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October 11, 2010

Q&A: Chris Conner

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When I was in high school, I worked nearly every weekend for my neighbor Dan doing a variety of household jobs like painting and landscaping. Although I made a few bucks, the bigger payout was hanging out with Dan every Saturday. We were certainly an odd couple – me at 15 and he in his late 50‘s – and he was a real character. What I loved about him was that he had a crude sense of humor and liked meaty Italian deli sandwiches and beer, but he also just loved jazz especially big band and cool 1950‘s stuff. There was always something swingin’ in the background accompanied by his rich personal narrative. I learned so much about that period in jazz through his passionate rants and colorful stories.

In thinking back, our odd jobs were less about the work and more about the hang – playing cool music and the meaning behind it. As he reminisced about his younger, wilder and thinner self as a single guy in the early 50‘s, I learned all about his all time favorite vocalist, Chris Conner. He loved her husky voice and the manner in which she interpreted lyric. Dan used to play a collection of cassettes of Chris performing with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson but the stuff that just really sent him were her albums on the Bethlehem and Atlantic labels. His Chris Conner song of all songs was her version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got A Crush on You.” He just loved her.

I lost touch with my friend Dan after I graduated high school and sadly, he passed away shortly after. I’m sorry I never got the chance to personally thank him for those formative years of friendship and enlightened jazz education on Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Bunny Berigan, Illinois Jacquet, Vido Musso, Ella, Sarah, Peggy Lee, June Christy, and most importantly, his crown jewel, Chris Conner.

Years later in 1998 Joel Dorn produced a phenomenal Chris Conner reissue collection titled Warm Cool: The Atlantic Years featuring much of the music I so fondly associated with my old friend Dan. When I first heard that reissue, it absolutely floored me. Her vocal artistry was brilliant and my buddy was right on the money with his loyal admiration. Ironically, I got the chance to speak with Chris at the time of the reissue when we conducted this Jazz Online Q&A. I’m sorry Dan never got to see it. He would have savored every word of her sweet and thoughtful responses. Chris Conner died in 2009 at the age of 81. So to Chris and of course to Dan, here it is with my sincerest thanks. - JV

How or when did you first discover jazz?
I first discovered jazz in high school by listening to the radio. Soon after, I was spending three or four hours at a time in record stores, digging through the bins.

What was the first record you ever purchased?
Stan Kenton’s Her Tears Flowed Like Wine with Anita O’Day on vocals.

Name at least one jazz recording that “says it all” for you and why?
Any recording by the Gil Evans band says it all for me. Where Flamingos Fly immediately comes to mind. It was progressive. Gil’s arrangements and soloists were just so thrilling to me. I still listen to them to this day.

What is in your CD player right now?
Frank Sinatra Only The Lonely

What is your favorite escape?
Reading a good book is always a great escape. I live 6 miles from the Atlantic Ocean so I also love to take long walks on the beach.

Who or what inspires you?
Eleanor Roosevelt inspires me. She was a role model for all women. An all-around courageous lady. A beautiful building or painting also inspires me. Anything that lifts me above the ordinary.

If your life came with a theme song, what would it be?
Over The Rainbow.

What influence has jazz had on your life?
Jazz is my life.



Recommended:
Warm Cool: The Atlantic Years
Complete Bethlehem Years

Links:
Chris Conner website

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