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Last Of The Vo-Cool School: Chris Connor, 1927-2009

Chris Connor, a vo-cool singer and one of the last living vocalist links to the big band era, has passed away at the age of 81.

  • Chris Connor

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    Photo: album art

    Chris Connor "Sings Lullabys of Birdland"

  • Chris

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    Photo: album art

    "Chris"

A report today on the Kansas City Star reads that singer Chris Connor passed away Saturday at the age of 81.

One of the last living singers from the big-band era, Connor was also the last of the original so-called ‘vo-cool school’ of vocalists, a group singers noted for their generally vibrato-less tones, understated phrasing, and now-it’s-languid, now-it’s-loud use of dynamics, which included Anita O’Day, Mel Torme, and June Christy. She was a joy to listen to, and she ended up with a remarkably long run of good recordings that spans five decades of jazz history. Though vocal jazz fans will grieve over her departure, she leaves behind an accomplished musical legacy as one of the finest interpreters of American popular song to come out of the post-World War II years.

A Brief History Of Chris Connor

Connor grew up in the midst of the 1930s Kansas City jazz scene. She developed an early determination to become a jazz singer – specifically, to sing with Stan Kenton‘s big band. In the late 1940s she landed a job with Claude Thornhill as part of Thornhill’s vocal backing group, The Snowflakes, and also singing lead. She also worked with Jerry Wald, before finally realizing her dream of joining Kenton.

Connor replaced June Christy in Kenton’s orchestra in 1953, his next in a long line of low-register, ‘vo-cool’ singers (Christy had replaced Anita O’Day in the 1940s). Soon enough, though, she wearied of life on the road and struck out on her own. The records Connor made for the Bethlehem, Atlantic, and Roulette labels between the early 1950s and early 1960s are taut, wide-ranging testaments to her strengths as a singer. She even waxed a version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”

Connor rode out the lean years of the late 1960s and the 1970s, continuing to find steady work as a live performer, and recorded nine more albums between 1978 and 2002 that make for a stellar late-period bookend to the Bethlehem/Atlantic era.

The Albums

The 1957 Bethlehem album Chris is a standout Connor CD that places her in both small-group and big-band settings. Another stellar recording is the reissued pairing of her Atlantic LPs A Jazz Date With Chris Connor and Chris Craft, where the words of Will Friedwald are most evident:

When you think of Connor, think control. Think also of an O’Day-ish voice whose shaping of lines and phrases owes more to Holiday, Sinatra and Lee. Think understatement but not under-singing or ‘minimalism.’ Think of a warm, assured voice that wants to make sure she can trust you first and refuses to let go until then… Think also of a voice that values dynamics so much that it only uses them sparingly and meaningfully… Think, lastly, of an unbeatable sense of time and an ear perfect enough to guide her through – most of the time, anyway – this obstacle course she sets for herself.

For More Chris Connor…

In November of 2007, I did an 80th Birthday Chris Connor Tribute Show for the weekly WFIU program Afterglow. The program features:

  • some of her earliest recordings with the Stan Kenton orchestra (including her signature tune, “All About Ronnie”
  • music from her later Bethlehem and Atlantic jazz dates
  • her collaborations with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson

Additionally, be sure to check out Jazzwax blogger Marc Myers‘s extensive 2008 profile of Connor. All five parts are an absolute must-read, combining a detailed overview of Connor’s career and insights into her style with anecdotes and comments from the singer herself.

Videos

Here’s a brief clip of Connor singing “Just One of Those Things” in 1995. Her voice is still in fine form, as it was on many of her late-period recordings:

    And a eulogistic tribute appeared on YouTube yesterday, with Connor’s solo recording of “All About Ronnie” serving as the soundtrack:

      Further Tributes To Chris Connor:

      David Brent Johnson

      Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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