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Jones, Etta 1928–2001

Etta Jones 19282001

Jazz singer

Developed Unique Style

Recorded Hit for Prestige Labet

Teamed with Saxophonist Houston Person

Selected discography

Sources

Jazz and blues singer Etta Jones could sound like the legendary Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington when she wanted to, but her voice was distinctive and she could make any song her own. She was also compared to Ella Fitzgerald and Ella Johnson, but Jones was unique among them. Though she never achieved the fame that Holiday or Fitzgerald did, Jones was a great performer, earning three Grammy nominations in her lifetime, for Dont go to Strangers (1960), Save Your Love for Me, (1981), and My Buddy (1999). Joness temperament was decidedly unlike that of a jazz diva, and she cherished the relationship she had with her longtime saxophonist, Houston Person. She toured constantly with Person for three decades, playing primarily for black audiences, and kept up her concert schedule until two weeks before her death in 2001. Sadly underrated throughout her 57-year career, most of the media coverage Jones received in her lifetime took place after her death.

Developed Unique Style

Jones was born November 25, 1928, in Aiken, South Carolina, and raised in Harlem. She developed herunique voice and style very early on. She used silence, her breath sounds, quick yodels, unusual lyrical syncopation, and a sliding pitch that made for a rich, bluesy tone. Her career began when she was 15, after she won one of the famous amateur contests at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Among her influences, she cited Thelma Carpenter, a onetime singer for Count Basie who became a torch singer. Neither a shouter, a whisperer, nor a bebopper, Ms. Jones clung fast to a set of jazz standards from the 1940s and 50s, wrote critic Ben Ratliff of the New York Times. She was also a ready improviser. I never sing a song the same way again, the Independent (London) quoted her as saying. Her favorite composer was Sammy Cahn, whose songs are the subject of her 1999 album, All the Way, and she loved sad ballads. Theyre the most pretty to me, she once said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When its sad, its beautiful.

Jones began working as a professional singer at 16, when she won an audition and went on tour with Buddy Johnson and his 19-piece band as a temporary replacement for Johnsons sister, Ella Johnson. Johnsons group played in the common vernacular jazz style of

At a Glance

Born November 25, 1928, in Aiken, SC; died October 16, 2001, in Mount Vernon, NY; married John Medlock; children: one daughter (deceased).

Career: Jazz singer. Won amateur night at the Apollo, 1943; sang with Buddy Johnson and his 19-piece band, 1944; made her recording debut singing Blow Top Tunes on Black and White record label, 1944; sang with bands led by Pete Johnson, J.C. Heard, Sonny Stitt, Barney Bigard, and Earl Hines, 1944-52; went into semi-retirement, 1952-60; released Dont go to Strangers, 1960; met tenor saxophonist Houston Person, 1968; began recording for Muse (later High Note), 1976; released Save Your Love for Me, 1981; released My Buddy, 1999; toured and recorded until her death.

the 40s, according to Ratliff, using a blend of rhythm-and-blues and jump blues. The band was not as popular as some of the other touring bands of the era, such as those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and toured black-only venues across the United States. When Ella Johnson returned to the band, Jones worked with a number of different bands, both medium and large, led by artists such as Pete Johnson, J.C. Heard, Sonny Stitt, Barney Bigard, and Earl Hines. She made her recording debut in 1944 for jazz critic and music producer Leonard Feather, singing Blow Top Tunes on the Black and White record label. She recorded three other songs with Feather, including Evil Gal Blues, which later became hits for Dinah Washington.

Recorded Hit for Prestige Labet

In 1952 Jones went into semi-retirement, singing only occasionally. She had tried to make it as a solo singer but didnt have much luck, so she worked as a seamstress, elevator operator, and at other mundane jobs during this time. Prestige Records pulled her out of retirement after eight years, to record her 1960 release, Dont Go to Strangers.

It was the biggest hit of her career. Jones could not believe it when a friend told her the single was being played on jukeboxes everywhere. Dont Go to Strangers climbed both the R&B and pop charts, sold over a million copies, and earned a gold record and a Grammy nomination. No disc better exemplifies Joness appeal, according to the London Times. It was the only time during her career that Jones commanded high concert fees, and the success pushed her income, as she once put it, from $50 to $750. Dont Go to Strangers was one of seven records she released on the Prestige label.

Teamed with Saxophonist Houston Person

Jones was in Washington, D.C., in 1968, when she first played with tenor saxophonist Houston Person and his trio. Person, also from South Carolina, became her saxophonist, friend, producer, road manager, and traveling companion for the next 33 years. Its been a wonderful relationship. He takes care of me, watches over me, Down Beat quoted her as saying. Hes just been my best friend, ever. The pair always shared equal billing, which was an unusual arrangement for a jazz singer and her saxophonist. They developed a conversational style of answering each others lines, according to Ratliff, who quoted Jones as saying, He knows exactly what Im going to do. He knows if Im in trouble; hell give me the note. He leaves me room. Though audiences called them Aunt Etta and Uncle Person, and often mistook them for husband and wife, the two were never married. They began recording for the Muse record label in 1976, which later became High Note. Jones never recorded for a major label. All I want to do is work, make a decent salary, and have friends, she once said, according to the Independent (London).

Person served as Joness manager and producer on 18 records. Writer Samuel J. Freedman in the New York Times called the relationship perhaps the most productive such partnership in jazz history. Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, told Freedman in an interview, What they did was classic. For a tenor sax and a lady singer, it was really one of a kind. Every phrase, every gesture, they were attuned to each other. Jones and Person toured for more than thirty years together, most often performing for black audiences.

She battled illness in the early 1990s, but came back to record some remarkable collaborations with a younger set of jazz musicians, including pianist Benny Green and blues singer Charles Brown. By the late 1990s, this group was appearing twice a year at Manhattans prestigious Village Vanguard, and at international festivals around the world. Jones maintained her presence on the New York jazz scene, playing concerts up to two weeks before her death, though she was confined to a wheelchair.

Jones was said to have maintained her vocal power and range even into her seventies. She could do a dead-on impersonation of Billie Holidays signature tone, though she rarely did this for audiences. Joness last album, Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, a tribute to Holiday, was released the day she died. Jones died on October 16, 2001, of breast and lung cancer, at her home in Mount Vernon, New York. After Joness death, Person played a six-night stand at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan, the sort of first-rate venue that had eluded the duo. Ive gotten my recognition, Person said in an interview with Freedman. But I designed the group so that Etta and I shared half and half, and it hurts me that she didnt get what she deserved. She was out there for so many years.

Selected discography

Etta Jones and Strings, Original Jazz, 1960.

Dont Go to Strangers, Prestige, 1960.

So Warm, Prestige, 1961.

Something Nice, Prestige, 1961.

From the Heart, Prestige, 1962.

Lonely and Blue, Original Jazz, 1962.

Hollar!, Prestige, 1962.

Love Shout, Prestige, 1963.

If You Could See Me Now, Muse, 1963.

Etta Jones Sings, King, 1965.

Etta Jones 75, 20th Century, 1975.

Ms. Jones to You, Muse, 1976.

My Mothers Eyes, Muse, 1977.

Ill Be Seeing You, Muse, 1987.

Fine and Mellow, Muse, 1987.

Sugar, Muse, 1989.

Christmas with Etta Jones, Muse, 1990.

Reverse the Charges, Muse, 1991.

At Last, Muse, 1993.

My Gentleman Friend, Muse, 1994.

The Melody Lingers On, High Note, 1997.

My Buddy: Songs of Buddy Johnson, High Note, 1998.

All the Way, High Note, 1999.

Easy Living, High Note, 2000.

Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, High Note, 2001.

Sources

Books

Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, Ltd., 1998.

Periodicals

Dayton Daily News, October 28, 2001, p. 5C.

Down Beat, March 2002, p. 22.

Independent, October 22, 2001, p. 6.

New York Times, October 19, 2001, p. C12; May 5, 2002, p. 2.1.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1998, p. 21.

Independent (London, England), October 24, 2001, p. 19.

Variety, November 5-11, 2001, p. 41.

On-line

All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 27, 2002).

Brenna Sanchez

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Jones, Etta

Etta Jones

Singer

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Jazz vocalist Etta Jones recorded more than two dozen albums and earned three Grammy Award nominations during her six-decade-long career. Her popularity peaked in 1960 with the release of her single Dont Go to Strangers, which climbed to number five on the R&B charts. In the late 1960s Jones formed a duo with tenor saxophonist Houston Person, with whom she toured for the next 35 years. All I want to do is work, make a decent salary, and have friends, Jones told National Public Radio in a quotation cited in the Dallas Morning News. Although she never attained a level of stardom comparable to such jazz and blues greats as Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington, Jones had a devoted following of listeners and made her own unique mark on jazz history.

Jones was born on November 5, 1928, in Aiken, South Carolina, and raised in New York City. As a three year old she dreamed of becoming a singer and would pose in front of a mirror to mimic songs from the radio. Billie Holiday, whom she saw in concert, and Thelma Carpenter, were some of her earliest influences. When Jones was 15 years old, she attended Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Like jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, her career began at the Apollo, though at first glance her debut did not seem promising. On that evening in 1943 she was so nervous that she started singing off key and lost the talent competition. Yet the pianist-bandleader Buddy Johnson recognized her ability. Johnson immediately hired her to fill in for his vocalist sister, Ella Johnson, who was leaving the band to have a baby.

Jones toured with Johnsons 19-man band for a year, until Ella returned, thus beginning a series of stints with other medium- and big-band New York jazz groups, including the Harlemaires and the Barney Bigards Orchestra. It was with the latter that Jones made her first recording, arranged by pianist Leonard Feather in 1944. In subsequent years she performed and recorded with such jazz personalities as Pete Johnson, J. C. Heard, Kenny Burrell, Charles Brown, Milt Johnson, and Cedar Walton. In 1949 she started singing with Earl Fatha Hines, performing with his band for the next three years.

Jones also attempted to launch a solo career, though she was not successful at first. She recorded sides with such labels as Black & White and RCA Victor, but these singles flopped. At the time, R&B was enjoying increased popularity, but Jones avoided this genre, preferring to sing jazz. This decision limited her audience and her exposure as an artist, and for a number of years she remained an obscure singer.

Throughout the 1950s Jones faced hard times and had to take day jobs occasionally to make ends meet, working as an elevator operator, an album stuffer, and a seamstress. She continued to perform sporadically, as opportunities arose. In 1956 Jones recorded her first

For the Record

Born on November 5, 1928, in Aiken, SC; died on October 16, 2001, in Mount Vernon, NY.

Started singing professionally with jazz pianist-band-leader Buddy Johnson, age 15; made first recording with Barney Bigards Orchestra, 1944; performed with Earl Fatha Hines, 1949-52; recorded first full-length album, The Jones Girl Etta Sings, Sings, Sings, 1956; released biggest hit single, Dont Go to Strangers, selling one million copies, 1960; received first Grammy nomination for Dont Go to Strangers album, 1960; began performing with saxophonist Houston Person, 1968; recorded 18 records with Muse (which became High Note Records), 1976-2001.

Awards: Eubie Blake Jazz Award; Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women in Jazz Foundation.

full-length album, The Jones Girl Etta Sings, Sings, Sings, with King Records. But the album debuted with little fanfare and went largely unnoticed.

The tables turned for Jones in 1960 when her manager, Warren Lanier, sent a demo tape to Esmond Edwards, a producer at Prestige Records. Edwards liked the tape and decided to sign Jones immediately. On the Prestige label she recorded the album Dont Go to Strangers, released in 1960. Since Strangers was a jazz album, no one expected it to appeal to a mainstream audience. Yet the title song was an instant hit, selling one million copies and putting Jones name on the top 40 charts. The song even earned her a Grammy Award nominationthe first of three in her career. While Jones was not an overnight success, she was a sudden success. Her weekly income increased from $50 to $750. Riding on this triumph, Jones recorded several more albums for Prestige throughout the 1960s. But, jazz audiences were dwindling in the United States with the arrival of the Beatles and the growing popularity of pop and rock sounds.

In 1968 Jones formed a musical partnership that would change her career. She met Houston Person, a highly regarded tenor saxophonist, when the two performed on the same bill at a Washington, D.C., nightclub. Jones and Person immediately hit it off, and they decided to tour together as a duo with equal billing, a partnership that would last for more than three decades. They say a lot of times singers and musicians dont get along too well, Jones told Billy Taylor of Billy Taylors Jazz at the Kennedy Center on National Public Radio in 1998, but we got along famously.

Person became not only Jones collaborator but alsoafter 1975her manager and record producer. Their connection was so close that some jazz aficionados have mistakenly assumed they were married, though they were not. Yet their rapport as musicians was unique, and they developed a conversational style with vocals and saxophone riffs. [Person] knows exactly what Im going to do, the New York Times recalls Jones saying. He knows if Im in trouble; hell give me a note. He leaves me room.

From the mid-1970s until her death in 2001, Jones and Person recorded 18 albums for the Muse label, which later became High Note Records. While these albums appealed to a relatively narrow audience of jazz aficionados, they occasionally contained minor hits attracting a wider group of listeners. In 1981 Jones received a Grammy Award nomination for her album Save Your Love for Me. A third Grammy nomination came in 1999 for her tribute to her former boss, My BuddyEtta Jones Sings the Songs of Buddy Johnson.

Late in her career, Jones was able to relax into her role as a highly respected, traditional jazz singer. When I first started, I had to do some songs I didnt care for, but now I more or less sing what I want to sing, she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993, as quoted in the Washington Post. I want a good lyric. I dont want nonsense. I like heavy dramatic tunesa tune thats saying something, like Sammy Cahns All the Way.

After a battle with cancer, Jones died on October 16, 2001. She was survived by her husband, John Medlock, two sisters, and a granddaughter (a daughter predeceased her). The day she died, High Note released her final recording, Etta Jones Sings Lady Day.

Selected discography

Dont Go to Strangers, Prestige/OJC, 1960.

Etta Jones and Strings, Original Jazz, 1960.

Something Nice, Prestige/OJC, 1961.

From the Heart, Prestige/OJC, 1962.

Hollar, Prestige, 1962.

Etta Jones Greatest Hits, Prestige, 1967.

Ms. Jones to You, Muse, 1976.

My Mothers Eyes, Muse, 1977.

Save Your Love for Me, Muse, 1981.

Fine and Mellow, Muse, 1987.

Sugar, Muse, 1989.

Reverse the Charges, Muse, 1991.

At Last, Muse, 1993.

Doin What She Does Best, 32 Jazz, 1998.

My Buddy: Songs of Buddy Johnson, High Note, 1998.

Etta Jones Sings Lady Day, High Note, 2001.

Sources

Periodicals

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2001, p. B13.

New York Times, October 19, 2001, p. C12.

Times (London), October 24, 2001, p. 19.

Washington Post, October 18, 2001, p. B6.

Online

Etta Jones, All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com. (January 28, 2002).

Etta Jones, Billy Taylors Jazz at the Kennedy Center, National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/programs/btaylor/archive/jones_e.html (January 28, 2002).

Etta Jones, Prolific, Soulful Jazz Vocalist, Nominated Twice for Grammys, Dies, Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com/obituaries/STORY.e99db45424.b0.af.0.a4.d797.html (January 28, 2002).

Houston Person and Etta Jones at Joe Siegels Jazz Showcase in Chicago, JazzSet, National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzset/archive/2001/011206.ejones.html (January 28, 2002).

Remembering Etta Jones, All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/articles/arti1101_03.htm (January 28, 2002).

Wendy Kagan

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"Jones, Etta." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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