Eddie Jefferson Day

August 3, 1918 – May 9, 1979

So What

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Singer and lyricist Eddie Jefferson was born on August 3, 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Jefferson played tuba, guitar and drums while he was growing up, but by the time he was a professional he worked as a singer and dancer including with Coleman Hawkins in 1939.

In the early 1940s, Jefferson devised the concept of writing lyrics to the notes of recorded jazz solos rather than to a song’s melody, an innovation that would be called vocalese.

He was not the very first to write vocalese lyrics since it had been done earlier by Bee Palmer (for a long unissued recording of “Singin’ The Blues” in 1929) and Marion Harris for the same song (recorded in 1935) but he was unaware of those efforts.

As early as 1949, Jefferson can be heard on a radio broadcast performing his lyrics to Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood” and Lester Young’s solo on “I Cover The Waterfront.”

While Jefferson did not have a superior singing voice, his voice was effective on his unusual material and he was most responsible for vocalese catching on, leading to King Pleasure, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross and others who followed.

Eddie Jefferson worked with James Moody’s octet during 1953-57, mostly performed after that as a single, recorded a series of classic sets in the 1960s and ‘70s, and teamed up with altoist Richie Cole in his last years.

Tragically, Jefferson was shot to death outside of a Detroit club after a performance in 1979 for reasons that are still unknown; he was 60.

Here is Eddie Jefferson’s recording of his vocalese lyrics to Miles Davis’ solo on “So What.”

-Scott Yanow


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