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Named one of the "Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area," Kim Nalley is hailed as one of world's best jazz & blues singers. Visit Kim online at kimnalley.com.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

When Is A Jazz Singer NOT A Jazz Singer?

So my husband Mike innocently asks me if I want to go see a movie that looks really cool and features music by the legendary jazz singer Annie Hanshaw.

"Who?" I reply.

"Annette Hanshaw. It says she was one of the first great jazz singers, ranked next to Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters in popularity," he says.

What? Who? I have never even heard of her. Piqued, I grab my laptop and start googling. I check out the movie in question, "Sita Sings the Blues," and confirm that Annette's Wiki page says exactly the same thing as the movie blurb and exactly the same thing as Roger Ebert's review. There are also tons of You Tube clips of Hanshaw and, lo and behold! the clips all have the same wording as the movie blurb and the Wiki page. A little more research and it becomes clear that all of these pages are created around the same time and by the same person, most likely to drum up publicity for the movie.

The good and bad thing about press releases is that they get plagiarized over and over again without crediting the source, and most often without researching the facts. For example, I am the one that originally wrote "Kenny Washington is a jazz vocalist virtuoso. His tone on ballads is liquid, his scat is so rapid-fire, passionate, melodious and inventive that subsequent saxophone solos often pale, and his intonation is so precise that it becomes noticeable if the piano wasn't tuned that day. His range seems limitless."

Now I see my words copied everywhere. Likewise, I notice that Ebert's passionate "thumbs-up" review for the movie "Sita Sings the Blues" uses the movie's press blurb for a source, and writes that Annette Hanshaw is an American Jazz singer, blah, blah, blah The difference is that Kenny really is a jazz vocalist virtuoso.

"Annette Hanshaw is NOT a jazz singer!" I imperiously exclaim to Mike. Mike doesn't know much about jazz, and trying to explain to him why Hanshaw is not jazz is confusing and a bit boring.

I ask him to pick a standard so that I can show him the difference. After much hemming and hawing, he finally chooses "Am I Blue?" a tune he probably knows from seeing Beach Blanket Babylon. I play Hanshaw's version first, and it does admittedly sound kind of "jazzy." Then I play Ethel Waters's take on the same song, and waves of indigo wash over me as a close my eyes. When I open them, Mike is still looking perplexed.

"So is the difference that one kind of changes up the notes and shakes them around a bit more?"

I sigh. Explaining blue notes and altered harmonies never seemed so easy. I try to get him to listen to the rhythm. The first one sounds like swing, but it's really straight on the beat. The other ones has a slight triplet that happens every third time and is more relaxed, more on the two and four and behind the beat. He kind of hears it, but still it is cloudy.

At this point, I suddenly spew a jazz police/jazz Nazi rant that sounds something like this:

"HOW CAN THEY EVEN COMPARE HANSHAW TO SMITH AND WATERS? HANSHAW IS BEING FEATURED IN MOVIES AND HER RECORDS WERE READILY AVAILABLE, WHEREAS TO GET A SMITH OR WATERS RECORD YOU HAVE TO GO DOWN TO A BLACK BARBERSHOP. YOU CAN'T COMPARE THE POPULARITY OF SOMETHING CRAMMED DOWN YOUR THROAT TO SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO SEARCH TO FIND. HANSHAW IS GREAT JAZZ SINGER IN THE SAME WAY JOAN CRAWFORD WAS A GREAT JAZZ DANCER. IT WAS THE JAZZ AGE. THEY CALLED EVERYTHING JAZZ BACK THEN. THAT DOESN'T MEAN IT WAS JAZZ!"

I catch my breathe and notice I'm losing Mike. I try one last ditch effort. I play him an original version of "Nagasaki," and then I play Louis Jordan's version. Zing! Yes! I can see a visible thunderbolt go through him. "Wow!" he exclaims. "I can hear the difference now."

Exhausted and exhilarated that I finally made my point, I collapse on the couch. After a pause, he softly asks, "Does that mean you don't want to see the movie?"

***

"Sita Sings the Blues" opens May 8 at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. The producers of this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic "Ramayana" are cool enough to also allow the public to view the movie for FREE; visit www.sitasingstheblues.com for more info. But do the right thing and buy tickets.

For more info on Hanshaw, visit www.redhotjazz.com/Hanshaw.html.

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