Alice Babs

“Alice Babs is a performer beyond measure. She can sing anything she sees or hears — opera, Bach, or jazz.”
Duke Ellington

Peacefully from her home, surrounded by family, Alice Babs left our world on 11th February 2014 in her home town of Stockholm, Sweden.

alice-babsFirst appearing in public at the age of twelve, she broke into Swedish movies as a teenage star and proceeded to amass a wealth of experience, through cinema – lapsing sixteen movies with most notably ‘Swing it, magistern!’ in 1940, through jazz – with a huge catalogue from as early as 1939, and even through a spell with the Eurovision song contest in 1958. When the war ended she was the first Swede to go to Finland with a programme for the soldiers, saying “They found it not too unpalatable, I think. It was there in a form they could digest — and less uncomfortably than might someday be the case.” This selflessness culminated with Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim presenting her with the distinguished Pro Benignitate Humana award for her contributions.

During 1962 Alice had toured the States with a trio consisting of violinist Svend Asmussen and guitarist Ulrik Neumann under the banner ‘Swe-Danes’, appearing on both the Ed Sullivan Show and at Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. Hop, skip and jump ten years wherein 1972 she was honoured with the title ‘Court Singer’ by King Gustaf VI Adolf. A most diverse musical path indeed with due recognition.

Alice Babs, the Swedish soprano, was a remarkable singer of jazz who first credits her father with introducing her to jazz with ‘gaiety’ and ‘enthusiasm’ part of her noted personality. Appearing alongside Sammy Davis at one point, it wasn’t until she was asked about her connection with jazz did the world begin to understand this side of her “I am naturally gay and happy. Perhaps that is why jazz has always exercised a great attraction for me. I heard Louis Armstrong, whom I loved when I was only eleven.” which is perhaps why she went on to work with such jazz luminaries as Shelly Manne and Ed Thigpen and so many others during her lifetime.

Where we join Alice Babs along this long creative path is with her collaboration with Duke Ellington (she sang for at his 40th birthday party). Duke took her aboard his stage-coach and toured the world under the ‘Sacred Concerts’ banner well into the 70s, with the premiere at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965 called ‘A Concert of Sacred Music’, appearing in both Connecticut and New Canaan, although problems arose with their application to perform in Washington where Rev. John D. Bussey, a spokesperson for the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C., refused to endorse the concerts.

There was a brief visit to the UK in 1966 where Duke performed in Coventry Cathedral (minus Alice), but it wasn’t until a little later, undeterred by Baptist Ministers, simply asking “Doesn’t God accept sinners anymore?”, and supported by the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association, Duke was to relaunch the series on January 19, 1968, calling it now ‘The Second Sacred Concert’. The first being held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York with 7,000 attending. There was to be a further performance 29 January in Philadelphia (with an off-shoot Mass performance at Minneapolis during February which required them to perform twice on the same day to satisfy demands), before moving on to the Bronx on 16 February and concluding their tour in Long Island 1st March. April was set to be a whole different discussion with Carnegie Hall… Critics in the press were quick to comment on this ‘second’ series saying it was “superior to the first in nearly every respect.” Due perhaps to Billy Strayhorn’s bout of sickness during the first (he passed away May 31, 1967) [Melody Maker, at the time, were vilified for exaggerating reports of sickness amongst the performers in general], although they were quick with high praise for Alice in their review of March that year with “she seemed most valid, worthy and important contribution Europe had made to the music since Django Reinhardt. Although entirely different, which could add to the whole a useful dimension of its own.” The ‘second’ series was embellished with dancers from two companies with a solo performance too by Geoffrey Holder. [Research shows a concert at Yale University 26 January 1968 was recorded and a further concert in the Summer/Autumn of 1968 was performed with Alice absent. The singers for the latter event were Tony Bennett, Peggy Blake, Trish Turner and Tony Watkins]

alice-babs-albumAfterwards, during a visit to Paris, Duke called and had asked Alice to do an album with him, insisting three weeks later she came to France. Her reaction was to allow herself four days to study his recordings and pick from them what she felt most comfortable with – sixteen songs under the album title `Serenade To Sweden’, with arrangements by Billy Strayhorn, was the beautiful outcome, featuring such songs as ‘Come Sunday’, ‘Azure’, and ‘C Jam Blues’. As the recording session progressed, Duke Ellington’s musicians were quick to praise her with:
“For me, she’s the most.” – Cootie Williams
“She has a fantastic ear, and what may be perfect pitch.” – Harry Carney
“It’s a marvel she remains the way she is. As pretty inside as out.” – Paul Gonsalves

(left to right) Devene Gardner, Roscoe Gill, Trish Turner, Tony Watkins and Alice Babs
(left to right) Devene Gardner, Roscoe Gill, Trish Turner, Tony Watkins and Alice Babs

A notable reappearance by way of a third ‘Sacred Concerts’ took place on May 27, 1974, with Lawrence Brown, where there was much excitement. When interviewed to discuss the tour, Ellington said of Alice, “That when she was not available to sing the parts that he had written for her, he had to use three different singers.” The concert’s review by The New York Times wrote afterwards “Her voice proved to be a magnificent Ellington instrument — pure, full-bodied, amazingly lithe . . . with warmth and strength at both ends of a broad range.” A testament to both Ms Babs ability and selection by Mr Ellington.

A particular favourite with the ‘Sacred Concerts’ repertoire was ‘Praise God And Dance’, noting “It is great. It has a gravity that conveys the deepest message. And the melody line is so pure. Like Bach. I can give it the same power I give to Bach. In churches at home, his are the songs I sing. The ‘Sacred Concert’ is truly marvellous, a real peak. The greatest writing, I feel, that Duke has ever done. It is so big, and yet consistent. All highs, no lows. Something about believing is memorable and will live, I am sure. But the Supreme Being is the most fantastic of all. I think Europeans, the conductors, people in the symphony orchestras, will greatly admire this work. It belongs in the world of serious classical music.” She recalled “There were times during the performances when I had difficulty controlling my emotions. In the Cathedral it was very beautiful – the lighting – the massive congregation. I had to remind myself I was not the one to be moved, that the message was designed for the listeners, and that anything can await me which will surpass the excitement we have experienced here.”

“She doesn’t differentiate between amateurs and professionals. With the choir, for instance, if she sees they’re nervous, she’ll move alongside and start singing from there.” Said Ellington, who had surely found his sacred voice in Alice Babs

From its first notable reference of jazz meets church back in 1959 with Ed Summerlin there have been significant collaborations leading to Billy Harper’s 2007 masterpiece alongside Poland’s Szczein Technical University Choir ranking high on the list. With this transformation now resting in the lap of Robert Mitchell’s recently formed ‘Invocation’, we turned to vocalist Deborah Jordan, herself inspired by the work of the ‘Sacred Concerts’, to ask how Alice had impacted on her own music:

“Alice Babs is one of those rare creatures in terms of singers. She not only has the most impeccable technique, range and fluidity but an abundance of soulfulness. One of the things I love most about her is that you can see her, for example when watching her sing with Ellington on the Sacred Concerts, listening intently to everything that is going on around her musically so that she can become one with the instrumental musicians meaning that she doesn’t dominate the music as the vocal soloist but rather weaves herself into the whole landscape. Even when another musician is soloing and she is adding improvised ad-libs she is completely ‘within’ the context, sensitive to her musical environment and yet delivers the most phenomenal phrases you’ve ever heard! Not only that, but in such an effortless way…there’s no tension, only joy and excitement brimming in her eyes when she’s performing, and that’s how she can perform so effortlessly despite singing complex melodies and melisma across 3 octaves. She has become someone I have studied a lot recently as I try to embody the same ethos, especially when singing with Robert Mitchell’s Panacea where we all have to inhabit the same space without ego to be able to interpret Robert’s music as best as possible. It was sad to hear of her passing so recently but her legacy definitely lives on in her recordings and through inspiring singers like myself.” Deborah Jordan (February 2015)

In more recent times there was a period in Alice’s life where she shared her valuable time with friends and family in Sweden, singing only occasionally, and when she wanted to sing. She loved to sing songs she liked, and would often sing during the summer months, in Stockholm’s open-air theatre.

In conclusion, let us celebrate Alice a little today, for God sure does have another of those Angels with Him, but behind her, she left memories and music for us to cherish, for the words of Duke Ellington, when asked by a reporter “What has Alice Babs got that other singers lack?” should be sufficient for the rest of us to recognise her memory – “Everything!” was his reply.


Steve Williams