Bing & Satchmo/Contrast & Concord in Singing

December 3, 2008

Today I went down to the Bus-Chum for a free showing of High Society, the lame musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. Bing Crosby was improbably cast as C.K. Dexter Haven, a flimsy excuse to give him the most musical numbers. Louis Armstrong and his band were also in the picture, spliced in at odd intervals.

Bing and Satchmo sing a duet — Cole Porter’s famous Now You Have Jazz. It got me thinking how a basic principle of design applies equally to music. Good design exhibits elements of contrast and/or concord. Take a swash cap and pair it with a serif typeface and you have contrast. Combine a monoline script with a monoline decorative border and you have concord. But take an italic typeface and pair it with a script and what do you have? Conflict!

Same thing with music. Bing Crosby was not a jazz singer by any stretch of the imagination. He was an old-style crooner with the smooth sounds of a wind instrument. Louis Armstrong, who seems like jazz incarnate, is Crosby’s vocal opposite. His voice is brassy, rough, and edgy. 

It’s because of this contrast (plus their mutual respect as musicians) that helped make Bing and Satchmo a popular combination on jazz tunes. The contrast in their voices, delivery, and mannerisms complemented each other nicely.

For an example of concord in music, check out Bing singing with the Andrews Sisters. They all share the same smooth sound and delivery. Their stagecraft is in the same vein: smooth, smooth, smooth. And oh so “nice” — this is a sound and method of delivery that is entirely inoffensive. It lacks the edginess of Satchmo’s New Orleans sound and is part of the long tradition of toning down “race music” to make it more palatable to Caucasians. (It’s probably obvious where my tastes lie, eh?)

What about conflict? Bing and Danny Kaye. It’s obvious in this clip from White Christmas: I Wish I Was Back In The Army. Danny Kaye’s voice has more elasticity than Bing’s, and he goes wide on pronunciation for comic effect. His physical comedy is more crisp than Bing’s, making the latter look lazy. While Bing was the more experienced singer, Danny’s expressiveness draws your eyes to him and makes you tilt an ear to hear him.

If you don’t hear the lack of blend in their voices when this clip starts, wait for Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen to come on. Their blend is so close that it sounds like one person singing: concord. 

The same elements of contrast, concord, and concord can be explored through instrumentation, but that post can wait for another day. Or for someone to leave a comment!