Gordon recording called Great Encounters. Eddie Jefferson created lyrics to a Lester Young solo on 'Its Only A Paper Moon' and renamed it 'Lester's Trip To The Moon.' More than the lyrics he sang, I was blown away with the actual quality and tone of his voice. It was very unusual and so different than the typical crooners — people like Nat Cole, Al Hibbler or Johnny Hartman. That's what drew me to him."

"One of Jefferson's themes was about love and some woman that had done him wrong," Reed muses. "The way he was able to fit the words in such a hip way was pretty incredible. He didn't really get the kind of credit that he should have…that could've been for many numbers of reasons. It could've been that he was from the Midwest, and sometimes it's just not in the cards — even as great as they are. Would we know as much about Art Tatum as we do had he not left Toledo?"

For tickets to "The Genius of Eddie Jefferson" in The Allen Room November 9-10, featuring the Eric Reed Trio with vocalists Carla Cook and Allan Harris, call CenterCharge at 1-212-721-6500 or visit www.jalc.org

Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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