MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the show, I’m showcasing the work of jazz singer Chris Connor. She was one of the most successful singers to emerge out of Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in the 1950s. And she (along with fellow Kentonites June Christy and Anita O’Day) cultivated a cool jazz style while interpreting music from the American songbook. This hour, I’ll highlight parts of her decades-long recording career, all the way from the 1940s to her final work in the 2000s.
It’s A Jazz Date With Chris Connor, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “A FOGGY DAY”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT”
Two George and Ira Gershwin songs from 1937, performed there in 1957 by jazz singer Chris Connor, on her Atlantic album titled Chris Connor Sings The George Gershwin Almanac of Song. Just now, we heard “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” before that “A Foggy Day."
MUSIC CLIP - ANDRE PREVIN, “NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re saluting the great jazz singer Chris Connor. Chris Connor had a career that stretched for most of the last half of the 20th century, but she flourished in the 1950s and 60s. That’s when she became one of the leading cool jazz singers, interpreting the American Songbook with her signature rich and smoky voice.
Chris Connor was born Mary Loutsenhizer in Kansas City, Missouri on November 8, 1927, and when she was a teenager, she decided to pursue singing full-time, adopting the gender-ambiguous stage name of Chris Connor.
She moved to New York City in the late 1940s, and within a few weeks found work with bandleader Claude Thornhill. Thornhill had his own vocal group called “The Snowflakes,” named after his big hit song “Snowfall,” and Connor quickly joined their ranks as their alto lead.
She didn’t stay with the Snowflakes for that long, and only recorded with them once in 1949. In this session, you can clearly hear her taking a solo on the song “There’s A Small Hotel,” emulating the sound of singer Jo Stafford and her work with the vocal group the Pied Pipers.
Here’s that recording now. This is Chris Connor and the Snowflakes with Claude Thornhill’s band performing the Rodgers and Hart song “There’s A Small Hotel,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CLAUDE THORNHILL AND HIS ORCHESTRA, FEAT. THE SNOWFLAKES WITH CHRIS CONNOR, “THERE'S A SMALL HOTEL”
The first professional recording of singer Chris Connor from September 1949. We just heard her taking a solo with the vocal group The Snowflakes, part of Claude Thornhill’s Orchestra. That song was arranged by the great Gil Evans.
After singing with Claude Thornhill, Chris Connor bounced around to a few bands in the New York area, before landing a permanent spot as the lead singer in Stan Kenton’s Orchestra. At this point, Kenton’s singer June Christy had left the group, and in fact, it was Christy who first heard Connor on the radio, suggesting her to Kenton. Luckily, the two singers had a similar kind of cool jazz sound.
She only stayed with the band for a few months, before moving on, but in those few months she made a few wonderful recordings, including one song that became associated with her throughout her career. Let’s hear it now.
This is Chris Connor and Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in 1953 with “All About Ronnie,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - STAN KENTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA, FEAT. CHRIS CONNOR, “ALL ABOUT RONNIE”
Chris Connor with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra in April 1953 with the Joe Greene song “All About Ronnie.” Greene was in the studio when Connor recorded this song, which made her extremely nervous. However, the recording was a winner and she recorded the song many more times over the course of her entire career.
Chris Connor got sick when Stan Kenton’s Orchestra went on the road, so she was stuck in New York City for most of 1953. Luckily, a great opportunity was around the corner. The struggling jazz label Bethlehem Records, along with its intrepid young producer Creed Taylor, were looking for a way to change their sound, and they turned to the cool jazz sound of Chris Connor.
Taylor helped organize a few sessions with Connor, including with pianist Ellis Larkins, which later became the album Chris Connor Sings Lullabies of Birdland, her first solo LP. The LP sold 40,000 copies and turned the label around, and over the next two years, Connor recorded many more LPs, EPs and singles for the label.
We’ll hear a few of her Bethlehem recordings now, beginning with a recording from her 1954 debut. This is Chris Connor and Ellis Larkins with the Rodgers and Hart song “Spring Is Here,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “SPRING IS HERE”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “TROUBLE IS A MAN”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “OUT OF THIS WORLD”
A few of the tracks recorded by Chris Connor for the Bethlehem label in the mid 1950s, produced by Creed Taylor. Just now, we heard the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer tune “Out Of This World,” recorded in 1954 and featured on the Bethlehem LP simply titled “Chris.” The Vinnie Burke Quartet was accompanying. Before that, the Alec Wilder tune “Trouble Is A Man,” recorded in 1955 with pianist Ralph Sharon and featured on the LP This Is Chris. And starting that set, the Rodgers and Hart tune “Spring Is Here,” recorded in 1954 with pianist Ellis Larkins and featured on the LP Chris Connor Sings Lullabies of Birdland.
After Bethlehem Records found success recording the cool jazz of Chris Connor, a rival label, Atlantic and their owners Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, decided to also go into the jazz business. And with this, they signed Chris Connor. Beginning in 1956, Connor would record twelve albums for the label over the next eight years. Jazz historian Will Friedwald referred to these Atlantic albums as, quote, “among the best works of the jazz vocal canon.”
Let’s hear a track from her first album for Atlantic, simply titled Chris Connor. This is Chris Connor with “Almost Like Being In Love,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE”
Chris Connor in 1956 with pianist John Lewis, bassist Oscar Pettiford, guitarist Barry Galbraith and drummer Connie Kay with Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love.” That comes from her first album on the Atlantic label titled Chris Connor.
MUSIC CLIP - RED GARLAND, “ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE”
We’ll hear more from Chris Connor’s Atlantic years in just a moment, stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - J.J. JOHNSON AND KAI WINDING, “OUT OF THIS WORLD”
MUSIC CLIP - TOMMY FLANAGAN TRIO, “ANGEL EYES”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the life and career of singer Chris Connor this hour, and where we left off, we were exploring her work on the Atlantic label.
She released twelve albums for Atlantic between 1956 and 1962, all of which are of high quality. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to sample from all of them, but I will try to feature a few of the highlights, including some of Connor’s own favorite recordings.
In an interview from 2006, Connor said that her favorite album from the Atlantic years was the 1956 album He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, arranged by Ralph Burns.
Here’s a track from that album now. This is Chris Connor with the Matt Dennis tune “Angel Eyes,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “ANGEL EYES”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “MY SHINING HOUR”
Chris Connor in 1958 with Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “My Shining Hour,” a song that she said was one of her personal favorite recordings. That comes from her Atlantic album titled A Jazz Date With Chris Connor. Before that, we heard the song “Angel Eyes” from her 1956 Atlantic album He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.
Let’s sample from a few more of these Atlantic LPs from Chris Connor now, most of which have been reissued on CD over the years. I’ll turn now to her 1959 Chris Connor Sings Ballads of The Sad Cafe, an album that, as you may imagine, features many languid, melancholy ballads. This particular song by songwriter James Shelton is one of Connor’s best performances, a curious little song about heartache and intoxication, that’s also been performed by singers like Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley.
This is Chris Connor in 1959 with “Lilac Wine,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “LILAC WINE”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR AND MAYNARD FERGUSON, “BLACK COFFEE”
Two drinking songs by Chris Connor. Just now, we heard her and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson with the Paul Francis Webster and Sonny Burke tune “Black Coffee.” That comes from their 1961 album together titled Double Exposure. Before that, we heard Connor alone with “Lilac Wine” from her 1959 album Ballads of The Sad Cafe.
Chris Connor was more than a great studio artist. She also shined on stage. In the 1950s and 1960s, she released two live albums, one from the Village Vanguard and one from the Village Gate, both in New York. On stage, Connor proved that she was more than just a great interpreter, she also had a keen sense of swing and the confidence to improvise and play with melody and time.
First up, here she is at the Village Vanguard in 1959 from her album Chris In Person, featuring Kenny Burrell on guitar. This is Chris Connor with the Noel Coward song “Poor Little Rich Girl,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL”
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “OLD DEVIL MOON”
Two live performances from singer Chris Connor. Just now, we heard her in 1963 at the Village Gate in New York with the Burton Lane and Yip Harburg tune “Old Devil Moon.” That comes from an album released by the FM record label in 1963. Before that, the tune “Poor Little Rich Girl,” from her 1959 Atlantic album Chris In Person, released by Atlantic Records.
Chris Connor’s best work tapered off in the late 1960s, and like many jazz singers from her era and her age, she found trouble creating quality material in the 1970s and 80s. However, she continued working as a jazz singer into the 21st century, and had a minor Renaissance in the 1990s as a seasoned veteran, still able to create compelling interpretations of jazz standards.
Chris Connor passed away from cancer in Toms River, New Jersey on August 29, 2009 at age 81. It was quietly revealed in her obituary that Connor had also been keeping a secret for many years. Connor had been a lesbian, and her longtime manager Lori Muscarelle was also her partner. Sadly, Connor came of age at a time when she felt the need to keep this side of her life hidden from the public eye.
To close off this episode, we’ll hear one of her final recordings. This is Chris Connor in 2001 with “Only The Lonely,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - CHRIS CONNOR, “ONLY THE LONELY”
Chris Connor in 2001 from one of her last albums called Haunted Heart. That was the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn tune “Only The Lonely.”
Thanks for tuning in to this Chris Connor edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - BILL EVANS TRIO, “VERY EARLY”