Photo of Dave Lambert in 1964

Dave Lambert, 1964

Dave Lambert is one of those musicians who might fail the “who is a Boston jazz musician” test, depending on who administers the test. But I’m the administrator on this here blog, and I say he passes. Besides, any town would be proud to claim him, because if anyone ever made a joyful jazz noise, it was David Alden Lambert.

Lambert was born and raised in Boston, but apart from working for three years as a drummer in the late thirties, we don’t know much about his pre-army days. He put himself on the jazz map in January 1945 with Gene Krupa’s band, teaming with Buddy Stewart to sing “What’s This?,”credited as the first recording with vocalists singing a bop line.

In 1949 Stewart, speaking of Lambert, told Metronome “He’s undoubtedly the greatest bop singer in the business. He’s got such a mind; he sings things that no other bop singer sings. His ideas are wonderful; he improvises like the greatest!”

Turned out he was the greatest, or one-third of it. In 1957 Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross  formed what Down Beat dubbed “the hottest new group in jazz.” There had been harmony before, and vocalese, and witty lyrics, and breakneck tempos, and unison bop lines…but there had never been anything like LH&R. They redefined the art and technique of jazz singing. Wrote John McLellan in October 1958: “After years of pseudo-hip singing by the Four Freshmen and Hi-Los, it was a revelation to listen to this refreshing trio of jazz singers at Storyville last week…Here at last is a group that understands that jazz means more than spread harmony and clever arrangements…The enthusiastic audience response overwhelmed them.”

Lambert left the group in early 1964, first forming a vocal quintet that went nowhere (more on that in a bit), then settling into studio work. But he’d pop up in the Boston environs now and again; he drove up from Cape Cod one night in August 1966 to hear Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, then appearing at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, and of course he sat in.

Lennie’s was Dave Lambert’s last appearance in the Boston area. That October he was killed on the Connecticut Turnpike when a truck struck him while he was changing a tire. There was a memorial concert at the Village Gate three weeks later and Dave’s friends by the dozen turned out to play. Just a few: Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer, George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, Horace Silver, Jimmy Rushing, Yolande Bavan, and of course Al and Zoot.

In 1964, George Avakian invited Lambert to audition his new quintet at RCA for a recording contract. D.A. Pennebaker filmed the audition, and edited the tape to show at that Village Gate concert. Pennebaker’s little film sat quietly in his catalog for years. Someone showed it to the writer Marc Myers a few years ago, and he’s been championing it ever since. The film’s on Vimeo, don’t miss it:

Lambert’s last recording was made at the 1965 Charlie Parker Memorial Concert, where he sang “Donna Lee.” Unfortunately, the video has vanished from YouTube, but if it ever shows up again, I’ll plug it back in here.