Maxine Sullivan

Maxine Sullivan is my favorite female vocalist and has been hugely inspirational to me as a singer and musician. So even though I’ve been focusing mainly on instrumentalists thus far, I wanted to take a day to learn more about Maxine and share her music with you. Her style is so pure, relaxed, and simple, yet swings with incredible bounce and rhythm. I also find the recordings in which she swings folk, classical, and popular tunes wonderfully refreshing and inspiring. Incidentally, she is also one of the three jazzwomen in the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photo!

I first discovered Maxine in 2011 when my voice teacher and mentor, Kellye Gray suggested I learn the Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Skylark.” When searching for the tune, I stumbled across Maxine’s version and fell in love with her voice, phrasing, and delivery. Such poise and grace. You can hear her smile as she sings. Ted Ono, who produced her 1985 album, “Love…Always” said “she delivers a warm message in such a cool manner.” [1] Pittsburgh Music History writes, “Maxine originated an innovative effortless graceful soft swing style with precise diction and timing that influenced generations of female jazz singers including Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.” [2]

They go on to write, “Her beautiful natural voice and delivery led to her meteoric rise to international fame in 1937. Visiting New York on a weekend ticket she landed a steady singing job at the famed Onyx club on Swing Street and taken into the recording studio by arranger Claude Thornfill. She stole the hearts of the nation with her groundbreaking controversial swing version of the Scottish folk tune ‘Loch Lomond.’ It became an immediate hit record and an enduring jazz classic.” [2]

Although her recording of Loch Lomond and other swinging folk and classic songs were extremely popular, they did draw some controversy with one station manager calling them “blasphemous,” opposed to the “irreverent ‘swinging’ of classic ballads.” They were banned on that station, but that only fueled the flames of her popularity and the public kept buying her records. It was actually these recordings that inspired Ella Fitzgerald and her band to come up with their hit version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” [2]

When asked how she got her start, she replied, “I sang ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ in 1918 at the Carnegie Library in Homestead, PA.” She was only seven years old. Speaking about her musical roots, Maxine says, “I never had any formal training, but I think I’ve been singing all my life. We had music around the house, in fact, my family was a musical family — the back porch type. There was 10 of them and they all played some kind of instrument. And I guess a little bit of it brushed off on me.” [1]

In 1938 she became the lead singer in John Kirby’s band. (He was also famous for “swinging the classics,” and made some of my favorite recordings — check out their version of Chopin’s Prelude in Em, “Charlie’s Prelude.” Kirby and Sullivan were also married for a short time). In 1940, she and Kirby co-hosted the live nation-wide CBS radio program, “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm,” which was the only coast-to-coast radio show to feature African-American MCs at that time. [2]

In 1956, she was in Hawaii working and met some of the ladies who had played in Ina Ray Hutton’s band, one of which showed up at the club where she was working, sang a few songs, and played the trumpet. That got her to thinking she’d like to “add another dimension to her musical personality” and learn the valve trombone! She took a few lessons with Vic Dickenson, practiced and practiced, and would eventually incorporate valve trombone, flugelhorn, and pocket trumpet in her performances from the ’60s on. [3] Unfortunately, I can’t find any recordings of her on a horn!

With the advent and ubiquity of television, many jazz musicians’ performing careers suffered. “Without the advance publicity of the radio,” and the ability to just sit and be entertained in one’s own living room, attendance at performances waned. In 1957, Maxine got tired of “walking uphill with the brakes on” and retired from show business for a while. [1] She raised a family, became a nurse, was extremely active in her community, practiced valve trombone, and performed here and there. She founded a non-profit “dedicated to teaching jazz to children of the Bronx through instruction, performance, and research” called “The House that Jazz Built” to honor her late husband, Cliff Jackson. [4]

Eventually, she got pulled back into the music business making several successful comebacks over the years and performing, recording, and touring all the way up until her death in 1987. Maxine worked with many of the great jazz artists of the 20th century over her long career in live performance, studio recordings, radio and film appearances — John Kirby, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Dick Hyman, Major Holley, Bobby Hacket, Benny Carter, Jack Teagarden, Dexter Gordon, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Lunceford, to name a few. She was incredibly prolific, appearing on over 150 albums. [2] Here’s some video footage of one of her final concerts. Her singing and stage presence are both so effortless, yet spot on. She embodies that quiet confidence toward which I think many of us strive. I also really love Scott Hamilton’s tenor solo:

I was already incredibly inspired by Maxine’s music, and after today’s study, I feel even more endeared to her. There’s something so authentic and humble about her voice that is reflected in the way she lived her life. Marian McPartland said “Maxine was a very versatile person — she made her own clothes, she handled her own career, she had a foundation called ‘the house that jazz built,’ she played the trombone, she was a great artist and a great singing star, and yet she always seemed a down to earth, very easy-going, nice person.” [1]

Conveniently, someone has already made a playlist of 174 of her songs. I hope you enjoy listening to her music as much as I have!

(Re)sources

[1] Maxine Sullivan: Love to be in Love. Directed by G. Schiller. 1988; New York, NY: Jezebel Productions, 2007. DVD.

[2] “Maxine Sullivan: One of the Great Singers of the 20th Century who put the ‘Ing’ in Swing.” Pittsburgh Music History. (https://sites.google.com/site/pittsburghmusichistory/pittsburgh-music-story/jazz/jazz—early-years/maxine-sullivan).

[3] Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982).

[4] John S. Wilson. “Maxine Sullivan, 75, is dead; Jazz Singer Won Tony Award in ’79.” The New York Times. April 9, 1987.

One thought on “Maxine Sullivan

  1. Thank you so much for this. Purity is the word that describes her delivery, not flashy or showy. I’m saddened and ashamed to admit that I did a seven-year jazz show on community radio and as far as I recall, never once played a Maxine Sullivan song.

    Like

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