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Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs
By Marko Puljić
Published on 11/7/2006
  One of the most distinctive jazz singers ever, Helen Merrill started singing professionally sixty years ago when her warm voice paired with the Reggie Childs Orchestra in 1946. But that was just the start of a long and vivid story which would lead the talented young daughter of Croatian immigrants to make history in jazz by recording with [trumpeter] Clifford Brown and [arranger/bandleader] Gil Evans in the 1950s.

Croatian-American Celebrates 60 Years in Jazz
Helen Merrill: 60 Years of Warm Sweet Songs

By Joăo Moreira dos Santos

One of the most distinctive jazz singers ever, Helen Merrill started singing professionally sixty years ago when her warm voice paired with the Reggie Childs Orchestra in 1946. But that was just the start of a long and vivid story which would lead the talented young daughter of Croatian immigrants to make history in jazz by recording with [trumpeter] Clifford Brown and [arranger/bandleader] Gil Evans in the 1950s. A story which includes the opportunity of sharing the stage with luminaries like [saxophonist] Charlie Parker, [trumpter] Miles Davis and [pianist] Bud Powell, singing with [pianist] Earl Hines and living in different countries, from Italy to Japan. Enough for one to want to know more about this great lady of song? Well then, read on...

All About Jazz: Looking back to these sixty years of so many songs, records (more than forty), important musical partnerships and shows all over the world what's the balance of your career?

Helen Merrill: I have a personality that feels that each day is the beginning of something new and so, the balance of my career is always filled with possibilities, both positive and negative. I am not good at taking care of my career which keeps me in a kind of limbo.

AAJ: After all these years is there still any country where you have never been to and would like to sing?

HM: I have dreamed about China since I was a little girl. I read so many books about that country when I was a child. I even recorded a Chinese song. I think my accent was not very good.

AAJ: Well, let's go back in time. You started your career singing at the 845 Club in the Bronx while you were still in high school. When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer and how important was this club in your career?

HM: I always knew I would be a singer from a very young age. It was also more than that I thought singing would open the world to me, which it did. The 845 Club was very important because it verified my talent. Bud Powell was the pianist, Kenny Clarke, the drummer and lots of soloists all quite well-known in the world of music.

AAJ: It was the end of the Big Band Era, but you did sing with the Reggie Childs Orchestra during 1946-1947. What did you learn from this experience that you could later use in a small group context?

HM: Anything to do with performing music was exciting to me. I learned to sing with a band, which was not difficult. I had to beg my father to let me travel with the band, which he did after a lot of persuasion.

AAJ: How and when did Jelena Ana Milcetic become Helen Merrill? Is there any important event surrounding the choice of your artistic name?

HM: I now feel that the name Merrill was a big mistake. But in those days everyone changed their names, and so did I. It was in a childish moment, my girlfriend had a boyfriend with that name and it sounded so good to me at that time - very American.

AAJ: What singers were you listening to when you started your career? Did you have any idol which you would like to emulate?

HM: I never had a singer as an idol. I listened to many musicians and my idols were [saxophonists] Ben Webster, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges. These people knew the lyrics of the songs and interpreted the music with the meaning of the song in mind adding their own special feelings. My mother was my real influence. She felt music from a very spiritual place. A private place that was all her own. This kind of music can have no teacher - it came from her birthplace which was the island of KRK in Croatia. From that, I permitted my own experiences to lead my interpretation of music. I do not believe that art should emulate or we would still be looking for clones. We learn from one another and from there go on our own journey.

AAJ: Sometimes you have been seen as a mix of June Christy's soaring intensity and Sarah Vaughan's flexibility. Do you agree in any way with this comparison?

HM: Sarah was awesome and my favorite. Her voice was a musical instrument and her gift was enormous. My focus was on instrumentalists. I am flattered that you compare me with other wonderful singers but I have always been myself. Always taking lots of chances...

AAJ: Your very first album, Helen Merrill (Emarcy, 1954), had a very special guest - Clifford Brown - and also quite an arranger and producer: Quincy Jones. What memories do you have of this recording? Were the songs recorded with all the musicians playing together or with overdubbing?

HM: My recording with Clifford was a very natural event. No rehearsal, no meetings. Clifford was shy and so was I. We were in the same room and Quincy wrote the arrangements and made everyone feel like family. Quincy actually put Clifford and myself together. He has always had a mystical ability to put the right people together. I think Clifford plays his emotional best on our album.

AAJ: Following Helen Merrill you recorded Dream of You (Emarcy, 1956), with Gil Evans, which helped bringing him out of retirement and then work with Miles Davis. Who picked Gil? Was it your decision?

HM: It was my decision and [producer] Bob Shad was horrified because Gil was famous for using lots of studio time. I still wanted Gil and Gil never forgot my loyalty to him. He was a living treasure and we all loved him. Miles and Gil had a very caring relationship. I think he saw Gil as a super father figure. Yes, I told Miles about my recording and he said simply: I think I will call Gil and record with him again..."

AAJ: Although the record with Clifford Brown was quite important, some say this one - shows off more of your expressive vocal talents and thirty years after you worked again with him on Collaboration (Emarcy, 1987), which is regarded as one of your best albums. How different was this experience from the very first one?

HM: Kyoshi Koyama was my producer on that album with Gil and Gil accepted the assignment. Gil was a very careful writer and very, very slow. He was not very well at that time and so we decided to redo the old and add "Summertime."

AAJ: Talking about collaborations, in 1989 you recorded Just Friends (Emarcy, 1989), a beautiful album with [saxophonist] Stan Getz where your voices matched so perfectly being both smooth and cool. How did that opportunity to record together happen?

HM: Stan and I were old friends. We worked together in Scandinavia for a long while.

AAJ: Why did you move to Europe, Italy, by the end of the '50s? Were you having trouble with finding work in the US?

HM: There was always trouble finding work for jazz artists in the US, but my reason was rather a commonplace one. I was escaping from a very bad romance. I went to England with [jazz critic] Leonard Feather to sing on the BBC with Dudley Moore (who was a very good pianist) and from there to Belgium and The Comblain La-Tour Festival. There I met [pianist] Romano Mussolini, who invited me to Italy to sing with him and his various groups. I had quite a lot of success there doing Festivals, TV and even movie music. From there I was invited by the Hot Club of Japan to sing in that country. This was in 1960.

AAJ: What was that experience like?

HM: It was a fantastic experience. Dreamlike. I did not live in Japan I went there to work. In the late '60s I met a gentleman there whom I married. He was in charge of UPI for all of Asia. They were exciting days of hard travel but I was forced to discontinue my career somewhat.

AAJ: Did you really expect to become so popular in Japan as you were fortunate to be?

"I always knew I would be a singer from a very young age. It was also more than that I thought singing would open the world to me, which it did."

HM: Fortune had little to do with it. I worked very hard and for very little money. My musicianship made me popular with the public and musicians as it did in Italy, and France. Japan is a country of diversified tastes and interests. There is a loyal group of jazz followers and they remain loyal. My longtime popularity has to do in part with my sincere interest in that country and its culture and in part, as [pianist] Roland Hanna would say, "You have a magical way of touching people's hearts." So that even though I sing in English, it does not seem to matter. Same in France.

AAJ: Japan has always been a very important market for jazz and jazz musicians. Having lived and recorded there, how do you explain this phenomenon?

HM: The Japanese people have many interests and are avid hobbyists. When I first went to Japan I met some of the greatest musicians both jazz and classical and pop. The classical musicians such as [composer] Toru Takemitsu, [conductor Seiji] Ozawa and so on, already had a great knowledge of western classical music. The young jazz musicians were very eager to learn and I tried to impart what knowledge I had. Today, Japanese jazz musicians have risen to a very high level. They also have very sophisticated taste in their selection of music and musicians and so continue to enjoy jazz music.

AAJ: Why did you decide to go back to the US in the '70s?

HM: As I stated, my career in Japan kind of ended when I married. So living there was more of a puzzle to the Japanese fans than an asset. I came back to the USA because my husband did.

AAJ: Back home you recorded two very successful albums with piano player Dick Katz and musicians like [trumpter] Thad Jones, [saxophonist]Gary Bartz, [guitarist]Jim Hall, [bassist] Ron Carter and [drummer] Elvin Jones: The Feeling is Mutual (Milestone, 1967) and A Shade of Difference (Landmark, 1968). How important were they in your career?

HM: The recordings I did with Dick Katz remain fresh and rather wonderful. I do not say this for myself, but the caliber of musicians on those dates could only create amazing music. Dick was and is an interesting arranger and his music sounds very contemporary. The recording was "live" and it has a sound that is amazingly good.

AAJ: In 1976 you recorded with [pianist] John Lewis, mostly a duet album. Then in the '80s you recorded again in duet with [pianist] Gordon Beck (1984) and Ron Carter (1987). Is it challenging and rewarding singing in this environment?

HM: It can be very rewarding to sing in duet but the mood has to be correct and the conversation interesting.. The records I did with Gordon were a very big success in France. We did many concerts in France and we had some magical moments.

AAJ: We have to talk about Brownie (Polygram, 1995). Besides being a great record it is also a tribute to Clifford Brown forty years after your musical encounter in a recording studio. It all started with a memorial for the 35th anniversary of his death, but it took you two years to finally go into studio and record it. Why?

HM: A tribute CD that is very personal to yourself can never be as you feel it should be. That was the case in the making of both of my tribute CD's. You suddenly confront the enormity of your responsibility to represent these very special people. It took a long time for my Brownie CD because of my great respect for Clifford and his beautiful wife Larue. I wrote the lyrics to "Your Eyes" for Larue and she sent me the most moving and beautiful letter about her response to the lyrics. The other was trying to interpret the lives of my parents an impossible chore. When my mother sang, there was always an underlying message that was her secret. I learned that spaces and the imagination of the listener were as important as the messenger. There are lines in "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" to this day I feel deeply moved by: "The roses all have left your cheeks, I watched them fade away and die... your voice is sad when e're you speak and tears bedim your loving eyes, Oh I will take you home Kathleen to where your heart will feel no pain," etc. - it was clear to me my mother was singing about herself. My mother missed her homeland and family there.

AAJ: Who among the new generation of trumpet players can best continue the voice of Clifford?

HM: Well, no one I know of personally. Tom Harrell at his best is wonderful. There are many very fine trumpet players.

AAJ: By the way, do you usually listen to your records at home?

HM: No, I do not listen to my records very much but when I do, it is like listening to a stranger and I am usually very surprised at how good some of those recordings can be.

AAJ: What do you listen to nowadays?

HM: I am looking for new material for my next CD and am listening to all kinds of music to be inspired. So far, I have a couple of songs I like.

AAJ: Do you have any favorite singers among the new generation of jazz female singers?

HM: I do not have any favorite singers, but sometimes I will hear a performance that moves me very deeply. I love Shirley Horne, mostly before she became more popular. Her music is beautiful and I miss her very much. New generation singers - well, I have not been listening but I am starting to.

AAJ: What do you think will be your legacy to jazz?

HM: My legacy, well, I have tried to make interesting music all my life, I have had the honor of working with great musicians. People for whom I have the greatest respect. I find it inspiring to work with creative musicians. Unlike a lot of singers, I prefer to become a voice within the music rather than being accompanied.

AAJ: If you could start all over again, would you still want to be a jazz singer?

HM: I would be a jazz singer yes, because of my need to interact with the musicians. It is not an easy life and I would not recommend [it]. However, you make lifelong friends and that is fun.

AAJ: From all the jazz musicians you have played and recorded with which ones impressed you most?

HM: There are so many musicians that have impressed me... Working with [pianist] Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Clifford Brown, [bassist] George Mraz, [arranger] Torrie Zito, Elvin Jones, [composer/arranger] Masahiko Satoh, [composer] Masaaki Kikuchi, [composer] Ennio Morricone, Dick Katz., Thad Jones, [bassist] Oscar Pettiford - there are so many. They all have very deep feelings sensitivity and an original way of expressing music. Almost all the musicians I have recorded with are fabulous players.

AAJ: What is jazz to you and what can it bring to people, namely young people?

HM: Jazz permits expression of feelings that can be universal in nature. It can be deeply sad or very funny. The part that is not available to all artists is the ability to project these feelings to your listeners. Young people have a great need for expressing feelings and I think that jazz music, from blues to avant-garde, can be an interesting way to find what makes them feel.

AAJ: How do you think it will change through this new century?

HM: I think world music is rapidly changing jazz and we can expect wonderful new sounds from all over the world affecting our music. I also find that jazz is a wonderful form of diplomacy. The freedom in our music is universal and appealing to young people.

AAJ: Do you still go out to clubs and jazz shows?

HM: Yes, I go to jazz clubs when there is something interesting. I just returned from a concert tour of Japan with George Mraz, [pianist] Ted Rosenthal, [trumpeter] Bryan Lynch and [drummer] Terry Clarke. We had a great tour and lots of fun.

AAJ: Talking about the Big Apple, how is it living in a post -9/11 New York?

HM: New Yorkers are very resilient people... We are doing fine and hoping that the tomorrow holds peace for our future generations. The terrible vision of two young people holding hands and jumping from a burning building remains forever in my mind.

AAJ: The human side of Helen Merrill in not so known as the artistic one. At the height of your age and experience what have you to say to the world?

HM: My life has been very rich filled with curiosity and love of humanity. I have always been a traveler in my mind and continue to be that. The best way to remain young is to continue to work. Never give up your dreams.