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Obituary: Jackie Paris

Independent, The (London),  Jun 25, 2004  by Campbell Burnap

Perfectionist jazz singer

IN A letter written to his own agent, the fearless comedian and social satirist Lenny Bruce said, "My last gig in New York was a gas. The biggest thrill was working with Jackie Paris. He's as cute as a button and the audience loved him. I know he could be a star."

Bruce echoed the feelings of most jazz and show-business people after they had heard the young singer and guitarist at work on the great American standard song repertoire. Ironically, by the time the enthusiastic Bruce conveyed those thoughts in 1959, Paris had already been on the road for a dozen years, and as early as 1953 had been voted "best new male vocalist" by the influential Downbeat magazine.

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He was invited by jazz icons to perform and tour in their package shows, he secured a recording contract early in his career, packed the intimate jazz clubs of 52nd Street in Manhattan, and developed a cult following. Frustratingly, though, his status among his peers was never replicated in the wider, commercial marketplace. That perceptive judge of jazz singers, Will Friedwald, called the Paris voice "a raspy baritone - one of the most appealing sounds in jazz", which he thought made him "a bluesman in spirit". But he pointed out that Paris "spent his career in a fruitless search for an audience, though his failure to find one reflects more on the music industry than his own talent".

Jackie Paris was born in Nutley, New Jersey, to an Italian family rather more interested in professional boxing than music. He graduated from the local high school two years ahead of the pianist Al Haig, but had already taken his first showbiz steps, as a juvenile song-and-dance act in vaudeville. He claimed to have been seen by the legendary dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who said, "Jackie, you sure got rhythm, for a white boy."

His earliest musical heroes were the singers Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Ella Fitzgerald. He did US Army service from 1944 to 1946, and it was Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers group who heard the young Paris sitting in at the Baby Grand club in Harlem and consequently "pulled strings" to enable him to get bookings downtown on 52nd Street. He became an increasingly familiar face along the street in the late Forties, running the house trio (with Red Mitchell on bass) at the Onyx club for a 26-week season, and securing other regular club bookings at the Three Deuces, and the Downbeat. By this time he was learning guitar which he played in a broken- rhythm, boppy style.

Indeed, the new bebop music filled New York's night air in the 1940s and Paris was invited to join the music's greatest star, the saxophonist Charlie Parker, on two tours - a package that also included Billie Holiday. She liked and admired the young Italian, but he noticed that she and "Bird" were at loggerheads throughout the tour. The first time Paris's name appeared on a record label was in 1947 - four tunes for MGM, including a version of "Skylark" which is now a collectors' item.

He also recorded some tunes with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, but these were never issued and the tapes are now lost. He was the first singer ever to perform the lyrics for the classic bebop ballad anthem " 'Round Midnight", and he was in the studios again in 1949, for the National label. That year he joined Lionel Hampton's Orchestra, taking over vocal duties from Little Jimmy Scott. In 1952 he recorded with Charles Mingus, and, needing his wages urgently to pay his rent, confronted the notoriously pugnacious bassist at his home. He got his money. "You're a tough little Italian," conceded Mingus, and the two would record together again, in 1974.

Things looked brighter in 1954 with the issue of his first LP collection, That Paris Mood, for Brunswick, aimed at the "straight" market. The lyrical trumpet star Charlie Shavers was added to the session, and the record company marketed Paris as "a singer's singer" and the product as "a new and exciting kind of Mood Music". But the huge commercial breakthrough still didn't happen. Peggy Lee was a fan and tried unsuccessfully to get Paris signed by Capitol. The bandleader Les Brown attempted the same thing at Decca, but was turned down by the producer and early jazz aficionado Milt Gabler.

In 1961 Paris married the Canadian singer Anne-Marie Moss, who had been with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra. Although that union was dissolved 20 years later they toured as a singing double-act in the Sixties and Seventies. It was a mutual admiration society, and this week a wistful Moss reminisced about her ex-husband being a

pure uncompromising jazz musician . . . he was a perfectionist who hired people for

their talent and expected to be given 100 per cent, nothing halfway.

She conceded that "while we had so much fun with the actual music, we were definitely not good business people". She added that Paris's sometimes prickly expectations of his colleagues did create some enemies. He would say candidly, "A pain in the ass, that's me!"