Why Doris Day reigns as one of the jazz greats
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.”