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Jay Clayton :: Listen to singers too!
by Eva Simontacchi, Milan, 12 June 2005
photo by Eva Simontacchi

"More than 20 years after [her debut recording] All Out, Clayton is still the most adventurous singer in jazz, a specialist in wordless improvisation who’s also expert in distending and finding new meanings in the melodies and lyrics of classic popular song".
Francis Davis, The Village Voice, July 14, 2004

Jay Clayton is an internationally acclaimed vocalist, composer, and educator, whose work boldly spans the terrain between jazz and new music. Clayton’s pioneering vocal explorations placed her at the forefront of the free jazz movement and loft scene in the 1970s, where she counted among the first singers to incorporate poetry and electronics into her improvisations. She formed a long-term association with renowned minimalist composer Steve Reich.

With more that 40 recordings to her credit, Clayton has appeared alongside such formidable artists as Muhal Richard Abrams, Kirk Nurock, Stanley Cowell, Lee Konitz, and Fred Hersch, as well as fellow vocalists Jeanne Lee, Norma Winstone, Urszula Dudziak, and Bobby McFerrin. Clayton currently records for Sunnyside and her most recent album, Brooklyn 2000, met with enthusiastic critical praise. Her many accomplishments include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, and Chamber Music America (2004). She has worked with thousands of students in the United States and across the globe.

Clayton taught at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington for 20 years. But she recently (2001) packed her bags (as well as many, many boxes) and returned to her spiritual home: New York City. “I was talking a walk and had an epiphany,” she says. “My kids were grown. I could travel and do master classes rather than keep the full professorship. And I really missed the energy of New York.”

Her task for the present is to revive the numerous collaborations on which her career has thrived and create new ones in the offing. Taking her cue from the great saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who recognized the importance of playing with many different musicians, Clayton loves performing in a wide variety of settings. The dialogue created with her talented band mates provides an awesome source of inspiration.

Clayton’s own performance dates appear under the heading the Jay Clayton Project, while she titles her work with other esteemed vocalists Different Voices. She co-leads a trio, Outskirts, with drummer Jerry Granelli and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, a fellow trailblazer in the realm of electronics. Her associations with both players have lasted 30 years. Clayton performs in multiple settings with pianist Kirk Nurock, in duos with guitarist Jack Wilkins and pianist Armen Donelian. Her other frequent collaborators include pianists Kirk Nurock, George Cables and Fritz Pauer, saxophonist Gary Thomas, bassist Mike Formanek, trombonist Ed Meister, and acclaimed tap dancer Brenda Bufalino. Clayton also revels in the demands of singing adventurous solo concerts.

A second generation Italian American, Jay Clayton was born Judith Colantone in Youngstown, Ohio in 1941. “My mother was a frustrated jazz singer from the big band era,” says Clayton. “She sang professionally when she was young, but there was no model for a married woman with children to have a career.” Young Judy began to pick up the standards she heard around the house and learned the accordion. She soon switched to piano and studied for several years. Her high school director encouraged her to go to music school and she spent the summer after graduation at the St. Louis Institute of Music.

The first in her family to attend college, Clayton enrolled in the music program at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio. She ultimately majored in education, considered a “safe” career for women. Of course, like many schools at the time, the only training available was classical. Behind the scenes, however, Clayton investigated the sounds of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. “We listened to seriously to jazz,” she explains. “I saw Coltrane at a tiny bar in Cincinnati. The way he connected every note – taking the melody and changing it ever so slightly, amplifying it or simplifying it – amazed me. And what Miles was doing was singing through the horn—it was the horn players who got inside my soul.”

Although she could not know what lay ahead, Clayton’s training proved fortuitous when she came to New York City in 1963, a time of unprecedented experimentation. While she supported herself with office work by day, Clayton explored this exhilarating new scene at night. She continued to study voice privately; Paul Bain, a folk singer and master of classical technique, worked with her for five years. She also forged a mentoring relationship with saxophonist Steve Lacy. Through him, Clayton began to understand that she need not chose between standards and free music, that she could be influenced by the tradition and yet not bounded by it. Lacy helped connect her with her peers: through his bassist Louis Worell, Clayton met trumpeter Marc Levin and, her future husband, drummer Frank Clayton. (Her earliest recorded improvisations can be heard on Levin’s Songs, Dances, and Prayers.)

As the jazz scene in the clubs ebbed with the burgeoning interest in rock’n’roll, lofts became important artist showcases. By 1967, Clayton and husband Frank were presenting Jazz at the Loft in their home on Lispenard Street, one of the first loft concert series. Sam Rivers, Cecil McBee, JoAnne Brackeen, Dave Liebman, Pete Yellin, Hal Galper, Jeanne Lee, Bob Moses, Jiunie Booth, John Gilmore, and Jane Getz were among the featured musicians. Clayton also began to earn her own reputation as an avant-garde singer, developing her personal wordless vocabulary.

In 1971, Clayton began leading her own workshops on vocal improvisation and exploration, as well as sound and movement workshops with Michelle Berne and Jeanne Lee. She performed with Muhal Richard Abrams at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, a project recorded as Spihumonesty (Black Saint 1979), with John Fischer’s Interface, and Byron Morris’s Unity. As an independent artist already used to creating her own events, Clayton acted as the artistic director for the first ever Women in Jazz Festival, produced by Cobi Narita in 1979. She served as a consultant for ABC Cable’s Women in Jazz, compiling footage for the series. The year 1980 saw the release of All Out, her first album as a leader, featuring Jane Ira Bloom, Harvie Swartz, Larry Karush, and Frank Clayton.

While her career in jazz began to blossom, Clayton simultaneously emerged on the new music scene. In 1971, minimalist composer Steve Reich was looking for a jazz singer with strong skills reading music. Clayton, whose loft was located conveniently around the corner from Reich’s, fit the bill. She would appear on his recordings of several seminal works including Drumming, Music for Eighteen Musicians, and Tehillim. (Many of these recordings have recently been reissued on Nonesuch). Clayton toured with Steve Reich and Musicians for more than ten years and continues to appear with the ensemble.

Clayton’s versatility would also lead her to make some of the first recordings of composer John Cage’s vocal music. Even though Cage was not particularly interested in having his works recorded at the time, he heard Clayton perform She’s Asleep. She would record it under the auspices of producer Heiner Stadler.

In 1982, Clayton left New York with her family to begin her professorship at Cornish College in Seattle, where she built the vocal jazz program. Although removed from the east coast jazz capital, Clayton found ready collaborators among her new faculty colleagues. With trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Jerry Granelli, she formed Quartett. Journalist Paul de Barros wrote of the group: “They push instantaneous group improvisation to the level it has always aspired to—mature, sonorous, interactive and driven by an understanding of form that is both logical and intuitive.”

Having trained singers using acapella groups for years in her teaching, Clayton would also envision an ensemble of master vocal improvisers. In 1982, she was invited to a vocal jazz forum in Germany led by noted European producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, to demonstrate what improvising voices could do. Vocal Summit, an international acapella ensemble, evolved from this meeting. At various times, its members included Urszula Dudiziak, Michele Hendricks, Jeanne Lee, Bobby McFerrin, Lauren Newton, Norma Winston, and Bob Stoloff. Although the group disbanded, Clayton sees potential for a revival with Dudziak, Hendricks, and Winstone, the personnel on their recording Conference of the Birds.

Over the course of her career, Jay Clayton has performed and recorded throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Since the 1990s, she has released several recordings including Live at Jazz Alley (ITM 1995), Beautiful Love (Sunnyside 1995), a duo record with renowned pianist Fred Hersch; Circle Dancing (Sunnyside 1997), and Brooklyn 2000 (Sunnyside 2001). She has appeared at such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Town Hall, Jazz Alley, The Kitchen, Sweet Rhythm, the Tin Palace, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at major European jazz festivals including North Sea, Montmartre, and Donaueschingen.

A master teacher, Clayton creates a classroom environment that allows the students to experience musical freedom and gives them the security create their own sound vocabularies. In addition to her tenure at Cornish College, Clayton taught for several semesters at New York’s City College, the Universität für Musik in Graz, Austria, and the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop. She developed the vocal program for the Banff Center, which she co-taught with fellow vocalist Sheila Jordan; Jordan, whom she met on the New York scene in the 1970s also counts as an early mentor. The two have also found further occasions to teach together at Vermont Jazz Workshop, Jazz in July (at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and on their own vocal retreat at Willow Lane Farm in Berne, NY. Clayton has brought her masterclasses to the Manhattan School of Music, Peabody Conservatory, Cologne, Berlin, Munich Her book, Sing Your Story: A Practial Guide for Learning and Teaching the Art of Jazz Singing, was published by Advance Music in 2001.
(bio by: Lara Pelligrenelli)


Eva Simontacchi: Jay, how did it all start? The music, and your singing, and the teaching?

Jay Clayton: Well, I always sang as a child. I always would sing a little bit, but I was shy. My mother was a singer but she never got to professionally sing because it was unaccepted. When she was singing the standards, she didn’t know they were standards, they thought it was pop music in the thirties. I know I heard her sing around the house, but for me, I would sing in school, I was in a choir, in the triple trio, you know, I loved music, I didn’t know why, but I just sang. I could sing.

When I was about seventeen, my cousin gave me three records: it was Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Ramsey Lewis. I remember that very, very clearly. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t know what the music was, but I loved it, absolutely loved it! As we speak I remember the house, I remember exactly when he gave me the records, isn’t this funny? And this we’re talking about, let me see, how many years ago? Fifty years ago. So what I did was I wanted to hear more, whatever it was. He said “This is Jazz”. So I joined the Columbia Record Club, and in those days for a penny they would send you a bunch of records. Then every month they would send you a record and you would have to pay for it, but at the very beginning they would send you about five or six records, and you had to check the category: pop or classical, etc. And of course I checked jazz. And that’s when I started to listen. Meanwhile, as I said, my mother used to sing around the house, but she sang “The nearness of You” or “Everything Happens To Me”, and so on.

I started to listen, but remember, when I was seventeen or eighteen, it was in the ‘50s, the middle of the ‘50s, and you could still go to a dance and they were going to play a standard.
So I remember actually that the first or second time I sat in, I can’t believe I had the nerve to say: “May I sit in?” and I sang “Moonlight In Vermont”. I remember it was with the whole band, and I just remember the sensation of singing on that microphone, and singing with this band, and at that time I even knew what a “bridge” was, I was so proud of myself! So I said: “I’m going to sing it, now I’ll come back in at the bridge....etc.” like I knew what I was talking about! So I do have those memories..... so I began to listen.

And then it turned out coincidentally that before I went to college – because I did decide to go to college, but I didn’t know what college was, I had no idea. Nobody went to college in my family up to then. I was one of the first. But meanwhile I had a girl-friend, and her boyfriend was a jazz bassist. Would you believe that? In Youngstown, Ohio.... When I look back, more much of a coincidence is that there wasn’t much jazz, but there was some jazz in Youngstown, Ohio. This friend’s boyfriend would play in these restaurants, and we would go and I would sit in. In other words, it all started sitting in! And he really knew the music! And so, that was the beginning of that!

And then I went away to school, to college, because I just had to get away from home! I had no idea what college was, really. People would come to our school and talk about the different colleges, and so I decided to go to this one. I knew I had to go to one in Ohio because it was not as expensive as out of state. And I had one girlfriend who said: “Let’s go to Miami University” (it’s in Ohio). Ok, so I applied, I got accepted, and next thing she decided she’s not going! So I went to college myself! Can you imagine? Me, I was so shy! I didn’t even know what it was, but I went anyway. So my parents drove me down, it was like about a five or six hour drive, which was far, it was far enough. I wanted to go far enough so that I wouldn’t be coming back every week-end. You see? I had to leave home.

So I went to college and I started to sing around the dormitory, like a meeting. In the dormitory they have a little meeting, and I would sing “Green Dolphin Steet” a cappella. Now that you asked, I have these remembrances... I remember doing our laundry down in the basement, and I remember we were down there, and I sang “My Funny Valentine” to my room-mate. Then, I had another room-mate and she was a classical music major. They put me in elementary education, I didn’t know you could study music, I had no idea! So she said to me. “Why don’t you change to music? Be a music major?” And I said: “Well, I don’t know what that might involve....” because I had taken piano, so I knew theory.

When I took piano as a little girl, my teacher made me take theory on Saturdays. When I say “made me” I wasn’t interested, but I learned the scales and the intervals... So she said: “Why don’t you go to Doctor Nelson...?” So I went to this Director of the Music and he changed me to Music Education, music major. Major in voice, minor in piano. Classical, all classical. There was no jazz.

Then the next thing I know, the same room-mate, Sally Workman, says: “You know what?” – there was a jazz musician on Campus, his name was John Watson, he was a trombonist, and he had been in the service for four years, and then he decided to come back to school, so he knew the jazz music. She said: “Why don’t you go and sing for John Watson? He’ll tell you if you can sing”. So I did. He played some piano, and I remember I sang “What’s New”, and maybe something else, I don’t know, and sure enough he had a little smile on his face, and - he had gigs on the weekends on college campus - he said: “Come and sit in”. And again, I remember exactly just like I’m talking to you, it was 1960, and I remember sitting in with “My Funny Valentine” at this little College Club with an electric piano, and everything, to this day. I was so nervous!

So then I started to sing with the band.... 10 dollars, you know... The piano player was a classical-basis who played jazz piano, and they taught me a lot. They had all these records. They told me about Mingus, they told me about Monk. I didn’t even know who Monk was! I didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was...So we listened. I was classically going to school, but on the weekends we would listen to music. So that was a pretty good education for me. And then when I graduated from college the band that I was working with got a job upstate New York and I waited at tables, I was a waitress, till 10 o’clock, and then after that I went to play with the band. It was really interesting! So I was deciding: “Where should I go? Should I move to New York? Should I move to California?” I knew I wasn’t going back to Ohio. I knew that. There wasn’t enough jazz there, and I already was hooked!

And I remember, I tell this story too because I discovered “Downbeat” and it was very hard to find “Downbeat” in Ohio, you know, some of these little towns... but that was my little link to jazz, and I got a “Downbeat” when I was in college, and I read about Sheila Jordan, in the “Downbeat”. I didn’t know who she was, and I remember that too, just like it was yesterday. I wish I would have saved that....

E.S.: You are talking about the “Downbeat Magazine”, are you?

J.C.: Yes. The “Downbeat Magazine”. And now, when you think about it, how many “Downbeats” is Sheila Jordan in? I mean, a few! There aren’t that many! And I found the one where they were talking about her, and I knew she was hip. I knew it. So when I got to New York I met some other musicians. I decided to move to New York, by the way. I graduated, and I had this gig in “Thousand Islands”, and I waited tables, I sang in the weekends, and then I went to New York! I only had a few hundred dollars, I don’t know how I did it, and I found a place with this singer from the college I went to, who found this apartment with two other girls.

Then I was looking for the music! And everybody was playing: Monk, Coltrane... everybody! Sonny Rollins, Mingus, John Coltrane, they were all playing. I was shy, but I had to go hear this music! And I was looking for somebody like.... my level, you know? I knew how to go see Monk, but what about who was I going to play with? I already had a repertoire because I had done my gigs in college. So, this is my short story.

The summer before I went back to school, I went to New York to visit, and I went to hear Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, they were playing all Monk. I went to hear them with my fellow band members from college, and I was so moved!
So when I moved back to New York, after a little while I said: “How am I going to find this music?” I looked in phone book, and I looked up Steve Lacy in the phone book.

E.S.: Oh, you did?

J.C.: Can you imagine the nerve of me? I can’t even believe it! I looked up.... it’s like looking up Miles Davis, you know! I looked it up, sure enough, Steve Lacy, and I call Steve Lacy: “Hello, my name is Jay Colantone, I just moved to New York, I’m a jazz singer” – I said: “I’m a green jazz singer, pretty green”, because I knew –“ I went to hear your music, it was so wonderful”. I said: “I’m sorry I’m calling you, but maybe you could help me. Just tell me where would I go to sit in, where people my age are”. I mean, he’s not that much older than me, but he was already established. And, I mean, he talked to me! I wish I had recorded it! And I know I talked to him several times. And then one time he said: “Well, look, I’m going to go hear Monk at the Five Spot. I’ll meet you there. In other words he was helping me how to go hear Monk without paying that big cover and everything because he knew where the jazz musicians could stay. In the Five Spot there was a bar, and behind the bar some jazz musicians would stand, and they didn’t have to pay. And I went with him. Isn’t that exciting? He just was so cool! I can’t remember.... I might have sat in with Steve once, but I did go hear him play. And at that time, he had his own band by then, he wasn’t playing all Monk, and there was a bass player, Louis Worrell. He’s no longer in New York now. Round the time of the Vietnam war there were a lot of concerts against the war in Vietnam, and Louis played with Marc Levin and Mark Levin is a brass player and he lives in Copenhagen now. He had a free group, he played free music, because this was in the ‘60s, so it was free music. I had never heard it, it was my first time. So he had this seven or eight piece band playing free music for a concert against the war in Vietnam and there was going to be a little trio with it too, so the trio would play, and then the bigger band. So Louis said to Mark Levin: “Why don’t you have a singer with the trio? Why don’t you invite Jay Colantone to sing with the trio?” So Mark Levin calls me up, and I sing with the trio, and the drummer is Frank Clayton. You see? And these guys are my age, exactly my age. We were in our twenties. They liked it and they lived in the lower east side, in this apartment, so they invited me to sessions, and I went over, just to do sessions. I lived in a loft, and I could play music and have sessions at my house and I would invite them. So I started to meet people of my age and go to sessions, and these guys of course knew what was going on, where to go for after-hours, and everything. And they became my friends, and eventually I married the drummer, but we were friends first. Then, we lived in a loft, and this before Soho, we found a loft, and it was cheap... Actually, I found it! I found it with a friend. And I wanted it because you could play music any time. There wasn’t even a kitchen, you had to put everything in there.

E.S.: What happened next?

J.C.: I’ll try to skip forward, now we’re in the 60s, and eventually Frank and I, we began to live together in my loft..... So where was I going to gig? I called the Villagegate, I remember calling the Top of the Gate.... “Who’s Jay Colantone? Nobody..... “, you know? I’ll never forget Art d’Lugoff, he said: “Why would I hire you? Nobody knows you! I mean, let’s face it” I just was eager to sing, so we just started giving concerts in the loft. We would present concerts right there. I had a piano, I had a sound system, we would make little flyers, and we presented concerts. We charged a little bit, and people like Sam Rivers, Jeanne Lee, Bob Moses, all these people sat, and were presented in the concerts! In other words, you have to sing! And where are you going to sing? So you make it up! I made up all my gigs, really. Then later on there was a little bar across the street from the Half-Note and somebody I knew who wasn’t even a musician said: “You know this bar is looking for music? They don’t even care what kind...” So I went down and I got the gig every week-end! It was like 75 dollars for the whole band, for the whole week-end, just piano and bass, and Frank, we were starting to see each other, we couldn’t have drums, but he was a drummer, he would come with this little snare drum and play....
In other words it was just like.... you go from one thing to the other, but I had to sing, I had to sing! But every week-end, and .... too nice! It was called Pookie’s Pub. And this is where I’m going to tell you a short story about Charlie Mingus. But, I mean, when I look back, it’s like: Ah! I didn’t know I was going to be a jazz singer! I mean, I was singing jazz, but it wasn’t like I wanted to get famous. I just was after the music!

Now I’m going to give you my little Mingus story.
So... I guess I was in my twenties and I was living in a loft. Actually, I had sublet my loft because I thought I was going to come to Europe. I said: “I’m going to Europe”, because everybody came here talking about Europe. Steve Lacey at that time had already come, but then he left, he came to Paris. So, I sublet the loft because I was going to go to Europe, and I said: “The only reason I won’t go to Europe is if I get a gig”. And sure enough, I got that gig! This little gig in a small little bar, every week-end, across the street from the Half-Note, where John Coltrane played all the time.
So I get this gig every week-end. And we’re talking about the time when there was that Cambodia whole thing, trouble. It was on a break, I remember and we’re doing this gig, and Charles Mingus walks in this little bar. I couldn’t believe it! He was walking around, he told later that he was just thinking about Cambodia and the whole trouble in the World, and he looked in this bar and there was a bass. And he thought: “What’s this bass doing in this little bar?” It was Pookie’s Pub. So he came in... Can you imagine? I was in my twenties... And he’s sitting at the bar, and I’m singing “Lush Life” or whatever.... And so, he’s talking to the owner. I only know this, I think from the owner. I did say “hello” to him, but, oh my, Charlie Mingus! Hardly anyone was in the bar, but who was I, I mean, Jay Colantone.... There was only a few people there. They told me he said he liked the way I sang “Lush Life”. Who knows? But then he told these guys: “I’ll put this place on the map!” Understand what I mean by that? He was going to help get people there. So guess what? He said “I’ll play here”. So the next week, it’s like – I have this somewhere – “Jay Colantone and Charles Mingus – No cover, no minimum”. Can you imagine?
And sure enough, the place was packed! I mean, it didn’t last so long.... he only played two tunes with me. I think I did “Cry Me A River”, I don’t know.... I swung something, but I don’t know. All I remember is Charles Mingus, and me singing! I mean... I’m just there asking: How do you get started in this? But the point was that every week my name was in this Village voice. Now that didn’t make me famous - don’t get me wrong – but somebody was seeing that all the time. And the musicians! I got to know the musicians, you know... I wish I could find it, but I think there were some students from NYU that videotaped that. I still never followed it, but somewhere there is a videotape of that. I better find it, because nobody remembers that.

Anyway, I’m just telling you that one step at the time I was just going on. See, what I would do was I would have sessions and things, and get these little gigs, and then every once in a while, just to see how I was doing with myself, I would go and sit in with some big thing. You know, I used to go and sit in with Jackie Byard, who was really, really a good guy, and Tony Scott, the clarinetist. Tony Scott had a session, Jackie Byard played – he had a session every Sunday in the East Village – I can’t remember the name of the place......... So every once in a while I got dressed up and I would go... To imagine I’m going to ask them - and a singer, you know? .... I remember De Johnnette would just move to town, he came ... and so, I would sit, and this Tony Scott, he was going to hit on me and the whole thing. He could never expect that I could sing anything. Why would he? I’m a singer, and I waited till 2 a.m. in the morning. But I sat in...And they were cool! They would ask me to sing. See, this is the thing: sitting in, especially for a singer was so scary! But I had to! For me, I had to find out how was I doing. Was I going to be able to do it and not get too afraid? Was I going to be able to play with them? And I was, and I did O.K.

But this is where I was telling that when I teach, I tell about counting off tempos (Jay snaps her fingers), I mean, I’m helping them, right? Well, I had to figure that out! That was one of the first places where I had to get up there, and count off tempo! So, that was very important to me because later Jackie Byerd might be some place else playing, and I would go in and he would ask me to sing... I mean, he was so nice, and even though I was younger, I was in my twenties...
So all I’m saying is I started to meet instrumentalists and I would gain their respect, but very slow. And I always had to wait, and wait, and wait to sing. But it made me know if I was able to do it, that’s all. I wasn’t going to get famous! Who cares what I was, who was I? Nobody was hearing me, really. And I did that one time too with Elvin Jones. This Pookie’s Pub, it actually did get on the map for a short while, in other words people did start to come more, and then they started to get names in there. So I quit the job after a while... Next thing I know, Elvin Jones is playing at this pub, playing with Billy Green on the piano. And I asked to sit in! I had the nerve to sit in. I’m just saying again: “Why did I do it?” Just to see if I could get up there and be myself with those giants and make some music. I did “Round Midnight”.

When I teach, I say: “You’ve got to learn by doing it! You’ve got to figure a way to do it! You have to get a gig, that’s it!” I mean, a real one too! It doesn’t mean if people are paying you much or anything, but you have to find a place to do it in order to get better, and you make it up!
In the ‘70s I made another one up. In the ‘70s, I had had kids by then, I got married, I had two children and now we were in Tribeca... You know that there’s Soho, and then there’s Tribeca, which is free. It didn’t have a name then. Every time it got a name we had to move, because it got expensive. When Soho got a name, all the rents went up, so we moved downtown, and then that got a name. But we were in Tribeca, and a block away, there was another little bar - Prescott’s, and I got the gig. I just said: “I’ve got to do something once a week”. I knew enough instrumentalists, and if they weren’t working, they wanted to do it, because it was good music, I mean, standards, but you really played. It wasn’t like a commercial gig. The cash register, he wanted a certain amount of money. He had a quota, like if he made, say 200 dollars that night, anything over 200 I would get. That’s how I got paid. And that’s where I met Jane Ira Bloom, the soprano saxophonist, she’s great. So I was just getting my repertoire, learning .... that’s where I was soloing, you see – because it was a bar, it wasn’t a high..... It was a concert, don’t worry, I treated it like that, but you could blow more, rather than say at a concert or restaurant or whatever.
Now we’re into the ’70s, and another big, big gig for me was Rashid Ali, the drummer. He had a space in Green Street, and he had a little Club, and I would play there six nights! I don’t even remember when you do six nights in a row|! How great is that by Saturday night, man? What’s happening by Saturday night? Well, that was another place where I could play with different horn players, a quintet, and do my thing. I’m trying to think about landmarks. Those were the gigs where I was getting to it.

In the ‘80s I moved out to Seattle. So I’m thinking decades now: ‘60s in my loft, all the free stuff was happening, and I was doing both. But first I would do free then I would do standards. It was in the ‘70s that it started to get together in my own concept, how do I do both in one set. I feel very lucky because I heard everybody: the free players, you just name them. Ornette , Bob Berg, who lived next door to me, Bob Moses, Jeanne Lee. There were a lot of musicians that were in the lofts so that you could play... But I’m just saying I’m lucky that I was there to hear all that. That’s getting in there, somehow. It wasn’t intended, you know.... When singers ask: “How do you do this? How do you do that?” Well, you keep listening and pretty soon you’re influenced by all that. Mingus and Eric Dolphy.... I loved that! I loved it! I was lucky to hear them live. You know, I didn’t decide to sing free music! I didn’t decide what I was going to sing. It just happened. It grew. I didn’t say. “Well, I want to do this”. That’s what I try to tell young musicians: just follow the music you love, and it will get developed, it will bloom.

Each decade there was something else happening, there was a “Sweet Basil”, which is now “Sweet Rhythm”. I did work there at the beginning, but I never got big enough to do any of the real big Clubs. I still don’t do the big Clubs. I do the standards, you know, the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard. It’s not about that, I just wanted to follow the music.

In the ‘70s I met Cobi Narita of the Universal Jazz Coalition, and she presented things, and she got me this gig, another one, every week-end, in Lower East Side, it was a big restaurant. I had to dress up, and I could play with whoever I wanted. I played with Cecil McBee, John Abercrombie, whoever was available! I knew them. Trio again.

Here’s a funny story: this is in the ‘70s now, and I’ve got this gig, and who walks in? Tony Scott. And he sits in with me! Can you imagine? This is Tony Scott who I sat in with when I was just starting off.... and he comes in to sit in with me!

Anyway, another person who came was Muhal Richard Abrams. He was a free piano player, very famous. He’s like Chicago Art Ensemble, that whole movement, that whole free thing....And he was so cool! I mean, I was mostly doing the standards, but you know, I do my thing no matter what. So, about a few months later (and I am quite depressed now, I mean you go through really depressed times because I’m still like not making any money here! So that’s what I’m saying: I’m singing from ’63 and now it’s like the late ‘70s, I’m teaching, doing office work.... And I remember being very depressed: “What am I going to do?” I had two kids by then. I remember lying in the bed, and I get a phone call.... And it’s Muhal Richard Abrams. He wants me to do a concert with him at the Joseph Pap Theatre, which is a big place in the Village where they had theatre but after the play was over they had new jazz, at eleven o’clock. And Muhal Richard Abrams, with George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Chico Freeman, J.D. Parrin..... he wants me to do this concert with him! And this was the big perk! So I was saying, every once in a while you get a perk.... Because I was ready to quit with singing.... And then we recorded, so there is a record. It’s called “Spihumonesty” Spirit Human Honesty, he put it together. Any time something like that would happen, it would just motivate me to stick with it. Sure, it even got my name out there a little bit. Of course....
My intention was not to get famous. There’s nothing wrong with that, I love that you know who I am, I wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t.... Right? That’s wonderful because you know my music. But I also knew that you have to get a certain credibility and a certain visibility in order to work with certain people. In order to work in certain places, if you’re only nobody, you’re not going to get that. So it’s not like you want to work for the place, but who I want to work with. I want to be able to hire certain people who I know. I’m lucky because through the years I stuck it out and there are these very good musicians George Cables, even Gary Bartz, he recorded with me, who respect me that they would do it with me. They’re not doing it for the money in that case, believe me, because I didn’t pay them that much. But the more you want to sing, the more you have to get some kind of credibility and visibility. And you get better too! You do better work with better musicians! You get better! So that’s it. That’s my story. That’s not so much, but I guess to sell anything, is to say just stick to what you love and just keep doing it.
And then in the ’80s I was invited to teach out in Seattle Washington, and I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to move from new York. But you know, at that point I was getting a little down again. At some point you get tired tired of being so poor all the time and you get tired of the race, you get tired of worrying about the gigs. So you just get tired, and I needed that change, and they invited me and I said no at first, but I went out to do a workshop and I decided to take it, because I would never stop singing because there was music out there. And Julien Priester he’s still out there, Gary Peacock was on the faculty, Jerry Granelli, Art Lande. I wouldn’t just go to teach any place. I knew that I would be able to make music. But I needed a break. I went out there in 1982, and moved there for a while, and I needed that break. I did concerts, of course, I taught, I started that program, but for once in my life for a while every month there was a little cheque. And I wrote some music out there, too! But you know, life changes.... and I ended up staying there 20 years! But I was still traveling. By that time I already had Vocal Summit in the calendar. It’s interesting how that worked out. I was invited to come to the first meeting here in 1981 to come in 1982, so when I got the invitation to come I already knew I was moving, and I told them I was moving. So by the time I did the gig, I was in Seattle. So from 1982, and in the ‘90s, I was doing the touring with Vocal Summit. So, I had a way out, because I would never want to live in Seattle, Washington without traveling. So I had another thing going there: I had these people to work with, I did “Circle Dancing”, those were all good musicians out there, I wrote some music down there, and my kids were young enough, I didn’t want them to be in New York, you know, teenagers, and I think it was the right thing. Now, some people would say – and I think some people have said – if I didn’t leave New York , then maybe I would be further more famous. But I don’t care. That isn’t the most important thing. I wasn’t forgotten, I still was touring. But I know that maybe, if I’d stayed in New York, maybe I could get a little more visibility. But.... life before art. At that time that’s the way it was supposed to be. And I still did my music! I would not stay there if I couldn’t do my music and if I couldn’t develop my music. There is a jazz circuit there: there’s Jazz Alley... So it wasn’t like my music stopped, anyway. But.... I needed a little break from New York City, until five or six years ago , when I started going back to New York for longer periods. Instead of just going back for a concert I went back and stayed for two weeks, then for a whole month. One time I stayed a whole Summer. And I knew it was time, because I have a lot of people with whom I work there... So I made up my mind to quit my professorship and quit my job. So I did, and I’m not sorry. I told them, I taught one more semester, and moved back. I’m going to keep singing until the money runs out! You know that joke on the jazz musicians that win a lot of money, and they say: “Oh, I’m going to keep playing until I run out of money!” (she giggles)
But I’m not sorry, it was the right time to leave Seattle and to be in New York because a lot of things are happening for me now. I have my collaborations and I’m coming here more because psychologically I feel closer – new York is closer than Seattle – it’s just an airplane trip, but from Seattle it seemed very far. I would think to come here for like a week when I lived in Seattle. But now I could come here for a week, no big deal! I just get on the plane for six hours. And plus, if you don’t have the obligation of a school, then you don’t mind. You are free to leave. You know, when I taught, every semester I left for some tour, but I still felt responsibility.... So you don’t create work, but in free lance, I just leave. I just make it up.

E.S.: What about your plans?

J.C.: Well, I’m working on the project with Kurt Newrock with the Emily Dickinson , or just duo piano and voice because we worked together about thirty-five years ago, because then I moved, but nothing never really came out, we would go in recording studios, there’s so many things recorded! So now we’re getting together every weekend, we’ve got this material, so I don’t know for who, but that’s got to be recorded. My solo material. I also collaborate with tap dancer Brenda Bufalino.

E.S.: What about Vocal Summit?

J.C.: Vocal Summit is not high on the list, but Vocal Summit should live again, but not with that management, and i don’t have management. But if we recorded, we all would be into it: Norma Winstone, Michele Hendricks and Ursula Dudziak would do it. But we all live in different places, so that’s down the list, it’s not top....
Then I have my own vocal music, my poetry with electronics, I have Gary Thomas, I want to do something with Gary Thomas, Anthony Cox and Granelli, and I could easily do something, because we worked together in different situations and they know each other. That would be very important.
Then I have a duo with Jack Wilkins, guitar. We’ve been doing standards for years, so that really needs to be recorded.
The next thing is that I just got this chamber music america grant to do a piece for Jane Ira Bloom, sax, Jerry Gunnelli and me. We have a trio called “Outskirts”, where we all use electronics. So I made this piece, there’s not very much writing, but I structured a free piece for us, and of course this is so compatible, we honestly play together so well.... In other words, there’s not that many people you would just say: “Let’s just play”.... Not many people. But we could do that, so that should be a recording.
And there’s another trio with Fritz Power and Ed Newmeister, and I have a trio with them, and I would love to get them around, because they’re in Europe already. We did record, but we put it out ourselves, and I have to give it to you. It’s called “Three For The Road” and we did it in Vienna when I was teaching with them. Mostly it’s free improvisation.

E.S.: What suggestions would you give to voice students and singers?

J.C.: You can go to school for ten years, and if you don’t listen to the music, you still will be missing something. You will be able to play, but not that great. Not necessarily. Or, you can not go to school, and if you keep listening to the music, you can still learn everything. So, I’m very serious about that, and I really feel that one thing about singers is that you must remember: Keep learning the language. Listen to everything instrumentalists listen to. And I’ll say to the instrumentalists: Listen to singers too! It goes both ways, but the listening is not optional. Listening is the most important thing. I give you a lot of things to do when I teach, but it won’t work without the listening. You learn this music by osmosis. And the people who are less experienced learn from the people who are more experienced. And we all have somebody more experienced in our lives to learn from.

When I say that we all have people more experienced than we are: a good example is me and Sheila Jordan, because Sheila Jordan has always been an inspiration to me and I’m still learning from her, even though we work side by side, and she considers me a friend, she’s always encouraging me but I’m learning a lot from her. We teach together, she respects me, but she is Sheila Jordan, and I still learn from her; continually learn about life, and space, and honesty........ so that’s the example of the lineage.

published 29.09.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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