By Isa Covo

So, how are you enjoying this summer? Are you traveling? Going to the beach and walking on the scorching sand? Do you have to go to work stranded on the stifling subway platforms before squeezing into the somewhat air-conditioned compartments of the train that takes you to your destination feeling sticky and disheveled? Too many days have been bad hair days; I can vouch for that.

It has been hot. Very hot. And unless it is necessary to go out, I try to stay home where there is always something to do, things to read, and things to think about.

This month I want to talk about four of my favorite female blues and jazz singers, all gone now, alas, but whose voices are still thrilling. For each of them I have listed some titles, which are just a fraction of their rich repertoires, so, please go beyond those and listen to as many as you can find.

BESSIE SMITH was born in poverty in Tennessee in the 19th century. She led a peripatetic life. In her twenties, she moved north to Philadelphia and, though her life was short (she died at 37 in an auto accident in Mississippi), the list of her songs is long. More than one hundred and fifty were recorded.

Smith had a hard life, and through the blues she told sad stories of abandonment and unrequited love. Some of the choices in her repertoire evoke a proto-feminist and independent woman. Listen to “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” or “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and some songs with risqué sous-entendres such as I need a “Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” Or have some fun with “Give Me a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer.” Even with “Saint Louis Blues” she decides to leave town rather than be humiliated. There are many sad songs but in most of them, in one way or another, she shows her strength.

BILLIE HOLIDAY, by all accounts, was born into a dysfunctional family in Philadelphia in 1915. Her father, Clarence Holiday, played banjo and guitar and, for a time, played with the Fletcher Anderson orchestra. Her parents separated and she lived with her mother (who remarried) in Baltimore. In 1928 she and her mother moved to New York, and after three years of just trying to survive, Billie found a job in a nightclub in Harlem. She was sixteen.

Billie did not have a formal musical education and, apparently, could not read a score, but she had an instinct for music. “Lady Day,” as she was nicknamed, had an extensive and varied repertoire. I saw her on stage once, in her later years, and what I saw was a delicate, fragile woman, looking a little lost, but I could also see that she was a trouper when she sang. Her most famous song, almost her signature, was “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol, the adoptive father of the Rosenberg children, who had witnessed a lynching in the South. Listen to her on “Good Mornin’ Heartache,” “Trav’lin Light,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “One for My Baby,” “Moonlight in Vermont, ” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Stormy Weather,” “Ain’t Misbehavin” and many other songs, ballads and upbeat ones, all worth listening to.

ELLA FITZGERALD, born in 1917, lived to be 79 years old, and her career spanned 60 years. She had a very wide vocal register and sang in many styles; she even sang a Gilbert & Sullivan composition on a TV show.

Her first hit, “A Tisket A Tasket,” was a song she co-wrote, and her first break was to be in Chick Webb’s orchestra (Webb was a mentor to her). Ella was bright, talented, and a quick learner. But, apparently, she was also shy; she never liked to talk about her life or herself. Her career really took flight when impresario Norman Granz became her manager. Granz was the producer of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Ella was a member of the orchestra. In the 1940s Granz created Verve Records and Ella recorded numerous albums with songs in various styles from various American composers, almost all of whom were immigrants. Her upbeat, fun delivery always puts me in a good mood. Some of the songs I enjoy are “How High the Moon,” “Mack The Knife,” “Stairway to the Stars,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Let’s Do It,” and many more.

Ella performed around the world—throughout Europe and as far away as Australia—and always enjoyed success. She was active well into her seventies, although she had serious health problems, and her complete biography, even abbreviated, is too long to include here but you can read it online along with a list of her songs.

SARAH VAUGHAN was born in New Jersey in 1924. Both of her parents were musically inclined. She took her first piano and organ lessons when she was seven years old.

At eighteen, Sarah won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater and was hired as a singer and second piano-player for the Earl Hines orchestra. A year later she joined the orchestra of Billy Eckstine, which brought her into contact with the musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

She was a contralto with a very wide range and was considered one of the great jazz singers. Her fame was extensive and international, and she toured in Europe and the U.S. She recorded for Mercury Records and also appeared in three movies.

Sarah was an elegant woman with a lot of charm and was nicknamed “Sassy.” She recorded numerous songs and jazz tunes, upbeat as well as ballads. Among my favorites are “Misty,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “The Man I Love,” “They All Laughed,” “Poor Butterfly,” and her closing song “Send in the Clowns.” There are many others, of course, and when I listen to her delivery I imagine that they should be listened to with a cocktail in hand in a chic establishment.

Sarah died in her sixties from lung cancer in 1990.

So, relax, have a cold drink, and listen to the music of these wonderful singers.

Piperade Basquaise

By Isa Covo

Like all regional recipes, the Piperade has several versions: sweet green peppers or green and red peppers, with eggs or without, more or less onions, parsley or not. What is certain is that because it is a dish that originated in southwestern France on the border with Spain, it uses ingredients reminiscent of Spanish tastes. It can be served as a first course, or at lunch, or for a light dinner. I prefer to serve it as a main course as I find it filling. Adding a green salad and fruit and/or ice cream makes for a very satisfying meal. My version, taking inspiration from several cookbooks, is below.

  • sea salt
  • 8 large eggs
  • 1 lb. sweet green peppers, or a mixture of green and red ones
  • 1 jalapeno
  • 8 oz. ripe tomatoes
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 3 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs of rosemary, 1 bay leaf tied in a piece of cheesecloth
  • 4 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, minced
  • 4 thin slices of Bayonne or Iberico ham, or prosciutto
  1. Wash and seed the peppers; remove the white membranes and cut them into two-inch-long strips. Seed and remove the membranes from the jalapeno and mince.
  2. Peel and seed the tomatoes and chop them coarsely.
  3. Prepare the onions and mince the garlic.
  4. Sauté the onions in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, three-four minutes, stirring them until they become translucent and color slightly. Add the minced garlic and continue sautéing for one more minute.
  5. Add the peppers, including the minced jalapeno, and stir into the mix. Add the tomatoes and the cheesecloth with the herbs. Mix gently and lower the heat to medium low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Uncover the pan and continue cooking until all the water from the vegetables has evaporated. Mix in the chopped parsley. Season with the salt and sugar.
  6. While the vegetables are cooking, break the eggs into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat them until they thicken, become very pale, and triple in volume.
  7. Once the vegetables are ready, set the heat to low, and pour the eggs over them and fold the eggs until they are completely mixed with the vegetables and no trace of eggs is apparent; continue cooking for two-three minutes. The mixture must be lightly frothy.
  8. Distribute the piperade into four plates and top each serving with a slice of the ham.

Yield: 4 servings.

Note: The above preparation is a little different from the more traditional one. Here, the eggs are whipped as for an omelet and then poured over the vegetables and stirred gently with a wooden spoon to mix them with the vegetables and scramble them. Do not overcook.

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