Alice Babs: The Rare Delight of You

The voice of Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert

As if her singing weren’t enough, could one wish for a better listener than Alice Babs? Watch how this Swedish nightingale, after singing Duke Ellington’s “Heaven,” makes way for a solo by Johnny Hodges and takes it in with a rapt look that must have inspired Paul Gonsalves to say, “Having all that talent, it’s a marvel she remains the way she is.  As pretty inside as out.” The performance is from Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert.

Alice Babs (born Hildur Alice Nilsson) died on February 11 at age 90.  She was best known to American audiences as a singer who occasionally worked with Ellington beginning in 1963.  At that time, Duke’s contract with Reprise Records allowed him to produce not only his own material, but other artists as well.  One of these was Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), the South African-born pianist whom Duke was impressed with hearing in Zurich when the Ellington orchestra was touring Switzerland.  Duke Ellington Presents Dollar Brand was the result.  Another was Serenade to Sweden, on which Babs sang a dozen Ellington originals accompanied by Duke, Gilbert Rovere, and Kenny Clarke.  The session was recorded in Paris.

Alice Babs & Duke Ellington in 1963
Alice Babs & Duke Ellington in 1963

As I looked into Babs’s background with Ellington, I was intrigued to find her saying that she’d sung for him at his 40th birthday party.  That would have been 1939, a year that jibes with Ellington’s tour of Scandinavia.  But Alice would have been just 15.  How did she come to Duke’s attention at that age?  As it turns out, Babs was already a youthful singing sensation in Sweden, where she appeared in nearly twenty movies. See her in this delightful scene from Swing It, Magistern. Though she’s the picture of girl-next-door charm, the dismay expressed by the schoolmarm at seeing Alice, her classmates and their teacher swinging a ditty apparently mirrored the controversy Babs engendered as the apple-cheeked icon of swing in Sweden. The Alice phenomenon was denounced by a Lutheran vicar as “the foot and mouth disease of cultural life.”

Babs had many musical associations over the course of her career and sang classical and Scandinavian folk music as well as jazz.  As Duke put it, “Alice is a performer beyond measure.  She can sing anything she sees or hears…She is probably the most unique artist I know.”  One of her many jazz ventures was the trio called Swe-Danes, which formed in 1958 and toured the U.S.  The group included the Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, who became another artist favored by an Ellington production, the 1963 Jazz Violin Session with Ray Nance and Stephane Grappelli.

Babs scored a hit with “St. Louis Blues Twist” in 1963, and she sings it on this Swedish television appearance. W.C. Handy’s classic blues with a habanera release is one of the most recorded songs of the past century. Alice’s is not only a novel arrangement, but hearing her mention “Homesick Blues” tells me that it’s Hank Williams and not a Tyrolean shepherd who inspired her stop-time yodeling.

Here’s Alice in 1999 singing the Billie Holiday classic, “A Sailboat in the Moonlight.” Babs at 75 still exudes the personal sense of joy that she first heard mirrored in jazz.  In The World of Duke Ellington, she told Stanley Dance, “I am naturally gay and happy. Perhaps that is why jazz has always exercised a great attraction for me. I heard Louis Armstrong, whom I loved, when I was only eleven.”

Ellington’s Sacred Concerts were the capstone undertakings of his career. He called them “the most important thing I have ever done.” The first of them, A Concert of Sacred Music, was premiered at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965 and broadcast on television.  (It took a year or two, but as an eleven-year-old r&b fan, I eventually became grateful to my mother for urging me to watch it.)  The concert drew mixed reviews, but Ellington redoubled his efforts (“I had to go up over the top of the first…”) and presented his Second Sacred Concert in 1968. Babs was recruited for the performance and was critical to its success.  John S. Wilson in The Times wrote, “Babs took her place among the top rank of Ellingtonians– those instrumentalists and singers who have brought special distinction to the Ellington ensemble and who have drawn unique inspiration from the Duke’s direction during the last 40 years.”  The composer himself said, “Alice Babs is a composer’s dream, for with her he can forget all the limitations and just write his heart out.”

While she was accustomed to singing everything from Bach to the blues in concert halls and churches throughout Europe, Babs told Stanley Dance that she was especially moved by Ellington’s sacred music. “There were times during the performances [at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and venues in New Canaan and New Britain, Connecticut], when I had trouble controlling my emotions. In the cathedral it was very beautiful, the lighting and the massive congregation. I had to remind myself I was not the one to be moved, that the message was designed for the listeners.”

Ellington died on Memorial Day weekend in 1974, six years after the collaboration with Babs.  By then, she had been named Sweden’s royal court singer.  But when Duke’s sister Ruth told Alice that his wish had been for her to sing “Heaven” and “Almighty God Has Those Angels” at the funeral, she declined. “I knew that I would fall apart,” she told Janna Tull Steed in Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography.  She attended nonetheless, and Steed’s account goes on to report, “A tape from the original performance was hastily pulled together, but few people knew about this.  During the recessional, as the cortege made its way down the long center aisle, the unmistakable sound of Ellington’s strong fingers playing a delicate piano introduction drifted down from that vaulted ceiling.  The cavernous space was then filled by the pure, clear tones of Alice’s voice, followed by the warm and plaintive sound of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges…Babs was in the congregation, honoring the Maestro in voiceless grief; unprepared for this final musical offering, she almost collapsed. Hearing the tape recording…left other stunned mourners overwhelmed with tearful emotion.”

Steed calls Babs a “personified muse for some of Ellington’s most beautifully lyric compositions.”  In addition to “Heaven,” here’s the other work Alice and the 10,000 mourners who crowded the Cathedral of St. John the Divine heard on May 27, 1974.

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