Jessye Norman’s commanding soprano makes her the quintessential operatic diva for many listeners. But she frequently draws inspirations from jazz: She ranks Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer and Sarah Vaughan high on her list of influences.
“I love singing jazz,” Norman told Rhonda Hamilton in 2013. “I don’t like the idea that classical music should be over here and jazz should be someplace else. It’s all wonderful, and we should be open to enjoying it all.”
Early in her career, Norman said, hearing singers like Holiday taught her that interpretation is as important as a written score. In her view, this applies to opera as much as it does to improvised music.
“One has to draw upon one’s own musical thoughts, and one’s own musical acumen, and not to be afraid to let that come into one’s work,” she said. “Perhaps that comes with more experience, but perhaps it also comes with daring, and believing that you should.”
Norman sat down with Rhonda Hamilton before a special presentation of the musical Lady Day, starring Dee Dee Bridgewater. (The evening, a benefit for WBGO, was organized in collaboration with The Actors Fund, and held at The Little Schubert Theater.)
“We singers have a different level of responsibility from other musicians,” Norman told Hamilton. “We have words that we must convey; we have meanings that we must convey through these lyrics.”
She also reflected on five classic jazz-vocal performances, each illuminating a different lesson.
Mabel Mercer, “While We’re Young”
As a fledgling opera singer in New York, Norman went to hear Mabel Mercer perform at a cabaret across from the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. “While We’re Young” was a signature tune for Mercer, the U.K.-born daughter of an American jazz musician and a British singer; she first recorded the song in 1953. “I went and sort of sat at her feet on every occasion that I could possibly manage to understand how she had inspired so many other singers with her understanding of words,” Norman recalls. “It was wonderful to see her, sitting, at that point in her life — and, as it were, teaching the rest of us.”
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “I Won’t Dance”
“They must have had so much fun together — they’re two giants, just sort of onstage, playing,” Norman says of this performance, recorded in Los Angeles in 1957 with Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Louie Bellson on drums. “And the audience is just sort of breathless, taking it all in.”
Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”
“It is a stark reminder to have Billie Holiday sing a song that was written, actually, by someone who did not experience the persecution that African-Americans have felt in this country,” Norman says of the anti-lynching paean written by New York schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, who was white. “He wrote it in sympathy, and in empathy. It is so meaningful, with us just having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and all that is still going on socially and politically, that we are still not able to come together as one people.”
Sarah Vaughan, “My Favorite Things”
“We can really hear the beauty of Sarah Vaughan’s voice,” Norman says of this 1961 studio recording, which captures Vaughan with bassist George Duvivier and guitarist Mundell Lowe. “I had the privilege of hearing Sarah Vaughan live at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and she was stunning. It was standing room only, and there were many who were not able to get into the performance. I felt very lucky to have gotten a ticket early, and to have been a part of that extraordinary evening.”
Dee Dee Bridgewater, “Afro Blue”
“It’s amazing — the expansion and the breadth of her work is really quite fantastic,” Norman says of Bridgewater, who recorded this version of Mongo Santamaria’s jazz standard with traditional musicians from the West African country of Mali in 2006. “She really felt that in visiting Mali, she had visited the roots of her life, and I felt so happy for her for having had that experience. Because it really influenced and inspired and uplifted her in a way that was really marvelous to see, and marvelous to hear… Being in a whole country where everybody looks like you, and where they are so welcoming and pleased to have an American come, and to find out, yes, this is where it all started for you. This is where it all started for the entire world, actually.”