Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview with Janet Lawson

As always it was quite incredible, I get in touch with another great person , a fabulous singer and a very kind woman ...
Let me introduce you another interview here in this strange , Jazzy , crazy , beloved Motel ...

Janet Lawson, GRAMMY®-nominated jazz vocalist and one of the founders of the Vocal Department at New School University, has forged the way for jazz singers to develop their full musicianship through her lauded "free-spirited" scat singing, live and in recordings with the Janet Lawson Quintet. She has performed in Europe -- London at the Jazz Café, Paris at the Duc des Lombards, Denmark with Butch Lacy´s Very Big Band, and Eastern Europe in Latvia and Lithuania at various jazz festivals and clubs -- and giving master classes at Universities and Jazz Camps throughout Europe, Lawson opens the door for jazz singers and instrumentalists to play together as partners in jazz. As she continues to recover from an illness that took away her voice, she has directed her creative energies into a forthcoming book, The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life, as well as a children´s story with original music about the history of jazz, "Grandma Sage and Her Magic Music Room," co-written with world-renowned composer and author Carman Moore. And she continues to foster the vision of jazz singing as "a musician´s expression with your voice as your axe." In support of this vision, noted jazz critic and journalist Stanley Crouch says, "Janet Lawson is a true musician ... up next to the musicians with whom she´s working on an equal level."

What are your musical tastes and how did they develop? Which musicians influenced you the most?

My musical tastes are eclectic. I grew up in a household of parents who were professional musicians – my mother was a singer/lyricist, my father was a drummer/pianist/composer. Their parents came from Eastern Europe – I heard that flavor of music as a little girl. The music of the day was big bands. My peers listened to what was called “race music” in Baltimore during the ‘50’s – LaVerne Baker, Fats Domino, Mickey and Sylvia, The Coasters, Elvis – I listened to the contemporary music of that time, classical music on the radio my parents played and also the records they played – Teddy Wilson, Peggy Lee – I was into Frank Sinatra a lot and sang the songs he sang with a big band that hired me when I was 15 years old until I was 19 and left for New York.

How did your musical career come about? I know that you sang with musicians of the calibre of Tommy Flanagan, Joe Newman, Barney Kessel, Milt Hinton, Ron Carter, Barry Harris, Dave Liebman, David and Lida Baker, Rufus Reid, Clark Terry, Billy Hart, Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins and Bob Dorough. I know that you had your début with Art Farmer.

When I arrived in New York in 1960, I took a secretarial job at Columbia Records and recorded demos on my lunch hour – leading me to gigs on the weekends – leading me to the people who were keeping jazz alive in New York. I was fortunate to be guided by Jules Colomby, who, with his brother, Harry, managed Thelonious Monk. It was through Jules, my first gig in New York City was at The Village Vanguard with Art Farmer and his group – Steve Kuhn-piano, Steve Swallow-bass, Pete LaRoca-drums.
Tell me something about the concept of the voice as an instrument.
When I listened to Frank Sinatra, I heard what the band was doing behind him and found those musical ideas fascinating. When I sang with the Bill Maisel big band in Baltimore for those 4 years, what the band was playing was exciting and called to my ears and my heart; I wanted to sing what they were playing – all I got to sing was one chorus and then I sat down. The instrumentalists played all the time. I call what I did “Letter D” singing: The arrangement had Letter A, the head, Letter B, the repeat of the head, Letter C, the modulation to the trumpet player’s solo, Letter D, modulation to the female singer’s key (after I sang that’s when I sat down), Letter E the out chorus. I heard the sounds of trumpets, saxes, trombones, piano, bass, drums, guitar and wanted to make music the way they did. It really called to me!
So, when I started improvising, I imitated all those instruments I’d heard and became them when I sang.

When did you arrive in New York? What was the atmosphere like ? What sensations?

I arrived in New York in 1960. New York was like everything I’d seen in the movies – foreign, intriguing, huge and small at the same time; it was a city I grew to know as if it were a small town. I typed for Temporary Agencies – in between touring in Central America, The Caribbean, Japan, Bangkok – I’d type, go sing in the Aruba Caribbean Hotel, come home and type and go out to sing again. Each time I typed it was in a different part of the City: The east side, west side, uptown, downtown – I felt as if New York was my home town. Everything was so much cheaper then, I was in the jazz clubs all the time, hearing Monk at The Five Spot, Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, Ella at Basin Street East. I was at the theatre just as much watching Jason Robards, Jr. in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Beyond the Fringe (British Satirical Comedy) the New Wave Film Directors - Truffaut, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard. It was a rich time in New York but you didn’t have to be rich to reap the benefits of all its gems.

I heard you for the first time with Dindi in 1977, which for me remains the best version of this Antonio Carlos Jobim song.
How did this version come about and why has it never been released on an LP?

This came about in a very strange way.

I went to the Village Vanguard one evening to hear the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and met their producer Sonny Lester. He’d heard my singing and wanted to produce me. But he wanted to put out a commercial record, me singing a pop tune. The rap was always, “Get famous this way first and then you can sing anything you want”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that!!! This was the first time, though. I was young and fell for it yet had the connection in my heart to the real music and insisted that on the flip side of the record I sang, Dindi with Sir Roland Hanna/piano, Richard Davis/bass, Mel Lewis/drums. The song I recorded for Lester starting moving up on the Country charts – but Dindi remains in the hearts of jazz purists – me included!

...And then to 1980 and the album “The Janet Lawson Quintet” and “So High”, I think this song is part of Dancefloor Jazz history. What can you tell me about this album?

We recorded this entire album in just 5 hours – mostly first takes – produced by Jack Perricone, who heard us performing around New York City and said he wanted to get our music out to a wider audience. He’s a song writer, a musician himself so his ears were attuned to what we were creating. He got us a studio on W. 23rd that was used for classical recordings – a big room, great Steinway piano, no small booths separating the band from each other. We recorded just like we played on our gigs – close and bouncing off each other.

So High was written by Diane Snow-Austin with whom I had created a musical about women Jazz musicians called, JASS IS A LADY, that was funded by the National Endowment of the Arts and produced in New York City by Playwrights Horizon. So High became a huge success in England as a dance tune and when I performed at The Jazz Café in London in the late 90’s and toured there, as well, So High was a requested part of our repertoire.
On the second album “Dreams can be” like on the first also, we notice your Skat style and the “freshness” of the songs, an unstoppable energy. How does this sound come about?

My scat style evolved by playing with the great musicians I had the honor to play with – to study on the gig with – or to actually study with – like Warne Marsh, the master tenor player, who taught me the way he taught his sax students. My studies included using my whole range on all the scales, employing patterns, improvising and writing down the ideas I sang, learning horn solos, all the things I now teach my Vocal Jazz Students at The New School University in New York. The energy comes from the life force of the music – of life, itself!

I know that you also teach in some music colleges such as the Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music, Indiana University at Bloomington, City Stages in Birmingham, Alabama, and the University of Calgary. Tell me about these masters.

As I said, I am presently Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz at The New School. I was Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz at New York University for five years until they cancelled their Vocal Jazz Program I have given Master Classes and performed at The Manhattan School of Music with my Quinte; Berklee College of Music with Bob Stoloff (now Chair of Vocal Dept.), and with Bob Dorough and Stephanie Nakasian and Hod O’Brien; Indiana University at Bloomington with David and Lida Baker; City Stages in Birmingham, Alabama with Barry Harris and Milt Hinton,
The University of Calgary with singer Vivianne Cardinal and the wonderful musicians from the area.
These master classes included: creating a safe, fun environment for singers to explore their musicianship, their connection to the instruments inside them. Having musical conversations with other singers, improvising with one instrument at a time (voice and bass, voice and drums, etc.), being the instruments by singing in the language of the instrument (articulation, tone, rhythms), feedback from performances, discussion of discoveries.
Towards the end of the 80's there was a rediscovery of the JLQ thanks to a few Dj's such as Gilles Peterson and of the rediscovery of Dancefloor Jazz. All of this relatively close to the period when you recorded the albums as opposed to other jazz artists rediscovered lets say by this movement. What do you think about this “second coming” of the group?
I am very grateful to Gilles Peterson and Seymour Nurse (DJ) and the manager of The Jazz Café, Adrian, for this “second coming” of the group. Seymour has followed the life of the JLQ for decades and in our talks described how the music has offered him deeply emotional experiences. Knowing this is a gift!

What are your plans and projects for the future?

My plans for the future are to recover from the illness that took out my voice (Lyme Disease and Bell’s Palsey) and prevented me from performing for several years. My producer, Jack Perricone and Legendary Jazz Critic, Ira Gitler (who also wrote the original liner notes for the Grammy Nominated Album, The Janet Lawson Quintet – calling it “Vox Instrumentum”), are working to connect with a record company to release the early works plus 4 cuts from a project we started in the late 90’s before my voice was hurt – a vocal tribute to Miles Davis.
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