Dec 23, 2014 - ANNIE ROSS HEADLINES OKLAHOMA JAZZ HALL OF FAME INDUCTION EVENT DEC. 31
The noted vocalist and actress Annie Ross first met saxophonist-composer Wardell Gray in the early 1950s, since they met the two have become inextricably linked in jazz history. It was Ross's vocal treatment of Gray's 1949 composition “Twisted” that provided a turning point in her career, leading her not only to a solo career but also to the trio of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, one of the most popular jazz acts of the late '50s and early '60s.
On Wednesday, December 31, she and Gray, who passed away in 1955, will share something else: induction into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Ross is scheduled to receive the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award, given to jazz greats who have enriched America’s music. Oklahoma native and jazz singer Annie Ellicott will present the award. Gray, a native of Oklahoma City, will be inducted in the jazz category, along with writer Ralph Ellison and saxophonist-clarinetist and longtime Tulsa music figure Rae DeGeer.
Other inductees include Robbie Mack in the blues category and Cortez Rex in gospel. Dr. Barry Epperly will receive the Community Spirit Award, Dr. Michael Moore the Zelia Breaux Distinguished Educator Award, and Louisza Cornelius the Legacy Tribute Award.
Annie Ross, who plans to sing at the event in addition to receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, put words to “Twisted” in 1952, after being asked by Prestige Records owner Bob Weinstock to create a vocal for an existing jazz melody.
“He didn't specify `Twisted,'” she recalls. “He told me to take a handful of records and see which one I liked best. I always go by titles, and when I saw the title `Twisted,' I thought that was really interesting.”
The subsequent recording, she adds, “brought me to the attention of people,” leading to her winning Down Beat magazine's New Star Award for the year.
She may have been a new star, but by that time she was also a veteran performer. Remarkably, she'd begun her career just about two decades earlier, appearing with her vaudevillian parents in her home country.
“I started in Scotland – when I was about two and a half,” she says, chuckling. “We were from a poor, working-class family, and we got money any way we could. There were five children, and as soon as we could do anything – sing, dance, talk – we were put on the stage.”
Only a couple of years later, she adds, “I came over [to New York] as an immigrant from Scotland with my mother and father and brother to visit my aunt, who was a singer. Her name was Ella Logan. I used to play in the lobby of the apartment building there with a little girl. I can't remember her name, but she told me her father had a radio program, and I told her that I should be on it. I was four and a half.”
One day, her playmate's father came home while the two children were together, and young Ross told him the same thing.
“I had a very thick Scottish accent, and I think he was intrigued. I said, `I should be on your program – I can sing, I can dance, I can tell jokes.' Apparently, he wrote down a number for me to call, which I promptly lost. I think it was the next day or the day after that my aunt picked up the phone and found Paul Whiteman on the other end.”
As it turned out, the bandleader known as the King of Jazz was looking for his daughter's little friend, whom he wanted for a kids' talent show that was running on his radio program.
“So,” she says, “I got ready, put my kilt on, went to the broadcast and won the contest.”
The first prize was what she describes as a “six-month token contract” with the major studio MGM. Token or not, it led to an appearance in one of the popular Our Gang short subjects, Our Gang Follies of 1938, in which she sang the traditional Scottish song “Loch Lomond.”
In the subsequent seven-plus decades, Ross has balanced the twin careers of acting and vocalizing, appearing in films ranging from Superman III and Throw Momma from the Train to the Basket Case horror films, where her “Granny Ruth” character has a cult following. Musically, she now performs weekly at New York's Metropolitan Room and recently saw the release her latest CD, a tribute to Billie Holiday titled To Lady with Love.
“I knew Lady very well,” she says, referring to Holiday by her nickname. “My first job in New York was to stand in for her at the Apollo [Theater]. That was my first meeting with her, and she was so receptive to me. She knew what I was trying to do. We became great friends. I used to listen to her record of `Lady in Satin,' and she used to listen to Jon [Hendricks] and Dave [Lambert] and me. She was my idol. She was someone I was proud to be associated with.”
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame's Induction Gala and New Year's Eve Bash begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, December 31, with a reception, followed by dinner at 7 p.m. and the induction ceremony from 7:30 to 9:30. Following a half-hour break, Zoot's Swing Band is set to perform from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, is located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St.
Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from www.jazzhalltickets.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-928-JAZZ. The cost is $100.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.