Helen Merrill has arrived. Not merely in California, nor simply at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, where she opens Wednesday. She has arrived in the sense that she is finally accepted as a premiere chanteuse, reminding us that sudden public acceptance of a gifted artist and gradual, hard-earned approval can be separated by a line 30 years long.
Musicians have always known about Helen Merrill, the enchanting blonde with the smoky, gentle sound. Other singers bought her records--the classic albums she made with Clifford Brown, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones in the 1950s, with Thad Jones and Hubert Laws in the '60s, Dick Katz or John Lewis in the '70s.
Living in the United States or Italy or Japan, she has always retained her in-group acceptance, but the long-awaited breakthrough came only 18 months ago, after an LP she taped in Paris with the British pianist Gordon Beck ("No Tears, No Goodbyes," Owl 038) became a hit in France, in England and, to a degree lessened only by poor distribution, in the States.
After years of seeking work only fitfully, she now finds herself sought out for jobs. Arriving in Paris during a tour of France last March, she learned that her three concerts at the Theatre de la Ville had been sold out before she even left New York.
It was at that hall, in 1984, that the extent and durability of her reputation had belatedly struck her. "I went to the rehearsal with Gordon Beck," she recalls, "and the place was packed with photographers. It was as though the Queen of England had arrived--it took my breath away! I hadn't appeared in Paris in 20 years, and now I realized that I had a lot of fans in Europe. This was half surprising and half not, because I guess I was there all the time, sort of underground."
After the first concert with Beck, hailed as a nonpareil example of the voice-and-piano duo as a miniature art form, Merrill and Beck made the album. Its success, she says, started her thinking. "I decided to hire a publicist, and he in turn said I needed a manager. I was lucky enough to sign with just the right man, George Avakian, who had managed Keith Jarrett and Charles Lloyd and had produced sessions with everyone from Duke Ellington to John Cage. So the pieces of the puzzle began to come together."
Given her unique track record of collaboration with an unbroken line of jazz giants, why has Merrill encountered so few professional peaks and so many lulls? The answer is both geographic and personal. In 1959, she moved to Italy, where she had her own television series. Except for a brief, unproductive residency in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, she was in Italy or Japan until 1967, when she settled permanently in Tokyo and, married to a UPI reporter, resigned herself to a life of relative inactivity.
"I guess my husband felt I shouldn't work, and I was very obedient." She laughed and quickly added: "I still take the responsibility for my behavior. It's too easy to say, 'Oh, I can't do that because of somebody else, when in fact I am that somebody. I have met the enemy and it is me! With the help of a very good psychologist who nagged me to do what I should do, I decided to give it a shot." This happened after she and her husband had lived in Tokyo, then Chicago, then New York, where they separated.
Merrill's career began auspiciously with a job at Birdland, but she recalls that she was never cut out for show business. Born in New York to parents who had come here from Yugoslavia, she seemed ill-equipped for a life in music. "What I've done has always been very different, very uncommercial. My knees were shaking when I auditioned at Birdland, and I didn't have the outgoing personality."
During the middle and late 1950s, when she acquired a measure of popularity through a series of elegant albums produced by the late Bob Shad for Mercury, she says that the musical environment was not conducive to her advancement. "A lot of very awful music was becoming popular, and the '60s were a carryover as rock 'n' roll came into the forefront.
"Musicians came to my rescue. Even in California, where so little happened for me, I was able to work with Shelly Manne at the Manne Hole. Although I was never successful enough to afford my own permanent trio, I've always managed to work with the very best people in each area."
Merrill's approach to a song is consistently emotional and exceptionally adaptable. During her five years in Japan, she made a number of albums, one LP was devoted to duets with a shakuhachi flute virtuoso.