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Teri Thornton: 1934-2000
Teri Thornton
Singer, pianist

Born: September 1, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan
Died: May 2, 2000 in Englewood, New Jersey

Late Flourish For Monk Winner

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Teri Thornton’s career as a jazz singer was a notably roller-coaster affair, moving from early struggles to success and back to obscurity again, before enjoying a remarkable final flourish in the last two years of her life. Her final comeback was sparked by winning the vocalist section of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 1998, an honour usually given to young performers.

Thornton was already in her early 60s when she took the prize. Her dark, slightly husky voice, emotive delivery and ingrained understanding of the music won over the judges, and her award was quickly followed by a major label recording contract with Verve.

Her debut album for the label, I’ll Be Easy To Find, was her first record since the mid-1960s, and was released to great acclaim in 1999, while her live performances in New York confirmed that she was not only back in harness, but was still a jazz singer of the first rank, with a particular flair for expressive interpretations of the blues.

Throughout this remarkable comeback, however, Thornton had been suffering from bladder cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1997, but decided to enter the Monk competition in any case, and she was able to enjoy the fruits of her success while in remission. She performed a week long residence at the Village Vanguard in New York as recently as January, but died of complications of the disease.

She was born Shirley Enid Avery in Detroit, where he mother was a singer and the director of a local gospel choir. She encouraged her daughter to study classical music, but as a teenager she turned to jazz, singing and playing piano. She was married young, had two children, and went through a divorce before she was twenty.

Her professional career began shortly afterwards at the Ebony Club in Cleveland. She moved to Chicago, where she worked with saxophonists Cannonball Adderley (who called her the greatest voice since Ella Fitzgerald) and Johnny Griffin, as well as playing intermission piano at a strip club called the Red Garter.

She began to make a bigger impression on a national basis in the early 1960s, initially with the release of her debut album for the Riverside label, Devil May Care, in 1961. She scored her biggest hit in 1963 with ‘Somewhere In The Night’, the theme tune from the popular television series Naked City. The increased profile it brought included an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a recording contract with Columbia Records, and the personal stamp of approval of Ella Fitzgerald, who described her as her favourite singer in an interview in Down Beat.

Her rise was not to be sustained. Jazz was entering a difficult period in any case, but her own problems with poor managers, alcohol and drugs also took their toll, and she quickly slipped from the public eye. She moved to Los Angeles at the end of the decade, and gave up singing professionally until 1979, when she reemerged singing and playing in small piano bars.

She moved to New York in 1983, where she established herself on the club scene, and made a steady living in restaurant and lounge gigs until that surprise breakthrough in the Monk competition brought her back into international prominence, albeit all too briefly.

She was married three times in all, and is survived by two sons, a daughter, and six grandchildren.

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