Helen Merrill – A Restless Musical Soul

I had a dream that the jazz gods, for reasons unknown, looked upon me with disfavor (perhaps they read and disliked my jazz articles). A trial was held and I was found guilty. In sentencing me, the “judge” (Milt Hinton), issued an edict that henceforth I am banned from listening to all jazz recordings or live performances. The only exception was that on Thursdays if I should so choose, I could listen to Kenny G.

 More importantly, I was to choose one and only one female jazz vocalist who I must listen to all day and every day in perpetuity.

JH: Have you reached a decision?

Me: Might a box set of “Female Jazz Singers of the 20th Century qualify?

JH: ONLY ONE SINGER! Do not try my patience!!

Me: Judge Hinton, after much consideration I have chosen Helen Merrill.

JH: What about Billie Holiday?

Me: Too sad.

JH: Ella Fitzgerald?

Me: Not a big fan of scat singing. After two or three centuries it would get to me.

JH: OK, so be it. I remand you to the kitchen of the Village Vanguard, where you will wear earplugs for all eternity.

So why did I choose Helen Merrill?

 To be honest, I cheated when I picked Ms. Merrill as the only female jazz singer I could listen to because, in actuality, Ms. Merrill was many different singers. It all depended on the time and space continuum.  Precisely, what time in her long career you happened to hear her sing as well as on what continent she was currently residing and performing.

Ms. Merrill spent her career ever so gracefully “floating” from one style of plying her craft to another and doing it in a rather seamless manner. Once she arrived at her new musical destination her innate musical abilities combined with her unerring taste most always allowed her to leave her mark on the material.

However, there is a downside to being so eclectic in pursuing one’s career.

The process of how some jazz singers, as their careers advance, is saddled by the critics with the dreaded “underrated” label can be traced to many factors. Sometimes it comes about as a result of the intersection of commercial pressures imposed on the artist by the many “handlers” in their universe such as agents, record companies and other parties who serve to profit from the career of the “meal-ticket” who they have a financial stake in. These partners generally favor the artist establishing a clearly defined stylistic approach with broad appeal to as large a market segment as possible and feeding that segment with a continual diet of familiar and immediately recognizable fare. Once established, this market segment of “fans” will follow the artist and in theory generate a consistent and adequate cash flow; expenses will most always be covered and all concerned will be provided a fair return on their respective investments. Failing that, the singer might then be encouraged to adopt an even more commercial strategy.

This approach plays out much more often in the world of popular music than it does in the world of jazz. True jazz singers might dip their collective toes in “pop” but will rarely totally submerge beyond the ankles.

 In the world of jazz there has always been many iconoclasts who, beyond engaging in the restless pursuit of musical improvisation, also pursue career improvisation, characterized by the continual need to challenge themselves to explore new musical territory. These artists are not necessarily driven by the exigencies of trying to build even greater penetration and successes within a core market. They may rarely produce their art with an eye towards any specific market segment. They produce it and perhaps hope that there exists a market that is large enough to be served in a differentiated fashion and still attain some modest profits for all concerned. By the time the critics and the public react favorably to their work, they might very well have moved on to another challenge; failing to build upon their recent success and leaving their newly won-over public in the lurch – just when those fans are clamoring for more of the same. Obviously, the artist’s financial backers may likewise be left in the lurch resulting in managers, agents and record labels sometimes moving on from them and into safer havens for their time and money (maybe creating 16-year-old pop stars). The critics may likewise move on to the next big thing lamenting how so-and-so, after such a promising start to a career had “lost their way.”

Musical moving target are rarely appreciated by investors in the niche jazz market where margins are generally slim, with few exceptions.

Some jazz artists, in addition to being the moving musical targets, can further destabilize their reputations through geographic relocation.  The artist may perceive through their record sales that a more appreciative audience exists somewhere else other than in their home country. They then pack up their cares and woes and move on to jazz hot bed countries in Europe or in Japan or in some other area of the world.

 Much of the above discussion truly applies to the career of Helen Merrill. The only caveat here is that she has never really been wildly successful nor underrated – certainly not by fellow musicians. Though at times in her career she may have been “under-appreciated” by segments of the jazz public.

Very early in her career she clearly established herself as a rising star. In December 1954 she arrived at the Fine Recording Studios in New York City to record her first major project for Emarcy (the jazz subsidiary of Mercury), the now classic album Helen Merrill. Working with her on this album, among others, were Clifford Brown on trumpet, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Quincy Jones arranging. Her third album for Emarcy, recorded 18 months later in June of 1956, was arranged by a pre-Miles Davis, Gil Evans.

Rather impressive company for a young singer who was 25 years old in 1954.*

Beyond the production of the two outstanding albums with Clifford Brown and Gil Evans, this period also established her as an artist with a restless musical nature. A trait that would prove to be somewhat of a double-edged sword in her career.

Will Friedwald, in his biography of Nat King Cole, opines that Cole’s restless musical nature and the diversity of his musical output helped to spawn Cole’s musical growth and resultant long-term popularity.

Merrill, throughout her career, also had musical growth through diversity of output but Cole’s work never became so diverse that he failed to produce hit records. Hit records are the signposts along the way that allow those artistic detours to happen. With no hit records for an audience to latch onto, diversity of material will likely serve to confuse the public. Unlike Cole, Merrill never consistently produced those musical signposts – neither hit records or even consistently similar music.

In her first three Emarcy albums, Merrill immediately set this pattern of stylistic diversification. The Helen Merrill album with Brown was a straight-ahead small group with vocalist album. Her next album, drawing on the nascent “artist with strings” trend, featured a small jazz group backed by a full string orchestra. Next, her Dream of You album, was a big band with singer outing, which, due to Gil Evans’ writing and arranging talents, was unique and compelling within that format.

As Emarcy searched for new vehicles for Merrill which might click with a broader market and generate more financial returns, she finished off the decade of the 1950s with an album for Atlantic Records of songs associated with country and western singers entitled American Country Songs. She then moved over to Metro Jazz, a short-lived subsidiary of MGM Records, for the Leonard Feather produced You’ve Got a Date with the Blues, an album with the “blues” more as a theme than as an actual song structure – mostly titles containing the word blues or sung with a blues feel to them. The issue here was not one of quality – both were professional efforts – with the “blues” album being quite good. The issue was the extent to which Merrill was sending up conflicting smoke signals about her identity as an artist.

Though almost all her efforts from 1954 to 1960 produced serviceable to exceptional albums, any follower of Merrill’s work who might have been hoping for some musical similarity between successive albums could be excused for labeling her output as musically schizophrenic. This reflected both Emarcy’s desire for more sales as well as Merrill’s restless nature. This pattern continued for much of the next 50+ years of her career and though serving Merrill’s desire to avoid any career straitjackets, was rather confusing to the record buying public.

On the positive side, another constant in her career was the preternatural ability she seemed to possess to surround herself with some of the finest jazz musicians and arrangers of each era of her career. Charlie Parker, Earl Hines, Clifford Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Quincy Jones, Gil Evans, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Thad Jones, Elvin Jones, Kenny Dorham…, to name a few.

Some might look at this pattern as simply random luck – being at the right place at the right time. This argument might have a bit of traction early in her career. For instance, on the Helen Merrill album Brown and Merrill were both signed to the Emarcy label and Brown was only 24 years old and was essentially at a similar place in his career as Merrill and happy to reunite with his old friend Quincy Jones (who was then 21 years old). Merrill already knew Jones from their time together with Earl Hines in 1952.

Brown’s obbligatos and instrumental lead performance on the Helen Merrill album paid dividends for him. Six months later and a few months before Merrill recorded her own album with strings, Brown appeared in the Fine Recording Studios for Emarcy, this time as the leader on his own album, Clifford Brown with Strings. Guitarist Galbraith from the Merrill session was present as was the Haggart/Burke song,What’s New.” This proved to be the bestselling album Brown released during his short life.

 On the Gil Evans Dream of You session Merrill had enough cachet with Emarcy to suggest her own arranger and when she asked for Evans, she did not receive much enthusiasm from the company executives. Evans had a reputation of being a perfectionist who would take as much time as needed in the studio to reach his exacting standards. In an era where jazz records might only sell 5,000 to 10,000 units, paying overtime to an entire big band could be financial suicide for a relatively small label l Emarcy who the parent, Mercury, expected to show at least a small profit.

By the mid-1950s Merrill already had a reputation in the jazz world as a musician’s musician. Her performance on these early albums only served to enhance that reputation as well as the reputation of some others with whom she worked. In the case of Gil Evans, it is clear that his work on Dream of You was very helpful to him in securing the job at Columbia working with Miles Davis on their three classic albums- Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Columbia producer George Avakian had recommended Evans to Emarcy for the Merrill gig and even though Evans did go over budget and the record did lose money, the artistic quality of the finished product was enough for Avakian to recommend Evans be hired at Columbia to work with Davis.

Another factor that also influenced why quality musicians would sign-on to work with her was that Merrill was always much liked as well as respected by them for her musicianship. She was the anti-diva, only caring about carrying her load and integrating into the musical mix – essentially, just one of the boys.

 Addressing her musicianship, it’s interesting how some of our greatest jazz singers were described as “horn-like” in their phrasing and thought of themselves as just another instrument in the band and conversely, some of our greatest instrumentalists such as Lester Young and Ben Webster were very conscious of the words to a song and thought much like a vocalist might.

An example of this is found on the Helen Merrill album. Near the end of the Gershwin song “‘S Wonderful,” Brown takes a solo. Following this, on the song’s concluding chorus, Merrill puts forth with a horn-like like effort where it appears that she is mimicking Brown. It’s one thing for a vocalist to be said to phrase like a horn player and quite another for them to actually think like one.   

One term that often pops-up in reviews and articles of Merrill and her albums describes her singing style as “cool” – the term was generally descriptive, though occasionally used in a pejorative manner. I assume that this meant that she is somehow emotionally detached from the story that she is telling. If this is the case, then nothing could be further from the truth. Dick Katz writes in his liner notes to the 1965 album A Shade of Difference:  …Helen Merrill…whose personal warmth and sensitivity comes through in her singing- a sentiment often expressed by those who worked with her.

Merrill does occasionally drop down to a “cool” whisper, favoring slower tempos and uses the technique of lagging behind the beat. By employing this approach Merrill seemed to control the tempo which effectively enhanced the story line by providing more gravitas to the lyrics.

Emotionally her vocal attack oftentimes reminds me of a vamp in the old 1930’s movies – Marlene Dietrich for one – who could turn the act of smoking a cigarette into a sexual experience – slow deliberate drag, followed by a pause and with the head tilted slightly upwards, a slow prolonger exhale. Almost orgasmic – “Don’t rush me, I’m savoring the moment”. In the movie age of the production code, this was a clever way to symbolically imply a build up to orgasm and perhaps elude censorship. Very sexy and cool. This is the “cool” I occasionally hear in Merrill’s voice.

On both the Helen Merrill and The Feeling is Mutual albums, she covers the Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog song “Don’t Explain.” A song about an unfaithful partner and a woman’s need to retain her relationship with him regardless of his behavior. In the song, as sung by Holiday, one might visualize the jilted woman sitting on the edge of the bed with her unfaithful partner, whispering into his ear the song’s lyrics of annoyance but forgiveness for his indiscretions with another woman, accepting him back. In the Merrill version, as she sings it, I am convinced that she is ultimately telling him don’t explain…just get your stuff and get the hell out because, pal, you’re history… Very cool. The rather abrupt way that she clips off the final two words of the song on The Feeling is Mutual version leads me to consider that.

Following her 1950s run of generally critically acclaimed albums which elevated her to the upper echelon of female jazz vocalists – at least in the minds of most critics and certainly fellow musicians, she abruptly broke her contract with Atlantic and headed off to Europe. Unlike many of her fellow jazz musicians who left the United States over racism, financial issues, or seeking artistic freedom, Merrill was putting some distance between her and a failed romantic relationship. Her first stop was England followed by a trip to Belgium and, through an invite from the pianist Romano Mussolini, to Italy.

In Italy for three years, Merrill became quite appreciated by the cream of Italian jazz musicians as well as by the rabid Italian jazz fans. In addition to Mussolini, she also worked with the great creator of movie scores, Ennio Morricone.

In 1964, after a trip to Japan where she toured and cut an album, she was offered further work in Japan, but turned it down and she returned to the United States. In 1966 after marrying a United Press International executive whose territory included Japan, she returned to the Land of the Rising Sun. She had already become very popular there, so she had an established market for her recordings (she has sold over 800,000 units of Helen Merrill in Japan) and personal appearances.

Shortly after returning to New York City in 1964 and recording the album The Artistry of Helen Merrill on the Mainstream label, she was contacted by old friend, pianist Dick Katz, who along with former Riverside Records co-founder and producer Orrin Keepnews, had started a new jazz label, Milestone Records.

With Milestone Records and Dick Katz, Merrill had truly found her métier. A situation that would play to all her musical strengths and would allow her to proceed on the course that she had initially been on in the 1950’s with the Helen Merrill and Dream of Me albums.

Her two best albums of the 1960’s came out of this collaboration; the 1965, The Feeling is Mutual with Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Pete La Roca and Dick Katz and the 1968’s A Shade of Difference, again with Jones, Katz, Hall and Carterand adding Elvin Jones, Hubert Laws, Richard Davis and Gary Bartz.

These albums, given their uniqueness, might as well have been entitled: Helen Merrill and Dick Katz: When Iconoclasts Meet Vol.1 and Vol. 2.

What made these sessions so special started with the concept that Katz and Merrill were looking for in the musical relationship between Helen and the musicians.

As Katz states it in the liner notes for The Feeling is Mutual:

Helen and I set out to make an album…to have the singer be just one of several soloists…the other musicians as artistic equals rather than accompanists.

 Merrill has reiterated the importance of that approach to her in an interview with Marc Myers (Jazz Wax):

People with talent are not interested in showing off behind another person. They’re more interested in the music… That’s the difference between the kind of musician I like to work with and singing with a musician who thinks he has to accompany me. That is so annoying I cannot tell you.

Perhaps because the same core musicians were present on both albums and, as history has shown us, they all were very sensitive musicians, the musical goals were largely accomplished. Combining this with an inspired treatment of mostly familiar material, the result was two of the best vocal jazz albums of the mid and late 1960’s.

In jazz, the concept of collaborative improvisation within a musical unit was, by the mid 1960’s well established. In free jazz we had Coltrane’s Ascension and Coleman’s Free Jazz, to name the obvious. In the more consonant world, we have the Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro short-lived group. But to integrate a vocalist within such a musical structure for two entire albums was rather new and daring. Luckily Katz, Merrill and Keepnews had the reputations necessary to assemble the right musicians to pull it off.

In both albums, all the musicians – individually and collectively – seem to have a total buy-in to the Katz and Merrill concept. The fact that the core group from the first effort all returned for the second album – three years later – is telling and seems to support that.

The main drivers of much of the music on these albums seem to be the duo of Hall and Carter. In retrospect, this is far from surprising in that in the following three decades they appeared together on many albums and did a series of duo albums such as Alone Together, Telephone, Telepathy and Live at the Village West.

Carter can be heard dipping and diving all over the bass, laying down the rhythmic and harmonic guideposts that helped to free up the others. Hear Carter on his duet with Merrill on My Funny Valentine and Hall and Merrill weaving their way through Deep in a Dream.

On What is this Thing Called Love Merrill sings the first chorus as written, but on the second vocal chorus she is joined by Carter and becomes an accompanying cello, responding to Carter by singing her lines in a rather staccato voicing.

The choice of “Daydream” on The Feeling is Mutual  was almost inevitable for an album intended to offer the musicians so much harmonic freedom to create – and they take advantage of it creating a beautiful musical abstraction.

Merrill remained in Japan until, in 1974, her husband was relocated back to the United States. Now she was essentially facing her third iteration of the music scene in America. The first period, when she recorded with Clifford Brown and Gil Evans, was just before the advent of rock and roll when hard bop was still going strong and female jazz singers had decent market share. Her second iteration was the mid 60’s – right in the midst of the British Invasion and the metamorphosis of rhythm and blues into soul music, flooding the market with both male and female soul singers. When she arrived back in the states in 1974, jazz, as she knew it, was struggling. Jazz artists and their record labels were incorporating electronic instruments, heavy back-beats and string backgrounds into the music in an effort to appeal to a younger mostly white audience. It was a tough time for female jazz singers – especially one who had spent most of the past ten years off the scene as Merrill had.

Luckily, her Japanese connections allowed her the opportunity to produce some jazz albums on Japanese labels for Sir Roland Hanna, Al Haig and the well received Tommy Flanagan Plays Harold Arlen.

Merrill also recorded an album with John Lewis and produced an album entitled Casa Forte which she co-arranged with pianist/arranger Torri Zito. Along with being musically simpatico, they also ended up married.

In 1987, one year before his passing, she reunited with Gil Evans for an updated version of Dream of You entitled Collaboration. In 1994 she completed a tribute album that she had been contemplating ever since the death of her friend Clifford Brown entitled Brownie: Homage to Clifford Brown which, 38 years after his tragic passing, provided some closure for Helen.

She continued to record through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. In 2004, 50 years after the classic Helen Merrill album, she recorded the well received Lilac Wine, her forty-fourth album.

On July 21, 2022, Ms. Merrill will turn 93. This year also represents here 75th year as a professional jazz musician.

  • Many sources list Merrill’s year of birth as 1930. The correct year is 1929 as confirmed through 1930 census data and Merrill’s own website.

(This article first appeared on the Jazz Profiles Blog, on April 24, 2022)

©Steve Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

One thought on “Helen Merrill – A Restless Musical Soul

  1. I was just listening to France Musique and a concert Helen Merrill performed in Paris in 2004. She still sounded lovely, and she was 75. I’m a jazz singer who’s done limited professional stuff but not for some time. I’m 30 years younger than Miss Merrill, but have always admired her style. Thank you for this wonderful piece about her life’s work.

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