We are in the quiet coda of Hal Singer’s remarkable life.
He’s past 100 now, living quietly in a Paris suburb with his wife of more than 50 years, Arlette. Singer’s tenor saxophone is silent after a career that spanned more than seven decades. He is mostly silent, too; Arlette says he can no longer talk on the telephone.
“He is very tired,” she said.
Harold Joseph “Cornbread” Singer was born Oct. 8, 1919, in Tulsa’s Greenwood District. Jazz was still spelled “jass.” James Reese Europe and his Harlem Hellfighters had just made their mark on the battlefields of Europe and the concert halls of France and New York, and in so doing changed the way two continents thought of African Americans and their music.
As a boy, Singer would hang out at Tulsa’s railroad depots, looking for the musicians playing dates on both sides of the Frisco tracks, in white Tulsa and black, and he would take them home.
“A lot of the top black bands came by,” said Arlette. “He would wait for them. Since his mom was a good cook he would invite them to dinner with his parents. He told me that when he got to New York he already knew a lot of musicians because they’d been to his house for dinner.”
His mother’s cooking had already shaped young Hal’s life in an unexpected way. She cooked for a white household and in the aftermath of the May 31-June 1, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Mrs. Singer and 18-month-old Hal were put on a train to Kansas City by her employer until their home could be rebuilt.
He is one of the few survivors of the race massacre still living.
“His father had a good job in a factory making tools for the oil field,” Arlette said, explaining why the Singers remained in Tulsa. “He never had a problem with racism. He said there were many nice people among the whites as well as those who weren’t so nice.”
His first musical instrument was a violin, but he eventually switched to the clarinet and then the tenor sax. At some point he was hired by Tulsa bandmaster Ernie Fields Sr., but that didn’t last.
“They both said they didn’t remember why he was let go,” said Fields’ son, Ernie Fields Jr.
It didn’t seem to hurt Singer’s career. He hooked up with a succession of territory bands, including Tommy Douglas, Lloyd Hunter and Jay McShann, the Muskogee native who became a star of the Kansas City music scene at the height of the big band era.
Singer cashed in his mother’s old meal tickets in 1943, when he moved to New York and began a career as a session musician while playing with several bands, including Hot Lips Page and Duke Ellington.
Then, in 1948, he cut a simple number called “Cornbread” that rocketed to the top of the charts and earned Singer a nickname he is said to have never cared for.
Ernie Fields Jr. said there is a certain irony but also an indication of Singer’s artistry in the number’s success.
“He was a terrific saxophonist but his biggest hit was the simplest thing you could play on a saxophone,” said Fields. “That’s one note.”
A lesser hit, 1948’s “Rock Around the Clock” — not the song of similar title made famous by Bill Haley and His Comets a few years later — is considered an early rock and roll recording. His album “Rent Party,” originally released in the 1950s, remains in circulation on vinyl and CD as well as the internet.
In 1965, Singer went to Paris for a one-month gig, according to Arlette. He’s been there ever since, for years touring Europe and Africa. In 1969, he released an album called “Paris Soul Food.” He and Arlette married, raised two daughters, and settled into a comfortable life.
In the years since, Singer has become something of a celebrity in France. He was made a Chevalier des Arts — Knight of the Arts — in 1992, and has since been promoted to Commandeur, the highest rank of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. That puts him on the same plane as the likes of T.S. Eliot, Stevie Wonder, Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery.
According to Arlette, Singer continued playing until about five years ago. Video of him performing as recently as 2012 is on the website halsingergroup.com.
But now we are in the final few muted bars of a long life of smoke-filled cafes, open-air festivals and impromptu jam sessions.
“Now he likes it when musician friends come and play live in his room,” said Arlette. “Sometimes we see him moving his fingers like he’s playing the notes. He’s still involved in the music.”