Why Doris Day reigns as one of the jazz greats

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Howard Re­ich Tribune arts critic hre­[email protected]­bune .com

Forget, for a mo­ment, Doris Day’s fa­mously bub­bly per­sona in light­hearted Hol­ly­wood come­dies and TV shows.

Forget, too, her im­age as a pur­veyor of mer­ci­lessly upbeat hits of an ear­lier era, such as “What­ever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera).”

For beneath all the good cheer and easy-to-hum songs, beneath the high­toned ex­te­rior and the vanilla sen­ti­men­tal­ity lurked a su­perb jazz singer strug­gling to get out.

Re­mark­ably, though the record in­dus­try did ev­ery­thing it could to make Doris Mary Anne Kap­pel­hoff into a pop star rather than a jazz artist, she recorded tracks that af­firm her po­si­tion among the great­est Amer­i­can vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury. That’s right, like Frank Si­na­tra and Ella Fitzger­ald, like Mel Torme and Anita O’Day, Day in­ter­twined jazz and clas­sic pop id­ioms, at her best pair­ing an ex­traor­di­nar­ily ex­pres­sive in­stru­ment with a keen in­ter­pre­tive sen­si­bil­ity.

Listen closely to “Golden Girl: The Columbia Record­ings 1944-1966” — as I have been do­ing since Day died May 13 at age 97 — and you’ll hear not only the arc of her vo­cal ca­reer but the highs and lows of a voice unique in Amer­i­can mu­sic.

True, each lead­ing singer is unique, or we wouldn’t be turn­ing to them as ex­em­plars of how mu­sic by Cole Porter and Ge­orge Gersh­win, Irv­ing Berlin and Jule Styne ide­ally can sound. But Day’s stature as mu­si­cian has been ob­scured by much of her work in film and TV — un­like, say, Si­na­tra and Judy Gar­land, whose vo­cal tri­umphs were larger than life on screens big and small.

The “Golden Girl” set, re­leased in 1999, be­gins with “Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney” and re­minds lis­ten­ers of Day’s roots as a big band singer, per­form­ing here with Les Brown and his orches­tra. Like Si­na­tra, Day early on learned to croon with a large en­sem­ble puls­ing be­hind her, its swingrhyth­m vo­cab­u­lary driv­ing — to one de­gree or another — nearly ev­ery­thing she later would record. “Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney” was a huge hit for both Day and the Brown band in 1945, and though she plays it straight rhyth­mi­cally, she rides the plush in­stru­men­tal ac­com­pa­ni­ment as if born to it.

Just two years later, Day would record a sig­na­ture hit, “It’s Magic,” from her film de­but, “Romance on the High Seas.” Af­ter a long or­ches­tral in­tro­duc­tion, Day be­gins singing with a ten­der­ness and di­rect­ness that evoke a young Ella Fitzger­ald, whose singing Day had im­i­tated in her own youth. Soon Day is taking the kind of rhyth­mic lib­er­ties that only a supremely con­fi­dent and as­tute artist would dare, find­ing deep mean­ings in Styne’s ur­gent melody and Sammy Cahn’s mag­i­cal lyrics. The hall­mark gauzi­ness of Day’s soft-voice pas­sages, the res­o­nance of her low notes and the whis­per­ing in­ti­ma­cies of her clos­ing tones af­firm that a mas­ter is at work.

She un­der­scores the point in another song from “Romance on the High Seas” — the comic tune “Put ’Em In a Box, Tie ’Em With a Rib­bon (And Throw ’Em in the Deep Blue Sea).” Here too, the un­forced na­ture and sup­ple char­ac­ter of Day’s sound re­call early Fitzger­ald, while Cahn’s lyrics ref­er­enc­ing Si­na­tra and Bing Crosby il­lu­mi­nate the jazz world to which Day right­fully be­longs.

Even in a triv­i­al­ity such as “Tacos, En­chi­ladas and Beans” (1947) — penned by Mel Torme and Robert Wells — Day fi­nesses jazz rhythm and blue-note in­flec­tions as only a singer who has paid her dues in no-name clubs and on var­i­ous band­stands could do. And in “Some­one Like You” (1949), from the film “My Dream Is Yours,” she merges phrases in the Si­na­tra man­ner, a feat more dif­fi­cult to achieve than may be ap­par­ent.

Un­for­tu­nately, Day’s fame as a movie star meant she was led to record ma­te­rial de­signed to reach the broad­est pos­si­ble pub­lic, and thus she of­ten shares a record­ing’s grooves with ir­rel­e­vant duet partners, unc­tu­ous male quar­tets, overblown cho­ruses and other in­ter­lop­ers. Each does noth­ing but dis­tract from the glo­ries of her voice and the insights of her readings. Worse, the fake Gal­lic ac­cent she as­sumes in “At the Café Ren­dezvous” (1949) — her lingo falling some­where be­tween high school French and ac­ci­den­tal Hun­gar­ian — rep­re­sents a per­sonal nadir (then, again, Si­na­tra at a low point in his ca­reer was forced to growl like a ca­nine along­side pop sen­sa­tion Dag­mar in “Mama Will Bark”).

But ex­plore Day’s best work, and there’s no mis­tak­ing where her heart and mu­si­cal tastes lie. She sings of the glo­ries of jazz and throws off re­mark­ably fleet riffs along­side in­stru­men­tal vir­tu­osos in “Cut­tin’ Ca­pers” (1949), al­beit with yet another an­noy­ing male vo­cal quar­tet get­ting in the way. And she duets bril­liantly with sublime trum­peter Harry James in “The Very Thought of You” and “Too Mar­velous for Words” (1950), both from Day’s starring role op­po­site Kirk Dou­glas in “Young Man with a Horn” (one of the great — if slightly flawed — jazz movies, very loosely in­spired by the story of doomed cor­netist Bix Bei­der­becke).

In­deed, it’s worth not­ing that some of Day’s most compelling Hol­ly­wood scenes un­fold in jazz set­tings, whether she’s im­pro­vis­ing with a trio in “Romance on the High Seas” or telling the dark story of jazz singer Ruth Et­ting in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955). Even in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), she por­trays a former singer caught up in po­ten­tial tragedy, the film’s theme song “What­ever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” taking on darker tones in this con­text than the typ­i­cal juke­box lis­tener might have re­al­ized.

It’s in the great reper­tory, how­ever, that Day’s gifts fully blos­som. When she gets to the bridge of another hit, “Se­cret Love” (1953), from the film “Calamity Jane,” the smoky in­can­ta­tions of her open­ing even­tu­ally give way to a burst of lu­mi­nes­cence like noth­ing else in mu­sic of this era and genre. No one turns up the heat on a bridge like Day, and her re­cap of that passage ups the in­ten­sity still more.

On the rare oc­ca­sion when she gets to sing with pi­ano alone, as in “I’ll Never Stop Lov­ing You” (1955), from “Love Me or Leave Me,” we hear not only another soaring bridge but also a three-in-the­morn­ing, jazz-tinged world weari­ness long the prov­ince of Si­na­tra him­self.

Some might ob­ject that Day doesn’t qual­ify as a jazz vo­cal­ist be­cause she doesn’t in­vent high-fly­ing scat singing along the lines of Fitzger­ald, O’Day, Torme, Sarah Vaughan and oth­ers.

Nei­ther did Bil­lie Hol­i­day.

More im­por­tant, it’s the jazz-swing ethos that de­fines Day’s great­est achieve­ments and serves as sub­text to her most ac­com­plished pop hits.

Which is why these record­ings still en­chant.


Doris Day evoked a young Ella Fitzger­ald in her sig­na­ture hit “It’s Magic” from her film de­but, “Romance on the High Seas.”

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