A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS
By Will Friedwald
Pantheon. 811 pp. $45
In this mammoth volume, jazz critic Will Friedwald does for jazz and pop vocalists what David Thomson has done so brilliantly for the movies in his "New Biographical Dictionary of Film." As with Thomson's, the organization of Friedwald's book invites readers to flip to their favorites, and I foxtrotted off with Peggy Lee. Allotting her eight double-columned pages, Friedwald starts off by dividing all "great American female singers" into two groups: jazz singers such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and pop singers such as Judy Garland, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. He continues: "But there's only one singer who can be said to truly belong to both groups: to be considered one of the all-time pop superstars as well as genuine jazz royalty." She is, of course, Peggy Lee. This is both incisive and useful - providing a way to ground in reason one's instinctive admiration for Lee's ability to make almost any kind of song her own.
The author also acts as a consumer guide, steering the reader toward particular songs or albums. Interested in hearing scat singing at its best? Fitzgerald is the performer without peer, but her list of recordings is dauntingly long. Friedwald has the answer, however, sending you to "the single most exciting record of Fitzgerald's career . . . Lullabies of Birdland . . . Fitzgerald's swing and her time are perfect - astonishingly so, almost superhuman: You can't find a metronome with time this good. That's probably the key reason why her scatting uninterrupted for three to five minutes is so vastly entertaining." "Vastly entertaining," for that matter, isn't a bad label to stick on Friedland's book.