Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ozzie Strays

Now, a few words about a Jazz singer who has piqued my curiosity... Ozzie Bailey, later Fifties vocalist with Duke Ellington. The words will be few because very little appears to be known about Mr. Bailey, whose life in Jazz seems to have been brief and who actually recorded more tracks for a Billy Strayhorn album than he did for the Duke, who was just as chary about recording Bailey as he was most of his other chosen band vocalists (after Ivey Anderson, anyway)--and even though they were often cutting vocal hits that helped fill the Ellington coffers--from Adelaide Hall to Kay Davis and Betty Roche, from Herb Jeffries and Al Hibbler to mystery man Ozzie (but not Ray Nance, the triple-threat exception, too lively and popular to be kept away from the microphone).

Bailey was supposedly with Ellington during 1957-58, and he even toured Europe with the band, but his numbers were few and his performances on official Ellington records even fewer. The miniscule bios say he was a NY-scene singer who had studied with Luther Henderson and was then hired to participate in the TV production of Duke's not-very-memorable saga of Madame Zajj, A Drum Is a Woman... except that the TV show came out in late 1956, or so says Ellington in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress (where Bailey is mentioned in passing only), and discographies list unheralded Ozzie as part of the September 1956 sessions for the Drum Woman album. (Patricia Willard in other liner notes says the TV broadcast was actually in May of 1957.) What is clear is that Bailey's few vocals did not excite the critics, his voice light and pleasant and tenorish, sounding much more like Mel Torme than the heavier baritones that Ellington usually employed.

Bailey's big feature, recorded at least twice and repeated at some Ellington concerts, was a Strayhorn-arranged, six- or seven-minute elaboration of the ballad "Autumn Leaves," with Ozzie singing first in French and then returning, after a lengthy Ray Nance violin solo, to end the song with the well-known English-translation lyrics. The recorded takes (originally issued on versions of the album Ellington Indigos) are perhaps overlong but quite lovely in fact, and Bailey ends his vocal memorably with a strong held blue note steps down from the tune's written finish.

Otherwise, Duke hauled him along to many European cities during 1958 (perhaps concerts in '57 too?) and would trot him out for a slow-interlude tune or two, often still flogging the Drum Woman music. (Was he well-received by the audiences? Who knows?) Since Ellington's death, several of the band's '58 tour performances have been bootlegged or issued in quasi-legal sets, as well as newly expanded Columbia sessions like Live at Newport 1958, where it turns out that Bailey sang lyrics to "Duke's Place" and injected a few color images (quasi-poetry by Strays or Duke) into the lengthy Johnny Hodges feature "Multicolored Blues." So more of Bailey's few big moments are now available, but he still gets no respect, typically either sneered at or ignored completely by the Jazz commentators. (I've found no photos of him; had to snap still frames from a DVD.)

It was in fact that Jazz Icons DVD, Duke Ellington: Live in '58, combining portions of two shows filmed at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, that first roused my curiosity. Here was this slight and unobtrusive gent--slim and handsome, with a gigolo's dash of mustache and the sophisticated appearance that Duke always strove to project--brought forward to sing "You Better Know It" from Drum Woman and later, during the usual hits medley, an "exquisitely lonely" (Ms. Willard's phrase) interpretation of "Solitude." Interesting versions by a vocalist of whom I'd never heard... who also was a mystery, as I gradually learned, to other Jazz fans and Ellington specialists.

Bailey's major claim to recorded fame instead may be as vocalist for several tracks on Lush Life, a rare Billy Strayhorn compilation album on Red Baron. Issued for the first time in 1992, the CD actually collects Fifties/Sixties performances by Strays--accompanying Ozzie at the piano, leading various groups of the Duke's men, even singing, maybe definitively, the famous title song he wrote as a teenager. Upstaged by Strayhorn however incidentally, Bailey still provides creditable versions of Strayhorn's songs "Your Love Has Faded," "Passed Me By," and "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," plus superior vocalizing, increasing the drama of the lyrics, on "Love Came" and "Something to Live For." Pretty hip for song demos, if that's what they were.

But why Ozzie? Was he the only singer available to Strays at the time, or did Billy hear something in Bailey's assured vocalizing that the disparaging critics missed? I suppose he might have been a secretly gay man like Strayhorn, a kindred spirit and friend. But that's just unwarranted speculation, absent reliable historical data. Who was this guy? What became of him post-Duke?

Someone must know more about the mysterious Mr. B than the few facts I have managed to stumble on. If you have some information, please share your knowledge in a comment.


Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

Read it and enjoyed every paragraph. I hope we could learn more about him.

Today, I'm going to call my uncle and ask him about Ozzie. Jimmy Woode was a close friend of my uncle in Berlin and they had long chats and interviews. Who knows, maybe he knows! (I'm sure you've noticed that the track I've posted has Jimmy on bass)

PDS8232 said...

I met Ozzie in New York in 1971. He and I worked together as sales clerks in the record department in the Doubleday Bookshop on Fifth Avenue & 53rd Street. He was extremely shy and spoke very little about his experiences with Duke Ellington but other employees already knew of his incredible talent. We played music in the store all day and he frequently sang along to everyone's delight. His favorite lunch was a Smithfield Burger from the hamburger shop down the block.
I never saw him lose his cool. He was a real gentleman. Ozzie had a great musical memory and he would always help customers find what they were looking for. Famous New York entertainers frequently visited Ozzie at the store and we were all impressed with his circle of friends. Ozzie passed on some years ago but his beautiful voice goes on forever.

Art Serating

IWitnessEd said...

Lovely reminiscence, Mr. Serating, and significant additions to the paucity of facts known about Ozzie. Art-full indeed! Thanks (and please forgive the pun), Ed

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you both, first for the plea for information and then for some idea of what happened to the man. I have loved that voice since I bought a tape (a tape!) years ago of a live show around 1958. Chip Cook.

Unknown said...

I would love to hear more by this vocalist. When I was a small child in the 1970s, my dad had a "45" by Ellington that I loved and played until it was all scratchy. Two tracks: Duke's Place with vocals by Ozzie Bailey, and an instrumental called Jones.

I actually saw this record in a box when I moved not too long ago, but haven't been able to find it since.

I did manage to find the Ozzie Bailey rendition of Duke's Place on the "Duke Ellington - Great American Composers".

I loved this song quite a bit so hopefully I can be forgiven for linking to a copy I uploaded on the social audio sharing site, chirbit:

Thanks for providing some background data on this voice that brings some real cool vibes to my childhood memories.

Ed Leimbacher said...

Oz the wizard continues to please the ears and pique the curiosity of Jazz fans. Thanks for the reminiscence and link.

Anonymous said...

David Hajdu, in his bio of Strayhorn entitled "Lush Life," says that Bailey and Billy spoke French with one another and that, like Billy, Oz was gay.

Unknown said...

Hey did you guys see these videos? It features Ozzie:

Anonymous said...

according to a few "Big Band" Data Bases Ozzie was born in NYC on Nov 6 1925

IWitnessEd said...

There's more about Bailey, mostly in the comments, at a sequel post I wrote some months later, findable at

Thanks to all!

Bill Reed said...

Has it been mentioned that he so shared a late fifties MGM album, Last Night When We Were Young, with yet another unappreciated vocalist, Marian Bruce? A half-dozen or so duets with her and a couple of solos by Ozzie. Bruce was the wife of Ellington's doctor, Arthur Logan. I have contact info for their son. Perhaps he has some info. I have ascertained that Bailey died in the early 1980s, most likely of cancer. I almost lived at that Doubleday bookstore where Bailey clerked, so there is very little doubt that, more than once, I breathed the same air as he. I have also learned that he was a bit wary of talking about his days with Ellington.