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An unprecedented summit of jazz vocal pioneers convened at New York’s Birdland in September 2015. Jon Hendricks and Bob Dorough were nonagenarians. Annie Ross and Sheila Jordan were in their 80s; Andy Bey (subbing for an ailing Mark Murphy) was the youngster of the group at 75. They were founding fathers and mothers of vocalese, the art of singing original lyrics to great jazz instrumental solos.
The elders were the guests of a new vocal quartet formed by Amy London, Darmon Meader, Dylan Pramuk & the late Holli Ross (no relation to Annie), whose new album featuring these trailblazers, The Royal Bopsters Project (Motéma), had just been released.
“I was pinching myself. It’s like I was in heaven,” said Amy London, the Bopsters’ soprano and a noted arranger and jazz educator.
Hendricks, Annie Ross, Dorough and Murphy have since passed away (Jordan, 91, and Bey, 80, are both still active as performers).
When it comes to group jazz singing and the art of vocalese, The Royal Bopsters are keepers of the flame. The quartet, now featuring a revised line-up (tenor and noted bandleader Pete McGuiness has replaced Meader, who continues to sing with The New York Voices) has a new album, Party of Four (again on Motéma).
[caption id="attachment_33830" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Holli Ross, Amy London, Dylan Pramuk, and Pete McGuinness are The Royal Bopsters. (Photo by Janis Wilkins)[/caption]
They’re not the only contemporary jazz vocal group, of course, but there aren’t a lot of them. The Voices and Manhattan Transfer still perform their close harmonies with powerful swing. Take 6, with its huge sound, impossible-sounding harmonies and gospel seasoning, is as impressive as ever. The young, eclectic six-member international group known as Accent is making waves as well.
The Bopsters have a particular niche - the bebop and post-bop world of the ’50s that gave birth to vocalese. “The Tadd Dameron and Gigi Gryce thing is kind of our bag – that whole era,” London said, referring to the bop and post-bop innovators. The new album features an effervescent arrangement of Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” inspired by Chet Baker’s version, with a vocalese lyric by the English pop star turned jazz singer Georgie Fame; Billy Strayhorn’s lovely ballad “Daydream,” and a version of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me” inspired by another of Chet Baker’s solo.
There’s more, much of it unexpected, including a dynamite version of Tito Puente’s Cuando Te Vea (“When I See You”), one of two songs featuring bassist Christian McBride; and delightful appearances by Jordan (“Lucky to Be Me”) and Dorough in what is probably his last recorded performance, singing his own “Baby, You Should Know It.” Both are full of energetic scatting and good humor.
When she’s not gigging, London teaches vocal jazz at The New School, Hofstra University, City College (CCNY), and at the Jazz House Kids music school in Montclair, New Jersey, where she founded the vocal jazz program. She acknowledges having gone through a period when she was afraid that younger musicians might abandon jazz singing altogether. Then, in 2008, “I started teaching the New School’s jazz workshop in Italy and continued for 11 years. And these kids were crazy for the Great American Songbook and vocalese and jazz. The whole town would come out for these concerts and they loved it!”
The only people you ever hear putting down swing are jazz musicians, she agreed. “People love jazz and people love swing. It feels great! It’s not some ‘old fart’ music that grandma and grandpa used to dance to.”
[caption id="attachment_33828" align="alignleft" width="203"] Holli Ross (Photo by Christopher Drukker)[/caption]
The new album is dedicated to alto and lyricist Holli Ross, who died this May after a three-year battle with cancer. “We were best friends,” London told me. “Holli was one of the bravest people I ever met. She soldiered through (the recording and touring). She never complained and showed up for everything. 2019 was an excellent year for us. We played Ronnie Scott’s in London and The Half Note in Athens. That summer we played the Newport Jazz Festival and got a standing ovation.”
London is now certain that vocal jazz has a bright future. “For a minute there, I thought it was all going to die out, but then Jazzmeia Horn came along; she was one of my students at The New School. As were Dylan (Pramuk, who now does the lion’s share of arranging for the Bopsters), Brianna Thomas and José James.” She’s a big fan of all three. London is crazy about Veronica Swift, too. “She's off the hook! She and Jazzmeia give me so much hope for the future.” She points out that both Jazzmeia and Veronica have recorded “A Social Call” by Gigi Gryce; they’re obviously taken with the same music that has motivated London and her colleagues for decades. “I'm thrilled that these people are into the good stuff!”
Photo of Amy London courtesy the artist