All Dinah Washington wanted was the one thing she never got. Dubbed the Queen of the Blues and the Queen of the Jukeboxes — titles she used herself — Washington nevertheless resisted genre orthodoxy, and was clearly resentful whenever she was asked to explain or categorize her vast catalog. “You would mostly call me an all-’round singer,” she insisted with a patient smile when a Swedish TV host asked her whether she preferred to sing jazz or blues songs. “Haven’t made opera yet,” Washington quipped by way of conclusion, perhaps nodding to the hurdles facing Black women artists, while making clear that she could earn many a “Brava” at the Met, if given the opportunity.
“I can sing anything,” she told Jet magazine in a quote published posthumously. “Anything at all.”
And yet, her omnivorousness has made consolidating her legacy a knottier task than most are willing to take on. Compared to Billie and Ella — inarguably her peers — Washington’s reach was broader, more challenging to sort into canons and best-of lists. Pop and blues and big band singles were recorded and released without an easily traced chronology or progressive narrative. The Queen could do it all, so why wouldn’t she? Washington was repaid with immense popularity, the kind of commercial success that too often is enough to keep artists from being considered members of the jazz world’s self-consciously elite canon.
By the time she got around to making recordings that were explicitly framed as capital-J Jazz in the mid-1950s, the genre had — thanks to the explosion of bebop — long since fractured from pop music. Separated from its dancehall past, jazz was seen as more erudite, more bohemian, more artistically credible — and often, more appealing to white people convinced of their superior taste.
As Washington reiterated over and over, even if she didn’t see every genre as indistinguishable, she certainly wasn’t interested in harping on what arbitrary traits might divide them. Why wouldn’t she make jazz, even if her bawdy blues and silky pop were perceived as déclassé by many of its acolytes?
After all, when Washington performed during that period (a period in which she had a number of R&B hits), it was most often alongside an intimate trio: usually pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Two of those three, Kelly and Cobb, would shortly appear on the most famous jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue. All three play on For Those In Love, Washington’s third LP for then-Mercury subsidiary EmArcy Records — her third jazz record. Her live sound was closer to what listeners hear on this release, more intimate and organic than many of her tightly arranged and big band-bolstered singles.
So it was an organic transition, one that only looks substantial if you’re willing to accept the record industry’s sales terminology as gospel. For Those In Love spotlights the talents of another wildly talented artist whose work sometimes feels nearly impossible to grasp in its entirety — an artist who shocks outsiders by moving between seemingly disparate realms that, to him, are barely worth dividing: Quincy Jones. He’d just turned 22 when he entered the studio to arrange and direct the ensemble for this album, his first of several LPs with Washington (and the beginning of an on-and-off affair).
Together, they crafted a quietly revolutionary album. To a contemporary listener, that might be hard to believe. Its smooth contours and effortless, pared-down ensemble are now familiar elements of the most conventional jazz vocal music. They are familiar, though, because the sound Jones and Washington created here became the status quo — not because it necessarily was at the time.
The collection of standards is invigorated by the polish and intimacy of the ensemble, the open space pillowing its gentle swing. Neither brash like a big band nor cloying like a string orchestra, the record is plush, understated and dense with A-list musicianship — all of which is audible thanks to Jones’ easy, lyric arrangements. Along with producer and EmArcy head Bob Shad, they helped create a new template for pop-aware, jazz-rich vocal music that sounds so seamlessly modern and classic at once it might have been recorded at any point between 1955 and yesterday.
That deceptive simplicity is one throughline in Washington’s too-short career. She was born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her family relocated to Chicago’s South Side when she was just four years old, a move quite common in those years of the Great Migration; her father Ollie soon found work at a roofing company. One thing, though, remained constant from Tuscaloosa to Chicago: the family’s enthusiastic membership in their local Baptist church.
Jones was a gospel prodigy. Her performances were garnering coverage in local papers by the time she was in her teens, and she was soon singing and working as an accompanist with adult, professional ensembles. She eventually dropped out of high school to pursue her dreams of singing on the secular stage, and quickly found work in the city’s bustling nightlife scene — most memorably, there were a few weeks where one might have heard Billie Holiday on the upstairs stage of one club, and an 18-year-old Dinah downstairs. It’s hard to imagine better jazz bona fides than that.
During those heady months, Ruth Jones became Dinah Washington, a glamorous name well-suited to her self-described “showgirl” ambitions. Lionel Hampton recruited Washington into his band, and her ascent was all but guaranteed as she started applying her considerable technical gifts to seemingly straightforward blues recordings.
By the late 1940s, Washington was a fixture of Billboard’s R&B charts thanks to singles that would almost certainly be placed under the umbrella of jazz if they were released today. Backed by small ensembles and swinging big bands, she flaunted the skills that would become her cross-genre trademarks: razor-sharp enunciation, bold phrasing that easily moved from a praise-ready scream to a coquette’s breathy whisper, a tight vibrato and effortless intonation, even as she slid each note up and down with the fluid ease and control of a soloing trombonist. She admired Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra equally, drawing from both as she formed her own distinctive style.
“You don’t forget her,” said Clark Terry, who played with Washington on all of her EmArcy jazz records, including For Those In Love. “Her tonality. She had pitch. Her intonation was fantastic. Her diction was impeccable. There is never a question about what did she say. You knew right away.”
So entering the burgeoning “real jazz” market, as she did in 1954 with her EmArcy debut After Hours with Miss D, wasn’t much of a departure — just putting her looser live sound on wax, recording for the expanding LP market instead of jukeboxes. The EmArcy subsidiary was founded by Bob Shad after impresario Norman Granz left Mercury, and the label then put Shad in charge of rebuilding their jazz roster. His decision to ask Washington and fellow Mercury signee Sarah Vaughan to record jazz LPs in lieu of pop-oriented 45s was a monumental one, shaping both artists’ and the genre’s fortunes by offering a taste of the credibility they’d long deserved.
What makes For Those In Love stand out, even among Washington’s numerous excellent EmArcy sides, is its authors’ polish and taste — a term that can feel like a backhanded compliment in a genre that rewards risk-taking and innovation. Jones’ arrangements of the collection of mostly well-worn standards are simply remarkable, without even one extra note that might distract from Washington’s potent delivery. The album came together mostly during marathon midnight sessions on March 15 and 16, 1955 at Capitol’s New York studios, located at 151 West 46th Street.
On its opener, the Cole Porter chestnut “I Get A Kick Out Of You” gets an effervescent rework, with Washington’s support playing riffs so breezy and bright they might as well be the bubbles in the song’s opening intoxicant. Wynton Kelly solos practically the entire time, a perfect juxtaposition to Washington’s evocative but fairly straight rendition — until she explodes in the last chorus, saving her power to punch up the song’s twist: “You obviously don’t adore me.” There is space for Kelly, Terry and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland to blow a few smart choruses, but not so many they begin to feel self-indulgent.
“Blue Gardenia” was a contemporary hit, having just been recorded by Nat King Cole for the 1953 movie of the same name. Cole’s version, souped up with Nelson Riddle’s string orchestra, was overwhelmingly sentimental — Washington was the first one to cut through the schlock with this intimate, stunning interpretation, proof-positive of her underappreciated strength as a ballad singer. The carefully composed but not overwrought recording had a cool jazz flair: Jones’ horn arrangements certainly made the octet sound bigger than it was, but horn players also regularly dropped out, leaving Washington and her rhythm section to shine. Tenor Paul Quinichette, baritone Cecil Payne and guitarist Barry Galbraith all offered sophisticated solos that never raised the temperature.
Then, as now, choosing a song strongly associated with another artist was a bold choice. Yet Washington’s take on “Easy Living,” which Billie Holiday had recorded alongside Lester Young over a decade prior, is impeccable. She adds flourishes to the already challenging melody, drawing out it over a slow-swinging, bassy backdrop that spotlights her soaring vocal line — and saves the kill shot for the last word, making “you” into three distinct notes. “Maybe I’m a fool, but it’s fun,” she sings with a conversational lilt, almost laughing at her own joke.
Miles Davis’ 1954 instrumental version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” released as the B-side to “Solar,” had brought the 1941 composition back into the zeitgeist; Washington recorded it the same week Chet Baker did, just on the opposite side of the country. Like Davis’, Washington’s rendition had a cool jazz flair; it opened with her singing alongside Galbraith as a duo, and opened into lush, understated horn lines. But Washington hardly tempered her heat — after all, who better to sing about how “you don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues” than the Queen of the Blues herself?
Upbeat Rodgers and Hart tunes “This Can’t Be Love” and “I Could Write A Book” get detailed (note the emotional tremor on “sobs” in “Love”), cheerfully swinging treatment from Jones and Washington. Thanks to Shad’s production, the room sounds so live the listener may well be in exactly the right corner of the chicest possible cocktail party — not because the music is dull enough to fade into the background, but because it is so buoyant it’s impossible not to feel festive.
The shortest song on the record might also be its most tragic. Washington’s take on “My Old Flame” is more or less reverent, yet shows her enormous range. She begins with tender and conversational singing alongside Galbraith, gradually building to a full blues cry at the song’s conclusion. It’s also the only song on the original LP with no solos.
“Make The Man Love Me” was a popular single in the early 1950s, thanks to pop treatments by Margaret Whiting and Peggy Lee. But Washington’s version, predictably, is brimming with emotion and vocal fireworks — she even quotes Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” after Cleveland’s solo, a pitch-perfect American Songbook pastiche.
To some listeners, the album’s fluidity might disguise its profundity. Its musicians’ perfect fluency and intuitive technique, though, are what make it so easy to listen to. It is jazz, but it is unpretentious — just some of the very best of what American music has ever had to offer. At the core of that grace and beauty is Dinah herself, bolstered by a crew of excellent musicians and producers but ultimately unimpeachable as a talent and an artist.
“She had a voice that was like the pipes of life,” Jones said later. “She could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator, and you would’ve still understood every single syllable of every single word she sang. Every single melody she sang she made hers. Once she put her soulful trademark on a song, she owned it and it was never the same.”
Where her records were categorized was never the point, right up until her untimely, unfair passing. The only things that mattered were the songs themselves.
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in Dallas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR and more.