Aretha Franklin was about a month shy of her 20th birthday when she appeared for a week at The Village Gate in late February of 1962. She shared a bill there with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who like her was an indescribable talent — a genius, in the fullest sense of the word — recently signed to the roster of Columbia Records.
Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, solidified her unchallenged reign as the Queen of Soul elsewhere, on grander stages, typically with grittier musical backing. But she wasn’t out of place at The Village Gate, nor really out of her element. For the previous couple of years she’d been working comparable rooms in New York with a swinging piano trio. Months later, that July, she’d sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Her Columbia output leaned into jazz as a signal of adult-pop sophistication, but also as an unforced affinity, less formative than the black church but just as inextricable, and maybe almost as deep. Jazz was central to her musicianship, however far she rambled. Without it we’d be remembering a different artist now, and celebrating a different body of work.
That Franklin isn’t often understood in these terms has something to do with commercial reception. Her musical trajectory, in a typical bit of showbiz reductionism, often gets framed in prodigal terms: She was forged by gospel fires, and lost her way in songbook razzle-dazzle until leaving Columbia for Atlantic Records, where a stripped-down, soul-forward style reconnected her with her sanctified roots. And boom: Respect. (This tidy arc was reinforced for years by Atlantic’s own Jerry Wexler, who had a vested interest in claiming the win.)
It’s no slight at all to Franklin’s incandescent work on Atlantic in the late ’60s and early ’70s — one of the all-time hot streaks in recorded music history — to recognize the glorious work she did earlier in her career. As Ann Powers put it in her eloquent tribute: “The beginning of Franklin’s journey toward stardom, under the tutelage of John Hammond at Columbia Records, offers another set of lessons, this time in adaptability, elegance and craft.”
On an even more basic level, Franklin was in some sense a jazz singer, even though that label captures neither the essence of her artistry nor the scope of her significance. In 1961 she was anointed “New-Star Female Vocalist” in the DownBeat critics poll, a measure of consensus for the jazz press. (She’d received 30 votes to Abbey Lincoln’s 25.) “The dimly lit, smoke-filled jazz club was taking on the aspect of a revival tent,” wrote Pete Welding in the accompanying profile, describing a Franklin performance almost as a kind of transubstantiation.
You’re sure to read, in every good obituary of Franklin, that she grew up around jazz in Detroit. Still, it’s hard to capture the extent of this contact in passing. The best resource we have outside the music itself is Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, the 2014 biography by David Ritz, who’d previously collaborated with Franklin on her book Aretha: From These Roots.
Franklin took offense at Respect, which she pronounced “a trashy book.” But through his interviews with members of her family, Ritz unearths invaluable insight about her musical moorings. Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a Detroit institution who was close to Dinah Washington, and many a night passed where jazz legends gathered around the family piano: Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, even Art Tatum. So as a girl, Aretha had not only prodigious talent but also extraordinary access. Her jazz influences were close at hand, as a pianist as well as a vocalist.
Her older brother Cecil, who was close friends with Smokey Robinson, ran a barbershop out of the first-floor bathroom of their house. He took pride in the music he played in the shop: all the hip modern jazz of the day, from Mingus to Miles to Monk. Aretha would absorb it all.
As Cecil told Ritz, she also hunkered down alone with the hi-fi, for hours at a stretch. “That’s where she first heard Sarah Vaughan,” Cecil said. “But she didn’t stop with Sarah. She studied Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Dakota Staton — anyone I had on the box. She got to a point where she could imitate these singers, lick for lick.”
Hammond, who had famously worked with Holiday, saw this potential when he signed Franklin to Columbia. It was no accident that her first album for the label, released in ’61, was Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo — Bryant being an exceptional jazz pianist from Philadelphia, and the son of an ordained minister. Throughout that album, especially on a churchified track like “Won’t Be Long,” you can clearly hear the spark that would later be so celebrated.
Jazz singing, idiomatically speaking, would be a flickering constant on the albums that followed: While it may be true to suggest that Franklin hadn’t yet found her lane, she was already very much driving her own car. Laughing on the Outside, released in 1963, opens with a spectacular reading of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark,” set at a swaying tempo, with an inspired, jolting octave leap in the final pass of the verse.
In Ritz’s book, McRae recalls running into Vaughan, somewhere around this time. “Sarah said, ‘Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?’ I said, ‘You heard her do ‘Skylark,’ didn’t you?’ Sarah said, ‘Yes, I did, and I’m never singing that song again.’ ”
There’s some incredible footage of Franklin performing “Skylark” and other songbook fare, like “Lover Come Back to Me,” on The Steve Allen Show in 1964. She’s ostensibly there to promote her latest album, Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, but she doesn’t do any of that material. What she does is riveting, bordering on sublime.
“As a jazz pianist myself, I recognized her jazz chops,” Allen told Ritz. “They were tremendous. But I also saw that she had enough poise and experience to sing standards.” Along with the compulsion to share Franklin’s talent with the world, Allen had an ulterior motive: to get her to sing his tunes. (This happened in short order: Her 1965 album Yeah!!! opens with a Steve Allen joint, “This Could Be the Start of Something.”)
Nor did Franklin leave jazz behind during her celebrated run on Atlantic. Right after Amazing Grace, the epochal double album often hailed as her consummate masterpiece, she enlisted producer Quincy Jones for Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), a fascinating mixed bag of an album that includes an uptempo romp through “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the Eddie Jefferson vocalese of a James Moody ballad. (I saw Franklin perform this tune a decade ago at Radio City Music Hall, along with “My Funny Valentine” and Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.”)
Soul ’69, released on Atlantic at the top of that year, features a stacked consortium of jazz musicians, working in an organic R&B mode. You wouldn’t call it a jazz album, but you’d also be wrong to insist otherwise. Another anecdote from Respect: McRae recalls listening to Soul ’69 at Vaughan’s house, and fixating on “Crazy He Calls Me,” a standout track:
For jazz singers of the ensuing generation, like Dianne Reeves, Franklin loomed as a north star. But it wasn’t just singers, and it wasn’t just that generation. The fearsome pianist Cecil Taylor, another irreplaceable original who died this year, once told Robert Palmer of The New York Times that he’d learned a great deal from Franklin’s music — “in terms of thrust, of how to make my piano playing more pointedly rhythmic and lighter.”
Earlier this week I spoke with Aaron Cohen, a fellow jazz critic who also wrote a perceptive book about Amazing Grace. He reminded me that Franklin’s relationship with jazz couldn’t be separated from the other strands of her musical DNA. “She’s held onto the whole idea that nothing is outside her grasp, especially within the American tradition,” he said. “And it’s so strong, that sense of jazz being America’s music at the time she was coming up.”
More than a few jazz musicians of our time have shared a stage with Franklin, in settings as unfussy as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and as exalted as The Kennedy Center. Two years ago I saw her perform at the White House, as part of the festivities around International Jazz Day. Part of what I remember is her tribute to Prince, who had died about a week earlier. Backed by jazz musicians, she sang “Purple Rain” — by which I mean she skipped right to the chorus, and made it feel like a sanctified refrain.
But earlier, at the top of the program, she’d sat at the piano to perform Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” backed by Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. It turns out that this is the Franklin performance to remember from that evening.
“You are a friend of mine,” she sang, redrawing the shape of the line, and making the most formal and public of presentations feel scarily intimate, like a soul-to-soul communication.
She repeated the last two lines in a tag, contracting and expanding the tempo in ways that evoked another line in the lyrics, about a love “where there’s no space and time.” There’s no question, listening back now, that jazz is an essential part of the swirling magic that Franklin creates in that moment. But I can tell you truthfully that in the moment, among the assembled, that distinction was the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.