Patty Waters Sings

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From Jazz Singers, The Ultimate Guide

By Scott Yanow
Published 2008

Patty Waters
(Patricia Sue Stonebraker)
March 11, Vicksburg, MS

Patty Waters was an important part of the mid-1960s avant-garde jazz movement, an idiom that, prior to her arrival on the scene, seemed to have no room for vocalists. She made her mark on jazz history, survived the turmoil of the era, and decades later returned as a soft-voiced ballad singer.

She first heard jazz as a child on her family's large radio while sitting at their dairy farm in Iowa. Waters sang at fairs and town functions, had piano lessons from the time she was nine, and in high school won awards in music and drama. She also played organ and tympani. "My parents couldn't afford college for me, so they pushed me to become a band singer. In their eyes, band singers were to be admired. My parents were from the war era and associated the music with romance. I believe my parents had hoped my life could be happy like a Hollywood musical, but I'd say my life has been more like a film noir."

Waters started performing jazz right after high school, working in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, living in Los Angeles for a little while. In 1964 she moved to New York and, after saxophonist Albert Ayler heard her increasingly adventurous singing at a nightclub, he recommended her to the ESP label. Patty Waters Sings starts out with quiet ballads in which her voice is barely louder than a whisper. But on the 13-minute "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair," she made history with an intense and often shocking improvisation based on the song's words and utilizing screams and shrieks, in away breaking the sound barrier with her voice. It is still arguably the most significant avant-garde vocal of the 1960s.

Waters also recorded College Tour a few months later, an intriguing set that does not quite reach the heights of "Black Is The Color." Unfortunately, other than performing Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" on a Marzette Watts album from 1968, she would be off records for 30 years, dropping out of the scene and moving to Hawaii and later Northern California to raise her son. Patty Waters was a lost legend until she returned to jazz in the late 1990s, performing at the 1999 Monterey Jazz Festival and recording again, although now as a Billie Holiday-inspired ballad singer.

Recommended CDs: Patty Waters Sings (ESP 1025) is her CD to get, while College Tour (ESP 1055) serves as a strong follow up. You Thrill Me: A Musical Odyssey 1962-79 (Water 137) has odds and ends, including commercials and private recordings that add to the singer's small but important discography. Love Songs (Jazz Focus 512) is her 1996 comeback album, a set of standards performed with the very sympathetic support of pianist Jessica Williams. Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe (DBK Works 523) from 2002 is a brittle and very real tribute to Billie Holiday. Patty Waters sounds both fragile and determined at the same time.