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Temporary Fame, Longstanding Loyalty

The New Orleans-raised Boswell sisters influenced greats such as Ella Fitzgerald thanks to their vocal gymnastics. © Bettmann/CORBIS

New Orleans

On Oct. 9, at Snug Harbor here, the vocal trio Duchess reached a point in the middle of a number when the arrangement called for an abrupt tempo change—and all of a sudden the three singers up front realized that they were going one way while their rhythm section was going another. Singer Amy Cervini waved the band to stop and told the crowd, “Tempo changes were one of the Boswell Sisters’ signatures.” Then she added, “We have no idea how they did it!”

There’s a lot about the Boswell Sisters that people don’t know, even those who have studied their music and career for decades. For five years at the start of the 1930s, the Boswell Sisters were perhaps the most popular musical group in the country, and to this day they are ranked among the most important vocal-harmony ensembles in all of jazz. They dazzled Depression-era audiences not only with their telepathic stop-and-start arrangements (likely the product of their classical music training), but their bluesy cadences, luminescent vocal blend, and—most of all—their freewheeling interpolation of jazz techniques, essentially rendering irrelevant the boundaries between composition, improvisation and interpretation. They did for group harmony what Bing Crosby did for popular singing and Louis Armstrong for jazz improvisation.

The Boswell family arrived in New Orleans on Oct. 9, 1914, when the three sisters, Martha, Connie and Helvetia (”Vet”), were 9, 6 and 3, respectively. Kyla Titus, granddaughter of the youngest sister, has named this date as the centennial of the Boswell Sisters, which she commemorated by organizing “Shout, Sister, Shout!”—a four-day celebration in New Orleans that began last Thursday. (Its title came from the sisters’ radio-show theme song, which they recorded in 1931.) That same day, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared the start of Boswell Sisters Week. The exhibition “Shout, Sister, Shout! The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans” is winding up its run at the Historic New Orleans Collection museum on Oct. 26 before moving on to Lake Charles, La. There’s also a documentary about the trio being readied for PBS. 

The sisters grew up in the Crescent City, and even long after all three moved away, “they never considered anyplace else their home,” Ms. Titus said when we spoke. The Boswells were inseparable from the bloodline of New Orleans music: The city was the only place in the world where three teenage girls of Irish descent could become immersed in African-American gospel music as well as Italian opera, and their music combines the formalized, high discipline of chamber music with the unrestrained passion and majesty of the blues. Theirs is a sound of the streets as well as the concert halls, a sound that continues to inspire young singers around the globe. 

The four-day celebration included presentations by Ms. Titus, who will publish this month “The Boswell Legacy,” the first book on the sisters, and historian David McCain, a New Orleans native who has devoted his life to researching the Boswells (and other sister acts). Ms. Titus and Mr. McCain shared rare private recordings made by the family, as well as home movies and photographs. They also co-hosted a bus tour of the city, which included the house on Camp Street where the family lived from 1914 on, the Orpheum Theater where they established themselves as professionals in 1925, and the Palace Cafe, the spot where they made their first recordings that same year.

But this wasn’t an academic conference so much as a music festival, in which seven trios from all over the world re-created vintage Boswell arrangements in six different venues. None of the groups who performed at the Centennial’s central event, the Friday night concert at the Louisiana State Museum’s Mint Building, attempted to mimic the trio’s famous Southern drawl. In fact, a great deal of the fun was in hearing Australia’s The Boswell Project, Canada’s Company B and Israel’s Hazelnuts revisit the classic charts with their own regional accents. The popularity of Boswells even among non-English-speaking singers was illustrated by O Sister from Seville, Spain, whose show included choreography and a male “sister” who harmonizes with two women.

The Boswells didn’t become nationally known until 1930-31 and stopped working together (after, among other things, two tours of Europe) in 1936, when Martha and Vet essentially stepped aside so their middle sister, Connie, would be free to pursue a solo career. In time, the Boswells were overshadowed by their contemporaries the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters, two acts that stayed together much longer—the Andrews becoming to World War II what the Boswells were to the Depression. 

But the Andrews Sisters freely admitted that they started as Boswell wannabes, and Connie Boswell was the only singer Ella Fitzgerald admitted to learning from. Indeed, in their free-flowing use of scat singing, and their farsighted approach to melody (which caused some conservative listeners at the beginning of their radio career to dismiss them as “savage chanters”), the Boswells constitute a crucial link between Armstrong and Fitzgerald in the development of vocal improvisation.

As influential as they were, they had few serious imitators—perhaps not until the Pfister Sisters began honoring their legacy on a regular basis beginning in the 1970s. (The Pfisters are still going strong, after singing this music for 35 years, and were prominent throughout the Centennial.) 

It’s amazing that a sound produced for so short a time could command such longstanding loyalty.

Mr. Friedwald writes the weekly Jazz Scene column for the Journal.