Tiny in size but large in spirit and wit, Blossom Dearie’s voice was one of the eccentric pleasures of the cabaret scene in the seventies and eighties – though some of her best recordings date back still earlier – and now here all her essential records are put in one box! Listening to her, over and over on these blessedly mild summer days in New York, one is put in mind of one more lost New York – the mid-seventies Manhattan of piano bars and cabaret, where songs like “Rhode Island Is Famous For You” and “Once Upon A Summertime”, as small and perfect as her voice, once seemed to be in place as permanent poems. (That much of her best work was either French in spirit – like “Once Upon..”, a Michel Legrand tune – or else actually sung in French, like “Tout Doucement” should not be allowed to alter the provincial pride of this judgment.)
The New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett once said that Blossom Dearie's tiny wisp of a voice "would scarcely reach the second storey of a doll's house". Indeed hers was a style which on first hearing sounded detached and impassive. After a while, however, one began to notice the deftness of her phrasing, as well as the wit and intelligence of her interpretation. She accompanied herself at the piano with the lightest of touches, rarely improvising, but employing sophisticated and immaculately voiced harmonies.
Marguerite Blossom Dearie was born on April 29 1926 at East Durham, near Albany, New York, where, it is said, the locals are noted for their clarity of diction. Surprisingly, her name, so unusual and so perfectly suited to her fragile, blowaway voice, was also completely genuine. Dearie is an old Scottish name, and her father, a barman of Scottish-Irish extraction, hit upon Blossom after seeing some peach blossom shortly after her birth. She studied classical piano as a child and became interested in jazz while playing in her high-school dance band.
Moving to New York in the late 1940s, she mixed with some of the rising jazz musicians of the day, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Gil Evans. She became a member of the Blue Flames, the harmony vocal group attached to Woody Herman's band, and recorded with the cult bebop vocalist King Pleasure.
In 1952 Blossom Dearie moved to Paris, where she formed her own vocal group, the Blue Stars, for which she wrote many arrangements. One of these, a version of George Shearing's Lullaby Of Birdland with a French lyric added, scored a considerable hit in France. In Paris she met and married the Belgian saxophonist and flautist Bobby Jaspar.
It was there, too, that she was heard by the American jazz impresario Norman Granz, who signed her to his Verve record label. She returned to the United States and with her six Verve albums, recorded between 1956 and 1960, the characteristic Blossom Dearie style finally emerged. Her repertoire was chosen fastidiously from the wittiest, tenderest and most sophisticated songs in the canon, with each interpretation carefully refined in advance. The songs of whose wry lyrics she was fond included Cole Porter's Always True To You In My Fashion and The Gentleman Is A Dope, by Rodgers and Hammerstein.