Sunday, January 17, 2016

Interview With Diane Schuur (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.")

Here is another excerpt from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. It's the introduction to and portion of my interview with Grammy award-winning singer and pianist Diane Schuur. Diane is the featured performer at this year's Trinity Jazz Festival, January 29-31. 

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is a collection of interviews with 37 women musicians from across the spectrum of jazz, including Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen and many, many other incredible artists. The book available for purchase from Amazon. You can also purchase the book locally at the Jung Center of Houston Bookstore, Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery, and Brazos Bookstore.

Diane Schuur. Photo by Lani Garfield.

While editing the transcript of this interview with singer and pianist Diane Schuur, I was intrigued to see that our conversation began and ended with references to rain. We begin by discussing a recording Schuur made when she was just 10 years old of the standard tune “September in the Rain,” which appears on her album Some Other Time. On that album, “September” is programmed as a coda to a selection of songs Schuur heard growing up and recorded as a tribute to her late mother. Blind from birth, Schuur was blessed with perfect pitch and a full, beautiful voice that belied her years. You can hear what I’m describing on that track, recorded at a Tacoma, Washington, Holiday Inn in 1964.
     Like many female jazz musicians of her generation, Schuur’s talent allowed her to begin a musical career at a very young age. As you’ll read in the interview, she began playing piano at the age of 3 and “was singing even earlier than that.” She hit the road immediately after high school, and has enjoyed a hugely successful career as an internationally loved vocalist, pianist, and ambassador for the art of big band performance. She recorded two Grammy Award-winning albums in the late 1980s, Timeless and Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra, both of which brought the big band sound into the mainstream, and are classics of the genre. The popularity of those records is all the more amazing given the fact that after World War II, big bands became less active in the U.S. as jazz transformed into music for listening while sitting, as opposed to dancing, and rock and roll emerged as the new sound of America’s youth.
     Schuur, known as “Deedles” to her friends, has also recorded plenty of mu¬sic outside of jazz repertoire, including classic country, blues (most notably with guitarist B.B. King), and popular songs. Her most recent recording at the time of this writing is a tribute to two mentors who were also good friends, saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Frank Sinatra. Everything Schuur sings is blessed with her inimitable and engaging style.
     I must admit, for reasons I can’t explain, I was a little intimidated at the prospect of talking to Schuur. But Schuur’s immediate enthusiasm for this project calmed my nerves and reaffirmed my belief that a book collection of interviews with women across the spectrum of jazz would be welcomed not just by fans of this music, but by the musicians who play it as well. As Schuur told me at the end of our first conversation for this book, “A book about women in jazz? That’s pretty fucking cool!”

I was just listening to the recording you made at the age of 10, singing “September in the Rain” [from the album Some Other Time]. Did you have any kind of formal voice lessons before that recording? 
No. I had voice training afterward. I went to the University of Puget Sound when I was 11 years old. Puget Sound is in the Pacific Northwest. That recording was pre-training for sure!

So as a child, you just started singing by ear to produce the voice we hear on that recording? 

You had such a big voice. Is that just a God-given thing? 
I think for the most part it is. A person can get coaching if they choose to. I did when I was 11 years old. I’m actually getting some coaching now because the voice does change as one gets older. I don’t have an old voice by any means, but placement has to be a little bit different than when you’re a little younger.

Were you also playing the piano at an early age? 
Oh, yeah. I started playing the piano at the age of 3, and I was singing even earlier than that.

You also attended the Washington State School for the Blind. Did that school provide formal music instruction for piano or your voice?
You’re right about the piano part of it. I actually started taking piano lessons when I was 7 at the Washington State School for the Blind. I went to that school from age 4 and a half to age 10 and a half, and then I went to public school.

Were you listening to a lot of jazz at age 10 or 11? 
Yes. That was the main focus. Dinah Washington in particular, Duke Ellington, George Shearing, and Nat King Cole, although I did get exposed to rock and roll, country music, and classical music as well. My mom really loved jazz, and I was exposed to it constantly.

You didn’t attend college, is that correct? 
Just the musical training that I got when I was 11, which was Puget Sound. But no, I did not go to college after high school.

So you headed out after high school to become a professional singer. 
Well, I was a professional musician from the age of 10. I was working up until I graduated from high school. I would come home from the school every weekend and work different places professionally. Once I graduated from high school I worked a lot in the Northwest. In the late 1970s, I started working in the Southwest; I moved to Tucson, Arizona, for a few years, then came back to the Northwest.

Was your family supportive of your career? Did they understand that you had this incredible talent and could make a living as a musician? 
Oh, absolutely! They took me to the Holiday Inn, where I did that recording you mentioned of “September in the Rain” when I was 10. They took me to a lot of other places subsequent to that. I was, I guess, the star of the family, and helped to bring extra money into the household.

At some point, you must have started learning about the business of music, how to make sure you get paid what you’re supposed to get paid for a gig or how to negotiate a contract. 
Oh, yeah.

When did you have to start taking control of the business side of making music? 
My father took care of the business up to a certain point, and then I went ahead and took control. I didn’t have what you would call a formal manager with a contract until the beginning of 1985. That’s when I met my first manager, Paul Cantor, who managed me for 17 and a half years. He was there for the height of my career with the Grammy awards and my appearances on American Bandstand, Solid Gold, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 11 times and once with Jay Leno. He’s [Paul Cantor] still alive today. He took the helm back then, and that’s when a lot of things happened.

Before that time period, before you had a manager, was there a sense of camaraderie among you and the musicians you were performing with? A feeling that we’re all musicians, we’re all in the same boat, and we need to look out for each other? 
There was camaraderie. I think I felt it most with the Count Basie Orchestra. Freddie Green, who was the guitarist with the orchestra, looked after me and kind of protected me in a way, and that was really cool.

Did you have any kind of mentorship early on in your career? 
George Shearing was a mentor when I was growing up, and later on, Stan Getz. There’s a man that I worked with named Overton Berry, who was a wonderful mentor. He’s a pianist in the Seattle area.
     Berry didn’t instruct me on piano. He took me around to various places around the North and Southwest and started introducing me. In 1975, I did the Monterey Jazz Festival and then a gig with his group at an art gallery the day after. And then we just worked together pretty regularly until 1981 or ‘82. Berry was one of my biggest mentors, not only on the musical front but on a very spiritual front as well. Just a very wise individual and a great guy. I can’t say enough about him.

Ray Charles once said: “When you’re blind, you become a soul reader. Everything a person says is a soul note. It comes straight outta their soul, so you read a person immediately.” Does this statement resonate with you? 
Oh, absolutely! Absolutely it does. I couldn’t agree more with what Brother Ray said, because it’s the truth. I think that’s what led me through all of the personal experiences that I went through, that ability to “soul read” people.

Not only musically and personally, but in business as well? 
Yes, it’s all interconnected. That’s my own belief. Maybe other people don’t share that, but it’s absolutely my own belief.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Interview With Dee Dee Bridgewater (Excerpted from "Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz.")

Here is another excerpt from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. It's the introduction to and just a small portion of my interview with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. The book is a collection of interviews with 37 women musicians from across the spectrum of jazz, including Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen and many, many other incredible artists.

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available for purchase from Amazon

There are, unfortunately, very few books that provide a comprehensive appraisal of the contributions of women to the art of jazz, so I appreciate your help with spreading the word about this project. 

Photo of Dee Dee Bridgewater by Mark Higashino.
The great jazz singer Billie Holiday possessed a certain genius at recasting the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical content of popular music. Dramatist, critic, and poet Amiri Baraka wrote that Holiday “. . . is never tied to ‘the given,’ either the form or the intended content,”40 and describes her as “the poet of jazz singing.” Despite being described as a “keeper of tradition,” Grammy and Tony Award-winning singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, like Holiday, has never been tied to “the given.” She too is a poet, griot, and historian, but she’s also a hell of an entertainer. 
     “I used to say I came from the Sammy Davis, Jr. school of music,” says Bridgewater. “Because when I was growing up, a lot of entertainers had to be able to do all of that, or they weren’t considered a full entertainer.” 
Like the iconic singers she grew up watching on television, singers such as Judy Garland, Diahann Carroll, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley, who reached millions of viewers on shows like the Perry Como Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Lawrence Welk Show, and the Grand Ole Opry, Bridgewater is a truly multifaceted artist, with a résumé that includes several theatrical and film roles. Bridgewater received a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in The Wiz and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for her immersive portrayal of Billie Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s musical Lady Day
     To say Bridgewater is “theatrical” in performance is an understatement. In fact, I’d go further and describe what she does as something closer to channel¬ing; Bridgewater establishes an almost psychic rapport with her audiences, all while directing her band with her voice, her eyes, and her body to create an experience more transcendent than mere “music theater.” 
     In an earlier conversation, when I asked her about her singing “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 song made famous by Holiday that describes, in graphic detail, the lynching of African Americans in the South, Bridgewater explained she let her audience dictate, in unspoken terms, whether or not to perform the song. 
     “I have to feel the audience,” she explained, “and see if they want to go there with me.” 
     There is great depth and variety to Bridgewater’s recorded output, including tributes to singers Ella Fitzgerald and Holiday, pianist Horace Silver, and composer Kurt Weill, as well as Red Earth: A Malian Journey, a project recorded in Mali with musicians from Senegal, Guinea, and other parts of West Africa, that had a profound impact on her singing. Bridgewater cites the great jazz singer Betty Carter for inspiring her to start her own recording label (DDB Productions) in order to maintain control over her creative output and the business of making art. Interestingly, like Bridgewater, several of the musicians interviewed in this book run their own record labels and handle much of their own PR and marketing. 
     “I decided my own music and my fate, my image, my everything,” says Bridgewater. “You need to own it, baby.” 

When did you first begin playing a musical instrument? 
I don’t play any musical instruments. I’ve always sung my entire life. At the age of 7, I announced to my parents that when I grew up I was going to be an internationally known and very-well-respected jazz singer! And there you go. I predicted my future without even knowing it. 
     When I was a child, I thought everybody listened to jazz because there was so much jazz music playing in my home. Both of my parents loved jazz music. My mother was more into jazz singers, while my father [Matthew Garrett] was a trumpet player who had taught music back in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born. I’ve always sung. Always. 

After you made that announcement, did some kind of formal music instruction begin for you? 
I’ve never had any formal musical training at all. None. I do not read music. I can’t write music. I’ve just always relied on my ears. 

You never had a voice instructor? 
Well, I did work with a vocal coach. When I was with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, I took a few lessons to learn how to breathe and project my voice. 
     After a tonsillectomy, when I was 26, 27, I had to take speech lessons and learn how to breathe again. I had enlarged tonsils up until that age and always had problems with laryngitis caused by infections in my tonsils. I had a very small wind passage for air to come through, and when my tonsils were re¬moved, all of a sudden I had this huge passage for air. But I couldn’t say words that started with “d” or “p” or “t.” So, once again, I had to go to a vocal coach to learn how to breathe again with this open airway that had been so constricted all my life. But I’ve never had anyone work with me to teach me how to sing. Never. 

Was some kind of music programming available to you in school? 
No. I’ve never had any musical training. 
     When I was a teenager, I put together a vocal trio. We modeled ourselves after the first vocal trios that were signed to [the record label] Motown in Detroit. We called ourselves the Iridescents. I had a girlfriend who played piano, and she and I wrote songs together for the three of us to sing. But that’s the closest I’ve come to any kind of training at all. I never had any kind of musical classes in school. Nothing. Zero. 

As a young woman, who were some of your role models for singing? 
My role models were drawn from people I heard on recordings. I was fascinated with a lot of different types of singers when I was young. My mother loved Johnny Mathis, so I heard a lot of Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte. I fell in love with Jimmy Scott. I was enamored with Nina Simone, and fascinated by her political stance and her pride in her African heritage. She was the first singer who made me think “maybe I have some African heritage.” 
     My first big idol was Nancy Wilson. She just decorated my walls when I was a teenager. I liked Lena Horne — I just thought she was so beautiful along with Nancy Wilson. I thought Diahann Carroll was a very beautiful woman; she was doing more singing back in the 60s and 70s before her acting career really took off. My mother, sister, and I were big Aretha Franklin fans. We would go to Aretha Franklin concerts together when I was a teenager. 
     I listened to black radio stations, so I could know what was going on. When I was like 9, 10, there was a radio station broadcasting out of Memphis that I could pick up after midnight that played a lot of blues. 
     My mother swears that I could scat before I could speak. She said I could scat with Ella Fitzgerald when I was 10 months old. And there must be some truth to that because I have always been able to scat. I never had to learn to scat. 

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz reviewed by Weekly Alibi

Robin Babb of Weekly Alibi recently wrote a review of my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. She writes:

"Each interview is in-depth and organic. Becker asks many of the same questions of each artist, but is also a lively conversationalist and draws unique long-form answers from his interviewees. He clearly knows the oeuvres of each musician and—as somebody with a musical background himself—knows about many of the challenges that these artists face. But he also knows the challenges that he hasn’t faced: He acknowledges his male perspective and his advantage. As Mindi Abair mentions in her interview, 'One day we won’t need a book called "Women in Jazz."' Until that day comes, I’m glad that we’ve got such a book."

You can read the entire review here. And you can read more of Robin's writing here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Interview With Drummer Sherrie Maricle (Excerpted from Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz)

What follows is the introduction to and a portion of my interview with drummer Sherrie Maricle, excerpted from my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. The book is a collection of interviews with 37 women musicians from across the spectrum of jazz, including Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Helen Sung, Anat Cohen and many, many other incredible artists.

Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz is available to purchase online from the ubiquitous Amazon, CreateSpace and the Jung Center of Houston. In Houston, TX, you can also pick up a copy at Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery.

The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. I appreciate everyone's support for this project, especially since there are very, very few books in-print that comprehensively examine the contributions of women to the art of jazz.

(Sherrie Maricle. Photo by Bill Westmoreland.) 

Growing up in the 1970s in Endicott, New York, drummer Sherrie Maricle saw several big bands in concert, including those led by Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, and [drummer] Buddy Rich. Hearing Rich was her first encounter with jazz drumming.
     “I really fell in love with the drums when a teacher took me to see Buddy Rich and his Killer Force Orchestra,” says Maricle. “When I saw that band, I got so excited . . . I ran home and told my mother I was going to play the drums— that I loved big band and I wanted to do that. And that’s all I ever wanted to do since I was 11 years old.”
     Starting in the 1940s, Buddy Rich’s big band was managed by legendary conductor, drummer, and manager Stanley Kay. Kay served as the band’s relief drummer as well, a scary position to be in, considering Rich’s virtuosic ferocity on the drums and reputation for being a tough taskmaster.
     In 1992, Kay contacted Maricle about forming an all-woman big band. She was intrigued, especially since he made it clear he had no interest in dressing the musicians “in leather skirts and fishnet stockings.” Before meeting Kay, Maricle had little interest in all-women musical projects, mainly because of the way they were traditionally marketed.
     “You can see in the film The Girls in the Band,” says Maricle, “that even if women were playing great, their cleavage, lipstick, hair, dresses, makeup, and high heels were more important than the music.”
     Together, Kay and Maricle founded the all-women big band The DIVA Jazz Orchestra, with Maricle as bandleader and drummer. Kay managed The DIVA Jazz Orchestra until his death in June 2010. In addition to The DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Maricle also leads the quintet FIVE PLAY and the DIVA Jazz Trio. The three all-women bands have released a total of 20 recordings, including The DIVA Jazz Orchestra’s A Swingin’ Life (2014), recorded live at Dizzy ’s Club Coca Cola in New York City, with guest vocalists Nancy Wilson and Marlena Shaw.
     In the following interview, Maricle describes her musical journey, from listening to big bands in grade school, to becoming one of the most highly respected drummers, bandleaders, and educators in jazz. Her many awards include the 2009 Mary Lou Williams-Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Alliance Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Arts, a Doctoral Fellowship from New York University, the 2006 New York City Music Educator’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Music Education, and New York University ’s “Music Teacher of the Year” in 1997 and 2000. Maricle completed a Master of Arts in Jazz Performance and Doctorate of Philosophy in Jazz Performance and Composition at New York University.
     Stanley Kay famously said, “Music has no gender. If you can play, you can play.” All-women music projects like The DIVA Jazz Orchestra and recent documentaries like the aforementioned The Girls in the Band have affirmed Kay ’s statement, and Maricle’s work as a drummer, bandleader, and educator continues to help frame this music as something other than a masculine-oriented art form.

When did you first begin playing a musical instrument? 
I was in fourth grade, and I wanted to play the trumpet, but I was told that girls didn’t play the trumpet, so the band teacher insisted that I play a metal clarinet, which I started playing, but I didn’t like at all. And I know I didn’t like the music teacher! I was attempting to quit and he called my house and begged me to stay in band. So I did, but I also started playing the cello, and I had a great teacher; his name was Ivan Briden. So I started those two instruments, clarinet and cello, at about the same time.
     When I was in sixth grade, the band director needed an extra person to play the bass drum for a piece featuring a lot of percussion, so I volunteered, and that ignited my endless love for percussion.

Did percussion speak to you in a different way than the clarinet or the cello? 
I always loved watching marching bands and drummers in a parade. But I really fell in love with the drums when a teacher took me to see [jazz drummer] Buddy Rich and his Killer Force Orchestra.            When I saw that band, I got so excited. I’d never really heard any jazz before. I ran home and told my mother I was going to play the drums — that I loved big band and I wanted to do that. And that’s all I ever wanted to do since I was 11 years old.

That’s wonderful you got to see Buddy Rich at such a young age.
I was born in Buffalo, but the town I grew up in was Endicott, New York. It’s in the middle of New York State on the southern border of Pennsylvania. Every “road” band traveled through town. I got to see Count Basie a number of times. Frank Sinatra came to town, also Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Mel Lewis, and Woody Herman. Road bands were still going strong in the 70s, and I saw all of them many times. It was a really great place to grow up!

Were your parents fans of this music? 
My mom loved and loves Irish music and country music, so I grew up every single morning listening to Johnny Cash or the Clancy Brothers. But my parents were definitely not jazz people. So I wasn’t really exposed to it until I was in school and had teachers and like-minded friends who were interested in jazz. That’s when I really started to investigate the music is a serious manner.

Was the next step to ask Mom and Dad to buy a drum kit for you? 
I did. I started out with a practice pad and shortly thereafter pleaded and begged my mom for a snare drum. She ended up at a local music store but she didn’t really know what a snare drum was. Unfortunately the music store owner sold her a half-broken, 12-inch tom-tom instead of a snare drum.      I was so grateful to her that I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was the wrong drum. So I kept it and practiced on that for a while. Eventually Mom got me my first drum set . . . gold sparkle . . . to which I added my “original” broken tom-tom.
     I’m sure my mother thought, “Oh, my daughter’s crazy! What’s happening here? There are no girl drummers. Maybe she’ll grow out of this phase.” But I give her a lot of credit for allowing me to [play drums] and spending her money that she didn’t really have on a drum kit. My mother was and is so generous!