Kay Davis “The Wordless Vocalist” Harlem NY 1940’s

May 22, 2016

kay davisKatherine McDonald Wimp née Katherine McDonald stage name Kay Davis, December 5, 1920 – January 27, 2012 in Apopka, Florida, was an “exquisite” American jazz singer best known for her time with the orchestra of Duke Ellington.

Davis was born in Evanston, Illinois and attended Evanston Township High School before she studied voice and piano at Northwestern University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1942 and her masters in 1943. Her grandfather, William H. Twiggs, was a civic leader for whom a park in Evanston is named.

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“She was a classically trained coloratura,” Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said in an interview…, noting that Ellington had used “the high-register female voice as instrumental color” in the middle and late 1920s. Among the best-known wordless works was “Creole Love Call,” sung by Adelaide Hall in 1927.

She is the only person Ellington allowed to reprise Adelaide Hall’s famous wordless vocal on “Creole Love Call”.

She is best known for her wordless vocals in pieces such as “Transblucency” and “On a Turquoise Cloud”. She also sang many pieces with lyrics.


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Harlem man Duke Ellington came to Evanston in 1944, after hearing Ms. Davis at a recital, asked her to join his band. She was soon singing alongside Joya Sherrill and Al Hibbler. She and Mr. Hibbler handled the vocals on one of the Duke Ellington’s orchestra’s best-known songs of that era, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.” A major moment in her career came on Nov. 13, 1948, when she sang Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” with Strayhorn at the piano, at Carnegie Hall. She is the only person Ellington allowed to re-record Adelaide Hall’s famous wordless vocal style on “Creole Love Call”.

Here’s a recording of Ms. Davis’ wordless vocals singing “Creole Love Call”.

Her tenure in Ellington’s band coincided with their increasing exposure on film, especially for Universal Pictures. Davis and Billy Strayhorn gave the first performance of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” on November 13, 1948 at Carnegie Hall—even though the song had been written in the 1930s.

She toured England with Ellington and Ray Nance in 1948 and in Europe with the full orchestra in 1950. After leaving Ellington’s orchestra in 1950, she married Edward Wimp, and later retired to Florida.

Photo via Pinterest and source.

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