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A gift from the gods

The hair is still a fiery amber but these days Annie Ross possesses the kind of worldly diffidence of someone who, having lived on the edge for most of her life, can now allow herself the cushions of repose.

So, no more chain-smoking hedonism, no more hip-crowd panache, no more greeting the morning as time to pull down the blinds.

Yet for all its soothing delights, repose can’t kill that inborn hunger for swing. Which is why Ross, now 81, will travel from New York to appear for one night only at Oran Mor in Glasgow on July 8 and why, in the meantime, she can be found on Tuesday nights in the intimate concert venue of the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street, New York. There the daring dexterity of her voice bends the sweet-and-sour lyrics of jazz standards into something so special and svelte, it’s as if we’d never heard them before.

In a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment Ross is excited about the forthcoming Scottish trip. Although America has been home to Jimmy Logan’s kid sister since she was three, she has always looked on Scotland as her foundation: “It’s the place of my earliest memories when I was appearing in seaside towns with my parents.” During those days she was Annabella McCauley Allan Short, daughter of May Dalziel and Jack Short whose travelling stage routine acted like vitamins on the entire family.

Scarcely more than a toddler at this time, Annabella -- “ a very spoilt midget” in her own opinion -- was already demonstrating exceptional vocal talent, so much so that her parents entrusted her to her mother’s sister Ella Logan, well known in America as an entertainer who would later star in the 1947 Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow. “My parents felt that if I stayed with her, I would have a better chance of becoming a star, too.” And by the late 1950s Ross did scale the heights as a member of one of the most revolutionary and influential vocal groups in the history of jazz: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross whose recorded music is increasingly being heard again by a new generation thrilled by the trio’s sophisticated harmonies and voices used as musical instruments. Dave Lambert patterned his on the trombone, Jon Hendricks on the saxophone and Ross on the trumpet and piano. Pioneering this witty, octave-leaping sound at jam sessions in New York, they called it music “vocalese”.

These days Ross’s solo repertoire is mostly standards. At the Metropolitan Room she is accompanied by a four-piece band but only her piano player Tardo Hammer will appear with her in Glasgow. “I can’t sing inane lyrics, so that rules out a lot of present-day stuff. But I take very old songs, like Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, a difficult number but a gorgeous tune, and do inventive things with them to bring them up-to-date. And because I don’t sing anything the same way twice, it’s kind of a surprise how a song turns out, even to me.”

The peaks and troughs and peaks again of Annie Ross’s life belong to the jagged territory of jazz. Heroin, divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment… she has known and beaten them all to reclaim artistic status centre stage and affirm her Scottish instinct for survival. The dark days began early. “Despite the fact that I was being raised in Beverly Hills by a nanny, my childhood was very strict, and I missed my own family desperately.” Even so, she landed a singing role in MGM’s Our Gang Follies in 1938, and was then cast as Judy Garland’s young sister in the 1943 film Presenting Lily Mars. When did the surname Ross emerge?

“My aunt was very fanciful and she said I had an Irish grandmother called Ross, so that’s where that surname came from.” At 17 Annabella quit high school and headed for Scotland to visit her parents whom she hadn’t seen since that tearful parting in Los Angeles 14 years earlier. By now, though, the lure of jazz had taken hold. Her idols were Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Erroll Garner, and during the plane journey to Prestwick she decided to change her name to the sassy-sounding Annie Ross and try her luck in Europe as a revue artist and band singer.

And luck came good. Through the Gitane haze of subterranean jazz dens in Paris, London and New York, Ross met and often performed alongside some of the greatest names who continually pushed their music to new frontiers: Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Kenny Clarke -- with whom Ross had an affair and bore a son -- and Billie Holiday, whose inimitable voice, filled with a foundling’s piercing intensity, sometimes seemed just breaths away from its end.

Introduced to each other by Duke Ellington, the two women had become close friends. Ross saw Holiday only days before she died from heart failure and liver problems after years of misery from worthless men and narcotics addiction. It was 1959 and she was 44. “No-one was with her at the time of her death. I tried to be there but the police wouldn’t let me into the hospital. They had taken away her cabaret card so she couldn’t work, and now they thought her friends would bring her drugs.” Anger still simmers inside Ross when she reflects on Holiday’s final days. “She was on her deathbed but they wouldn’t allow her the only thing that had kept her going.”

Holiday’s tragedy epitomises the fate of many greatly gifted entertainers who spend most of their lives in the dark, doomed to repeat endlessly their own heights of inspiration. Did Ross ever feel she had entered a perilous world? “No. Not really. It’s the luck of the draw, and I guess I’m a strong person.” But she has known some hell-raisers in her time, the most infamous being Lenny Bruce, the comic who turned social satire into scandalous stand-up. In the late 1950s they began a turbulent affair after having first met in Chicago where Ross, rather overwhelmed by the encounter, sought to calm her nerves by telling Bruce a joke. Can she repeat it? “No. I can’t do it over the phone,” she says with a drawly laugh. Presumably it needs gestures.

By 1963 Ross had married the actor Sean Lynch and was running Annie’s Room, a cabaret club in London. But after 18 months the investors replaced music with gambling and Ross was out of a job. Some years later bankruptcy followed and then divorce shortly before Lynch was killed in a car crash. Dark days indeed lightened only by a small acting role in the movie Yanks and another in Superman 111. But Ross’s luck turned by meeting Kathryn Altman who introduced her to her husband Robert Altman, the movie director. The couple did more than befriend her, they helped her to become one of the few jazz vocalists to achieve a credible acting reputation in two of Altman’s films, The Player and Short Cuts in which she played a jazz singer fighting reality with dope and booze. “What a gift the Altmans gave me” she says. “The opportunity to land on my feet again at the age of 63.”

Now she is preparing to pack a bag for her Glasgow gig and a catch-up with relatives in Helensburgh. “It’s about six years since my last trip and I’m so looking forward to it and the chance to eat some potted hough, which I call Scottish caviar.” But how old does Annie Ross really feel she is? Pausing only to admit that fiery hair is “from a bottle”, she replies: “81 going on 19”. A time in her life when meeting all those jazz gods -- Basie, Ellington, Gillespie, Hawkins _ made her feel both privileged and blessed.

 

Annie Ross will be appearing at Oran Mor, Glasgow on July 8.

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