The Mother Of Us All

She deserves to be as widely listened to as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. But you don’t become a jazz icon by growing old and palling around with Nixon.

The more I have learned about Ethel Waters, the more astounded I am that she is not celebrated both as the great and innovative singer she was and as the very first black artist who broke through racial barriers in music, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. Donald Bogle, author of Brown Sugar and Blacks in American Film and Television , posits in his introduction to the paperback of her autobiography that she may simply not have been the kind of black who would be celebrated by other blacks. He points out that for all her accomplishments, history itself seemed to turn on her in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement evolved into the black-power movement. By then her “mammy” roles were all she was remembered for, and when she turned up grinning ear to ear in pictures of Tricia Nixon’s wedding, she seemed “a misunderstood cultural relic.” He points out that she actually “crosses swords with and punctures holes in old-style mammy characterizations,” bringing warmth, strength, humanity, and anger “to flip her roles inside out and come up with complex African-American women.” (She also never recorded a single song in which a woman was a victim.)

The jazz writer Stanley Crouch acknowledges that she should have a place in the jazz pantheon; he believes she lost out when “she allowed herself to become matronly in an era when singers had to be glamorous. Only Ella survived that, and she had a major [record] label behind her.” The documentarist Gene Davis thinks that when Waters diversified, establishing herself as a serious actress, her contributions as a singer were automatically diminished. Bobby Short finds her to be simply another show-business casualty. “It’s all so fly-by-night in pop,” he says with a sigh.

Naturally I have a few theories of my own. Because of her trailblazing style, Waters deserves to be as widely listened to and loved as the jazz icons Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Stylistically and chronologically she is the only singer who links them. But she didn’t die young and tragically, as they did. (You don’t become a jazz legend by growing old, playing grandmothers, and palling around with Billy Graham and Richard Nixon.) She made records that never fail to surprise and delight, but though she is unstinting in giving her talent, she rarely bares her soul the way Bessie and Billie unfailingly do. Davis agrees: “She was a great observationist as a singer, a mirror of a broader life.” It was her gift to inform, to create memorable characters, to entertain us on the highest possible level, but not to move us deeply.

And then there was the matter of her temper. “I’m the kind of woman, if I was mad at you I’d just as leave kill you as look at you,” she told Earl Wilson in 1940. To Helen Ormsbee of the New York Herald Tribune she said: “I came up hard and willful. I was a dead-end kid, playing in the gutter. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—that was what I lived by for years, and if anybody did me wrong I was a powerful adversary!” She must have made many enemies, and in her entire book she doesn’t mention a single enduring friendship. Her assessments of other stars were harsh: She said Billie Holiday sang “as if her shoes were too tight,” and she described Al Jolson’s delivery as “all uppercuts.” Of Josephine Baker, she said: “She was just an end girl who could mug. But she went great, with my stuff.” When Waters stayed in London and people asked if she knew Baker, she retorted: “Know her? She was me!” The blues singer Alberta Hunter remembered getting on her wrong side too: “I guess I outsang her, because she put everything but the kitchen sink on me.” She is said to have had Billie Holiday, then a struggling newcomer, removed from a bill she was on, and people on the Cabin in the Sky set claimed that Lena Home’s sudden and debilitating ankle injury was the result of a hex the jealous Waters put on her. Could it be that members of the New York music world were only too glad to turn their backs on her when she lost interest in singing, publicly devalued it as an art form, and left their ranks to pursue an acting career?

I was unable to find her very first records in the private collections of friends and had given up hope of hearing them when someone suggested I try the Rutgers University In- stitute of Jazz Studies. I was doubtful, since the jazz world seemed oblivious of Waters. But the director of the institute, the veteran international jazz authority Dan Morgenstern, turned out to be a closet Waters fan, and he had rare records spanning her entire career. I made the trip to Newark.