Retro Jazz: Singer Mildred Bailey and Pearls

When I write new music for a project, whether for my own CDs or someone else’s, or a video, there are usually two seemingly opposite creative things going on. First, once a song or idea ‘takes’, I become obsessively focused with it; the concept, the genre, the instruments, the writer, the frontmen- exploring everything around “it”. All of this led to my discovery of the “First Queen of Swing” songstress Mildred Bailey.

A friend asked recently, “what’s up with the pearls in your shop? I never thought you a pearl person.”  True, I used to only make pearl jewelry for my working friends- simple and classic. But singing retro jazz has changed that: I love to layer pearl chokers with longer necklaces, and now make pieces- similar to what I wear on stage- for a new “Onstage and After Hours collection.” Actually, there are specific musical influences that make these more retro than modern…  😉

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When I write new music for a project, whether for my own CDs or someone elses, or for a video- there are usually two seemingly opposite creative things going on. First, once a song or idea ‘takes’, I become obsessively focused with it; the concept, the genre, the instruments, the writer, the frontmen- exploring everything about “it”. Second, I always keep a lazy ear open to hear what others on a similar track, are doing/ or might have done, with a similar Muse; it could be 2012 or 1912; a rapper or a legendary composer. These sparks all go into the mix  of writing a song several ways, until one ‘catches’.  The final version is usually something that self selects; usually by the next morning, when I wake up mindlessly humming one version. Ha! That is my litmus test, if even I can’t get a hook out of my head. 😉

For my latest CD, Torch and Sass, when I was exploring “retro” jazz, my vinyl collection scattered across the floor was only the first springboard of discovery.  Then came visits to my favorite music and record stores to talk to experts. I would say “I’m listening to X, and I want to discover more.” I love to see my friends go into overdrive to inspire others, pulling music from bins, spinning turntables, talking story on their favorite artists, songs, labels, with those very cool little known tidbits of info in between. Ah… this fading art!  I mean, Wikipedia is good and all, but nothing beats a listening tour back through time, with pictures, and luxuriously long liner notes from album covers.  (*Sigh*.)  JC at Downhome records is my favorite contact for this, and Dave at Dave’s record shop, Emeryville.

So, this kind of musical sleuthing led me to vocalist Mildred Bailey; somewhere between looking for ukulele jazz, blues driven jazz, and 1930’s composers for Louis Armstrong- Mildred Bailey’s name popped up.

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Mildred Bailey from the Pacific Coast, called “First Lady of Swing”,  was said to be one of the very first woman singers in jazz, the first to sing with emerging big bands (Paul Whiteman, Eddie Lang, Benny Goodman), AND is said to have been a primary influence for the young Sarah Vaughan. Here is an early tune of Mildred’s, 1931.

Mildred was also the first female musician to get a guaranteed pay in the business, less than half the male musicians of the day, but significant considering. Being one of the first- the road was tough as her biographical notes hint at- Mildred called the “Queen of Swing”, had a versatile voice, and was established quickly with the big-band orchestras of the day. But as the sound of big band grew, so did the preference for women singers who fit a certain look and profile.  Though radio made her popular, and her voice was gorgeous, big-band leaders favored more petite female singers.  Sadly, this, and health issues, affected her career.  A song from the peak of her career in swing- Darn that Dream:

Mildred’s lilt, range, fine, bright tones, and her emotive delivery- that morphs with every song- inspired my singing for Torch and Sass. My voice is a low alto, and many in the lower registers have to work harder to get clear tones in the higher registers; so these women are definitely role models for me.

Mildred’s alleged taste in furs and jewelry, inspired this pearl jewelry collection in my Etsy store.  (And grandma’s Majorca pearls.)  I was never into pearls before, but these “vintage” pearls of the past seemed a great way to celebrate Mildred’s beautiful voice and contribution toward establishing women in jazz.

Use code pearls20 to get 20% off anything with pearls-until May 31st.

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Author: tara linda

musician, poet, jewelry maker

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