MISTER KELLY’S, CHICAGO
"Caught in the Act" from Downbeat, pg. 3, December 28, 1955
Beverly Kenney, 23, sounds like a great jazz vocal find. Backed by the Johnny Smith quartet in her Basin Street debut, Beverly confirmed the impact she made several weeks previously at a Carnegie Hall concert.
The girl, as fresh in sound as she is in presence, sings with continually imaginative, horn-like phrasing that flows with fine, sustained pulsation. Beverly's witty and soundly musical imagination turns even "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" into a lightly wailing jazz vehicle. That her feeling for long flowing instrumentalized lines is equally effective in lyrical ballads is evident in her tender treatment of "Tis Autumn."
In the other two numbers of her brief set under review, "Mountain Greenery" and
"Can't Get Out of This Mood," Beverly continued to be relaxed, inventive and individualized. She probably would have sounded even better with a more rhythmically stimulating background than the Johnny Smith quartet provided.
Contrasted with other relative newcomers, Beverly is more flexible though not yet as emotionally gripping as Helen Merrill, and she is looser and swings more easily than the current and overly careful, Teddi King. Beverly's musicianship and care for lyrics is superior to Chris Connor's and she can stand partial favorable comparison with Carmen McRae, although the latter's longer experience enables her to project more powerfully than Beverly yet does.
Beverly is beginning to arrive and she is displaying the kind of ability and potential that should enable her to stay a long time.
From Downbeat, by Barry Ulanov, pg. 12, February 22, 1956:
It looks as if finally, a new voice of unmistakable jazz quality has appeared to take its place beside those of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The girl to whom it belongs is Beverly Kenney, 23, a New Jersey-ite of very little professional experience, but almost limitless musical possibilities.
DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME. I don’t deny a four bar moment that there have been girl singers between Sarah’s arrival on the scene and the present, girl singers of quality, girl singers of a kind of jazz quality. It’s been fun from time to time, in recent years, listening to this performance of Teddi King,and that of Carmen McRae, hearing Jeri Southern now
and then, and others of that neat and nimble art.
DO UNDERSTAND ME: I do deny that the aforementioned worthers--Teddi, Carmen and Jeri, and even--I regret to say--the Sarah of recent months--have sounded much of the time like bona fide jazz singers. Jazz influences? Sure. A beat? I guess so. Out and out jazz singing? Rarely. One explanation is the material performed by these estimable women, or at least Carmen, Jeri and Sarah. They have tried too hard for that hit record, they have even succeeded. They have not maintained a consistent jazz quality, however, one never does when box office supplants beat and jukebox supercedes jazz as desiderata.
Another explanation is natural equipment. For all the considerable skill of these well-endowed singers, they (including unfortunately, the latter day Sarah) seem to lack that curious texture, and that odd twist of phrase, that even turn of stone that in combination, identify which is two parts youth and one part high spirits -- or maybe it's the other way around.
Age has something to do with it anyway, but not everything. Old Jimmy Rushing has had it ever since he cracked his voice on a nursery rhyme. Billie Holiday, tired as she must be much of the time, and worn by every sort of misery, still has it, no matter how slow the tempo or sobbing the mood of the song she's singing. Ella Fitzgerald has it too, every powerful, pulsating pound of her. Frank Sinatra has it too, between heavy dramatic roles, anyhow. Perry Como has it, just walking across a television stage or tapping time in what passes for a beat in the backing of one of those dog tunes to which, too much of the time, he's addicted --it's what keeps him within a half-chorus or so of jazz, that naivete, that buoyancy, those spirits.
Have I made my point?
I've been trying to raise a cheer or two for Beverly Kenney, a gifted singer with good taste in the choice of songs she sings and a plethora of natural equipment with which to sing them and every sort of naïve enthusiasm.
I'm sorry I had to make my cheering voice heard at the expense of some fine singers who just haven't made the jazz grade, at least according to my taste. But the drought has been such a long time with us that it is impossible to forget the whys and the wherefores as one turns eagerly to welcome the waters bringing relief to the dry land.
There's a kind of moral hidden in the argument, too. It's in my argument and Beverly's example -- and another example as well, that of the other singer, who in the last year or so, has been re-establishing a place for the larynx and the pharynx for jazz: Joe Williams, of course.
Both Beverly in her first record (which should be around by the time you read this) and Joe are straightforward jazz singers. It's more obvious in Joe's case because of the material he sings —blues mostly —as is fitting for anyone with such a voice, such exuberance, such wit, such instrumental precision.
But Beverly too is a jazzman, I think, and there's no hiding the fact. It's that, which is not hidden, that makes the hidden moral.
Jazz remains a most wonderfully, straightforward music, and never more direct or to the point than when sung. There's fun in a charming novelty and tender delight in a sweet balladeer.
But the big kicks, the ones that add up to chapters in history books, and a place in the American Parthenon — they come from jazz singers — strictly jazz singers.
Even Bing, even he, I'm certain, will rank as a singer for his early years, not his middle or his late: it will be those wild scanty sessions with the Rhythm Boys and the uninhibited fill-ins with the Mills Brothers, the improvised measures with Eddie Lang, the gulps and gobbles that first established him which will, in future years, make clear that his is a substantial contribution to American singing, not, I'm convinced, "White Christmas" or "Sweet Leilani" or any of the latter sweet meats.
Beverly may not be the one to do it, although I hope she is, because I enjoy her singing so much. Joe may not be able to do it, although he has made great 13 bar strides towards it already.
But it will come. It? A large scale revival of jazz singing to go along with the success of the small jazz group of the last few years. Without it, this is just a little flurry and not the great jazz blizzard we've been assured so often of late we're enjoying.
According to Bill Reed: In 1957, another Downbeat critic, the influential Ralph J. Gleason, wrote a review of Beverly’s “Basie-ites” that went in one side and out the other of negativity. Using such verbiage as “strain,” “half-well,” “never grips you,” “flatness,” he concluded with “not a jazz singer at all, but a girl who wants to be one.” One can guess that this must have not set at all well, not only with Beverly, but with future possible fans. Around this time, the deeply cynical critic Martin Williams pounded out an even more negative “take” on Beverly. However, that was just his style, especially when it came to singers.
From Variety, New Acts, pg. 54, June 1956 (author unknown):
Beverly Kenney is an off shoot of the mellow modem vocal stylings pioneered by June Christy and Chris Connor. She's no carbon-copy however, and gets a distinction all her own with a sunny and refreshing piping approach.
Repertoire shows care in selectivity and delivery. The jazz touches are well-planned
and she gives the standards in the songbag a fresh meaning with her oftbeat phrasing. Only in the slow mood does she seem to lose command of the crowd, but she's got a strong hold when she peppers up on "Surrey with the Fringe on the Top," "Mountain Greenery," and "Almost Like Being in Love."
Miss Kenney is now etching for the indie Roost label and has the makings of a good album seller. On the in-person level, she's a top bet for jazzrooms, where the crowds will go for her looks as well as her vocals.