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Annie Ross, Mid-Century Jazz Icon, Dead At 89

Annie Ross, photographed on March 1, 1956 backstage at St. Martins Theatre in West London.
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Annie Ross, photographed on March 1, 1956 backstage at St. Martins Theatre in West London.

Annie Ross, the veteran jazz singer, actress and founding member of the historic vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, died on July 21, four days before her 90th birthday. According to her friend and former manager, Jim Coleman, Ross died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan. She had been suffering from emphysema and a heart condition.

In 1957, Ross, a chic redhead with a cool, tart sound, teamed with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks to explore a genre known as vocalese — the setting of lyrics to modern jazz solos. In their debut album, Sing a Song of Basie, the singers overdubbed themselves into a replica of the whole Count Basie orchestra. Ross could lurch into the vocal stratosphere, imitating trumpets and saxophones and tearing through bebop lines with swinging rhythm. The song that made her famous, "Twisted," was Ross's breathless comic take on split personalities. Later covered by Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler, it captured the breakneck pace and dark shadows of her madcap, freewheeling life. "I only wanted to sing and be free," she told me in a 1993 interview. "I never really looked ahead that much. I just lived every day."

Along the way, she spent about a dozen years hooked on heroin, which nearly killed her. She had an affair with comedian and fellow addict Lenny Bruce. At New York's Apollo Theater, Ross once stepped in for an ailing Billie Holiday, whom she later visited on her deathbed. In the '70s, Ross declared bankruptcy. She went on to become the Marianne Faithfull of jazz, singing in a ravaged but world-wise voice. Seemingly indestructible, Ross released a new album every few years; the last one, To Lady with Love, a Billie Holiday tribute, came out when she was 84.

Ross was born Annabelle Short in London in 1930; her parents were Scottish vaudevillians. Her mother, she said, gave birth to her after a matinee, then did the evening performance. "I was in a suitcase on a table in the dressing room," the singer explained. "That was my cot." By the age of three, Ross — one of five siblings — had joined her parents' touring show. Her aunt was the Broadway musical star Ella Logan; in 1938, Logan planted a seed in Ross's head by giving her Ella Fitzgerald's new hit record, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." On a visit to New York to visit Logan, Ross entered a children's radio amateur contest: Wearing a kilt, she sang a jazzy "Loch Lomond" and won. As her prize, she repeated her version of the song in the MGM film short Our Gang Follies of 1938.

By this time her parents had abandoned the young girl, leaving her to Logan, who had moved to Los Angeles. "A governess raised me," Ross said. MGM again came calling, and in 1942 she played Judy Garland's younger sister in the film Presenting Lily Mars. Capitol Records held a contest for high-school-age lyricists; Ross's submission, "Let's Fly," was recorded by the label's cofounder, songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Ross didn't like her aunt, but she loved the musician friends who came to visit: Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Roy Eldridge. They would perform in the living room.

"I sat there listening to all this wondrous music," Ross told me. "I sang one of Duke's songs for Duke — 'I Didn't Know About You.' He was knocked out, because first of all, I sang pretty good, and second, hardly anybody knew that song."

As soon as she'd finished high school, Ross fled to Europe, eager to sing. She plunged into the Paris jazz scene, full of expatriate beboppers. There, she began an affair with the drummer Kenny Clarke, who was then married to the budding jazz singer Carmen McRae. Ross became pregnant with Clarke's child, and in 1950, Kenny Clarke, Jr. was born. The situation, Ross said, was "complicated — to put it mildly." Their son would be raised mostly by Clarke's family in Pittsburgh.

Two years later, Ross was back in New York, working at the lunch counter in a drugstore and living in a boarding house. A call came from Bob Weinstock, the owner of Prestige, a young jazz label. If he gave her a few bebop records, could she find something to set words to? She assured him that she could. "Necessity is the mother of invention," Ross said, "and my necessity was need of money." She picked out "Twisted," a tune by tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. She whipped up a lyric: "My analyst told me that I was right out of my head / The way he described it, he said I'd be better dead than 'live / I didn't listen to his jive ..." Ross recorded it for Prestige. The critics of Down Beat, America's most distinguished jazz magazine, chose her for its prestigious New Star Award. The magazine's star writer, Leonard Feather, devoted a column to analyzing the song: "To perform it," he wrote, "you need more qualifications than most singers today possess: a range as broad as that of the tenor sax itself, a natural feeling for chord changes, surety of pitch, and a beat. Annie Ross has 'em all." (Ross later claimed that, at a low moment, she had signed away all her rights to it for a small lump sum.)

"Twisted" launched Ross towards a solo career and, a few years later, Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks invited her to join them in forming an experimental group. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross were an immediate hit. Columbia Records signed the trio, placing them on a roster that included Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. They began touring the world. Their six albums, full of Hendricks's vocalese story-songs (and a few by Ross), form a mosaic of the 1950s jazz scene at its most exuberant and swinging. To work in that trio, Ross told me, "was a party. We'd rehearse for an hour and from then on it was, 'Whoopee!' "

During their shows, Ross in couture, she radiated ease and mystique — but offstage, she was strung out on heroin, a plague in modern jazz. "A little bit here, a little bit there, and it built," she said. "It always does. It was part of that time. Long hours, having to produce, needing stimulation. I guess you're young and fearless and think you're gonna live forever." In 1962, the trio was in London with the Count Basie orchestra: "I kind of knew that if I came back to America I might die," she said.

Ross wound up staying for 20 years. She went clean, then married an actor, Sean Lynch. The English embraced her, and Ross rebuilt her career. With Lynch's help, she fronted a jazz club, Annie's Room, in the mid-'60s; she acted in theater, sang in cabarets, and even published a cookbook. But money was a constant problem and she accumulated a large tax debt and lost her home.

Once more, Ross rallied. She took a left turn into film, winning small roles in Yanks, Superman III, Pump Up the Volume, and Throw Momma from the Train. In the cult horror comedies Basket Case 2 and Basket Case 3, she played Granny Ruth, warden of a family of freaks. A friendship with director Robert Altman and his wife, Kathryn, led to roles in Altman's The Player and Short Cuts. In the latter, she played the largely autobiographical part of a down-and-out jazz singer. On the soundtrack, Ross turned songs by U2, Elvis Costello and Dr. John into moody jazz ballads.

Dave Lambert had died in 1965, but starting in the '70s, Ross and Jon Hendricks undertook a series of reunions. At seventy-plus, she began a relationship with businessman Dave Usher, who in 1952 had recorded her on Dee Gee, a label he had founded with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He survives her, as does a sister, Heather. Kenny Clarke, Jr. died in 2018.

In 2006, Ross began a Tuesday-night residency at the Metropolitan Room, a New York cabaret; she sang there until it closed in 2017. That December, at the 75 Club in downtown Manhattan, she gave her last performance. According to Jim Coleman, Ross drank martinis and smoked pot and cigarettes until the end. As she had put it to me: "People say, 'You still smoke?' I say to them, 'Honey, I am over eighty years old. I can do whatever the hell I please.' "

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James Gavin
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