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Television invaded American homes in the early ’50s, during the most arid phase in the history of popular music. Singers named Patti, Mindy, and Guy warbled tunes of mind-rotting vapidity, paving the way for Elvis Presley to knock them over like tenpins. Dim-witted ditties such as “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?,” “Candy and Cake,” and “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” issued from their grinning, freshly scrubbed faces on the then-giant 10-inch television set that my parents had proudly purchased. As a preadolescent growing up 25 miles southwest of that last song’s titular town, I was glued to the box, transfixed even by the test-patterns broadcast on the only station whose signal we could receive.

In that unlamented era, Paul Whiteman, the ’20s bandleader once inexplicably billed as “the King of Jazz,” hosted a weekly NBC variety show sponsored by Goodyear. One evening, he introduced a guest who had toured with his band in the early ’30s. The camera revealed a frail, obese woman seated in a rocking chair, the antithesis of the perky, ponytailed songbirds then populating the airwaves. Bewildered, I looked to my father to explain this apparition. “She’s one of the greatest singers ever,” he observed, but I wasn’t convinced. To me, she just seemed creepy.

As with most of the things my dad has attempted to teach me, it turns out that he was right. The vocalist was Mildred Bailey, known for her theme song, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” Her appearance on the Whiteman program must have been one of her last public performances. She died, at 48, on Dec. 12, 1951. I didn’t hear her voice again until 1962, when Columbia issued a three-LP anthology, Mildred Bailey: Her Greatest Performances 1929-1946. After four decades of listening to these recordings, as well as to some recent European reissues of her work, she’s become my favorite singer.

A Forgotten Lady, the title of a 1996 French Bailey compilation CD, aptly pinpoints the obscurity into which she has fallen. Although celebrated in her heyday—in the early ’40s, she had her own weekly CBS radio program—Bailey died too early to enjoy the retrospective reappraisals afforded her contemporaries with the advent of the 12-inch LP. Now, a half-century after her death, the release of Mosaic’s 10-CD The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey should at last secure her long-denied position in jazz history, establishing her as the peer of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the other great female jazz voices to emerge from the ’30s.

Born Mildred Rinker in Tekoa, Wash., in 1903, Bailey (the surname retained from a brief early marriage) came from a musical family. Her mother, who was part Coeur d’Alene Indian, taught her tribal music and chants; her father played violin; and her three male siblings became professional musicians. Brother Al Rinker toured with Whiteman’s band as one of the Rhythm Boys, a vocal trio that also included the young Bing Crosby.

Bailey began her career by demonstrating sheet music and providing piano accompaniment for silent movies in Spokane, Wash. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she sang on radio and in speak-easies. In 1929, Whiteman hired her to join his orchestra, making her the first female vocalist to be featured with a dance or jazz band. She toured with Whiteman and appeared on his radio broadcasts, but she did not record with him until 1931. By then, she had cut eight sides backed by Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra and pickup groups led by guitarist Eddie Lang, clarinetist Jimmie Noone, and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.

The Mosaic box opens somewhat unpromisingly, with a noisy, hitherto unearthed alternate take of Bailey’s October 1929 debut recording, “What Kind ‘O Man Is You?,” followed by the sonically cleaner release version of the same song. Even this early, the basics of Bailey’s style are apparent, but her singing betrays lingering vaudeville mannerisms—a pronounced vibrato, theatrical glissandos on some sustained notes, a forced attempt to lower her naturally high-pitched voice—that she would soon eliminate from her work. An oddity follows: the Betty Boop-ish 1930 novelty number “I Like to Do Things for You,” previously credited to vocalist Jeannie Lang.

Starting with the fourth selection, “Is That Religion?,” which is backed by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Bailey hits her stride and never falters throughout the collection’s remaining 210 tracks. By 1933, the elements of her mature style are all in place: the limpid treble tones, the meticulously maintained pitch, the unflagging sense of time, the seemingly effortless phrasing, the instinct for summoning up the precise emotion to express the mood and meaning of a lyric.

With the exceptions of Peggy Lee (who paid explicit tribute to Bailey on her 1959 recording of “All Too Soon”) and the late Eva Cassidy, no jazz-influenced singer has proved as adept at idiomatically interpreting such a wide variety of material. Bailey sang Broadway and Hollywood musical-comedy tunes, spirituals, swing numbers, vintage standards, comedy songs, hit-parade novelties, and blues without sacrificing a shred of her ebullient individuality. (Interestingly, she recorded more traditional blues, including several pieces associated with Bessie Smith, than her African-American counterparts Holiday and Fitzgerald.) Her mastery of rhythm is breathtaking. On the bobsled-paced “When Day Is Done” and “I’d Love to Take Orders From You,” recorded in September 1935, her redoubtable accompanists—including pianist Teddy Wilson, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, and her then-husband, xylophonist Red Norvo—struggle to keep up with her. Recorded three months later (for the English Parlophone label and, therefore, unfortunately outside the scope of the Mosaic set), Bailey’s most famous session, which features Wilson, trumpeter Bunny Berigan, and saxophonist Johnny Hodges, lacks a drummer, an omission that passes unnoticed because Bailey was such a hard-swinging, indefatigable timekeeper.

Some jazz historians have paid Bailey the backhanded compliment of asserting that her exacting musicianship compensated for an unremarkable vocal instrument. Her voice, however, possessed a vibrant yet deceptively delicate bell-like purity, a sound so engagingly buoyant as to make her instantly recognizable. Too little has been said about her gift for improvisation, although her variations are as inventive and shapely as the melodies that she embellishes. On “You’re Laughing at Me” (1937), Bailey refuses to sing Irving Berlin’s five-note title phrase as written. Her decision to replace the songwriter’s ascending notes with her own descending line shrewdly underscores the lyrics’ bitterness. On “I See Your Face Before Me” (1937), she departs from Arthur Schwartz’s melody until the song’s bridge. It’s little wonder that jazz instrumentalists otherwise predisposed to dismiss vocalists made her an honorary member of their exclusive men’s club.

From the mid-’30s through the early ’40s—Bailey’s most productive period—she recorded extensively for Columbia, both as a solo artist and with the band that she and Norvo co-led, billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Although their marital relationship was famously stormy, their musical partnership was sublime, with Norvo’s cascading xylophone complementing Bailey’s lilting voice as compatibly as Lester Young’s cool saxophone cushioned Holiday’s disenchanted tones. Financial problems and Bailey’s increasing health problems led to the dissolution of their band. Recurrent illness slowed her career, and some of her postwar recordings for Decca and several short-lived independent labels proved to be less spirited and resourceful than her earlier work.

For Mosaic’s box set, available only by mail order in a limited pressing of 5,000, sound engineer Doug Pomeroy has worked wonders with the source material, presenting Bailey’s voice with a clarity that surpasses all previous releases of her recordings. An accompanying 48-page booklet contains complete discographical information and a collection of evocative photographs of the singer at work and offstage. There’s a splendid 1937 shot of Bailey, in a long fur coat, strolling the Atlantic City boardwalk with a brace of dogs. A big woman plagued by—and self-conscious about—her weight, she was inordinately proud of her trim ankles. To call attention to them, she raised dachshunds.

The monograph also includes copious notes by Will Friedwald, which, as usual, overflow with meticulously gleaned details but lack focus and are disfigured by leaden attempts at whimsicality. (He gratingly refers to the singer throughout as “Bails.”) I can’t help admiring Friedwald’s scrappy industriousness and, despite my longstanding dissatisfaction with his slapdash, pleonastic style, had been hoping for an opportunity to say something favorable about him. But after reading the following sentence on Page 3, I realized I’d have to wait for another occasion: “[Norvo] was only five years younger, yet thanks to different physical and mental dispositions, lived to see his 91st birthday—well over twice as long as Bailey, who died at the age of 48.” Say what?

Cataloguing the myriad pleasures of this landmark collection requires more space than any newspaper can afford. I wish I could discuss in detail the delightful, long-forgotten songs that it resurrects and the instrumental contributions of a galaxy of legendary jazz players, including Ben Webster, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Dave Tough, as well as the adventurous orchestral arrangements by Eddie Sauter and Alec Wilder. But readers will perhaps be best served by discovering these wonders themselves.

At $160 plus postage, The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey constitutes a substantial investment, much too expensive to purchase solely on the basis of a reviewer’s enthusiasm. I can, however, recommend several CDs that will allow listeners to sample Bailey’s singing before determining whether to take the plunge. (But that decision should be made rather quickly: Mosaic’s limited editions generally sell out within a year.) Smoke Dreams, a budget-priced import on the Spanish Definitive label, contains 23 Bailey performances with Norvo’s orchestra and her own groups recorded between 1935 and 1938. Two other reasonably priced imports—A Forgotten Lady (Jazz Archives) and Squeeze Me (Affinity)—offer a representative selection of Bailey material, including the four 1936 Parlophone sides omitted from the Mosaic box.

Although all of Bailey’s work is worth collecting, several recent reissues are less satisfying. The classic Parlophone tracks also appear on GRP/Decca Jazz’s Mildred Bailey: The Rockin’ Chair Lady (1931-1950), but their sound quality is compromised by poorly engineered noise reduction, and the disc also includes some second-rate ’40s commercial efforts contrived to jump-start Bailey’s fading career. All of Me (Definitive) and Me and the Blues (Savoy) contain some of the singer’s last recordings and, though they are tinged with an affecting autumnal mellowness, do not constitute the most impressive introduction to Bailey’s art. CP

The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey is available only from Mosaic Records; call (203) 327-7111 or visit www.mosaicrecords.com for more information.