Jazz Profiles from NPR
Johnny Hartman
Produced by Joan Merrill

Johnny Hartman  

Johnny Hartman was the quintessential romantic balladeer. The only singer to record with John Coltrane, Hartman was mostly known only to true jazz lovers during his lifetime. It took a movie soundtrack -- released 12 years after his death -- that took Hartman to the top of the jazz charts.

Listen to pianists Billy Taylor and Tony Monte, and writer Will Friedwald describe Johnny's singing

Actor, producer and director Clint Eastwood chose several of Hartman's recordings for the dreamy romantic scenes in his film The Bridges of Madison County and its sequel, Remembering Madison County. The movies were about a brief love affair between an aging photographer and a Midwestern housewife.

Listen to Monte explain how Hartman's singing was a perfect fit for The Bridges of Madison County

Hartman was a master of emotional expression, putting everything he had into every word he sang. With any other vocalist, performing a love song with this kind of intensity could easily come across as being over the top or gushing, but Hartman's rich, masculine baritone voice never wavered in its sincerity.

Listen to Friedwald and Taylor discuss Hartman's refusal of being categorized

Born John Maurice Hartman on July 23, 1923 in Chicago, Johnny grew up singing in church choirs and the high school glee club before receiving a scholarship to study voice at the Chicago Musical College. After a tour of duty in the Army during World War II, he won a singing contest conducted by pianist and bandleader Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hartman later joined Hines' band.

Dizzy Gillespie  

Hines' group disbanded a year later, but trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (left) soon recruited Hartman for his big band. The singer's cool, understated voice was a dramatic contrast to Dizzy's rapid-fire bebop style.

Listen to Taylor recall some of Hartman's performances with Dizzy

Johnny didn't feel entirely at home with bebop, but he continued performing with Gillespie's band until it broke up in 1949. He later joined pianist Erroll Garner's trio, but his tenure there lasted only two months.

Listen to pianist Steve Allen describe the musical rapport between Johnny and Erroll Garner

Throughout most of the 1950s, Johnny struggled as a solo artist, recording several noteworthy albums that never broke mainstream. While he always seemed on the verge of greater success, he never got the commercial push he needed.

Listen to Friedwald, Taylor, and saxophonist Joe Gayles speculate why superstardom eluded Hartman

Some speculate that Johnny came on the scene at the wrong time, and that racism obstructed potential opportunities for him. He was a handsome black man, whose voice somewhat resembled those of many successful white vocalists.

Billy Eckstine was a black vocalist who had successfully crossed over to the mainstream, but there was a backlash as white listeners started rejecting his music. The idea of a black man singing love ballads and swooning white females didn't sit well in 1950s America, particularly in the Deep South.

Listen to Steve Allen recall booking black artists on The Tonight Show

I've seen times when I couldn't go into white clubs and sing my style of singing. You either buck danced or sang a real gutbucket blues, and then they would let you in. You get the feeling the you're never supposed to be serious or be a man who could fall in love.

-- Johnny Hartman  

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman  

Hartman's career turned a significant corner in 1963 when he recorded his classic duet album with saxophonist John Coltrane. They performed stunning renditions of ballads such as "They Say It's Wonderful" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Listen to singer Kevin Mahogany recite Hartman's words about his recording experience with Coltrane

Critics raved about Hartman's collaboration with Coltrane, but the effort had a real down side. He was now labeled a jazz singer by record executives and club owners. Despite his mastery of the romantic ballad with potentially popular appeal, he began to have difficulty getting work in big rooms like the Copacabana in New York.

Listen to Monte explain the negative and positive effects of the album, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman did, however, help Johnny secure additional recording contracts. Shortly thereafter, he was back in his element doing pop-oriented recordings with leading orchestras like those of Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson.

By the mid-1960s, popular tastes had largely embraced rock and roll, and Hartman's style had much less commercial potential. But he refused to compromise his own love of the romantic ballad and he went abroad, where his style was still appreciated. He did a television special in Australia and recorded several albums in Japan, including a tribute to Coltrane after the sax player's death in 1967.

After a break, Hartman would record again in the late 1970s -- his album Once In Every Life was nominated for a Grammy in 1981. Still loved by jazz enthusiasts, he would eventually achieve cult status after his death in 1983. And thanks to Eastwood's movie soundtrack, Hartman is finally getting the wider recognition he richly deserves.

Listen to Friedwald, Monte, and Allen talk about Hartman's posthumous popularity


View the Johnny Hartman show playlist


Listen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman