In 1971, Jimmy Rushing turned seventy and became terminally ill with leukemia. He’d been singing jazz professionally for almost fifty years, first leaving his native Oklahoma as an itinerant blues singer in the early twenties, eventually joining Jelly Roll Morton for a short spell in Los Angeles. He worked his way as far back east as Kansas City, getting in on the ground floor of the seminal, blues-based music teeming from that wide-open town. He sang with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1927, then with Bennie Moten’s band in 1929 and finally with Count Basie’s band, which grew out of Moten’s after his death in 1935. He remained with Basie until 1948, retiring briefly after years on the road. Pausing briefly for air, he then lit out on his own as a freelancer in the early fifties, making a series of wonderful small-group records from 1955 on into the early sixties – two for Vanguard (Jimmy Rushing Sings the Blues and Listen To the Blues) and a string of others, mostly on Columbia. Cat Meets Chick, The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq., Rushing Lullabies, Brubeck and Rushing (yes, that Brubeck, and they sound good together), Jimmy Rushing and the Smith Girls, and Five Feet of Soul, made in 1963 with an all-star studio big band. During this time, “Mr. Five by Five” (he was “five feet tall and five feet wide”) garnered acclaim as an immediately identifiable, quintessential singer for all jazz seasons and settings – big-band, small-group, blues and ballads – he could sing anything and was the poster-boy vocalist of both mainstream and Southwestern jazz styles.
But he was never exactly modern, and by 1971, with the music having gone electric and with fusion in full swing – or rather, not-swing – jazz fans could perhaps be forgiven for viewing Rushing as a quaint relic of the past, a musty irrelevancy completely out of step with current trends.
A funny thing happened on the way to the scrap heap though……Against all odds that year, Rushing turned back the clock and recorded an album of old chestnuts and one blues, called The You and Me That Used To Be. Backed by a coterie of superb, like-minded veteran musicians (though all of them younger than him), Rushing demonstrated with great vigor and eloquence that he was not quite done yet, not by a long shot. The record was released on RCA in October of 1971 to very favourable response among listeners and critics alike, becoming an instant classic. It won the 1972 Down Beat International Critics’ Poll as Jazz Record of the Year and on the strength of this, Rushing was also voted Male Jazz Singer of the Year, the fourth and final such honour for him.
The record was largely the brainchild of pianist Dave Frishberg, who put the two accompanying quintets together and did the simple-yet-effective arrangements for them. The rhythm section throughout is stellar – Frishberg’s piano, with Milt Hinton on bass and Mel Lewis on drums. Zoot Sims and Al Cohn are present, but for whatever reasons, Frishberg decided to separate them – for half the selections, Zoot is partnered with the great Ellington veteran Ray Nance on cornet and violin, while Cohn forms an equally rousing front-line with Budd Johnson on soprano saxophone. Each band harkens back to the celebrated runs of Zoot and Al at the Half Note in the early-to-mid sixties – Frishberg and Lewis were often aboard and so was Rushing occasionally, as a guest vocalist. Without doubt, all the musicians involved knew Rushing was dying and wanted to play with him one last time and gave him their very best. There’s a whole lot of love on this record.
Rushing would die on June 8, 1972, so the album is an extraordinary swan song for him, capping off his career as it did with a late-inning home run. It also helped ease the pain of his departure for his fans, while gaining him some new, posthumous ones. I missed all this when it was happening, as I’d just become interested in jazz when the record was issued. I was busy checking out a whole bunch of music in a state of increasing bewilderment and if I was aware of Rushing at all then, it was from hearing him on some records with the Basie band from the late thirties. When I heard this album years later I was a dyed-in-the-wool Rushing fan and it only made me realize he was even better than I’d thought. I’ve chosen two particular favourites from it here, each with one of the bands.
First, the group with Zoot and Nance, tackling Sigmund Romberg’s hymn-like “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”. It begins with Nance’s razor-edge violin playing the melody out of tempo, underpinned by Hinton’s bass notes. Then they’re into a perfect romping tempo, Rushing’s first two vocal choruses prodded by Frishberg’s crunchy piano, then Zoot’s careening obbligatos, while Mel Lewis lays a light backbeat right in there. Zoot’s smoking chorus is sandwiched between frolicking ones by Frishberg and Nance and by the time Rushing returns, they’ve built up a huge head of steam to which Rushing responds with some of his most passionate singing ever, dying man or not. Listen to the sparks that are struck between Rushing and the background obbligatos on the out chorus and repeated tag: he is not going gently into that good night. Here it is:
And next, Johnson and Cohn on the 1932 Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (To Me You’re Beautiful). Rushing sings the verse in tempo with just Frishberg, then goes straight into the song, with Johnson and Cohn playing dramatic unison lines behind him, sounding like klezmer meets The Cotton Club. The Judge is particularly throbbing here, abetted by Lewis, whose translucent, sizzling cymbal sound always allows the bass to come through. As this is a song of their tribe, perhaps it’s fitting that Frishberg and Cohn hold forth with solos on it; Al is in particularly rabbinical, moaning form. Hearing Rushing sing unfamiliar words like “bella” and “wunderbar” here always touches me – I’m half smiling, half in tears, all goose-bumps. As always, his beat is towering, he’s wholly believable and affecting in going straight to the heart.
These two tracks may be the hardest-swinging from the record, there are some slower, more lyrical tracks that are equally affecting in a more intimate way, including a couple with just Frishberg. All of them are available on YouTube and I urge listeners to investigate them, as they serve to dispel some of the misconceptions about Rushing that have clung over the years: that he was “just” a blues singer, and that he always shouted the blues. To be sure, he was a great blues singer and in his early days, he did have a voice and delivery electric enough to be heard over the Basie band without a microphone, two blocks away. But, despite this power, his blues singing could also be lyrical, even gentle and always wise – as Whitney Balliett once put it: “His supple, rich voice and his elegant accent have the curious effect of making the typical roughhouse blues lyric sound like a song by Noel Coward.” And he didn’t just sing blues, but all manner of songs – ballads, standards, Tin Pan Alley songs, old parlour warhorses with an almost folk flavour. He brought to all of them, in Ralph Ellison’s words, “a sincerity and a feeling for dramatizing the lyrics in the musical phrase which charged the banal lines with the mysterious potentiality of meaning which haunts the blues.” It’s not smoothness or technique that make Rushing a great singer, it’s his uncanny ability to act as a conductor of real and profound emotion. He was also one of the great catalysts jazz has ever known, often spurring fine musicians to play out of their skin, as he does here.
I’m constantly wrestling with the ever-shifting prism of time in this music that is always morphing, and the endless questions its protean nature poses: what’s old, what’s new, what’s good and what isn’t, how does one know, or even keep up with it all? And then I realize that while jazz never stands still, it is also the music that stops time, at least while listening to great performances like these. Swinging like this just never gets old and, thanks to the time-freezing magic of recording, we can hear that Jimmy Rushing used to be a great jazz singer, and still is.
© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.