ANNIVERSARIES: Dinah Washington Born 90 Years Ago


Dinah Washington (8/29/24-12/14/63) was one of the last great examples of female blues singers regularly working in a jazz band context. Many aficionados would say that she was surpassed in this style only by Bessie Smith. First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story, the two-CD set that proudly features the commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1993 to mark the 30th anniversary of her premature death at age 39 (from an overdose of alcohol and diet pills), offers the finest overview of Washington's artistry, ranging from her first records under her own name in 1943 to her classic material for the Verve, Mercury, EmArcy, and Wing labels from 1946 through 1961 (with at least one item from every year in that span), missing only her last two years, when she was on Roulette.

As vocalist expert Chris Albertson's liner notes observe, "Dinah was a gospel, blues, pop, and jazz singer all rolled into one, and she could bring all the elements together in a single performance." Reflecting that, there is a wide variety of music on this set: emotional pop ballads such as "Am I Blue" and "It Isn't Fair," big productions with strings ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") or harmony vocals ("I Don't Hurt Anymore"), classic urban blues ("Trouble in Mind," Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues"), amusing double entendre ditties ("T.V. Is the Thing This Year"), R&B duets with Brook Benton, and plenty of jazz standards along the lines of "Blue Skies," "Teach Me Tonight," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Love for Sale," and many more (no gospel, though). Even on the sweetest pop songs, however, the vocal inflections of the blues are present. She changes her timbre to match mood, flats notes with utter naturalness, is rhythmically flexible, tacks on attractive terminal vibrato at times without overdoing it, and can belt with the best or croon intimately as the situation demands.

Jazz fans will enjoy not only Washington's superbly nuanced singing but also the array of great sidemen. "Blue Skies" includes prime solos by trumpeter Clark Terry and tenorman Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, among others, plus a swinging rhythm section of Junior Mance, Keter Betts, and Ed Thigpen. Other great talents heard on other tracks include Clifford Brown, Wynton Kelly, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderley, Ben Webster and an abundance of other Ellington Orchestra members, and a young Joe Zawinul.

On one hand, it's hard to categorize Washington. On the other, it's very easy: good music. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.