Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lambert, Dave (David Alden)

One of the most successful progenitors of “vocalese,” the art of applying words to jazz solos, Dave Lambert made the melodic and rhythmic inventions of modern jazz accessible to millions of listeners. His search for the ideal combination of voices to best convey this ingenious blend of music and lyrics culminated in the formation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, which for a few brief years was one of the most popular groups in jazz.

David Alden Lambert was born June 19, 1917 in Boston, Massachusetts. His sole musical education came at age 10 when he played drums for a year. He picked up the drums again in the late 1930s, when he worked summers playing with the Hugh McGuinness trio. Before joining the Army in 1940, he earned his living as a tree surgeon.

Lambert was discharged from Army in 1943 then joined Gene Krupa’s band a year later, where he teamed up with fellow vocalist Buddy Stewart to perform “What’s This?,” regarded upon its release in 1945 as the first-ever bop vocal recording.

Lambert pursued this modernist take on jazz singing through a variety of formats, including the Dave Lambert Singers, which backed Charlie Parker on such 1953 recordings as “Old Folks” and “In the Still of the Night.”

In the first half of the 1950s, Lambert worked primarily as a studio singer and freelance arranger, whiel explored ways to expand and deepen the possibilities for vocal jazz ensembles. He pooled his efforts with those of an Ohio-born law student named Jon Hendricks, with whom Lambert recorded, in 1955, a vocalese version of the Woody Herman standard, “Four Brothers.”

Two years later, Lambert and Hendricks recruited British-born song prodigy Annie Ross in their crusade to take vocalese to a higher level of recognition and showmanship. Their first album, Sing a Song of Basie, was a collection of the bandleader's classics set to words, and recorded with overdubs of the trio so as to simulate the sounds of a big band.

The success of that album and of its 1959 followup, The Swingers, led to a contract with Columbia Records that led to three more hit albums, 1959’s The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960’s Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Sing Ellington and 1961’s High-Flying. The group also appeared on the 1961 Dave Brubeck all-star session, The Real Ambassadors and the Columbia anthologies, Giants of Jazz and Jingle Bell Jazz, which includes their hard-swinging version of Walt Kelly’s nonsense carol, “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie.”

The combination of Lambert’s harmonic savvy, Hendricks’ lyrical ingenuity and Ross’s melodic range was never before and has never since been matched by jazz vocal groups. Lambert’s personal vocal style can be heard to its best effect on Hottest New Group’s take on Ralph Burns’ “Bijou,” on which his soft, clipped attack leads the way.

Ross left the group in 1962, citing exhaustion from years of touring. Lambert and Hendricks continued to work as a trio with Ross’s replacement, Ceylanese vocalist Yolande Bavan. The group disbanded in 1964, shortly after Lambert left to return to studio work. He continued to experiment with jazz vocals while hosting his own radio show and emceeing jazz concerts. On October 3, 1966, Dave Lambert was changing a tire on the Connecticut Turnpike near Westport, Connecticut when he was struck and killed by a truck. He was 49 years old.

Select Discography

As Arranger

Charlie Parker, Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years (Verve)

Contains “Old Folks” and “In the Still of the Night”

With Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Sing a Song of Basie (Verve)

The Hottest New Group in Jazz (Columbia Legacy)

Contains Lambert, Hendricks & Ross Sing Ellington and High Flying with the Ike Isaacs Trio.

Hipster’s Holiday (Rhino)

Contains “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”

Contributor: Gene Seymour