Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Eleanora Fagen: b. April 7, 1915. d. July 17, 1959.

Eleanora Fagen. It's a name one might come across in the pages of a novel by Emily Brontë
or Charles Dickens. Born in 1915, Fagan would take the stage name Billie Holiday and change the course of American music.

Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater describes Holiday as ". . . a groundbreaking singer. Her style was extremely unique. Very avant-garde. She refused to go the way of other singers of her time. She was a vocalist who made it possible for singers like me to carve out a career for themselves." Frank Sinatra, who readily acknowledged Holiday's influence on his own singing, put it simply: "With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single influence on me." In addition to "standing up for her individuality" and making a career for herself against incredible odds, including segregation and racism, Holiday, in Bridgewater's words, "went down fighting." (Excerpted from Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Houston Singer Jacqui Sutton brings "Un-Cross Talk" to MATCH, March 16 and 17

Houston singer and bandleader Jacqui Sutton premieres her new project "Un-Cross Talk: Jazz and Blues Slip n' Slide Together Houston Style" at MATCH, March 16 and 17. "Un-Cross Talk" is described as "a semi-theatrical, multi-media immersive musical experience that seeks to make urban and rural America talk 'with' one another, instead of 'across' from each other; hence the title 'Un-Cross Talk.'" Sutton is one of the 37 musicians I interview in my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. Here is the introduction to and an excerpt from that conversation.

Jacqui Sutton (Photo by Richard Tomcala)

When it comes to realizing one’s musical potential, a musician must cut his or her own path. The journey is never straightforward and certainly doesn’t unfold within the prescribed timeline of a four-year degree program. Interestingly, across all artistic disciplines, coming into one’s own is commonly described as “finding your own voice.”

The beginning of singer Jacqui Sutton’s musical journey can be traced back to the 1960s when she, along with her siblings and mother (“newly single, and pregnant with her sixth child”), relocated from Orlando, Florida, to Rochester, New York. At the end of the final decade of what author Isabel Wilkerson calls “America’s great migration,”65 over six million black citizens had relocated from the South to northern and western states. The 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education ruled “school districts must immediately terminate dual school systems based on race and operate only unitary school systems.”

Integration also found its way into popular music, in bands like Sly and the Family Stone, or the influence of the Beatles’ track “Eleanor Rigby” on Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” from his conceptual masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life. And like the Fab Four from Liverpool, Sutton explains that during this time, “I found myself drawn to experiences that were the opposite of my own.”67 You can hear what she’s talking about on her first album, Billie and Dolly, a tribute to two of her favorite singers and biggest influences, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. Her second album, Notes From the Frontier: A Musical Journey (That word again!), expands her repertoire to include Appalachian songs, classical composition, and jazz standards in inventive musical settings Sutton
describes as “a stylistic mash-up of jazz, bluegrass, and orchestral/chamber music.” Sutton’s singing is similarly multifaceted and sits comfortably in an ensemble that forgoes traditional jazz instrumentation to include banjo, cello, and hand percussion.

In addition to being just fun to listen to, Sutton’s conceptual approach to music making is part of a continuum of jazz as once described by the great Jelly Roll Morton as a music that uses ideas drawn from operas, symphonies, and overtures. Add Appalachian ballads, country music, and rural blues to that list and you get an idea of what Sutton and her band, the Frontier Jazz Orchestra, are able to pull off on record and in live performance. Finding one’s voice can mean finding the threads that tie together seemingly disparate influences in a way that transcends modern-day pastiche and resonates with a similarly diverse cross-section of listeners.

Here’s a quote from you I got from your biography. I’m taking it out of context. “In many ways, I feel grateful that I’ve discovered my voice now rather than when I was in my 20s. All those years languishing in oblivion forced me to respond to music in a more mature way.” Can you talk to me a little more about discovering your voice now as opposed to when you were in your 20s or right out of high school?

While I was going through it, I was incredibly frustrated. I didn’t think I would ever be a singer or put something together like the Frontier Jazz Orchestra. With the exception of studying flute as a kid—I had a very short career on the flute in elementary school—I didn’t study music. I didn’t study in high school, I didn’t study in college. I didn’t really start to study until I was like 23 or 24.

I have a low speaking voice. I auditioned for this vocal jazz ensemble called Jazz Mouth and I got in; I don’t know how! I still to this day don’t know how Molly Holm cast me in that jazz ensemble. But she said, “Okay, now you gotta study!” So I did, but I kept getting miscast as an alto, because of my speaking voice and because I didn’t know any better. I was always trying to sing as an alto, and doing that gave me a lot of bad habits. So after about 10 years of studying, I moved to New York in my mid-30s and found a voice teacher who said, “You are a soprano. Now we don’t know what kind of soprano. Yet. But you’re a soprano.” [laughs] So I had to retrain.

While I was singing, I was also an actor. I did classical theater, I did Shakespeare, and I did a lot of musical theater and experimental theater. Once I discovered acting, I said, “You know, acting is so much more rewarding and I’m frustrated with singing.” So I dropped singing and did acting for many years. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in the mid to late 90s that I took up voice again. And that was when I discovered I was a soprano.

After I moved here to Houston, I met my voice teacher, Cynthia Clayton. Cynthia sings with the Houston Grand Opera and she teaches as well. She’s a professor of vocal performance at the University of Houston. She got my voice to open up more. It wasn’t until I started studying with Cynthia that I enjoyed singing. Before then it was all terror. Something drove me to do it, but it was always terrifying, so I never had any confidence.

While studying with Cynthia, I released my first CD, Billie and Dolly.

So finding a teacher who understood your voice and how you should sing, did that coincide with you beginning to explore repertoire that includes both Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton? And did singing that material help you with the process of finding your voice?

That’s a good question. I think it was all kind of happening at the same time. I had been listening to jazz and bluegrass since I was in my early 20s. Both of the sounds had always been in my head. I think a lot of frustration I felt was because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into either. Each style seemed to have a specific vocal approach that I was not sure how to handle. So I didn’t really pursue it.

I will tell you that the songs I selected for Billie and Dolly were all songs I always liked personally. From Dolly Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” to “A Sleepin’ Bee.” “A Sleepin’ Bee” is a song that my teacher in New York tortured me with! I loved it so much but I didn’t have the chops to sing it. And when I finally got the chops to sing it, I said, “I want to do this song!” And it actually fit! It fit as a Frontier Jazz song. So my repertoire includes songs that I’ve been singing forever but had just been technically trying to master. Others are songs that I just emotionally connected with.

Is there a bridge, some commonalities between jazz and bluegrass that you use in your singing?

Absolutely. It is so integral to who I am. I mean, Frontier Jazz is saying “you all think you’re so different, but you have a voice together.”

First of all, they’re both uniquely American art forms. There is precedent for the two forms making out! [laughs] Making out musically! They’ve been on parallel tracks in my head for so long that I did not ever want to separate them. But I can tell you that people get very confused when I say I’m blending jazz and bluegrass together. One reviewer said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s curious on paper, but it makes total sense once you hear it.” And I think that’s what’s been part of the trajectory is getting people to understand that these two musical forms have a lot in common.

Jacqui Sutton and the Frontier Jazz Orchestra present "Un-Cross Talk" March 16-17 at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. 713-521-4533. matchouston.org

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Brief HERstory of Jazz: The Singers at The Jung Center of Houston, March 28, 7:30 p.m.

Tianna Hall (Photo by Pin Lim)

On Wednesday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. at The Jung Center of Houston, I will present a lecture with live music by jazz singer Tianna Hall. The lecture, titled A Brief HERstory of Jazz: The Singers. Here is the description of the event from The Jung Center of Houston website:

From Bessie Smith, to Billie Holiday, to Dee Dee Bridgewater, jazz singers have not only shaped the development of the music, but provided a “voice” for the expression of profound joy, righteous anger, and deep sorrow. In this dynamic lecture by writer and composer Chris Becker, with live music performed by Houston jazz singer Tianna Hall, we will consider what defines “jazz” singing, and explore the history and recorded legacy of several iconic female vocalists, including Holiday, one of the most influential singers of the 20th century, who made a career for herself against incredible odds, and Ella Fitzgerald, who singer Jane Monheit describes as “one of the true originators of the art form.”

This presentation is designed for both casual and seasoned jazz fans.

The cost is $20 / $15 for Jung Center members. You can register in advance by phone (713- 524-8253) or online.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mindi Abair Interview Excerpt

"I always went into musical situations with no chip on my shoulder . . . You hope that the color of your skin doesn't prevent you from getting a job or that being a man or woman doesn't. It does sometimes. . . . I can name some gigs I got because I am a woman, and some gigs I did not get because I am a woman.
"I do find that there are more women out there doing their thing because it's less odd now, you know? It's just more acceptable, which is beautiful. One day nobody's even going to think about it." (Excerpted from my interview with saxophonist Mindi Abair in Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.)

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers LIVE at Jazz Alley in Seattle performing Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child".

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Brief HERstory of Jazz at The Jung Center of Houston

Pianist, singer and composer Lillian Hardin

On Wednesday, June 28 at 7:30 p.m. at The Jung Center of Houston, I will present a lecture with live music by saxophonist Alisha Pattillo and pianist and singer Pamela York. My lecture, titled "A Brief HERstory of Jazz," will focus on three pioneering female jazz musicians: pianist, singer and composer Lillian Hardin, pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, and pianist, harpist and composer Alice Coltrane. Portions of my lecture will be include live musical accompaniment by Pattillo and York.

The cost is $20 / $15 for Jung Center members. You can register in advance by phone or online.

I am really looking forward to this, and very proud to be a part of The Jung Center of Houston's summer programming.

Here is a description of the lecture and performance from The Jung Center website:

"Discover the untold feminine past, present, and future of jazz in this revelatory lecture by musician and writer Chris Becker, author of Freedom of Expression: Interviews with Women in Jazz, with live music performed by Houston jazz artists Pamela York and saxophonist Alisha Pattillo. We will learn about the groundbreaking women who made crucial contributions to the development of jazz, from bandleader Lillian Hardin, who brought Louis Armstrong into the national spotlight, to pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, whose repertoire spans seven decades and nearly every style of jazz one can imagine. This engaging presentation is designed for both casual and seasoned jazz fans."

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Diane Schuur: A Life of Making Music in the Moment

Photo by Lani Garfield.

Interview with Diane Schuur by Chris Becker

Diane Schuur was just 22 when she relocated from her hometown of Seattle to Los Angeles, and then boldly auditioned for a spot on The Tonight Show. Born in 1953, Schuur had been gigging since the age of 10 (a recording of an eleven-year-old Schuur belting out a jaw-dropping rendition of “September in the Rain” appears on her 2008 album Some Other Time), and was gaining attention as a prodigiously talented vocalist. Though Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson was not unimpressed with Schuur who, despite being blind, played and sang with the musical sophistication of a woman twice her age, she didn’t get the gig. Schuur persevered, paying her dues and singing for audiences in clubs and festivals across Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. Her big break came in 1979 thanks to a show stopping performance of “Amazing Grace” at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and a subsequent backstage meeting with saxophonist Stan Getz, a transplanted New Yorker and one of the originators of West Coast jazz. Getz was blown away by Schuur's soulful voice and dramatic sense of delivery. He became a mentor to Schuur, and in 1982, invited her to be part of a star-studded performance at the White House, which included such jazz greats as Dizzy GillespieChick Corea and Jon Faddis, and was filmed for broadcast on PBS. Schuur's career skyrocketed; she went on to appear eleven times on The Tonight Show, and record 11 Billboard chart-topping albums for GRP Records, including the Grammy-award winning Diane Schuur & the Count Basie Orchestra, along with several recordings for Concord and Atlantic records. She continues to tour widely across the U.S., Europe and Asia, most recently in Italy and South Korea.

Schuur pays tribute to Getz, who died in 1991, as well as the late great Frank Sinatra on her most recent album, I Remember You. The musical, personal and spiritual connection between saxophonists and singers in jazz has always been profound, from Billie Holiday and Lester Young, to Getz and Astrud Gilberto, to Schuur and Ernie Watts. Los Angeles jazz fans will be able to witness that connection first hand when Watts and two of the city’s most in-demand players, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Kendall Kay, join Schuur for a special concert at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 28.

Like Sarah VaughnElla Fitzgerald and Dee Dee Bridgewater, Schuur is part of a lineage of American singers who learned the art of jazz primarily by ear and on the bandstand. (Though Schuur did study piano formally as a child at the Washington State School for the Blind.) When asked if there are any singers today who stand out for her, Schuur replies, “To be honest, I keep gravitating back to the old jazzers. Dinah WashingtonSarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson.” Those three singers in particular have had a profound influence on Schuur, and like them, she swings this music in a way that is pure and unforced. You can hear it in the way she tells a story when singing a song, be it George and Ira Gershwin’s freewheeling, Prohibition-era classic  “S’Wonderful,” or Jimmy Webb’s heartbreaking late-1960s ballad “Didn’t We.” Now 27 ½ years sober, and newly single after a long marriage to her soul mate Les "Rocket" Crockett, a former aerospace engineer who, at the time of this writing, is in hospice after a long battle with several health issues, Schuur sounds as good if not better than she ever has, and has no plans of stopping anytime soon.

In conversation, Schuur keeps her answers friendly, but succinct, and delights in occasionally disarming the interviewer with her bawdy sense of humor. And while she keeps her politics and certain aspects of her personal life close to her chest, she is happy to describe in detail the “wonderful ritual” of being at home in her desert “Deedle pad” in Cathedral City. California is the place where Schuur finds time to "live in the moment."

CHRIS BECKER: What kind of person were you when you auditioned for The Tonight Show back in 1975? How would you describe yourself?

DIANE SCHUUR: I was an ambitious little thing back then, and maybe somewhat naïve. I hadn’t been subjected to what the world could actually dish out. (laughs) But I definitely had a purpose in mind for doing those things. I was hoping the opportunity would bear fruit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the gig.

At the time, I was working at a place called The Etcetera Club. I’ve worked at the Hollywood Bowl several times, and of course the Catalina Bar and Grill. I did that gig for at least a decade. L.A.’s been good to me.

The Monterey Jazz Festival performances were very important gigs for you.

Oh, absolutely! I’ll never forget the first time I did Monterey. It was 1976 with drummer Ed Shaughnessy and his big band Energy Force, and we played in front of thousands and thousands of people. It was really quite and experience. I also performed as a solo pianist and singer at the festival. The last time I did Monterey I believe was in 1993 with The Count Basie Orchestra.

In 1979, Stan Getz came into your orbit. 

Yes, he did. He brought me to the White House in 1982 for the PBS special . . . that definitely changed my life in a lot of ways. But still, the myth persists of “the overnight sensation.” It doesn’t happen that fast. It takes a lot of gigs and a lot of work to reach a pinnacle.

What was Stan Getz like? You two formed a close friendship. 

He could be really charming . . . it just depended on the day and the mood and the substance, you know? Because back then he was still “practicing,” if you know what I mean, which I didn’t even know about until later. He could be very charming and everything, but on the other hand, there was that Jekyll and Hyde side of him. I didn’t know sometimes what to expect. But the point is, he taught me about delivering a song, and that you didn’t have to give it all away all in one note or all in one phrase. That singing a song is kind of a building process, and telling a story.

On the liner notes for I Remember You, you credit saxophonist Joel Frahm for being “your other voice.” Is there always a dialogue happening between a singer and saxophonist in performance?

Yes, definitely. There is a running dialogue happening, musically. The thing that comes to mind, and this may really sound far fetched, is the Close Encounters of a Third Kind dialogue between the musicians and the mother ship as it’s coming down. (laughs) I don’t know why that came to mind, but it did!

Well, in that film, the humans and aliens communicated through music! Tell me about Ernie Watts.

He was on The Tonight Show for decades. He’s just a wonderful arranger, composer and saxophonist. Not only is he a brilliant musician, he’s one of my dearest friends, just one of the coolest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to get to know.

So we’re talking about personality very different than Stan’s?

It’s like night and day. Watts is just such a cool cat, and very wise. When I’ve gone through things, he’s been a confidant for me to talk to.

As a singer, what do you want to hear from your bass player?

Support. Which is part of the function of a bass player. To give support or grounding to a musician or a singer. Bruce Letts is really good, and I love working with him as well.

In performance, the bass and drums are engaging in a musical conversation with you as well.

Yes. Maybe “support” is too general a word. Kendall Kay is very strong, and yet very sensitive. It’s wonderful to be able to have that combination, because there are a lot of musicians who have one or the other. It’s a little harder to find someone who has both, and he does.

As the singer, do you lead the band? 

Oh, no doubt! (laughs) I’ve got to man, or we fall apart! I’ve got to be the captain of the ship. And the musicians are my co-pilots, you know?

When you get in a room with Ernie, Bruce and Kendall, and you call up a song, do you have to give them any direction before you begin? Or do you just play? 

We pretty much just play. In fact, I’ll do that onstage, sometimes even with a tune we’ve never played before. (shouts) ‘How ‘bout we do this?’ ‘Okay, Deeds! Let’s do it!’ And we go right into it. And the audience really digs it, because they know it’s spontaneous. It’s loose and fun.

You trust each other enough to try something you haven’t done before.

Yeah, and most of the time, it’s pretty hip, because we’re all in the same musical universe.

Do you practice singing every day? 

No. I have a lesson every two weeks with a really wonderful vocal coach in New York. We do it by Skype. We’ve been doing this since July 2013, and it’s really helped my voice. As we age, things start to change, including the voice, which is just like any other part of the body. It’s a muscle that needs to be in tune and taken care of.

Do you do any sort of rituals to center yourself, after a gig or after a tour? 

I live in the desert, in the Palm Springs area. Cathedral City, which we lovingly call “Cat City.” I love it here. I’ve been living in California since ’96. If I do a gig in California, I’m able to come back to the dessert Deedle-pad, and the thing that I love to do is cuddle with my cat Puss-Puss. That’s very healing and wonderful and comforting. I wear these little prayer beads. They’re bracelets. Puss-Puss loves to grab them with her teeth and stretch them. It’s part of the wonderful ritual that goes on in my home life.

Is there anyone you particularly like to listen to for spiritual replenishment? 

Sure. There’s this wonderful album that Carlos Santana put out in 1975 called Illuminations, with Alice Coltrane and Dave Holland. It’s pretty amazing. Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way is a real spiritual album. Saxophonist Earl Bostic. I really love his work. And of course, Stevie Wonder. I have a collection of his stuff on my iPhone.

I think musicians are all part of an effort to enlighten and raise consciousness.

Absolutely. I feel very blessed I can do that. Music is part of the human experience. It’s part of the spiritual experience. Everything has a note. There’s not one thing that doesn’t have a note, including electricity. Even whoopee cushions have notes! (laughs)

I hope to keep on keepin’ on throughout the years, no matter what happens. I hope there’s always going to be a place for music. Politics can’t wipe it out. I really don’t think that’s going to happen. There would an absolute uproar, I’m sure. Let’s hope that music is part of the raising of consciousness that is happening, that the higher vibration will win out, despite all of the darkness.

Do you think about the future? Or do you just live in the moment?

Well, I try to live in the moment, but when you’re looking for gigs, you gotta think about the future. It’s a balancing act. I’m just grateful to still be able to do what I’m doing.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bayou City Book Festival

I am honored to be a part of this year's Bayou City Book Festival. The festival takes place April 3-8 at the various Lone Star College campuses. The festival's mission to create the venue for nationally and internationally known authors to speak to audiences about unique ideas, meet with attendees on an individual basis, provide free literary programming, promote diverse works of literature and their authors, and focus attention on literacy within the City of Houston.

I will be at one of the authors exhibiting at the festival on Saturday, April 8, at Lone Star College - Kingwood. Copies of my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz will be available for sale (I'll have a table at the Lone Star College Kingwood Art Gallery). I will also be part of a panel discussion titled "How Positive, Interactive Relationships Help Musicians and Artists Realize Their Potential." Pianist Pamela York and saxophonist Alisha Pattillo, who are each interviewed in my book, will also be a part of the panel.

Much more information, including a complete schedule for the festival and maps, is available on the Bayou City Book Festival website.