|‘What is a jazz singer?” We are confronted with that question as soon as we walk into “Jazz Singers” at the Library of Congress. To the credit of Larry Appelbaum, the Library’s senior music specialist who curated this exhibition, there is no attempt here to directly answer that question in words—many writers have tried and usually failed. Instead, the answer comes from about 70 original drawings and watercolors, photographs and documents, supplemented by about a dozen video excerpts of representative performances.
The beating heart of the exhibition, which runs through July 23 (and will eventually reopen in modified form at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles), are prints from the collection of photographer William Gottlieb. There are also letters and photos from the papers of Max Roach, Chet Baker and Shirley Horn (among many others), but it was Gottlieb who shot the most stunning and instantly recognizable images of the jazz greats of the 1940s and ’50s. (The Library of Congress acquired his collection in 1995.)
The centerpiece is Gottlieb’s famous 1947 portrait of Billie Holiday in performance: mouth open in midsong but eyes closed, as if she were channeling a higher power and didn’t want to be distracted by anything so mundane as the real world. Contrast that with the images from the same year of such cut-ups and crowd-pleasing extroverts as Cab Calloway, rolling his eyes; Louis Jordan, posing jubilantly with chorus girls; and Louis Prima, captured crouching in mid-tarantella. Not everything presented here is so upbeat—there’s also a note from trumpeter and singer Chet Baker in which he threatens suicide.
Though the emphasis is on history, that’s not to suggest that the glory days of jazz singing are all in the past. There are also images of the best of today’s singers, like the stylish veteran Dee Dee Bridgewater, the impeccable contemporary star Gregory Porter and the brilliant 26-year-old Cecile McLorin Salvant.
The actual sights and sounds of the greats in action (mostly from vintage television shows) are an important part of the exhibition. Some are classic— such as Fats Waller playing and singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in an excerpt from the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” Other video clips are quite rare: a little-known duet by Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington from 1959, and a 1957 appearance by Abbey Lincoln—radiant in both song and dress—on “The Steve Allen Show.”
The show could hardly be a comprehensive account of jazz singing without Louis Armstrong, the first and, in the opinion of many, greatest of all jazz singers (as well as musicians). Gottlieb captured Armstrong in a moment of self-reflection—literally—backstage in 1946. We see him looking in a mirror to check out his suit just before he goes on. There are also rich illustrations from a 2008 children’s book titled “When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat.”
There are those who feel that scatting is an essential part of jazz singing, but there’s a much better illustration of what jazz is all about in the face of Mildred Bailey, in a particularly glorious Gottlieb photo from 1946. Her whole soul is in her face. And though a photograph can’t actually sing, you can get an idea of why Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett all cited Bailey as a major influence. Jazz is about singing with soul, rhythm and personality, and if you want a visual and inspirational definition of what the music is all about, look no further.