Staring at the cover—which features Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks flanking an exotic and elegant Yolande Bavan—I wondered whether Bavan was still on the scene. I also grew curious about how she came to replace Annie Ross in the hottest jazz vocalese group of its day and why the group recorded only 3 albums in 12 months before disintegrating.
A few phone calls later, there she was—as graceful and as charming as she appears on album covers and in video clips. Yesterday, we had a chance to chat about her big break, her mother-daughter relationship with Billie Holiday, and her fortuitous encounter with Dave Lambert in London.
Back in 1962, when the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross was on tour at the height of its popularity, Annie Ross took ill and needed to drop out of the trio. Ross' departure left the group in a bind.
Record producer George Avakian recalls what happened next in the liner notes from Basin Street East:
"[Dave and Jon] met Yolande while she was in London and found that she was a fan of the group's and had learned several of their intricate arrangements just for fun. When a serious illness incapacitated Annie Ross a week or two later toward the end of their European tour, Dave and Jon returned to the States without her. After starting their U.S. engagement, they decided they had to take a chance on Yolande. She arrived just in time for a concert at Union College in Schenectady, New York."
To me, what made Yolande Bavan's voice so precious during her brief time in the group was her Sri Lankan-tinged English and her rich range—from husky, knowing alto to door-squeak soprano. She eagerly took risks with her voice, and those vocal acrobatics always seemed to pay off. Often clad in a sari, her very presence added an exotic maturity to the fast-singing jazz group—not to take anything away from the sublime Annie Ross.
In Part 1 of my multipart interview with Yolande, she talks about her start, her big break in Sri Lanka, and the day she set sail for England:
"I was born in Colombo, on the West Coast of Sri Lanka. My mother was a concert pianist and my father owned a foreign car dealership. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and my mother re-married a tea planter soon afterward. I spent my early years growing up on a tea plantation, which actually was very nice.
When my parents were together, I was studying to be a concert pianist. After they divorced, I stopped playing. Divorce wasn't as accepted in Sri Lanka as it was in the West, and their split was very hard on me, emotionally.
I began listening to jazz when I was about 14 years old. There was no jazz in Sri Lanka, and what I learned I learned through records. Actually the first time I heard jazz was while listening to the radio with my father. I visited him frequently after he and my mother split up. I used to have to listen to the radio for school—which is how Sri Lankan students heard many of their lectures on Aldous Huxley and other great writers and well-know figures.
So on the night of one of my school assignments, my father was twiddling the radio knob trying to find the station when he came across a jazz program. My father stopped to listen, but I told him to change the station because I needed to do my homework. I learned later that it was airing on Radio Tangier, and the announcer was Willis Conover broadcasting to American soldiers stationed abroad.
Each night, after his first encounter with jazz on the radio, my father would try to find that jazz station. When he finally did, he and I would listen, and he'd make the most astute observations. For example, he'd hear Sarah Vaughan sing and say, 'That sounds like a choir of angels in her voice.' Or when he'd hear Charlie Parker, he'd say, 'That man is in pain.' My father gave me a feeling for the music.
My father's passion for jazz grew quickly. He was friends with three other men who loved jazz, too. One was a drummer, the other was an Australian radio announcer and the third was a jazz writer—who today lives in New Jersey.
Back then, whenever a big ship came into Colombo from America, my father's three friends would stand by the docks and become friendly with the African-Americans working on the boats. Then whenever the ships returned, the workers would bring records and sell them to my father's friends. They'd bring them back to my father's house and the four of them would drink beer shandies and listen to Sarah Vaughan, George Shearing, Miles Davis and so many others.
Though I had given up the piano, I continued to sing in the school choir. One day a few of my classmates urged me to enter an amateur-hour radio show that the Australian Broadcasting Company had set up. My friends taught me a Doris Day song, I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful). I went to the contest, sang the song and won the competition. The prize was a little bimonthly radio show called Swing Time, and I sang with a piano, bass, drums and guitar.
After a few shows, one of the guys in the band insisted that I travel outside Sri Lanka to gain exposure. So he sponsored me to go to Australia. I was 16 years old at the time. I wasn't scared traveling on my own. When you're young, you're not scared of anything. I wish I had that much courage now.
When I arrived in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956, I stayed with Sri Lancan friends. A short time later one of my friends took me to a gathering at the home of Graeme Bell, the leading jazz pianist in Australia at the time. He was playing with a quintet at the party, and my friend urged me to sing something. Graeme was eager to hear me, too. At the time I thought I could sing better than anyone else in the world, even though I was probably dreadful. So I sang St. Louis Blues.
Graeme felt there was something in me and asked me to join his group as the vocalist. I was staggered—Graeme was so well known. We then played around Australia and traveled to Japan and Korea. I saw my first snow there. Graeme's group played Dixieland jazz and then backed me on jazz standards like Stormy Weather and St. Louis Blues.
In my head, I was already moving on musically, listening to modern jazz and getting more be-boppy. When Graeme and I ended our tour in Japan, he decided to stay an extra six weeks and got me on all the big TV shows there with him. In Japan, I met and played with pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. They had a quartet, and I would sing with them.
Graeme and I returned to Australia after Japan. Four month later I returned to Sri Lanka. I had been away for about a year and a half and was happy to be home. I missed my family, but I had changed. I wanted to perform in Sri Lanka but there was no jazz platform there. No one understood what I was singing. They were all into pop music.
So at age 18, I decided I wanted to travel to London. My mother arranged with an aunt of mine for me to stay with her friend there. In 1957, I sailed by myself on a ship that crossed through the Suez Canal and up through the Mediterranean, arriving in England about two weeks later. That's where everything began for me."
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Yolande Bavan talks about her close relationship with Billie Holiday in 1958 and 1959, what Billie taught her about singing, Billie's Thanksgiving meal, and the trick Yolande used to keep Billie from drinking during a BBC broadcast in February 1959.
In Part 3, I will cover Yolande's big break with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks and the group's year in the limelight. There may even be a Part 4 on Yolande's encounters with Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and many other jazz greats.
Wax tracks: Lambert Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin Street East is a smart album. I often listen to it several times in one sitting, and I always wish the album ran longer.
Of the three albums the group recorded, I find this one to be its best outing, primarily because the material selected suited the group perfectly and the vocal arrangements were swinging and breezy without trying too hard to be hip.
Unfortunately, the CD from the 1990s is out of print. A mint copy of the RCA LP is currently going for $50 on eBay, but it can be purchased for much less at used-vinyl sites. Just type the album's name into Google.
The group's other two albums for RCA—Havin' a Ball at the Village Gate and At Newport '63—also are out of print but can be found on CD from used sellers here.
But if you own a turntable, I recommend buying a reasonably priced copy of the Basin Street East LP. From start to finish, it's what neat music sounded like just before Bob Dylan and the British Invasion yanked the plug on hip jazz vocalese.
That night in September 1962, a special excitement was captured along with Yolande Bavan's ambitious vocals and confident flair. Sadly, that excitement would last only through to the beginning of 1965.
JazzWax video clip: I could find only one clip of Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan—but it's a beaut from 1963. To see Yolande Bavan and the group sing Horace Silver's Come On Home, click here.