Veteran Jazz Saxophonist to Receive
Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Highest Honor
Ninety-four-year old bandleader and saxophonist Hal Singer, a Tulsa race riot survivor who lives and works out of Paris, France, is this year’s recipient of the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Singer plans to attend and perform at the Jazz Hall’s Induction Gala on Saturday, November 16.
It’s especially fitting that Singer is receiving an award named after the influential bandleader, piano player, composer, and Muskogee native. At the age of 21, Singer became a member of McShann’s big band in Kansas City, Mo. A few hours after joining the group, he played his first job with McShann in a packed Kansas City ballroom.
In an email interview from his home in Paris, Singer remembered McShann as “a good person,” although, he added, “I do not think that he knew sometimes the responsibility of being a bandleader. He was `one of the boys,’ and sometimes, being a bandleader, you can’t be one of the boys. But it was very enjoyable playing with him.”
Even though he was a very young man when he joined McShann’s outfit, Tulsa native Singer already had plenty of experience as a musician. In addition to playing with a band in high school and then at Hampton University, he’d played summertime jobs with Oklahoma pros Terrence Holder and Ed Christian, Charlie Christian’s brother.
When he was 19, Singer opted to pursue music full-time instead of returning to college, and a friend helped him get a job with Ernie Fields, a well-known bandleader with Tulsa roots.
“From Ernie,” said Singer, “I learned how to be kind to other people and respect them.”
Later on, he began recording for King Records as a member of Oran “Hot Lips” Page’s band and worked sessions with many of the label’s blues artists. In 1948, a year later, he signed with Savoy Records; that year, his instrumental “Cornbread” not only gave him a No. 1 R&B single, but also a nickname that stuck with him for years.
Through the ’50s and first half of the ’60s, Singer recorded for Mercury Records and toured and played sessions with various performers. Ultimately, he found his greatest success as a jazz saxophonist, both in America and abroad. As a bandleader, he has recorded such discs as 1963’s Blues in the Night, 1969’s Paris Soul Food, and 1981’s Swing on It. He also appears on a number of other records as a co-bandleader and/or featured player.
In 1999, a documentary called Hal Singer, Keep the Music Going, chronicling his life and career, was released internationally.
“I love playing music,” he said, “and it gave me many opportunities to travel to many parts of the world, meet many beautiful people, and in doing so, it helped me grow.”
Singer eventually settled in Paris, after an engagement there with the legendary blues pianist and singer Memphis Slim.
“I did not make the decision of making France my home,” explained Singer. “I came to France because Memphis Slim gave me the opportunity to play in a club in Paris for one month, at first. In playing in that club, I had the opportunity to go and play in several countries of Europe and return to that club. And . . . I found a lady that I liked and I married her. We have two wonderful daughters and four grandchildren. I decided to get a home here in France and to have my kids raised here.”
The list of inductees also includes Charles V. Gardner, the Shadow Lake Eight, the late Marvin Ash, and the late Earl Grant in the jazz category, the late J.J. Cale in the blues category, and the late Albert E. Brumley in the gospel category. Organist Papa John DeFrancesco has been named this year’s Living Legend, while bluesman Little Joe McLerran is set to receive the Legacy Tribute Award, given to an up-and-coming artist from Oklahoma. The Spirit of Community Excellence Award, honoring an individual who has made significant contributions to music and education, goes to author and historian Anita G. Arnold, and the Zelia Breaux Distinguished Educator Award winner is longtime Verdigris High School band director Euell Hanna.