Blossom Dearie, who died on February 7 aged 82, was one of the great interpreters of American song in the post-war era. She did not like to be described as a jazz singer (although she grew up in a jazz milieu), nor as a supper-club singer (although she often entertained in supper clubs); a mixture of the two, she preferred to call herself "a songwriters' singer".Last Updated: 7:45PM GMT 09 Feb 2009The New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett once said that Blossom Dearie's tiny wisp of a voice "would scarcely reach the second storey of a doll's house". Indeed hers was a style which on first hearing sounded detached and impassive. After a while, however, one began to notice the deftness of her phrasing, as well as the wit and intelligence of her interpretation. She accompanied herself at the piano with the lightest of touches, rarely improvising, but employing sophisticated and immaculately voiced harmonies.
Marguerite Blossom Dearie was born on April 29 1926 at East Durham, near Albany, New York, where, it is said, the locals are noted for their clarity of diction. Surprisingly, her name, so unusual and so perfectly suited to her fragile, blowaway voice, was also completely genuine. Dearie is an old Scottish name, and her father, a barman of Scottish-Irish extraction, hit upon Blossom after seeing some peach blossom shortly after her birth. She studied classical piano as a child and became interested in jazz while playing in her high-school dance band.
Moving to New York in the late 1940s, she mixed with some of the rising jazz musicians of the day, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Gil Evans. She became a member of the Blue Flames, the harmony vocal group attached to Woody Herman's band, and recorded with the cult bebop vocalist King Pleasure.
In 1952 Blossom Dearie moved to Paris, where she formed her own vocal group, the Blue Stars, for which she wrote many arrangements. One of these, a version of George Shearing's Lullaby Of Birdland with a French lyric added, scored a considerable hit in France. In Paris she met and married the Belgian saxophonist and flautist Bobby Jaspar.
It was there, too, that she was heard by the American jazz impresario Norman Granz, who signed her to his Verve record label. She returned to the United States and with her six Verve albums, recorded between 1956 and 1960, the characteristic Blossom Dearie style finally emerged. Her repertoire was chosen fastidiously from the wittiest, tenderest and most sophisticated songs in the canon, with each interpretation carefully refined in advance. The songs of whose wry lyrics she was fond included Cole Porter's Always True To You In My Fashion and The Gentleman Is A Dope, by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
For some Verve recordings she was accompanied by studio orchestras, but her preference was always for small groups of the best jazz musicians available. Her 1957 album, Give Him The Ooh-La-La, with Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Jo Jones is particularly impressive, with her own piano playing by no means outclassed by the stellar performers alongside.
Established as a star of the Manhattan nightspots, Blossom Dearie turned her attention to England, spending lengthy spells in London during the "Swinging Sixties". She recorded four albums in London, appeared regularly at Ronnie Scott's club, and wrote several songs dedicated to British celebrities of the time, notably Hey, John (for John Lennon) and Sweet Georgie Fame.
Despite her little-girl voice and vaguely fey manner, Blossom Dearie possessed formidable resilience. About her working conditions, she was uncompromising. She would not tolerate noisy audiences or allow background music to be played, nor would she permit waitresses to move or anyone to smoke while she performed. Astonishingly, given the nature of nightspots, she got her way. Eventually, these stipulations were collated in a formidably detailed contract to which, if necessary, she would refer erring club-owners.
Her perfectionism was not cantankerous, however, but a reflection of the seriousness with which she approached her work.
It was with equal determination that she set up her own label, Daffodil Records, in 1974, after major record companies lost interest in her kind of music, keeping it in business for more than a quarter of a century. Anyone who attended one of her London appearances at Pizza On The Park during the 1980s or 1990s will recall her determined sales-pitch towards the end of each set. Her tactic was to establish herself in a prominent position with a pile of CDs and a cash box, and more or less dare anyone to pass by without making a purchase.
One advantage of having her own label was the independence it afforded. She could choose whatever material she fancied, and her taste was faultless. Among the writers she championed were Dave Frishberg, Sheldon Harnick and Francesca Blumenthal.
In the final years of her career she held long residences at Danny's Skylight Room in New York. Her performances grew increasing informal. She was known to pause in the middle of a piano interlude, look down at her fingers with a worried frown and mutter, "Goodness! What's that doing there? Have to put that right!" before correcting the mistake and calmly carrying on.
Ill health forced her to give up performing in 2005. Her marriage to Bobby Jaspar ended after a few years. He died in 1963 and she did not remarry. She had no children.
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