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Yolande Bavan

Sorting through my records the other day, I came across an LP that I had forgotten about but have always adored Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin St. East (RCA). It was recorded at the New York club on September 6, 1962,

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.

A CD featuring the audio tracks from a TV show in the 1960s hosted by San Francisco jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason can be found here. If you want a DVD of the TV show, it's 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.

Yolande Bavan joined Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks in May 1962 after "illness" forced Annie Ross to quit the high-energy singing group during a European tour. The reason for Ross' departure was never made clear and varies depending on the book you read.

Regardless, Ross had been an essential member of the swinging group. Her silky voice was savvy and shrewd, and her image was flirty and high-fashion, all of which played well at clubs and on album covers.

When Ross was sidelined, Lambert and Hendricks were cast adrift—with enormous financial obligations to satisfy a long list of live engagements. They had to find a suitable replacement for Ross, someone who not only could sing the complex vocal parts but also would be visually special.

Ultimately, Lambert and Hendricks chose Yolande Bavan, and the group—as Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan—toured extensively between May 1962 and early 1965, recording three live albums for RCA.

How did Yolande Bavan become so well known so quickly among American jazz musicians and how did she become a fixture on the London jazz scene in so short a period of time?

In Part 1 of my interview with Yolande, she spoke about her early years in her native Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon); her interest in jazz; her first singing break; her tour of Australia, Japan and Korea at age 16; and her decision to sail for London at age 19 in 1957 to take her career to the next level.

In Part 2 below, she talks about her good fortune in London, her eight days in late 1958 with Billie Holiday in Paris, and how she limited Billie's drinking during a London TV appearance in early 1959:

"Before I left Sri Lanka for London in 1957, pianist Graeme Bell wrote to Humphrey Lyttelton, the Dixieland trumpeter, recommending me. When I arrived in London, I called Humphrey. We met, and he introduced me to Lyn Dutton, his agent and manager. Dutton got me singing dates in the London clubs, including at Humphrey’s own club.

At the time I loved Bud Powell and was mad about Miles Davis, so I was always hanging around at the more progressive jazz clubs, where I saw Art Blakey, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, and so many others.

On weekends, I'd travel to Paris to visit my closest friend, Marpessa Dawn. Marpessa was a wonderful actress. She had just finished filming Black Orpheus, which, when it came out in 1959, introduced Bossa Nova music to the world. Marpessa wasn’t really from Brazil. She was part Filipino, part African-American and part Native-American—and she was from Pittsburgh. She was absolutely gorgeous.

On one of those trips to Paris in November 1958, Marpessa said we should go eat at Gaby and Haynes, a soul food restaurant where all the American jazz musicians ate. So we went. That night, at the table across the way, was Billie Holiday, her pianist Mal Waldron, and clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow. They were appearing at the Mars Club.

Billie was looking at me for a long time—I was wearing a sari—and finally sent Mal over to our table. 'Miss Holiday would like you to come over and join her.' I was in awe and so shy then. I told him, 'No, no, I can’t, I can’t, I really can’t.'

Mal laughed and went back to Billie’s table. He must have told her I was painfully shy. Because as Billie was leaving, she passed my table and said to me, 'If I had a daughter, I’d like her to be just like you.'

The next night I was singing at the Blue Note Cafe with a trio led by the guitarist Jimmy Gourley. When I looked across the room, there was Billie sitting at the bar. She knew everyone there, and everyone knew her. When I came off the stage, she waved for me to come over. In that voice of hers, she said, 'Hi. You’d better start really singing. Be here tomorrow at the club at 2 pm. I’m going to teach you a few songs.'

So the next day I was at the club. It was just me, Billie and Mal. Billie taught me Solitude and Don’t Explain. She would have me sing and then she would correct me. She urged me to make my singing more resonant. 'Always tell the truth,' she said. Since I was just 19 at the time, I reached for the pain of my parents’ divorce to get at the emotion I needed.

Billie and I just goofed around that day—compared to what would follow. While she was in Paris, Billie wanted me to spend the days with her. So I did.

I enjoyed being with her so much. She was like a mother to me. She’d tell me to come by her hotel—The Crystal—and we’d just sit around and relax. She’d read Superman comic books, we’d talk, she’d sleep.

Billie was strict with me and practically adopted me during that period. 'You’re going to come to America some day,' she said, 'and I’ll buy you 28 flavors of ice cream. We have a place called Howard Johnson's.' I was young and had never heard of 28 flavors of ice cream or Howard Johnson's. It sounded so exciting.

Billie also was very protective. 'If I ever hear that you’ve smoked pot or anything like that, I’ll come and slap you upside your head,' she said. I had no idea why people took drugs. I was so naïve—not because I was naïve. Drugs just wasn’t in my realm or experience.

Also, Billie's stories of her hard life affected me and made me realize that drugs could easily lead to similar hard experiences that I didn’t want. Billie told me terrible stories of abuse at the hands of her husband at the time—Louis McKay. She also told me things she did to him that weren't very nice either.

When she said he had kicked her chihuahua into an empty fireplace, that was the last straw. I just said to her, 'My god, this man is a monster.' She said, 'Yes he is, babe, yes he is.'

During those days in November, Billie was paranoid—and for good reason. People had been trying to plant things on her to arrest her for drug use. She’d tell me, 'If you see a stranger coming in the direction of my room, just walk away as if you don’t know me.' Billie also would go into the bathroom for long periods. At the time, I had no idea why she was in there for so long.

Toward the end of Billie's stay, she made me my first American Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and everything. I don’t know how she got a turkey in Paris but she did. One thing she made that I didn’t like much was sweat potatoes with marshmallows. Billie loved it.

When Billie left for the States, I returned to London. BBC executives who had seen me sing on a variety show asked me to audition for a play. The play was set in Morocco, and I played a girl dressed as a boy who came to France to kill everyone. I think it was called Dr. Kabul.

That Christmas I heard from Billie. She called to talk and said she had no money. She sounded like she was in bad shape. So I tucked 10 quid—about $20—into a holiday card and sent it to her apartment on West 84th St. in New York. Years later someone had found the card in her apartment and showed it to me. I nearly broke down in tears.

In February 1959, Billie came to London to do a BBC TV show called Chelsea at 9. By then I was close friends with a lot of the London jazz community. I was singing in a much more modern, hip style and hanging out with Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. I also knew Max Jones, the jazz writer for Melody Maker and a good friend of Billie’s.

When Billie arrived in London, she called me from the airport and said, 'Where the hell are you?' I knew she was coming to London but I didn’t’ know she was going to call me from the airport or that she expected me to be there.

The next day Billie was doing the TV show. So Max picked me up at 7 am. and then we picked up Billie. We were at the BBC TV studio from 9 in the morning to 9 at night for rehearsals and the airing. I was with her backstage the entire time. It was a bit difficult. She had been having a hard time in America. There was no work because she didn’t have a cabaret license and she had no money.

And she wasn’t well. She was getting thinner, more drawn and sadder. I spent the day with Billie in the dressing room, just watching over her. She couldn’t do any drugs. That would have been difficult. But she was drinking vodka and orange juice. I knew I had to stop her from going too far.

I knew Billie wouldn’t drink unless there was ice. So while she rehearsed, I melted the ice under the hot water tap. When she returned, I told her there was no more ice. She’d get cross with me. 

She was very paranoid at the time, and she would become terribly fearful if I left the dressing room for a second. If I wanted to leave to get a coffee or something, she’d  say 'Can’t they bring it here.' I just wanted to get out of there for a little bit to breathe. Whenever I would go to the bathroom Billie would follow and stand there.

I think she was aware of how scared she was becoming and felt I was the only one she could trust. If Max Jones had stayed with her backstage all day, she would have done the same thing with him.

When the TV show was over, we went to Humphrey Lyttelton’s club. There were photographers all over the place, and they took this picture of us together that became famous. Billie was wearing a gorgeous dress and looking at me with such love and admiration. When I look at that photo today, it breaks my heart. It was February 1959. Billie would die a short time later—in July.

Looking back at all of those events now, I see Billie as a mother figure. But in many ways I was really the mother. I had to take care of her and follow her around. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate who she was. Now of course, it’s all clear to me. Whatever Billie was, she was always loving and kind."

In Part 3 of my interview tomorrow, Yolande talks for the first time about the events leading up to her joining Lambert and Hendricks. Most of what's already been written is wrong, she says. She also talks about the trio's grueling tour schedule, and how she managed to memorize so many of the group's tricky songs so quickly.

JazzWax video clips To see Billie Holiday perform on TV in London in February 1959 during the BBC's Chelsea at 9 show (Yolande Bavan was in her dressing room—melting ice), go here.

If you missed the clip I posted yesterday of Yolande Bavan singing in 1963 with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, click here to see it. Pay particular attention to Yolande's hands as she sings her solo on Horace Silver's Come On Home.

JazzWax pix: To see the picture of Yolande and Billie together taken right after the Chelsea at 9 TV show, click here. Notice that Billie is wearing the same dress she wore earlier on TV.

JazzWax note: If you want to hear one of Mal Waldron's last albums before his death in 2002, go here to Michael McCaw's blog. Waldron was Billie's pianist during the last two years of her life. Scroll down until you reach the MediaMaster tool that lets you listen to the album for free.

After winning a radio singing contest in 1956, Yolande Bavan left Sri Lanka for the first time at age 16 to tour with jazz pianist Graeme Bell. Then in 1957 the vocalist left Sri Lanka for good—this time on board a ship bound for England.

Over the next five years, Yolande sang in London and Paris clubs, where she befriended touring American jazz musicians. In November 1958, Billie Holiday virtually adopted Yolande during her stay in Paris, and the two spent time again during Billie's final trip to London in February 1959 for a TV appearance.

By 1960, Yolande was receiving more stage and TV acting roles than club engagements. But a fateful meeting at a friend's party in early spring 1962 would force Yolande to put her acting career on hold. Within a month's time, she would go from struggling London actress to a member of one of the world's most popular jazz vocalese groups.

In Part 3 of my interview with Yolande Bavan below, she talks about how she filled Annie Ross' shoes in a London revue and then replaced Ross two years later in Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks' hot vocal group:

"After Billie Holiday left London in February 1959, I started to take on more acting roles. I was still singing, but acting parts were coming at me faster than club dates. Sometimes I was called upon to do both.

Throughout 1959, David Lee, the South African jazz pianist and composer, saw me sing at all these little London clubs with my pigtails. Toward the end of 1959, he gave me an address and told me to meet him there. So I went, and when I knocked on the door, an older gentleman opened it. I told the man I was there to meet David Lee.

We walked down to the basement and there was Julie Andrews, Tony Walton—a costume designer who would soon be her husband—David and John Cranko, the choreographer. It was Cranko's home.

David introduced me to everyone. Then he sat down at a piano and asked me to sing. I did a little improv number. I can't recall what it was. When I finished, John Cranko said it was nice to meet me, everyone said goodbye, and he showed me out.

The next day I asked David what was going on at the house. He said they were casting a revue called New Cranks. He was scoring the musical arrangements and John Cranko was doing the lyrics and choreography. Then David told me that I got the part if I wanted it and that I'd be appearing with Carole Shelly, Gillian Lynne, Bernie Cribbins, Billy Wilson and John Wade. These were all big names at the time.

New Cranks was a scatological revue updating a popular 1955 show called Cranks that had been successful in London and New York. It was John Cranko's idea—hence the name "Cranks." The original Cranks starred Anthony Newley, Gordon Heath and Annie Ross—believe it or not. By the time of my audition, Annie, of course, was singing with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks.

New Cranks was kind of wacky. They wrote this hip stuff, and I had to act, sing and learn to dance. The show opened at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in April 1960 and ran for about three or four months. I learned so much during that show. And I don’t think I ever said “hip,” “dig” and “flipped” more often in my life.

After New Cranks, my theater career really started to take off. In 1961 I was cast as Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra and I did several BBC TV dramas—one with Sammy Davis, Jr. called Day of the Fox, in which I played his Indian wife. I was doing so much theater then that I pretty much gave up club singing.

Now, much has been written about me learning all of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross songs and then cornering Dave Lambert and showing him I could sing their lyrics backward and forward. That's a great story—but it's all nonsense.

Here's how I came to join the group:

I had always been a big fan of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. And I had followed Annie Ross in New Cranks, in the role she had created, so I was more than familiar with her.

At this time, I was very close to Max Jones, the Melody Maker jazz writer,  and his wife—whose sister Sandra and her husband Donnie threw lavish jazz parties at their home.

Naturally, they were very close friends with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. One day, early in 1962, they took me to hear Count Basie and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in London. Afterward, we went backstage and I finally got to meet Annie Ross for the first time. I said, 'Oh you’re Annie Ross. You did Cranks. I'm so thrilled to me you!' And Annie said, 'You’re Yolande and you did New Cranks. So thrilled to meet you!' After that we chit-chatted and then parted.

Two nights later, Sandra and Donnie threw a party. Many jazz musicians were there, including the entire Basie band. I remember there was a Dizzy Gillespie album on the record player—as background music. I was helping Sandra clear ash trays and serve drinks. Dizzy hit a high note at the end of one of the songs and, without thinking, I hit the same note.

A man whipped around and said, 'Who did that?'

I said, 'I did.'

He asked, 'Are you a singer?'

I said, 'No I’m an actress.'

'Can you really hit those high notes?' he asked.

'Yes,' I said.

He said, 'Are you sure you’re not a singer?'

I said, 'I sing a little but mostly act.'

The man was Dave Lambert. We spoke for a little, the party went on and everyone went their separate ways. A few days later I heard from Sandra and Donnie that Annie wasn’t going to travel back to America with Lambert and Hendricks. She was going to stay in London.

I thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, my phone rang at 3 am. The voice at the other end said, 'This is Jon Hendricks.' I kept saying, 'Who? Who?' He said, 'I’m calling from New York. We want you to come to New York.'

I said, 'To New York? To do what?'

'To sing. Annie Ross has left the group and we want you to come over,' he said.

'I can’t do that,' I told him.

He told me there was a plane ticket and working visa waiting for me at the American embassy. 'You leave on Wednesday,' he said.

I said, 'I can‘t come. I can‘t sing like that.'

'Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan recommended you. And so did Dave Brubeck,' he said.

'They’re all crazy,' I said. 'I can’t come on Wednesday.' After a pause, I said what the heck. 'OK, I’ll come—on Saturday.'

Jon told me to get a hold of the group's albums and memorize their songs.

So they changed my  plane ticket, and I left for New York with one suitcase. I said to myself, 'I'll rehearse, they'll realize they've made a big mistake. I’ll see the Statue of Liberty and return home.'

Max Jones gave me their records and I started listening to them. I thought, how am I going to learn this? The albums were multitracked—meaning each of the singers had overdubbed different sets of vocals three times to create the sound of a big band. I tried to listen, to figure out how I was going to sing Annie's part. It was hard. I listened to the records for hours at a time and sang along with them.

My plane touched down in New York very early on the morning of May 5, 1962. When I got off the plane, Dave Lambert was there to meet me. He had been the one who had floated my name to Jon as a possible replacement for Annie after meeting me at that party. I suddenly realized they were hiring me based on a single high note.

Dave said we had to hurry to catch another plane. 'Oh, are we going to where the skyscrapers are?' I asked. 'No we’re going to upstate New York,' he said. 'There’s Manhattan, where the skyscrapers are, and there's upstate New York.'

So we got on a little plane and flew to Schenectady, New York. When we arrived, a car was waiting and took us to Union College. A concert was already in progress. Tom Paxton, the folk singer and guitarist, had already played in the first half and there was an intermission. I'd say there were about 2,000 to 3,000 students in the audience. When Dave and I got out of the car, we went backstage and met Jon.

I still had my PanAm bag over my shoulder and a plaid sari on. I wore saris because they were comfortable and were part of my culture. They also distinguished me, setting me apart, and attracted quite a bit of attention.

I asked Jon when we were going to rehearse. Jon said, 'Oh, the concert is already on.' Wonderful, I thought, I would sit in the audience and listen to them sing. Then the announcer said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

The audience cheered, and I heard the band start to play the intro to One O'Clock Jump. Jon and Dave rushed me on stage, and suddenly, there I was. So I started to sing with them. Dave kept nudging me to sing an octave higher, like a trumpet. I couldn't do it. I was too tired. But at the end I hit the high note, and everyone was very excited.

In addition to One O'Clock Jump, I think we sang Little Pony, Four and It's Sand Man. Then we went to a hotel. The next day we played Rhode Island and then went into Manhattan. We still hadn't rehearsed.

In New York, they had booked me a hotel with a tiny kitchen on 47th St., off Broadway. It was small and dark and depressing. Not long afterward we did a midnight jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a benefit for a drug rehabilitation program named after Billie Holiday. All I could think was If Billie were alive and could see me there, she would have flipped.

Many of the jazz musicians I had met in Paris and London were backstage—the Basie band, Art Blakey, Bobby Timmons and others. They said, 'What are you doing here? You're singing with Dave and Jon. Wow! We went on at about 1 am, and we were a big hit.

By then I had a record player and was listening to the records over and over again in my hotel room. Jon wrote all the new songs. He would take a popular jazz instrumental and write lyrics to them. Then he'd give me the words and the album of the original work. I'd have to listen to the instrumental and work in the words Jon wrote. He was a genius matching words to songs. Absolutely amazing.

Sometimes we wouldn’t have time to rehearse the songs. Jon would write the words, we'd run through them quickly, and then out on stage we'd go. I remember once in Chicago, Jon had just written the lyrics to Horace Silver's Come on Home. We had to sing the song at a  club that night without rehearsal.

I must have done a decent job because when we got off, Sarah Vaughan was there. She said to me, 'Little did I know when I saw you in Paris.' I said, 'Sarah, I heard you referred me to Dave and Jon. Why? You hadn't heard me sing that often.' Sarah said, 'You hung around us so much. And to hit those high notes the way you did, ahhh.' Sarah was so encouraging.

Then the group went to California, first to the Monterey Jazz Festival, where we performed a scaled back version of the The Real Ambassadors, a musical about race relations written by Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola. The show never made it to the stage but was recorded by Louis Armstrong and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in 1961.

The only time The Real Ambassadors was performed publicly was when we did it in 1962. When Dave Brubeck and I walked into the band room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco to rehearse, there was Louis Armstrong sitting on a chair with his wife, Lucille. Dave looked at me and said, 'Did we know about this?' 'No way,' I said.

When Louis saw me, he smiled and turned to Lucille and said, 'Hey Mama, I know that face.' I said, 'Louis, I met you in Australia when I was 17 years old, with Graeme Bell.' Louis said, 'Ahhh, Graeme Bell.' Louis and Trummy Young had played with Graeme's Dixieland group when they were touring Australia back in the mid-1950s. We rehearsed The Real Ambassadors with Louis, for a few hours. He knew the score cold.

After the performance at Monterey, we went back to New York and into Basin Street East three different times. At different points, Joe Williams, Stan Getz and Ahmad Jamal were on the bill. I remember Ahmad and Stan didn't get along.

Joe Williams was always great to me. In fact, everybody was extremely respectful of me. I think it was my sari. Even Charlie Mingus used to say in his gravely voice, 'No swearing around Bavan.' I think Dave and Jon put a warning out that anyone associated with drugs were not to speak to me or contact me. I think everyone felt protective of me, and it worked.

By early 1965, I decided I had had enough. The constant touring was wearing me down. I was also amazed that jazz just wasn't as respected in America as it was in other parts of the world. I would have to wrap my sari in the kitchen of clubs with bacon fat sizzling. It was awful some of the places we played. I couldn't believe jazz musicians were treated like second-class citizens. Besides, I missed my acting.

So I gave notice. After I left the group, I stayed in New York and started auditioning for roles and spent the years that followed focusing on my TV and stage career.

Jazz has always been great to me. I adored the jazz musicians I met in London and Paris, but the person I probably respected most was Dave Lambert. He was kind, and he wasn't malicious—verbally or otherwise. He didn't have that kind of energy.

I was so devastated when he died in October 1966. Dave had gone up to a Connecticut theater to pick up his girlfriend, who was an actress. He was returning to New York on the Connecticut turnpike at 1 am when he saw this guy on the side of the road with a white handkerchief trying to flag down help. Dave pulled over and had his girlfriend use the handkerchief to warn off traffic. But a truck sideswiped Dave and the guy as they were changing his tire, killing them both.

Dave was always helping people, and jazz musicians loved him. Even Miles Davis was crazy about Dave. I remember when we were in Philadelphia in 1963. Miles was playing around the corner. I begged Dave to take me to see him. The moment Miles saw Dave, his face lit up and he put his arms around him and sent us a bottle of champagne.

My career with Lambert and Hendricks was brief—just over three years. Those were exciting times for me, even though rock and bossa nova were starting to change popular music, pushing jazz to the side. But during those years, in the very early 1960s, before everything changed and jazz was still important, I like to think that I made a contribution.

Indeed she did. Not only did Yolande enable Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks to fulfill their dates and financial obligations when Annie Ross dropped out suddenly in 1962, she also let listeners know that jazz had worldwide appeal.

Through her saris, exotic looks and graceful demeanor, Yolande showed listeners that jazz was special outside the U.S., that other cultures understood its message of creative freedom and individualism, and that the women who sang it did not have to dress like showgirls.

Ultimately, Yolande was the real jazz ambassador.

JazzWax note: When I spoke with Yolande on Tuesday, I confessed that I did not own two of the group's three albums. Since they were out of print and hard to find, I said, I was only familiar with them when played for me by friends.

Yolande then insisted I come by her apartment and burn copies and borrow a DVD of the group from 1963.

So yesterday I stopped by for a dark cup of Sri Lankan tea. Yolande is as graceful and as charming today as she looked and sounded on records back in the early 1960s. And her voice remains lyrical and soothing.

While my laptop burned the Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan discs, we listened to a range of vocalists via iTunes—from Billie and Carmen to Frank and Jo. I watched Yolande as the music swept over her, and from time to time she sang along in places. It was a special visit.

JazzWax tracks: In addition to recording with Lambert and Hendricks, Yolande recorded a fascinating rock/fusion album with Peter Ivers in 1969. Her voice on this album was at its peak as she navigated very difficult and cutting-edge vocal parts. The psychedelic album, Knight of the Blue Communion, was just re-mastered and re-issued, and it can be found here. Unfortunately it's not at iTunes, but you can sample it at Amazon.

JazzWax video clips: Once again, to see Yolande Bavan singing in 1963 with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks, click here.