The ‘20s Green Singer Who Was No Plain Jane

Jane Green cover 2

Over the past few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to discover four excellent female jazz and blues singers who previous fell through the cracks of history into oblivion: Lee Morse, Ottilie Patterson, Midge Williams and now Jane Green. The only thing they have in common is that their careers were aborted at the height of their popularity, one because of her violent personality and severe alcoholism (More), the other three due to illness or injury. Patterson lived many years after illness forced her to abort her career, but Williams, who developed tuberculosis, just made one brief comeback in 1946 before dying in the early 1950s, and Green was the victim of an auto accident who lost most of her voice and died just a few years later at the age of 34.

All four of these singers had unique voices and interesting though varying styles, but Green’s voice, though not as spectacular as Lee Morse with her four-octave range, may well have been the best-settled of the four. She also had a remarkably “clean” style, free of any mannerisms, and swung in a way that presaged such future stars as Connie Boswell.

GreenSo who was Jane Green, what was her story, and what makes her recordings so fascinating? Her given name was Martha Jane Greene, born in Kentucky on January 2, 1897 to Charles Frederick Greene Sr. and Lucinda Belle Willis. The youngest of five children, she had four brothers and, though her mother’s heritage, was part Cherokee. Her parents divorced when she was seven years old; mom and her five kids relocated to Los Angeles. In 1911, Jane and her brother Fred began performing together as “Those Kentucky Kids” on L.A. street corners. Lucinda taught young Jane to be proud of her Cherokee heritage and, in addition to her singing, she performed in rodeos as a champion trick horse rider.

Green & Byler

Jane and Jimmy Blyler

Five years later she met a songwriter whose name is variously spelled online as Jimmy Byler or Jimmy Blyler (I’ve not been able to verify either one because there doesn’t seem to be a single song online under either name). They became quite popular as a team, married in 1918, and were hired by Flo Ziegfield to perform in his 9 O’Clock Review and Midnight Frolic. Jane began her recording career with two titles for Pathé in 1920, Wild Romantic Blues and Lonely Blues, but by 1923 was signed by the more prestigious Victor label, where she made most of her records. In 1921, she appeared in the Eddie Cantor show The Midnight Rounders, singing the song If I Knew. By 1923 she was back on Broadway, performing in Nifties of 1923 at the Fulton Theater.

Ron Wilson & Green, 1928

Ron Wilson & Green in 1928 Vitaphone short

sm-If You Knew-1921Blyler died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1924. Devastated and at loose ends, she signed a two-year contract to sing with Isham Jones’ popular orchestra; lonely and vulnerable, she had a two-year affair with Jones, who wrote the song My Castle in Spain specifically for her. She performed in England with the Jones band in 1925 at the Piccadilly Hotel and the Kit Kat Club. Upon her return, she began singing with Nathaniel Shilkret’s popular orchestra. In 1927 she married pianist Ron Wilson, but that year she was seriously injured in New York City when the taxi she was riding in hit a streetcar. She broke her nose and facial bones, and although she recovered physically the accident affected her voice, which deteriorated significantly. In 1928 she tried to make a comeback, appearing in two Vitaphone shorts in which she sang Singin’ the Blues and The Melody Girl with Wilson accompanying her on piano, but her vocal deterioration was noticeable and unfortunately permanent.

Jane was forced to retire from show business. She and Ron moved to Berkeley, California where she died on August 28, 1931 at the age of 34. the cause of death given in her obituary as a “paralytic stroke.” but this was not apparent to some of her friends who visited her shortly before she died. These friends also noted strange behavior by her husband and reported it to the police, but although he came under suspicion for being complicit in her death, nothing came of the investigation.

Wild Romantic BluesAll of which would be meaningless if Jane Green hadn’t had a phenomenal voice, a powerful, rich mezzo-soprano of great beauty, or if her surviving recordings didn’t verify these assets. But as it turns out, the records are phenomenally good in more ways than just her singing. Believe me when I tell you, as a veteran of listening to 1920s jazz, blues and pop recordings since the age of 13, that Green’s recordings are several cuts above the average. Whereas most pop bands on acoustic and early electrical recordings—particularly white orchestras, but also some black ones—played in a stiff, ragged manner that now sounds as dated as the dance crazes they played, all of the orchestras on Jane Green’s recordings play beautifully: in tune, with excellent orch3estral blending and a decent early jazz rhythm. Much of this was due to Somebody Like You labelmusic director Nathaniel Shilkret, a phenomenally talented clarinetist and conductor who vacillated easily between the world of popular and classical music. You will note that the majority of Green’s records were accompanied by orchestras directed by Shilkret. and when he wasn’t present the music directors of her discs included Leonard Joy, who also enjoyed both jazz and symphonic music. On one session, she was accompanied by Paul Whiteman’s clarinet virtuoso, Ross Gorman (who created the opening clarinet glissando in the original Rhapsody in Blue) and his band at the time, “The Virginians.” These were first-class musicians, and they brought to Green’s sessions an astonishingly high level of musicianship without the bombast and stiffness of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The only white band of the time that could have equaled or surpassed their musicianship was that of Jean Goldkette, but no one at Victor had the common sense to put them together.

One interesting thing is that Shilkret didn’t become Victor’s chief director of light music until 1926, but he was already accompanying Jane Green on records as early as 1924 (The Blues Have Got Me, Me and the Boy Friend). Another is that the anonymous orchestra on her lone Pathé disc plays in just as highly polished a fashion. Was this something that Green insisted on in making her records? If so, it may explain why she made so few by comparison with other singers of her time. Perfectionists are not always appreciated.

You Went Away Too Far - labelAs for her singing style, it, too sounds remarkably modern in comparison to other white singers of her time, even by comparison with Lee Morse. Green phrased in a natural, swinging style that was at least a decade ahead of its time. Her way of changing the note-values within a bar was something that not even Cliff Edwards or young Bing Crosby could do in the 1920s. In short, she had a natural sense of jazz “time.” Although this might have been something that came over from her Cherokee heritage—Mildred Bailey, who was also part American Indian, also had a loose, relaxed and natural sense of jazz phrasing—I would also point out that it resembles the work on records by the greatest black jazz singer of this time, Mamie Smith. Although Mamie sang the blues in addition to jazz, she was never really as convincing a blues singer as were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox or Alberta Hunter; she was more of a jazz singer, and the one jazz singer who influenced Connie Boswell. The difference was that Mamie’s back-up band, the “Jazz Hounds,” played in a much more ragged manner than the slick orchestras that Shilkret led in the recording studios.

I Never Knew music coverThe end result was a series of recordings that are so perfect in every detail that they are practically a summation of the Roaring Twenties. In this respect, Jane Green’s recordings parallel the 1945-50 Decca recordings of Billie Holiday, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, and Harry Nilsson’s superb Harry album as collections of popular music presented in such a way that they come close to true art. Although Green did not interpret the lyrics of her songs with the same kind of penetrating insight as did Bessie Smith in the blues or Lee Morse in pop music, the almost modern sound of her voice and musical approach make her recordings very easy to like despite the dated sound. That is all that stands in the way of their being perfect.

Most online assessments of Green state that she made “over 30 recordings.” This is technically true; she did record 31 songs, most in multiple takes; but 10 of those recordings were never issued and the masters destroyed. Some of them were earlier versions of issued sides, such as Mama Goes Where Papa Goes, but some of them are very popular songs of the day, like Poor Papa (He’s Got Nothin’ at All) and Sweet Georgia Brown that were never re-made. Thus all we have in toto are 21 sides. They are enough to establish her greatness without really satisfying one’s craving for more.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and at least we have these recordings to listen to. They are enough to place Jane Green near or at the very pinnacle of female jazz singing in the Roaring ‘20s, a symposium of songs exploring several different types of man-woman relationships from the most superficial to the deepest. It is enough for me to claim that Jane Green was anything but “plain” She was clearly the best white female jazz singer in the pre-Lee Morse era, in many ways more modern and more appealing than Morse’s delivery with its startling register breaks and yodeling.

This is my preferred order of her recordings, all of which are available on YouTube for free listening and download:

  1. A Mama Like You and a Papa Like Me (Rose-Russell-Woods) Victor 19604 (1/30/1925)
  2. Ida, I Do (Isham Jones-Gus Kahn) Victor 19707 (6/11/1925)
  3. Wild Romantic Blues (Bryan-Schwartz) Pathé B 20480 (12/1920)
  4. Mine, All Mine (Ruby-Cowan-Stept) Victor 21145 (12/8/1927)
  5. Honey Bunch (Cliff Friend) Victor 19995 (3/5/1926)
  6. If I’d Only Believed In You (Akst-Davis) Victor 20391 (11/11926)
  7. Mama Goes Where Papa Goes or Papa Don’t Get Out Tonight (Ager-Yellen) Victor 19215 (11/13/1923)
  8. Got No Time (Whiting-Kahn) Victor 19687 (5/28/1925)
  9. My Castle In Spain (Isham Jones) Victor 19995 (3/5/1926)
  10. The Blues Have Got Me (Abner Silver-Roy Turk) Victor 19609 (11/26/1924)
  11. If You Hadn’t Gone Away (I Wouldn’t Be Where I Am Now) (Henderson-Rose-Brown) Victor 19707 (5/28/1925)
  12. I’m Gonna Meet My Sweetie Now (Greer-Davis) Victor 20509 (2/18/1927)
  13. Lonely Blues (Bryan-Schwartz) Pathé B 20480 (12/1920)
  14. My One And Only (What Am I Gonna Do?) (George & Ira Gershwin) Victor 21145 (12/8/1927)
  15. You Went Away Too Far (And Stayed Away Too Long) (Bryan-Monaco) Victor 20509 (2/18/1927)
  16. Won’t Be Long Before (S)he Belongs To Me (Friend-Woods) Victor 20323 (11/1/1926)
  17. Hard-To-Get Gertie (Ager-Yellen) Victor 20323 (11/1/1926)
  18. Mama Loves Papa, Papa Loves Mama (Friend-Baer) Victor 19215 (12/4/1923)
  19. Me And The Boy Friend (Monaco-Clare) Victor 19502 (11/11/1924)
  20. Somebody Like You (Donaldson-Friend) Victor 19604 (11/26/1924)
  21. We’re Back Together Again (My Baby and Me) (Sid Clare-James Monaco) Victor 19687 (5/28/1925)

Tracks 1, 2, 5, 8-12, 15, 19-21 directed by Nathaniel Shilkret (Dick Schwartz, alto sax featured on track 11); tracks 4, 14 directed by Leonard Joy; tracks 7, 18 featuring Ross Gorman & the Virginians (Jack Shilkret, piano on track 7); tracks 6, 16, 17 directed by LeRoy Shields.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “The ‘20s Green Singer Who Was No Plain Jane

  1. Pingback: The ‘20s Green Singer Who Was No Plain Jane – MobsterTiger

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