PHYLLIS HYMAN / “Phyllis Hyman Jazz Mixtape”
Phyllis Linda Hyman (July 6, 1949 — June 30, 1995) calls forth two issues to deal with in this week’s classic post. One is Ms. Hyman’s life and death as a female vocalist and the other is her work as a jazz singer. Neither topic is straightforward nor simple to delineate. Like life, the Phyllis Hyman story is full of twists, turns, contradictions and amazing highlights diminished by depressing lows. I certainly wish her life had been different but it is what it is, and, although marked by triumphs and successes, the life of Phyllis Hyman is more a cautionary tale than solely an inspiration for future generations of black female vocalists. Her suicide note is reported to have simply said: I’m tired. I’m tired. God bless you. But Phyllis should be remembered for much more than her death. Her recorded legacy is noted mainly for her pop material but her jazz recordings should also be celebrated. We offer this week’s classic feature in honor of Phyllis Hyman. A statuesque black woman of stunning beauty. No doubt about it. More than any of her contemporaries, more so than even Diana Ross, Phyllis Hyman was a fashion icon. Frequently featured in glamour magazines and considered one of the true avatars of haute couture. But, as I discovered when interviewing her, back in the early seventies she had also been a member of CAP (the Congress of Afrikan People, a pan-African organization led by Amiri Baraka). She was far, far more than a pretty face. Unfortunately, her physical presence was so mesmerizing that her beauty often blinded people to the depth and breadth of her talents. Yes, beauty can be a curse, a cage that limits how we view a person. The entertainment industry pushed Phyllis as a sex object—a sophisticated presence of goddess-like grace and beauty, but a sex object nonetheless. But how does one maintain one’s sanity if damn near every straight male one meets is trying to fuck you—if not literally, than certainly figuratively for economic gain or other nefarious reasons? How can anyone survive a seemingly endless hunt? Eventually, the constant challenges from wolves and hyenas in the skins of marauding business associates—you know, suave, savvy lawyers and would-be Svengalis; lovers who love what you have or what you look like you have or can get; economic saviors advising you on how to spend your money, how to shape your career, how to shave your legs, and a myriad of other “how-to” be other than what you are—and by the way, after days and years of being the prey constantly on the run, how do you any longer even know who you are? Eventually it gets to you. You fall out exhausted. Lonely. Trapped. Nowhere left to run. In front of you a cliff (or as Langston so eloquently put it: the calm, cool face of the river asking for a kiss); behind you the dogs of capitalism closing in for the kill. What do you do when you know you’re about to die whatever you do? When I saw Ms. Hyman at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans, it was a sobering session. Her loneliness was palpable. The audience for the final set was meager. She graciously took requests and I got the distinct impression that the grind wasn’t fun anymore—if indeed it had ever been. A lot of black men believe that pretty black women have it better because the female is not seen as a threat to white men and moreover a lot of white men actually like black women, so therefore (or so the twisted logic goes) the black women can get what she wants from the white man whereas the black man is always subject to be lynched. Hell, didn’t Professor Gates’ arrest illustrate that point? What about all the calumny and downright disrespect being heaped on Obama? And don't even begin to talk about the super-high percentage of black men incarcerated. Doesn’t that prove that black men have it harder? This juvenile crowing about who gets treated worse completely ignores the reality that regardless of color or social status, a man can usually find a woman to salve his suffering or to serve as a proxy punching bag on which rage can be released or punishment extracted, and the male can do so with near impunity. Cemetery plots and hospital beds bear unfortunate witness. Whether women have it harder than men or vice versa is not the issue. The issue is no one should have to live the way this society forces women to live. Which all is why the beauty of Phyllis Hyman’s vocal artistry is so amazing. That she could sing so many songs of uplift even as she was being ground down is miraculous. All the way until the end she encouraged her people to keep on keeping on. Perhaps even her suicide was not a surrender but rather a signal that we must push on, a warning that the path she had chosen was a dead-end. It’s as if Phyllis was telling us: go another way. Fortunately, her musical legacy is secure. Phyllis Hyman has literally millions of fans, however, I am not certain that the full extent of her talents are appreciated. Were she not so successful as a pop icon I believe she would have been a major jazz vocalist who demonstrated a talent for shaping a melodic phrase and an incredible voice whose dark timbre belied her vocal agility. In jazz circles she is popularly known for her reading of “Betcha By Golly Wow” on a Norman Connors recording but there were three other jazz milestones that are important. Indeed, before we get to the three jazz oriented recordings, I do want to make mention of “Remember Who You Are” a cut that is on one of Norman Connors more recent releases. Every time I hear that song, I am emotionally moved not only because of the artistry but also because of the comment it makes on Phyllis’ life and death. Sometimes memories are not enough—life can become a bit much to bear. You have ears, check it out for yourself and see what it does for and to you. In a major career move, Phyllis took time out from recording and touring to join a Broadway musical. It was a wise move. Phyllis Hyman earned a Tony nomination for her role in Sophisticated Ladies, the tribute to Duke Ellington. And if there was ever a case of true type casting, this was it. But listen, listen closely to how she closes “In A Sentimental Mood.” Listen to how she builds up to the ending note with an improvised phrase and then a pause before nailing that difficult high note. Listen to her scatting with Gregory Hines and doing a Dizzy Gillespie turn, catapulting her voice into the stratosphere. And check out the sensitivity she displays on “I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good/Mood Indigo” in duet with Terri Klausner. Rather than overpowering her cohort, Phyllis lays back and under, complementing Klausner. It’s a beautiful demonstration of Phyllis putting art before ego. Why didn’t her label record Phyllis doing a jazz album after the success of Sophisticated Ladies? One of her early albums had a brief ballad turn of “Here’s That Rainy Day” but there was no sustained follow up. Oh, what a missed opportunity. I would have loved to hear Phyllis doing standards. On the other hand there was a strange album with Pharoah Sanders—smooth jazz has never been so rough and rugged. The album is ironically entitled Love Will Find A Way. In this case drummer and producer Norman Connors was undoubtedly doing a favor for Pharoah Sanders who had been Connors’ former employer. While this is not one of Pharoah’s greatest records, the cuts that feature Phyllis do give more than a hint of the potential that was there for a collaboration that would have been divine. And third is Looking Out, the McCoy Tyner album on Columbia that features guitarist Carlos Santana, bassist Stanley Clarke, and saxophonist Gary Bartz (who also was featured with Phyllis on Connor’s “Betcha By Golly Wow”). Tyner is reported to have attributed Ms. Hyman’s presence to the insistence of Tyner’s children who urged him to record with her. Whatever the provenance, Phyllis once again demonstrates an ability to sing jazz at a level few of her contemporaries could approach. Indeed, other than the classic John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album, has there been any other significant recording of McCoy Tyner with a vocalist? Smooth jazz, ballads, big band swing, and straight-ahead contemporary jazz, Phyllis Hyman was able to ace it all. Give her her due. Phyllis Hyman was one of the all-time great vocalists of the twentieth century. —Kalamu ya Salaam Phyllis Hyman Jazz Mixtape Playlist 01 “Betcha By Golly Wow” - The Legacy Of Phyllis Hyman 02 “Remember Who You Are” - One On One 03 “In A Sentimental Mood” - The Legacy Of Phyllis Hyman 04 “Take The ‘A’ Train” - One On One 05 “I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good/Mood Indigo” - One On One 06 “Here's That Rainy Day” - Ultimate Phyllis Hyman 07 “Everything I Have Is Good” – Pharoah Sanders - Love Will Find A Way 08 “As You Are” – Pharoah Sanders - Love Will Find A Way 09 “Love Is Here" – Pharoah Sanders - Love Will Find A Way 10 “I'll Be Around” - McCoy Tyner – Looking Out 11 “Love Surrounds Us Everywhere” - McCoy Tyner – Looking Out 12 “In Search Of My Heart” - McCoy Tyner – Looking Out
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