Hal Singer, a tenor saxophonist and bandleader who was among the last survivors of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, died on Aug. 18 at his home in Chatou, a suburb of Paris. He was 100.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Arlette Singer, who said his health had deteriorated in recent years.
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Singer’s saxophone carried him through a long career that was rooted in jazz but also paralleled the birth of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1940s and ‘50s. He shared stages with the likes of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles and earned the nickname by which he became known professionally, Cornbread, with his 1948 instrumental “Corn Bread,” which topped the R&B charts and put him on the musical map.
That record showcased “a much raunchier style than most guys were playing,” the singer, songwriter and music historian Billy Vera said. With its robust honks and screams, he added, “Corn Bread” packed in “more punch, more soul, more emotion,” and helped establish the sound that preceded guitar-centric rock ‘n’ roll.
Singer followed “Corn Bread” with another food-themed hit, “Beef Stew,” a year later. He went on to record more than a dozen albums as leader or sideman, among them “Blue Stompin’” (1959), a collaboration with the jazz trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and “Paris Soul Food” (1969).
He moved to France in 1965 after growing weary of the racial unrest in his home country. “He was quite sad,” Singer said in a phone interview. In France, she added, he felt respected and at ease.
Singer was a toddler during the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre, one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in American history. After a group of African Americans tried to prevent the lynching of a young man who had been accused of assaulting a white woman, a mob of white people descended on the city’s Greenwood district — a thriving community that had been nicknamed Black Wall Street — killing hundreds of residents and burning more than 1,000 homes.
A white woman whom Singer’s mother worked for put him and his mother on a train to Kansas City, where they would wait out the violence as their house burnt down. “I was always grateful for that,” Singer later said.
Harold Joseph Singer was born on October 8, 1919, in Tulsa. His mother, Annie Mae (Jones) Singer, was a caterer. His father, Charles, worked for a company that manufactured oil drilling tools.
Singer picked up the violin when he was a child and moved on to saxophone and clarinet during his teenage years. The sax stayed with him while he studied agriculture at what is now Hampton University in Virginia, and it eventually lured him into dropping out and pursuing music full time.
Early in his career, he worked with the bands of Terrence Holder, Ernie Fields and Nat Towles. In 1943, he made his way to New York with pianist Jay McShann’s big band; after leaving McShann, he performed alongside jazz greats like the trumpeters Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge.
A few years later, Singer played a memorable saxophone solo on Wynonie Harris’ jukebox hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” widely regarded as a precursor of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1948, he joined the Ellington orchestra — “the dream job of any musician,” Vera said. But after finding success a year later with “Corn Bread,” he left to lead his own group.
After about a decade on the road, Singer became a regular at the Metropole Cafe, a jazz club in Manhattan, where he teamed with Charlie Shavers. By the early 1960s, he had embraced soul jazz, a subgenre that blended jazz, gospel and R&B.
Shortly after moving to France in 1965, Singer met Arlette Verdickt, and the couple married three years later. In addition to his wife, Singer is survived by two daughters, Stephanie and Lina Singer, and four grandchildren.
He spent the following decades recording and touring around the world, eventually returning stateside to perform in the 1980s. In 1989, his wife helped him publish a memoir in French, “Jazz Roads.”
In 1992, the French culture minister awarded him the title Knight of the Arts, a designation under France’s Order of Arts and Letters, which recognises renowned artists and writers. He was later promoted to the top level, Commander.
In 1999, Haitian American filmmaker Guetty Felin profiled Singer in the documentary “Hal Singer, Keep the Music Going.”
His last public performance was in Paris in 2015. “He was a perfectionist,” Singer said, and as his health began to fail, he decided to bow out because he knew he could no longer perform at his best. As his vision gave way to glaucoma, he played at home for as long as he could.
“He always invested his energy in studying, practicing or playing music,” she said. “He had a lot of energy — that’s why he lived so long.”