Various Artists

How Blue Can You Get? Great Blues Vocals in the Jazz Tradition

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On record, the marriage of blues and jazz singing goes back as far as Mamie Smith's song "Crazy Blues." In addition to being the first known vocal performance on wax by a black woman, the record also launched a craze for classic blues recordings by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and others. These urbane vocalists may have taken many cues from the southern world of blues and gospel, but having migrated north they also incorporated the jazz of New York and Chicago clubs into their performance (Louis Armstrong and other star jazz soloists of the day regularly accompanied these powerful singers). And from those auspicious beginnings, the blues has always had a place in the jazz world, whether in the direct form heard on many of the sides here or in the more fractured sense evident in the bebop, hard bop, and free jazz to come later. And as is made clear on How Blue Can You Get?, a more straightforward approach certainly doesn't mean a lack of variety. This expansive set ambles from country blues legend Leadbelly's "Good Morning Blues" to swing veteran Hot Lips Page's "Just Another Woman." In between, the marriage is taken to supreme heights by Louis Armstrong, played hot and cool by the great '30s jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey, and given over to the comical theatrics of Fats Waller. And while the blues shouter tradition is well represented here by one of the greatest, Jimmy Rushing, it's more urbane and Bing Crosby-styled incarnation of the '40s and '50s is taken up by Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams (all three of these singers cut records with that greatest of blues and jazz bandleaders, Count Basie). In addition to two low-profile cuts that steal the show -- Wingy Manone's "Corrina Corrina" and Johnny Valentine's "How Blue Can You Get" -- we hear the blues next triumph in Little Richard's proto-rock & roll cut "Taxi Blues." A history lesson on vinyl and a very enjoyable one at that.