Dinah Washington: Two Gems from the Mercury Years

Dinah Jams and After Hours With Miss D are Dinah Washington’s jazziest albums as the singer cuts loose with a solid cast of jazz all-stars.

by Marshall Bowden

When I was very young, my father worked at a downtown office of Mercury Records as a data processing manager. One perk of the job was a discount on Mercury albums, and my dad brought home records by the Ramsey Lewis Trio and Clifford Brown, but most of the albums he brought home and which I subsequently heard played frequently on my parents’ hi-fi were by singer Dinah Washington.

From a young age, I heard and learned to appreciate this singer, especially since her most prolific and productive period was spent on the Mercury label. Not only did I learn a lot about what jazz singing was and could be, but I also learned the lyrics and melody to a lot of classic songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rogers and Hammerstein, and the like. These recordings turned out to be a large part of my musical education.

Search for vinyl copies: After Hours With Miss D | Dinah Jams

Prior to signing with EmArcy Records, a subsidiary of Mercury that released recordings by Clifford Brown and other outstanding jazz performers, Washington worked with the Lionel Hampton band following Hampton’s discovery of Washington in Chicago. In New York, she came to the attention of jazz writer and critic Leonard Feather, who produced her first recordings, “Evil Gal Blues” (which Feather also wrote) and “Salty Papa Blues.”

A clear descendant of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Dinah became known as Queen of the Blues, and her early blues sides, recorded between 1943 and 1945, were well known. Moving to EmArcy and recording there from 1946—1961, Washington became a successful crossover artist and moved into recording more standards and utilizing more lush orchestrations. Her vocal work on love songs often tinged with bitterness and regret touched audiences and made her popular, but during her lifetime her records were not marketed outside the black community and she did not play the kinds of sophisticated and artistically satisfying venues that were open to artists such as Lena Horne.

Of course, Dinah could also swing fiercely, and EmArcy founder Bud Shad wanted to record her in an unabashedly jazz-oriented environment. The resulting albums, After Hours With Miss D and Dinah Jams, were among Washington’s most straightforward jazz recordings and were staples at my parents’ home. As I grew older and played music myself, I began to appreciate these two albums not only for Washington’s vocal work but for the amazing musicianship of the stellar instrumentalists that were brought in on these sessions.

After Hours With Miss D was recorded in 1953 and ’54 and includes Clark Terry (trumpet), Gus Chappell (trombone), alto sax player Rick Henderson, pianists Clarence ‘Sleepy’ Anderson and Junior Mance, organist Jackie Davis, bassist Kefer Betts, and drummer Ed Thigpen. Candido Camero makes an appearance on congas. But the unquestionable core of musicians here are three absolutely fantastic tenor saxophonists: Eddie Chamblee, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, and Paul Quinchette. Both Quinchette and Davis put in time with Count Basie, though Davis is known for a rougher style while Quinchette’s sound owes more to the refined swing of Lester Young, though with much more of a bebop vocabulary than Pres.

The album contains some intimate renditions of vocal numbers with a small ensemble backing Washington. These numbers don’t have a lot of frills nor extended instrumental solos. Rather the musicians create an elegant (and somewhat impromptu) backing for Washington’s fully realized vocals. These tracks include “Am I Blue?” on which Jackie Davis’ organ provides a pastel background while Washington’s vocals are echoed by gorgeous saxophone filigree work from Quinchette. “Our Love Is Here to Stay” substitutes the work of an anonymous session guitarist in place of the sax, but the approach is the same. The focus is all on Washington’s vocals, and she interprets these numbers fantastically, neither overplaying the optimism nor the inherent flip-side cynicism of the lyrics.

Dinah Washington and crew open with two wide-open numbers that feature instrumental solos in equal time (at least) to the vocals. “Blue Skies” opens with pianist Junior Mance’s supportive intro behind Washington’s gorgeous out of time rendition of the first chorus. When things kick into a swinging mid-tempo shuffle complete with Clark Terry’s quickly realized horn arrangement, Washington’s vocals are no less convincing.

Eddie Davis is the first soloist, and he swings out with a gruff manner that suggests he’s muscling any clouds away. He’s followed by Terry, always the tasteful soloist, swinging so hard that one wonders how it’s possible. Mance takes a couple of choruses himself, throwing off his usual bluesy, soulful work—sounds effortless, which of course is part of his talent.

Rick Henderson, who had been working with Duke Ellington at the time of this recording (as was Clark Terry), offers his modern, sophisticated alto before Washington comes back to wail on the final choruses. “Bye Bye Blues” is done at a very fast tempo, and one can only surmise that the musicians were having a great time blowing on this one. Lots of outstanding solos abound, and it’s the perfect antidote to the slower numbers.

After the two intimate ballads, Washington and company perform jam session versions of “A Foggy Day” and “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart.” Both songs are very relaxed, and both Washington and the soloists benefit from the apparent lack of pressure in the studio. Dinah wraps the album up with two more intimate numbers that showcase her vocals more than anything. “Pennies From Heaven” features the organ again, while Candido’s congas bring in a definite mambo feel, and Quinchette again plays the perfect foil to Washington’s vocals.

“Love For Sale” is perhaps the best vocal version of this song recorded. Washington strikes the absolutely right balance for the lyrics. As Farah Griffin says in her liner notes to the 2003 Verve CD reissue of this classic album, “This is no whore with a heart-of-gold tale, no victim’s song. Instead, Dinah’s working girl is a solid realist, whose hums turn to moans and then to shouts. “The Verve reissue also features the unedited version of ‘Blue Skies”, with nearly three minutes restored.

In summer 1954, Washington recorded Dinah Jams in front of an L.A. studio audience (a common practice that was also utilized by producer David Axelrod at Capitol Records on recordings by Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley). That band featured Clark Terry and Maynard Ferguson on trumpet; saxophonists Harold Land and Herb Geller; Mance on piano (he became her regular pianist following After Hours With Miss D); and Max Roach on drums. Along with After Hours, Dinah Jams secures Washington’s rightful place among jazz singers forever, standing out from her early blues recordings as well as from the crossover Mercury recordings that would follow.

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