My Father was a church musician, and all of us were given instruments to play and lessons. I don't remember a time before singing. I am told I was making up parts and harmonies to the hymns in church, but this is probably apocryphal information. But music was always a joy to me, and I did it because it was natural and made me happy.
I did not even know any professional musicians, other than my father. I did not play the pipe organ and did not want to lead a choir, so I didn't really consider singing professionally until I was leaving graduate school many years later. By then, I knew a lot of players in Chicago, had played enough gigs and seen enough to know that it was possible, if unlikely. So I decided then.
When I was in college, some cats down the hall were playing Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, people like that. It was just at the time that I was beginning to actively listen to things -- apart from classical music, which I was quite familiar with by then. It happened that I was able to start sitting in with small groups right just as soon as I started listening intently. Cats were kind, and audiences were always excited by my caterwauling. Very few singers on the scene (this was at Gustavus College in Minnesota) were attempting anything like scatting, so I was bringing a more unique and crowd-pleasing thing to the stand.
I did mostly choral work from grade through graduate school. I never went to music school, and never took many individual lessons for voice. Mostly, I have elaborated and extrapolated from choral work, and learned from recordings, on the stand, and at the occasional Q&A with other musicians. Mark Murphy laid some important information on me, as has Jon Hendricks. Most things I have absorbed by listening and watching and from hard work on my own.
I wish I had more of that music school information. I'll spend my life trying to catch up there. On the other hand, if I had gone there, and not to a good liberal arts college and not gone on to the University of Chicago for Divinity School, I doubt that I would be able to bring to bear the wider philosophical and literary awareness I have into the mix. Many times, students ask me where I get the ideas I do. Well, it's from having had a reasonably diverse and interesting intellectual career. I read a good deal, and try to stay current in the broader conversation. Also, one has to be curious about everything.
Mark is certainly the door through which I found out about the broadest range of Jazz singing possibilities. By this I mean that Mark distilled a great number of things which preceded him, and then showed how one could point them in the direction of his own new and original ideas. He recreated songbook classics and hipped up bop through his phrasing, arranging and unique vocal ingenuity. Mark shows us all that the singers' art is never done evolving. He showed how moving and dramatic an evening of Jazz singing could be. I also became aware of Kerouac and the whole Beat/Jazz connection through Mark. He has made a lifetime of innovative, truly great vocal Jazz records, and continues to innovate: I recommend Mark Murphy Sings Beauty and the Beast, Bop For Kerouac I and II, September Ballads, I'll Close My Eyes.
Jon Hendricks, of course, perfected the art of vocalese, which is the writing and performing of a lyric to a previously recorded instrumental solo. His brilliant work as a lyricist is unrivaled in this field for rhyming ingenuity and Mother Wit. His work leading the groundbreaking vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross cannot be underestimated. Jon is one of the all-time great improvising singers, and is the premier singing showman in Jazz. ANY Lambert, Hendricks and Ross side is a classic. What's more, Jon has made a number of solo records which are great. If you see Jon's name on it, it is important.
Frank Sinatra is THE example in swing and natural phrasing for all who are smart enough to know where to look. Never forget to listen to Big Frank. I especially love his live sides (At The Sands With The Count Basie & The Orchestra, Live in Paris, any live Rat Pack stuff)
While she lived, Betty Carter was the paragon of Jazz singer as total artist, total bandleader and total business manager-head. Her recording of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" from The Audience With Betty Carter is probably the most masterful modern reinvention of a standard ballad by a vocalist to have been recorded.
Al Jarreau at his best is as inspiring and swinging a singer as you are ever likely to hear. I listened to a lot of Al in college, and learned (or, tried to learn) most of his licks beat for beat. He is a great writer, too, and I continue to check out all of Al's stuff, because it has a tendency to be very human and very beautiful. His take on Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo" is a virtuoso statement beyond category.
Joe Williams brought a refinement and natural manliness to Blues-oriented Jazz singing which has gone unparalleled. His live, small group recording A Swingin' Night At Birdland (featuring Harry "Sweets" Edison) is among the hippest available. Digging him swing with the Basie Band on recordings is a necessary experience.
Ella Fitzgerald, of course, brought singer's sensibility to the improviser's art, making every line she ever sang sound like the most natural and necessary thing in the world. The genuine sweetness of her personality comes through in all her recordings.
Eddie Jefferson invented a new art form. Who gets to do that? Vocalese, the aforementioned art of transcribing an instrumental solo and then writing a lyric for it belongs to Eddie alone, and could only have happened with the advent of recorded sound. God bless Eddie and also the great King Pleasure for bringing this baby to the broader world.
Tony Bennett continues to knock audiences out with his willingness to give his whole self to every audience, holding nothing back. It is his great gift - to open his heart up so completely every night on every song. I loved Tony before it was cool. However, I must admit that his comeback records in small group settings with the Ralph Sharon Trio are his best.
Andy Bey = soulful and intelligent art of the highest order. Cat can make your dog weep. A great singer/player foolishly unheralded by the broader Jazz consortium. ANY Andy Bey record is a great record.
Have you heard of Nancy King? You should have. She is a marvelous, witty, liberated Jazz singer living in the Pacific Northwest and she is great. It is a crime that she has been offered no deal by the major labels. I tell you, she could make a lot of people very happy if they only could get a hold of her sides. Especially check out her duo records with my friend Glen Moore (from the super group Oregon.)
Don't forget my lovely friend Sheila Jordan. She's also a liberated Jazz singer of the finest kind. There a lot of lessons in freedom and wisdom to be learned from a Sheila Jordan set. Pick up anything of hers you can find.
I also listened to a lot of Chet Baker coming up. He is a great teacher of how few "extras" a great song needs to communicate with real depth. Chet was a master minimalist, and yet not one iota of emotive power is ever missing from his work. Though the work he did in his youth is the first most people think of when they think of Chet, I recommend Let's Get Lost, which he made in the year before his death (with McCoy Tyner doing magnificent work on piano).
Of course, none of this could have happened without Pops. Louis Armstrong pointed the way for all of us, infusing singing with his own complete instrumentalist's consciousness. He was a master musician and improviser on all levels. He was transparent to his audiences. Because of that, he became a friend to the world.
I would say accepting a gig playing for the door at Milt Trenier's, a basement club at Fairbanks & Ohio in Chicago. This was during graduate school, and it meant the beginning of not studying for school & instead boning up on the Jazz life. I did a gig there once a week on-and-off for two years or so, playing for the door & earning anywhere from 0 to 20 dollars a night. I played music with the house pianist, one Karl Johnson, who had led his own all-black USO big band back in the day and was one bad mother. He took me under his wing & showed me in conversation & on the stand what it might mean to be a professional Jazz musician. You can read about Karl further in the context of the second edition of the Guerilla Diaries on this site. I still bump into Karl every once in a while & am very glad every time I do.
I should specify a bit regarding my graduate studies. I was at the University of Chicago Divinity School reading the Philosophy of Religion, which is a specialized academic category of study which lies somewhere between theology and straight philosophy. I was not there to become a priest but an academic - a professor. That having been said, I was there to try to answer deep level questions of meaning that were gnawing at me. While these questions were not answered ultimately, as many of the most important cannot be until death, I did arrive at some satisfactory working answers.
It does seem to me that graduate school sharpened my mind, my analytic and my writing skills. It gave me the tools to root around in questions of meaning, and to read thick books. It wasn't my niche, ultimately, but it was an experience of deep exploration. It also gave me some big words to throw around. I am proud of the time I spent there, and still sit on the Divinity School's Visiting Committee.
Beyond that, any "influence" the prolonged discussion of metaphysical questions has had on my work is either self-evident in the work itself or is, frankly, irrelevant to public discussion of my current work. As Saul Bellow put it, "[the artist's] inwardness should be, deserves to be a secret about which nobody needs to get excited."
All of us in the band are of a mind to give the highest quality musical experience we can - to play and so to communicate to the best of our abilities. I want people to be surprised, to be moved, to laugh, to remember something important they may have forgotten. I want them to have what they need.
As I say, vocalese was invented by Eddie Jefferson, and is the writing and performing of a lyric which has been tailored to fit the lines of an instrumental solo from someone else's record. Eddie fell in love with Charlie Parker records. He listened to them so much that he memorized the solos and started singing them. Words and stories naturally started to occur to him when he heard the solos in his head, and he wrote them down & began a new career for himself performing them. His most famous lyric, written in 1946 to James Moody's solo on "I'm In The Mood For Love", was made famous by a King Pleasure (Clarence Beeks) hit recording of the lick in 1952.
The magnificent vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross brought the performance of vocalese to its zenith in the late 50's and early 60's with their interpretations of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Wardell Gray charts. Jon Hendricks is the acknowledged master of the writer's art, and has continued supplying the world with fantastic and astonishing creations to this day. Dave Lambert, who died some years ago, did most of the musical arranging for the original group (for three voices and rhythm section). Annie Ross, the third member of the trio, though not a full-time lyricist, wrote some of the most famous lyrics, including "Twisted" and "Jackie".
Of course, the most famous and accomplished group to have followed LHR has been The Manhattan Transfer. (From my own recordings, check out "Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?" from Close Your Eyes or "Night Dreamer" from Live in Chicago.)
Scatting, properly defined, is the art of composing a solo in the here-and-now, using whatever nonsense syllables the singer requires to do so. Ella Fitzgerald was famous for this, and has inspired many of today's aspiring and professional Jazz singers. The greatest living example of a Jazz-based improviser in this vein is Bobby McFerrin, who is the ultimate example of singer as musician. He is omnicompetent. (For an example of scatting from my own recordings, I suggest "My Love, Effendi" from This Time It's Love.)
"Ranting" is an informal term a friend of mine came up with for improvised melodies coupled with improvised lyrics. Sometimes there is no melody - just an improvised story or "open thought process". (Good examples of these on my own records are the open, middle section of "The Beauty of All Things" and the spoken section "The Messenger" from The Messenger.)
I was doing wedding band things at the same time as the Milt Trenier's gig and also after that. On these gigs, we'd be in the middle of "Isn't it Romantic" or something like that, and the leader would come up while I was singing and say in my ear, "Tell them that they're going to cut the cake now," or "five minutes to the bouquet toss". So instead of stopping singing, I'd just start making up the announcement in song, often trying to rhyme the lyrics and sometimes making up little stories to go with it, singing all the while over the changes.
Well, I was invited on the gig with the Ed Petersen Band at the Green Mill. We were hitting on some tune, and Ed leans into me and says, "Hey, man! You should do that thing you do on the wedding dates where you make up a story - that shit's cool, man!" So I just leapt out there - and out pops a pretty prolonged subconscious offering involving dream sequences and out of body trances and some past life stuff. Well! You can imagine the response that got - and you can imagine how thrilling it was to feel this other door open. So I ended up experimenting with that quite a bit in front of audiences, and they loved it. It was Jazz - even I never knew where it would go.
Of course, now that I'm married and finally have somebody to talk to at home who shares my life, then I don't have the same need to get subconscious stuff off my chest in public. My focus for the audience is more mature, more controlled, and has less to do with ad hoc therapy and more to do with art. It still leaps out sometimes - especially when there is another singer involved, a sparring partner, if you will. Get me together with Mark Murphy or the delicious Sheila Jordan or maybe the very swinging Nancy King and just you wait & dig the fireworks!
Things are very organic for me and for my collaborator, Laurence Hobgood. Often times, there is a year or more between studio dates. In that time, we will have been on the road, had a million experiences, and probably written some new songs, stories or lyrics in response. It's not like we go to a website and download a list of two hundred songs, have a few drinks and just go down the list - "yes - no - no - maybe" - things are much more organic than that. Usually, we have already been playing quite a few of the things which end up on a record with our band & trying them out on the road or at our home club in Chicago, The Green Mill. Either way, there is always more than enough organically available material in my head at any one time to fill a record. It is more a matter of choosing a conceptual and musical framework from which the different pieces can be displayed which is the challenge.
I have to say that Laurence is fully 1/2 of the equation for success in my/our career. He is a super-genius player - virtually omnipotent at the piano. He is gigantically gifted at hearing and composing melodies and harmonies. We've been working together since the first record, and it's clear that none of my records would have been as complete, intelligent and personal as they were without Laurence's invaluable input. Plus, we've been out on the road together now for almost ten years. So, at this point, the connection on stage is almost telepathic.
As far as writing goes, each case is unique. Sometimes, he'll bring something to me which he already has written a chart for - something he has written with my voice in his head. I have on occasion written a lyric long after the tune was written - as in the case with "A Prayer For Mr. Davis" (The Messenger). Laurence wrote the music just a few days after Miles' death and I didn't hear it until a few years later. Sometimes, as was the case with "Never Say Goodbye" (Close Your Eyes), I will have written something out. In this case, something I had played on a number of gigs with a different rhythm section. Then LH and I (and Rob Amster, our great bassist) got together and hipped up the changes and arranged it for the recording. Sometimes one of us will hear a groove or a line and we'll work on it together. Most of the time these days, Laurence is in charge of the musical heavy lifting and I do the words. We are focusing on our strengths. But we respect one another's judgments in all areas and always try to hear what the other one is going for.
Laurence claims that he remembers meeting me when I was still working for Affordable Movers, and was scamming a free meal at the Hyatt where he was playing piano. The first time we met in a musical setting was at the Mill, where Laurence was the regular pianist for the Ed Petersen band on Monday nights. I was the first singer ever (I think) to be invited to sit in for an evening as guest artist, and I think LH was a little shocked that the scrubby-faced mover he'd met the week before was now going to sit in for the evening. But then we played a set, and at least some of his fears were allayed. On the break we began a conversation about music which is ongoing.
Sing all the time. Develop your instrument - your voice - over time through practice and performance. Join a good choir and perform as much classical rep. as you can. Keep your eyes and ears open to what the instrumentalists do - both on and off the stand. Learn by watching respectfully first and try to get a sense of what s given situation is really asking for.
Many master class students seem to find improvisation a baffling problem - how do you practice, where do I go to find my own way of doing things, what did Kurt do to see and conceptualize the juxtapositions of word and note, of poem and lyric and song and band?
This is usually because they are in love with the idea of being a singer and are not in love primarily with the music, which answers all questions. Improvisation is nothing less than compositional thinking in front of people and in conversation with ideas other musicians are making. This cannot be learned without great struggle and discipline. When practicing, slow down to discover what you think sounds good in the music. Then you are consciously deciding what you like and it becomes yours.
As far as conceptual work beyond abstract music goes, I would say that one must live a full and creative life. Ideas come organically based on the imaginative input one has done by reading, seeing plays, falling in love, having long talks - and, most importantly, being alone and quiet for long enough periods so that one begins to hear one's own voice speaking and singing from within. There is no faking this and there are no short cuts.
If one is truly an artist, all questions answer themselves through hard work over time and you might never need to ask for a teacher.
Be prepared to work harder than anyone you know - not just as an artist, but also as a businessperson. No one is out there throwing recording contracts around. Even if you land one, you will have to struggle to make the best possible recording on a tiny budget, struggle to get it heard, struggle to get many critics to feel it is important enough to write about, struggle to keep your band together, struggle to get gigs, struggle to get TO the gigs . . . Do not be fooled. This is no easy life.
As with any art form, I feel strongly that people do not "choose" to be artists. They are chosen to be - they have no choice. If this is so for any person, then that person will do whatever work it takes, engage whatever discipline, and overcome any obstacles in life to become what they are called to be. Above all that person will believe in the work, will accept the difficulties, and will be rewarded by the creation of whatever they are called to make. To be a professional is to have already crossed the finish line; it is to have already won.