Chris Connor has won every conceivable critical and popular accolade in her half century reign as one of the most gifted and distinctive vocalists in jazz history. To the delight of fans and fellow musicians, her singing has never been more satisfying. Her warm, cello-like tones glow with new luster, and her interpretation of lyrics is more deeply felt than ever before. Connor’s concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, an appearance at the Essence of Jazz Festival in Memphis, and her appearance as part of the star studded JVC tribute concert to Miss Peggy Lee, as well as jazz club engagements at such venues as Birdland and Iridium, have revealed an artist at the peak of her creative powers.
Born in 1927 in Kansas City, Missouri, Connor studied clarinet, but her career direction was clear at an early age. “I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” she said, “I never wanted to be anything else.” After completing her schooling, she took a secretarial job while commuting on weekends to the University of Missouri to perform with a Stan Kenton-influenced college jazz band. An admirer of Kenton singers Anita O’Day and June Christy, Connor recalls, “I had my sights set on singing with Kenton.”
Frustrated by the lack of vocal musical opportunities in her hometown, Connor pulled up stakes and headed east in 1949. She was hired by Claude Thornhill and spent the next five years touring with his orchestra. Then, while appearing with Jerry Wald’s band, she received the phone call she had been dreaming of. June Christy, Stan Kenton’s current vocalist, had heard Connor on a radio broadcast and recommended her to the orchestra leader, who chose her from dozens of other vocalists eager for the job. “My voice seemed to fit the band,” Connor said, “with that low register like Anita’s and June’s.
Connor’s ten-month stint with Kenton during 1952-53 won her national recognition. Her haunting recording of Joe Greene’s ballad “All About Ronnie” announced the arrival of a fresh new artist. But the years of one-night stands, fast food and interminable bus rides soured Connor’s enthusiasm for life on the road. “By that time, I’d endured about six years of one-nighters and I’d just about had it.” To this day she values the musical training she received with Kenton, especially the skills relating to time, phrasing and “how to come in on exactly the right note while 18 or 20 musicians are playing their parts.”
Determined to forge a career as a solo artist, Connor returned to New York and signed with Bethlehem Records in 1953. Her three albums for that independent label, featuring Ellis Larkins, Herbie Mann, Kai Winding and J.J.Johnson, established her as a major jazz voice. In 1956, she began a six-year association with Atlantic Records that produced a string of chart-topping recordings arranged by Ralph Burns, Al Cohn, Jimmy Jones and Ralph Sharon, showcasing a host of jazz legends - John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, Lucky Thompson, Phil Woods, Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Oliver Nelson and, in a particularly memorable pairing, Maynard Ferguson’s big band.
The rock youthquake of the late ’60s and ’70s derailed the careers of many jazz artists, but Connor persisted, performing in clubs, touring Japan and recording for a variety of labels. The early ’80s resurgence of interest in jazz singing revitalized her career, leading to a brace of highly-acclaimed Contemporary CDs. In the ’90s she began to record for the Japanese label Alfa. Connor recorded two CDs with jazz pianist Hank Jones and his trio, “Angel Eyes” and “As Time Goes By.” She then recorded two additional CDs with her own quintet, “My Funny Valentine,” arranged by Richard Rodney Bennett, and “Blue Moon,” a collection of movie songs, arranged by Michael Abene.
The new Millennium brought the timeless singer into yet another recording agreement, signing with the New York based High Note Records in 2000. Her first release, “Haunted Heart,” also arranged by Michael Abene, was released September 2001, and a second CD "I Walk With Music," was released in 2002, also with Michael Abene arranging and producing.
Chris then returned to another Japanese label and recorded "Lullaby Of Birdland" for King Record Co.Ltd, with pianist/arranger David Matthews. It was released in September 2003.
Of her current singing, Connor said, “I haven’t changed my approach, although my voice has become deeper and softer, and I don’t experiment as much. When you’re young, you overplay as a musician and you over-sing as a singer because you’re trying all these ideas, and I was throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. I’ve eliminated a lot of things I used to do. The simpler it is, the better it works for me.” She remains, as critic Larry Kart proclaimed in the Chicago Tribune, “a dominating vocal presence whose music is full of hard-earned wisdom and truth.”
Chris Connor died on Saturday evening, August 29 at the Community Medical Center in Toms River, NJ following a long bout with cancer.