Blossom Dearie: slight of sound, full of expression

    She of the childlike voice, named after the pear blossoms brought to her on the day of her birth, would have been 100 years old today

    Blossom Dearie

    Back in the day I saw Blossom Dearie live at Ronnie Scott’s and it’s probably true to say I was underwhelmed. I’d gone with a friend who was an admirer, and it wasn’t clear, to me, at least, what all the fuss was about. I found her something of a one-trick pony with little or no charisma, a female Tiny Tim, if you will, not unlike a school mistress imparting knowledge from behind a piano in a darkened jazz club, rather than behind a desk in a brightly lit classroom. It goes, I hope, without saying, that I subsequently revised my opinion, else why are we here.

    The friend in question was a close one, in whose flat it was difficult to spend any kind of time without that one-off voice in the background, to say nothing of a running commentary of When, Where, Why, and Who with, so that, by osmosis, as it were, I absorbed, sponge-like, a working knowledge of a very singular performer, who, whether I liked it or not, was slowly growing on me, like barnacles on the hull of a ship.

    She was born in East Durham, a village in the Catskill mountains, so there was, as it were, an immediate show business connection. Located some 100 miles north-west of New York City, it was, in the early years of the 20th century, the summer vacation spot of choice for Jewish New Yorkers, with some 500 resort hotels at its peak. It was known as the Borscht Belt and its celebrated venues, such as Grossinger’s, gave such later headliners as Danny Kaye, Jackie Mason, and writers such as Moss Hart, a forum – via a different show every week – in which to learn their craft and hone their skills. At her christening she was given the name of her Norwegian mother, Margarethe, and a middle name, Blossom, because of (in the well-documented story) the pear blossoms brought to the house by (1) a neighbour or (2) her older brothers, on the day of her birth, 28 April 1924.

    She began to study piano, albeit classical – Mozart, Bach – and soon achieved proficiency but around the age of 10 she became interested in jazz and abandoned her classical studies. As the 1965 video clip below shows, she mastered the new style.

    The first move of any significance was to Manhattan in her late teens, where, it seems, she was frightened by the colour blue, singing as part of the vocal groups the Blue Flames, with Woody Herman, and the Blue Reys, with Alvino Rey. Coincidentally, she later formed a group of her own which she chose to call the Blue Stars. In 1952, whilst performing in a small club, Chantilly, in Greenwich Village, she met Eddie and Nicole Barclay, who owned a small label, Barclay Records, and invited her to Paris to work and record. She accepted and made the move. Once there, she formed the eight-piece Blue Stars, which included Bob Dorough and Christine Legrand, brother of composer Michel. It was Michel who made an arrangement for the group of George Shearing’s Lullaby Of Birdland, which, sung in French, became a hit in France. She also met two other people who would play significant roles in her life: Norman Granz, who originated the highly successful Jazz At The Phil concerts, and a musician (tenor sax and flute) from Belgium, Bobby Jaspar, whom she would marry in 1954, and divorce three years later. It was her sole foray into wedlock.

    When Norman Granz founded Verve Records, he invited Blossom to return to the US and work with him. She took him up on it, leaving the Blue Stars to morph into the Swingle Sisters, and cut six albums for Verve in the space of three years, whilst simultaneously performing live in Manhattan jazz clubs. There she occasionally – and improbably, as it seems to me, at least – shared a bill with Miles Davis, who was stunned to hear her tell the audience at the Village Vanguard to shut up. She was by now attracting admirers, not least of whom was Dave Garroway, host of NBC’s Today show, and a huge fan, so much so that he featured her on the show several times; in fact, she could have claimed to be working 24/7, given that she was also appearing on Jack Parr’s Tonight show.

    Throughout her career, both in live gigs and on records, she had confined her accompaniment to bass and drums or, at best, bass, drums and guitar, but in 1964 she cut an album for Capitol with a full orchestra, arranged and conducted by Jack Marshall. On paper this was madness, professional suicide: surely a voice so fragile would be overwhelmed by anything more ambitious than triangle and tambourine. In the event May I Come In? is a lovely album, one of my favourites. Far from overwhelming her, Marshall’s charts cocoon her warmly and gently, allowing her to extract every last nuance out of the lyrics.

    By the 1960s we in the UK got the chance to sample her dual wares in person. While in the London, she was a house guest of Richard Rodney Bennett in the newly trendy Islington. Performing regularly at Annie’s (Ross) Room and Ronnie Scott’s, she also cut four albums for Fontana and was a frequent guest on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s TV shows. In 1974 she founded her own label, Daffodil, and came back into my life, as it were, via another label, Painted Smiles, owned by a friend of mine, Ben Bagley. He released a whole slew of “Revisited” albums devoted to obscure, neglected, dropped-out-of-town and otherwise overlooked material from A-list songwriters. Blossom appeared on six of them, three – dedicated to Rodgers & Hart, DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, and Alan Jay Lerner – in 1974 alone. Now at the peak of her fame, she spent the 80s, 90s and the start of the 2000s consolidating her unique style of singing and playing in clubs and concert halls and on television and records. For six straight years she enjoyed a residency at Danny’s Hideaway, in mid-town Manhattan, making her farewell performance there in 2007.

    Two years later, on 7 February 2009, she died peacefully in her sleep in her apartment in Greenwich Village, a unique and well-loved entertainer, whose like, as the man said, we will not see again.