29¢ Mildred Bailey
Blues and Jazz Singers
Issue Date: September 17, 1994
City: Greenville, MS
Printed By: Ashton-Potter
Printing Method: Lithographed
Perforations: 11 x 10.8
Mildred Bailey was born in 1907 in Tekoa, Washington. While still in her teens she demonstrated sheet music and played at movie houses. In 1929 she joined Paul Whiteman’s band, and became the first female big-band vocalist. During this period she married Red Norvo, also a member of the band, and became known as “The Rockin’ Chair Lady,” due to her brilliant performance of the tune “Rockin’ Chair.” In 1932 Bailey was injured in an automobile accident, forcing her into inactivity.
In 1933 Bailey left Whiteman’s band, and with Norvo jointly lead a band. After 1939 she mainly worked as a solo act, and was featured on radio shows, including Benny Goodman’s, with whom she recorded. In 1944 and ’45 she had her own successful radio show.
Perhaps Mildred Bailey’s greatest work was with Norvo, doing swing arrangements of Eddie Sauter songs. The couple was very popular, and billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Bailey was the first non-black singer accepted in jazz. Her vocal phrasing and high-pitched voice thrilled audiences, especially on ballads and soulful blues tunes. Bailey’s legacy lives on through the many recordings she made under her own name and the many famous musicians she sang with.
Metropolitan Opera’s First Jazz Concert
On January 18, 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City hosted its first-ever jazz concert, which raised money for the war effort.
The concert was the result of a reader’s poll for Esquire magazine. Despite wartime cutbacks, the magazine was popular with GIs, and they sought to increase their popularity by running a poll in which readers could vote for their favorite artists for different instruments as well as singers and big band leaders.
The winners were announced in the December 1943 issue of the magazine, generating increased interest. There was some controversy in part because most of the winners were larger, more famous acts, and some complained that they had ignored smaller up-and-coming artists. But this helped contribute to the wider interest in the poll.
Esquire’s publisher then sought to take it a step further and began planning a concert that would feature all of the winners of the poll. The concert would be a benefit show for the Navy League, would sell war bonds, and help generate interest in Armed Forces Radio. Making it a patriotic show that supported the war effort, they quickly gained widespread support.
That support included the use of the Metropolitan Opera House. Opened in 1883, the Met had hosted the world’s top opera performers for decades. Never before had jazz been played within its walls before an audience. But on January 18, 1944, that would change.
The concert, later dubbed the Metropolitan Opera House Jam Session, featured solo performances and group performances from some of the day’s top jazz musicians. Participating in the concert were Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Sidney Catlett on drums, Al Casey on guitar, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson on piano, Coleman Hawkins on saxophone, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Red Norvo on xylophone, and Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey on vocals. Benny Goodman wasn’t able to be in New York for the concert but his performance was broadcast there from Hollywood. And the entire show was broadcast around the globe on NBC Blue network and Armed Forces Radio.
A newspaper review of the event captured the excitement of the night. “The imposing opera house never before housed such an audience. Just picture swinging shoulders, cat-calls, squeals, screeching whistles and a rhythmic tattoo of hands while Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting, say, ‘Rigoletto.’ The surprised ghosts of Caruso and others must have rattled their bones as the sound waves of this modern music beat on their eardrums in the other world.”
In all, about 3,400 people attended the concert, raising $650,000 in war bonds sales. Similar shows were staged again in 1945 and 1946, but the 1944 show was the most famous. Years later, recordings of the concert were made available.
Click here to listen to the concert.