Mousy, militantly on the beat and popping with corniness, Beth Challis’ singing on “Clementine” has (for this writer) always represented the worst stereotypes about vocalists of the twenties:
The fact that she’s sufficient technically, singing in tune and delivering the lyrics correctly and clearly, somehow makes it worse: a stray note or dropped syllable might have added some spice to all that syrup.
Twenties vocalists remain the bane of many early jazz devotees. Their dated voices and hokey lyrics can seem like a waste of a 78’s precious three minutes. Reconciling passionate instrumental work with inferior vocals often leads to another round of “Is It Jazz, or Is It Pop?” sand-pushing.
Potshots at singers are a common coping mechanism for many jazz writers. Words like “butcher” and “murder” often stand in for “sing.” Michael Brooks notes Seger Ellis’ “tight-shoes-and-trousers voice” and how the Deep River Quintet resembles “…displaced mermen who have imbibed too much oxygen.” Richard M. Sudhalter teases Nappy Lamare about his “slightly hysterical” singing, and even Brian Rust’s description of Challis’ “bubbly” style seems more like a pity prize than an assessment.
Critical darts are one approach to aspects of the music that elude, stupefy and often annoy listeners. Vince Giordano offered another way when I visited him in New York a few weeks ago.
After seeing Vince and his Nighthawks live at Sofia’s Restaurant and speaking with Vince following the show, we realized that he lived a short distance away from my parents’ house, where I was staying. Vince graciously invited me to his home for what he called the “25-cent tour.” The 25-cent tour in turn offered so much history and insight that a full dollar would probably purchase a degree in hot musicology.
Vince’s house is packed with vintage musical instruments, records, sheet music, photographs, autographs and more. At least two other excellent pieces have covered Vince’s collection (Michael Zirpolo’s article in the IAJRC Journal and Bill Milkowski’s feature in JazzTimes), and I plan on posting my own words and photos in the future. Vince is a natural storyteller who imparts his knowledge and love of this music as effortlessly as one might give directions or explain how to prepare grilled cheese. Vince also enjoys a (good) culinary metaphor, yet an automotive reference he mentioned, completely in passing, completely changed the way I heard Beth Challis.
In the midst of discussing all things hot, musical and dear to him, when the topic of those old, “awful” (my words, not his) vocals arose, Vince just shrugged, offered neither criticism nor defense, and mentioned how “those singers were like a Model T. That was what people drove in those days, and that was how people sang in those days. Those were the vehicles that got people moving.”
Vince’s comment didn’t make it any easier to enjoy Beth Challis’ vocal, but it certainly made it harder to isolate as a strictly musical artifact, some unfortunate relic that took time away from what I deemed more valuable decades after the fact. The Challis vocal now seemed like something that I might not ever understand, but which once made sense to many others. That might not constitute “understanding” but it is a form of sympathy.
The best criticism opens up audiences to new experiences, rather than closes them off from what one deems unworthy. It spends less time being critical and instead helps people to appreciate the unknown, the unfamiliar or best of all, the impenetrable.
Just to mix one more metaphor, a good critic is like a good tour guide, someone who spends their time illuminating what there is to see. Unlike visiting the wrong neighborhood, listening to the “wrong” music will never get you killed; in theory, a good critic might even skip the bad stuff.