The eyes, we are told, are the windows of the soul. They protect us from falling downstairs, from the weaving car in the next lane; they help us pick out the Beloved in a crowd at the airport. Surely they are precious and have enough to do. So I propose we do not turn them into ears.
Here, to the right of Count Basie, is one of the finest singers of all time, practicing Mindful Eating:
In his prime, he was a mountainous man. “Little Jimmy Rushing” was surely a self-mocking sobriquet; “Mister Five by Five” was more to the point. There is a Chuck Stewart photograph of him, in profile, that suggests a contemporary physician might calculate his body mass index and dub him “clinically obese.”
Oh, how he could sing!
Yet in this century, though, would Jimmy Rushing get a record contract?Would he be an opening act at a jazz festival? My guess is that he would have a hard time, because audiences are fixated on what their eyes see than what their ears hear.
Look at the cover photograph of any CD featuring a singer or instrumentalist. The star is beautifully arrayed, coiffed, resplendent in clothing (casual or formal) — an ensemble that was the result of serious planning. The credits for such CDs thank hair stylists as well as arrangers.
We have been accustomed to the notion that Public People, to be Worthy, must appeal to our eyes. I can’t trace the lineage of this, but at some point our notion that film stars were the ideal took over the world: so that politicians decked themselves out carefully — and musicians in the public eye were expected to do so as well. For men, the beautiful suit, the jewelry, the costly watch; perhaps the personal trainer. A hairpiece. (Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE is based on this as well as other painful delusions.)
For women, it was and is even more complicated, going beyond eliminating one’s graying hair and perhaps choosing cosmetic surgery. I am not about to go on about the patriarchy with its male gazing, but for a woman instrumentalist or singer to appeal to the larger public, it seems that she must display and festoon herself as a sexually alluring product, accessible in some fantasy realm.
I thought we wanted to listen to players and singers, rather than to imagine what they would be like in bed. Once again, I was naive.
I don’t recall who told the story — was it Charles Linton? — of bringing a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald to audition for Chick Webb in 1934. We need not dwell on Webb’s physical appearance, hidden somewhat behind beautiful clothes. But legend has it that Chick looked at Ella, neither svelte nor conventionally alluring and quickly said, “No.” The Girl Singer had to be Glamorous. The people who had heard Ella sing had to insist that Chick listen to her voice. And then, happily, he was convinced. But Ella was wildly popular with her hit record of A-TISKET, A TASKET — and it took approximately three years more for her to appear in a film, and if I recall correctly, it was a Western-musical from a second or third-tier studio, and she sang about her lost basket on a bus. She wasn’t Pretty; she didn’t Count.
Imagine a world where Ella Fitzgerald and (let us say) Mildred Bailey or “Little Louis” couldn’t get a job because someone was convinced that they didn’t fit conventional notions of what was alluring. Or they looked too old.
Youthful singers and players can swagger for a photo shoot: women can reflect Fifties ideals of cheesecake — be slim, show this or that body part to best advantage. What of the artist, male or female, who has a beautiful series of recordings and performances . . . but is Getting Older? A discerning audience came to see Mabel Mercer, Rosemary Clooney, Doc Cheatham, without the least thought of sex appeal — but do those audiences still exist? There has always been a special niche for the Venerable (think Barbara Cook, Eubie Blake), or the Joyously Freakish (Fats Waller, Sophie Tucker, Mae West) — but so many fine artists are ignored in this vast desert between Young and Dewy and Better See Him / Her Now Because He / She Won’t Be Here Forever.
I have been to many concerts, clubs, festivals; I have watched many videos. Because of JAZZ LIVES, I am asked to approve of (and publicize) shiny, trim, nearly gorgeous men and women who present themselves as musicians. When I begin to listen, I close my eyes. It helps me actually hear the artist rather than concentrating on her shapeliness, her cuteness; to hear rather than watching the beautifully cultivated lock of hair falling over his forehead, his expensively tailored suit. Listening and ogling might be simultaneous but they are not the same act.
I know this habit makes me seem even more of a distant and snobbish listener, when I say to someone rapturous over X, “You know, I agree with you that X is so perky / cute / handsome / charming, but I don’t think X is a great ______.” And as an extension of this, when I say to other people, “Have you heard Y?” there is this politely glazed look on their faces, because Y hasn’t met their idea of what a Star should look like. Y — oh my goodness! — looks like a Grownup rather than a Ripe Love Object. Heavens. Close the curtains right now.
The cover of a CD makes no sound. Some of the finest musicians in the world don’t have as many gigs as they should because they don’t drape themselves as enticingly as lesser talents do.
Do we really, irrevocably love surfaces so much?
Now, I’m going to go back and listen some more to Jimmy Rushing. I want to hear him sing, not get him on a scale.
Thanks to Bruno, Amy, and the Roo for various inspirations.
May your happiness increase!