Johnny Hartman

Biography

Some jazz vocalists build their repertoire on intrepid loop-de-loops which parallel the athletic solos of instrumentalists. Others have a way of easing into a situation, and working toward an emotional tone so deep that, once established, it seems like a narcotic. Johnny Hartman is part of this second group, a singer of ballads and standards so adept at establishing and sustaining a pervasive mood, he can make everything outside the musical moment seem trivial. Listening to his baritone, one of jazz’s most assured "instruments," is like wrapping yourself in a huge mink coat.

Hartman never achieved the high visibility status that some other male jazz vocalists did, but he surely spent time with players from the music’s upper echelon. Though categorized as a crooner (a bit of a put-down to your usual jazzer) the Chicago native did time in the 1940s with Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, and Perez Prado’s large ensemble. Trios are the usual setting for jazz singers, and Hartman also worked with pianist Erroll Garner’s threesome for a while. But it was the unlikely pairing with John Coltrane that brought out he luxuriant sound of the singer’s best work in 1963.

The collaboration seemed unlikely because Coltrane was then being heralded for his intrepid and earnest investigations. In comparison, Hartman was much more lighthearted, though no less committed to his work. With plenty of space left open for the singer’s skilled phrasing, the music had a hypnotic quality — Hartman was always able to enhance the explicit emotions of a lyric. Their meeting is accepted as a high water mark in the singer’s career, containing a quality of spirit that Hartman tired to recapture on subsequent sessions until his death in 1983 at the age of 60.

Jim Macnie

Excerpted from Johnny Hartman Priceless Jazz