What’s wrong with easy listening?

Randy L. Smith applauds the girth of the cool embodied in an oft-derided genre

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Mr. P.C. has his charms. For one thing, he is relaxed, almost preternaturally so. ‘Como doesn’t just sing behind the beat, he makes you feel he has yet to catch up with the previous beat’ is how Will Friedwald puts it

Some years ago, I was sitting with friends in a downtown Osaka club called the New Suntory Five, for decades home of classic jazz styles in the Kansai region of Japan. We had gone there to hear Osaka’s legendary New Orleans Rascals, together continuously since the early 60s, keeping alive the spirit of Crescent City clarinettist George Lewis.

In a merry mood at intermission, I noticed Perry Como’s soft voice warming the room with agreeable background music. When I casually mentioned the singer’s name, someone responded with a dismissive remark. Feeling an urge to defend Como, even though I’m no huge fan, I posed a question: “What’s wrong with good songs, well sung?” 

What indeed? Mr. P.C. has his charms. For one thing, he is relaxed, almost preternaturally so. “Como doesn’t just sing behind the beat, he makes you feel he has yet to catch up with the previous beat” is how Will Friedwald puts it in his entertaining and informative book Jazz Singing. That someone like Friedwald – famously catholic of taste though he is – would even consider Perry Como for his discussion of jazz singing says a lot. The author goes on to identify the RCA album We Get Letters as “the one … essential Como record”. I managed to track down a CD copy of this 1957 effort, listened and had to agree with Friedwald’s assessment. Devoid of heavy braying brass or cloying vocal choirs, the album makes pleasant listening. Mitchell Ayers’ uncluttered minimalist arrangements complement Como’s gentle “behind-the-previous-beat” delivery of some durable standards, coaxing insouciant swing from the low-pressure singer.

However, that evening at New Suntory Five wasn’t the first time, nor the last, I heard disparaging remarks about Perry Como. He was bloodless. He was old-fashioned, out of touch with his time. He was, with a note of disdain, “easy listening”. Some truth there may be to these charges, but Como never advertised himself as anything he was not, unlike Kenny G professing to play jazz. So I feel it somewhat unfair that singers like him, Andy Williams, and at times, even the venerable Sinatra, whom a former colleague (an Australian) once unceremoniously called a “crooner,” find themselves assigned to that dustbin category of musical Americana, Easy Listening.

First of all, the term itself is as imprecise as “trad” when mistakenly applied to all early jazz styles, as though the New Orleans polyphony perfected by Jelly Roll Morton and the Hot Five, Chicago jazz typified by the Condonites, Fletcher Henderson’s pre-swing, and the jumping blues of Kansas City are one and the same! That goes for “easy listening.” It’s more a mindset – a matter of conditioning or marketing – than any particular genre of music. Is Frank Sinatra easy listening? Apparently for many Americans, he is. How about Sammy Davis Jr., or Tony Bennett? Dean Martin or Dick Haymes? Peggy Lee or Jo Stafford? Bobby Darin? All of these singers project a jazz sensibility at times (some very strongly so), and yet all are often perceived as belonging in the throwaway section. And what about orchestral music, the Ellington-inspired albums of Nelson Riddle, or the straight-ahead swagger and swing of a Billy May instrumental collection? When in doubt, call it easy listening and file accordingly. Mood music or exotica? Same thing. Spread the tent as wide as bin space allows.

What about Johnny Hodges? He’s undeniably easy to listen to, though no one would dare call him easy listening. How about Sweets Edison? Or Ben Webster? Art Tatum? Mozart?

Here’s another indicator of how arbitrary this labeling process can be: in Japan a Como or a Sinatra is placed with the jazz vocalists alongside Billie, Ella, Sarah and Anita. The albums of “adult popular singers” (Friedwald’s term) such as Como get reissued in jazz vocal series. To the average Japanese fan, they are jazz singers. Easy listening? The concept seems unknown in the Land of the Rising Sun. Indeed, the term itself is vague and begs questions. What about Johnny Hodges? He’s undeniably easy to listen to, though no one would dare call him easy listening. How about Sweets Edison? Or Ben Webster? Art Tatum? Mozart? All are easy to take as background or to enhance a mood, yet profound for those wanting to listen.

Most informed listeners would say the same of Sinatra. His quartet of ballad albums from the 50s – Close To You, Only The Lonely, Where Are You? and In The Wee Small Hours – ought to come with a warning: do not spin if suicidal. Yet to many in the U.S. and elsewhere, he’s a mere crooner. Maybe it is the strings or the vibrato. Someone like Bobby Hackett presents a similar conundrum. On a record like Coast Concert with Jack Teagarden, he can swing a sick person into good health. And yet as early as 1938 or ’39, he was cutting ballad records that flirt with what would later fall under the easy-listening rubric. In the 50s and 60s, Hackett’s mellifluous horn elevated numerous string-laden sessions that at best risk being labelled easy listening, at worst muzak. But his playing always sounded good, whatever the background, finding favour with no less an admirer than Miles Davis.

My beef with the term is its potential to cloud our judgement and restrict our aesthetic appreciation

Mind you, I’m not saying all music relegated to the easy-listening bin is necessarily profound. Much no doubt deserves that indignity of a label. My beef with the term is its potential to cloud our judgement and restrict our aesthetic appreciation. We see a record or a CD in that section, and we may be more likely to bypass it. Clifford Brown With Strings gets filed with the other rejects, and someone could miss out on this gem. What’s more, our views on artists associated with the term harden into prejudice. Sinatra becomes a crooner. Perry Como is easy listening, so by definition, there must be nothing of value in his work. Thus, a merely nice album like We Get Letters is ignored. Further, the term obscures the craft and skill that goes into creating the relaxed persona that Como exhibits. Anyone who thinks such performance easy is invited to try it. Along with Irving Berlin’s ability to write a deceptively simple tune like White Christmas, what Perry Como achieved in We Get Letters requires perseverance, practice and plain old work. There’s always more to any musical endeavour than meets the ear.

Jazz fans are sometimes exhorted to keep an open mind as regards, for instance, the “out there” sounds of the New Thing, or the avant-garde. Why not open the mind to easy listening? In fact, I’d like to propose a new term to replace the old. How about … music? Meantime, I’ll continue scouring the racks for those soothing sounds I enjoy along with my hard bop and a stiff one.