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Anderson, Ivie Marie

Ivie Marie Anderson

American singer Ivie Marie Anderson (1905-1949), one of the best vocalists of jazz's golden age, was the lead voice of jazz legend Duke Ellington's big band for 11 years. Her strong sense of timing, distinctive jazz phrasing, and genuine emotion made her performances of happy pop and sultry ballads equally affecting. Her most popular songs included “It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” a defining song of the swing era, and the bluesy ballad “I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good.”

A Trained Vocalist

Ivie Marie Anderson (sometimes known as Ivy Anderson) was born in Gilroy, California, in 1905. Between the ages of nine and thirteen, she learned to sing at St. Mary's Convent in her hometown, and she sang in the choir and glee club at Gilroy elementary and high schools. She then spent two years receiving vocal training with Sara Ritt at the Nunnie H. Burroughs Institution in Washington, D.C.

Anderson returned to California around 1921, still a teenager, and began singing professionally, debuting at Tait's Club in Los Angeles and also performing at Mike Lyman's Tent Cafe. In 1922 she joined the Fanchon and Marco revue, a nationally touring vaudeville troupe led by Mamie Smith, performing as a singer and dancer. After singing in Cuba in 1924 and at the famed Cotton Club in New York City in 1925, Anderson joined the touring revue of Shuffle Along, a groundbreaking African-American musical. She returned to California and sang with several West Coast bandleaders, including Curtis Mosby, Paul Howard, and Sonny Clay. In the first five months of 1928, she toured Australia with Clay's band, then toured the West Coast of the United States for five months, headlining her own revue. She also sang with Anson Weeks at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco in 1928, which may have made her the first black singer to perform with a white orchestra.

In mid-1930, Anderson joined jazz pianist Earl Hines's big band at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Illinois. After five months performing there, she began performing with Duke Ellington, one of the country's most popular bandleaders. Ellington was booked to perform at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago, and the producer suggested that he add a female vocalist to his act. Before that, he had relied on clubs to provide singers or had his drummer, Sonny Greer, or trumpeter Cootie Williams sing. Ellington's producer suggested hiring a female singer. Ellington's autobiography revealed that Anderson was chosen over singer May Alix, who had recorded several successful records, including “Big Butter and Egg Man” with Louis Armstrong, because the producer felt the light-skinned Alix looked too white. Ellington, meanwhile, was impressed with Anderson's vocal sound and ability and, likely, her training and experience. Although he frequently hired self-taught musicians, he preferred trained vocalists. Anderson debuted with the band on February 13, 1931, performing live between showings of a film at the Oriental Theatre.

Her First Hits

Anderson quickly became a key part of the band's sound and appeal. Her first recording with the band, “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” became one of her best-known hits. Anderson's vocal included scatting, the jazz technique of playfully singing nonsense syllables to imitate musical instruments. “Anderson scats along with the band's introduction to the song like a jitterbug impatient to get the music moving,” David Bradbury described in his book Duke Ellington. “She delivers the lyric as a passionate appeal, propaganda for a rhythmic revolution.” Though the song had little melody and sparse lyrics, Anderson's catchy vocal proved a popular expression of the carefree, fun spirit of swing music.

At first the other band members found Anderson shy and awed by the fact that she was performing with Ellington. Soon, though, she and Greer, the drummer, started exchanging quick-witted banter onstage and developed a routine in which she would sing in response to his drumming. She stood out for “her showmanship, her fine understanding of song lyrics and her remarkable feeling for the way this band thought and felt and acted and played,” wrote jazz critic Barry Ulanov, as quoted by Bradbury in Duke Ellington.

“Our Ivie wasn't a classic beauty, but how lovely she was as she sparkled through every scene, her small, shy smile unexpectedly quickening into an impish bump or dance step,” trumpeter Rex Stewart later wrote, quoted by Bradbury. “When she sang a melancholy refrain such as ‘Solitude’ or ‘Mood Indigo,’ oft times the fellows in the band would get caught up in the tide of her emotional portrayal and look sheepishly at each other in wonder at her artistry.” Anderson's winning onstage persona contrasted with her still charming but rougher personality out of the spotlight. On the band's train rides, Anderson proved herself a talented poker player, often winning a lot of money from the musicians in no-betting-limit games. “Off stage our Miss Anderson was another person entirely, bossing the poker game, cussing out Ellington, playing practical jokes or giving some girl-advice about love and life,” Stewart recalled.

Veteran jazz critic Nat Hentoff once caught a glimpse of this side of Anderson, as he recounted in an article for Jazz Times. “I was talking with Duke Ellington in his dressing room when a slender, vivid, angry spirit swept in,” Hentoff recalled. It was Anderson, “who had a grievance, which she expressed in remarkably inventive, salty language until she took note of me, stopped and vanished.”

Anderson's second big hit for Ellington was the dark ballad “Stormy Weather.” Her performance of the song at the London Palladium in June of 1933, during a two-month tour of England, the Netherlands, and France, was especially memorable. She sang the song without a microphone while dressed in a white gown and leaning against a marble pillar. “She stopped the show cold,” Ellington recalled in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. “While she was singing ‘Stormy Weather’ the audience and all the management brass broke down crying and applauding.” Anderson also sang the song in the film short Bundle of Blues, shot that year. Other early hits of hers included “Raisin' the Rent” and “I'm Satisfied,” also released in 1933.

Anderson's Talent

Some critics felt Anderson had weaknesses as a singer, including poor intonation. But she sang with an authentic jazz feeling that made her very popular with Ellington's audiences. Ellington considered Anderson the singer “who best embodied the band's resilient spirit,” according to Hentoff. She sang with a precise diction and was skilled with blues and scat phrasings, singing pop songs with a bright, piercing voice and ballads with a full, sultry tone.

“Ivie had an unerring sense of jazz time,” wrote Hentoff. “Her phrasing was so musicianly that she fitted seamlessly into the band, and she had as strong a presence as the famed soloists in the orchestra.” Hentoff judged her interpretations of the jazz standards “Solitude” and “Stormy Weather” the most affecting he ever heard.

In 1937 Anderson appeared in the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races, singing “All God's Chillun Got Rhythm.” Though she played a washerwoman, a stereotypical African-American job at the time, she still radiated dignity and joy. In the scene, she sings as a group of black children follow her, as well as Harpo Marx, who was playing a penny whistle.

Ellington, some feel, reached the peak of his creative powers around 1940 and 1941. Anderson recorded several significant songs with him during that period, including “Me and You,” which Bradbury called one of her most joyful vocals. She also recorded vocal versions of “Solitude” and “Mood Indigo,” which had long been theme songs for the band as instrumentals.

In 1941 Anderson and Ellington's band were featured in a groundbreaking revue in Los Angeles, Jump For Joy, which celebrated authentic African-American humor and culture and satirized sentimentality about the South and the theatrical stereotypes that white audiences expected black performers to re-enact. Anderson sang “I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good,” which later became a hit, and two humorous social commentary songs, “Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Drive-In Now,” which imagined the slave characters from the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin freed and running a Los Angeles restaurant, and “I've Got a Passport from Georgia,” which celebrated the relative freedom of black Americans who left the South for New York City. The show played for three months in Los Angeles but did not tour elsewhere, likely because white audiences were not receptive to its positive message about blacks.

“I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good,” a signature song for Anderson, told of an uncaring man who does not return the narrator's love: “Never treats me sweet and gentle, the way he should,” Anderson sang. She, Ellington, and the band appeared in a film short featuring the song (now available on the DVD Duke Ellington: The Big Band Feeling). Anderson, clad in a plaid dress, sits forlornly on a windowsill, singing the title line directly to the camera. Another scene shows Anderson running her hands over Ellington's shoulders, then looking away, as he lies on a couch, drinking.

Retirement

By 1942 Anderson was suffering from chronic asthma, which made it difficult for her to sing. That summer, she and pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn scouted Chicago's nightclubs, looking for a new female singer to join Ellington's band. They recruited Betty Roche, a veteran vocalist who performed with the band for most of the 1940s. In August of 1942 Anderson retired from the band.

Returning to Los Angeles, Anderson opened Ivie's Chicken Shack with her husband, Marque Neal. She later divorced Neal, sold the restaurant, and married Walter Collins, an apartment building manager (the dates of the marriages and divorce are unknown). Anderson performed in nightclubs in California and recorded eight solo songs in 1946 with top jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus, Willie Smith, and Lucky Thompson. But her poor health kept her from recording or touring regularly.

Anderson died on December 28, 1949, in the Los Angeles apartment building her husband managed, after a three-week illness related to asthma. She was 45. Today her music is available on compilations from several record companies. The most comprehensive disc—Jasmine Records' 2000 release I Got It Good and That Ain't Bad!— includes some of her 1946 solo recordings as well as her work with Ellington. “She was really an extraordinary artist and an extraordinary person as well,” Ellington recalled in Music Is My Mistress. “She had great dignity, and she was greatly admired by everybody everywhere we went, at home and abroad.”

Books

Bradbury, David, Duke Ellington, Haus Publishing, 2005.

Collier, James Lincoln, Duke Ellington, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Ellington, Duke, Music Is My Mistress, Doubleday, 1973.

Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.

Periodicals

Jazz Times, April 2001.

New York Times, December 30, 1949.

Online

“Ivie Anderson,” Solid!, http://www.parabrisas.com/d_andersoni.php (December 16, 2007).

Kernfeld, Barry, “Anderson, Ivie,” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-02718.html (December 16, 2007).

Wilson, Jeremy, “Ivie Anderson,” Jazz Standards History, http://www.jazzstandards.com/biographies/ivie_Anderson.htm (December 16, 2007).

Yanow, Scott, “Ivie Anderson: Biography,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 16, 2007).

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