Ann Hampton Callaway: Honoring the Song

Roseanna Vitro interviews singer about her approach to singing, songwriting and performance

Ann Hampton Callaway resides in a class by herself. She is a rare vocalist with extraordinary wit, tone and range, an artist in complete command of her instrument. She is a composer, and a pianist, and a natural performer. Her stage presence is matched by few.

To my ears, Ann has never sounded better than she does right now. For years now she has been fulfilling the potential and promise so many of us witnessed during her salad days on the New York club circuit. She continues to challenge herself with distinguished presentations covering a wide spectrum of popular musics - programs built around Broadway shows, or orchestras, or homages to the likes of Barbra Streisand or Sarah Vaughan. Ann has the unique ability to transcend genres or categories, seamlessly navigating through the great American Songbook, including its bedrock material as well as tunes deemed future shoo-ins.

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Ann Hampton Callaway

How to define her: Is she cabaret or is she jazz? No matter, really, whatever labels you apply, Ann Hampton Callaway knows how to sell a song. She’s one of my favorite singers.

Roseanna Vitro: Ann, I understand that your mother is an excellent voice coach, Ms. Shirley Callaway. Did you and your sister Liz receive voice coaching at an early age?

Ann Hampton Callaway: My mom taught us by example from the get go. We were always hearing her singing, playing and working with singers. We absorbed so much from her example and from her articulated wisdom. She has coached us in times of need through the years but the bulk of my vocal training was with other teachers—Dora Lindgren and Nick Di Virgilio, two stellar opera singers who gave me my strong foundation.

RV: When did you realize you wanted to be a singer?

AHC: It¹s funny, I never thought about wanting to be a singer; I AM a singer and always have been. I didn’t know I had special abilities or a special voice for some time. But I always sang and loved singing and knew that it would be a part of my life.


RV: How old were you when you began your piano studies? Do you play any other instruments?

AHC: My piano studies were very sporadic; at the age of ten, I studied with a rather intimidating and unkind teacher, one year at the age 16, with a brilliant French pianist and one year before I moved to NY, with the wonderful Alan Swain from Chicago, who had developed a splendid way of teaching jazz piano. I play a little guitar and some percussion as well.

RV: You always appear calm and focused. Do you meditate? And do you have a specific practice regimen?

AHC: I have been a follower of yoga and Eastern philosophy since I was 12 years old. In 1991 my search for a living spiritual teacher was fulfilled by meeting Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. I have continued my studies in Siddha Yoga to this day. She is a realized master and her teachings have transformed my life in countless ways. I do not yet have a daily mediation practice exactly, but each day I approach everything I do with a sense of focus and meditation and strong intentions. I live by the creed as stated by the French poet Andre Gide; “Art is the collaboration between God and the artist and the less the artist does, the better.”

RV: I've always enjoyed your spontaneity in the end of your shows, when you ask the audience to yell out words and then you use them to make up a song on the spot. What inspired you to take this chance?

AHC: My mind is a playground and I have always been interested in the utmost freedom of thought. When I was a young girl, I read Bob Dylan's novel Tarantula and was fascinated by his automatic writing. I started doing this sort of writing in my journals over the years, which freed up my intuition. In the beginning days of my career in NY as a singer/ pianist when people were talking and it was painful for me to sing above the crowd, I started doing all kinds of playful things to involve my audiences in the music. Doing improvisations began in the mid 80¹s and after so many years of honing this craft, I fearlessly and joyfully can create songs on the spot anywhere at anytime for anyone- even in symphony halls with full orchestras! It is the ultimate jazz moment- utter liberation and risking it all without a net.

RV: For years you have been embraced as a cabaret singer of the Great American Songbook. What inspired you to move more into songs such as “All Blues" and "Spain” from the instrumental jazz book?

AHC: Ironically, I have been a jazz lover since I was three. My dad had a huge jazz collection and the singers and instrumentalists I was most drawn to were from the jazz world. I started scat singing before I could spell so this is nothing new to me. But my opportunities as a singer were limited. When I started out there were few jazz venues for newcomers, but I was able to make a career in the beginning in piano bars and cabarets without having to take on a day job. I always scatted and always featured swing in my performances. But when I finally made enough money to be able to afford to pay wonderful jazz artists to play with me, then the full blossoming of my jazz language was able to better unfold. George Shearing discovered me in a cabaret room in the theater district and told me to focus on jazz more—what a great encouragement he gave me to make a fuller leap.

I have always approached whatever style of music I am singing as an actress and a musician. This gives me a unique quality in jazz I think, because it is vital to me to be living the lyrics and the moment in the song as if the events are happening for the first time moment to moment. There are so many strains of jazz. I am a serious musician but I am also a bit of a comedienne and love to entertain my audiences. Satchmo did this as well as the great, late James Moody and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Purists do not always welcome expansive personalities in jazz but I think these rules were made to be broken. You have to be yourself. I am a pop-jazz singer and the threads of other influences I weave into jazz performances give a unique energy to my music and hopefully this vibrant scene. Those two songs you mentioned were pieces I've loved since I was young and enjoy sharing their musical elegance with music lovers of all tastes in music.

RV: Do you have specific practice exercises you use to work on your scat singing? Today’s growing vocal jazz community do not always agree whether to practice intervals using numbers (1,3,5,7 etc.) or solfege (moveable or stationary).

AHC: I have always sung scat naturally. I¹ve never worked on it in any overly scholastic way. As a musician, I understand the harmonies that melodies can be improvised to and I enjoy growing each year more daring in diving into these musical discussions. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and so many other masters from the singing and instrumental world, exposed me to an amazing vocabulary from which to draw my own instincts and expression. I salute anyone who can help singers enjoy this wonderful art form and each of the tools you mention can be helpful. I don¹t think you have to sing scat to be a jazz singer. But I¹d like to see everyone try his or her hand at it. It's like tap dancing with your voice!

RV: Your compositions are lovely. When did you start to compose music and write lyrics? Do you have a list of your compositions on your website?

AHC: I remember the first song I made up when I was three. It was a little nonsense jingle but I still remember the melody and the words so maybe that is a sign that TV themes were in my future! When I was ten I was given a guitar for Christmas and I started making up songs. I started keeping a journal around then as well and I read poetry nonstop. After getting Carole King's Tapestry album and Joni Mitchell's Blue a few years later, that was the definitive turning point. I knew then that I wanted to be a songwriter. I began writing full-fledged songs; trying to learn craft from the writers I loved and express my heart and imagination. Unfortunately, there is no complete database for my songs. I have not properly copyrighted or published many of my songs because I am so busy, but a nice sampling is available on my website. Also, titles are available on the ASCAP website.

RV: Is there any specific wisdom you would like to pass on to aspiring performers and jazz singers?

AHC: I could write a book on the topic and maybe I will. If you are called to be a jazz singer, know that it is an amazing honor and adventure. You must dedicate yourself to becoming a true musician, learning the crafts of vocal technique, swing, harmonics, rhythmic expressiveness and improvisation. You must learn how to read lyrics and invest your imagination in them to be able to fully inhabit the moment of a song, drawing from memory, empathy, and all the emotional tools you have. You must be fearless in following your instincts and steadfast in learning from everything around you, good and bad. Listen to the greatest singers and instrumentalists to develop a vocabulary of choices.

When things seem false to you or don’t musically work, try to understand why. Learn a song—words and music—as it was written and THEN start to dig into the message and the musical possibilities to find something fresh and original that speaks your soul and honors the song. Know that singers are messengers and that love is the source of all art. So open your heart so you can be a lover, someone with something uplifting to give. If you want to reach other people¹s hearts, sing from your own. Develop your craft and your -ART to the best of your ability and then get yourself out there and work with people, jam, audition, put sets together, record, volunteer anything you can do to sing and work at music. When you feel you are ready, start to use the networking tools that are available—websites, demos, DVDs, business cards and resumes, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Go to hear singers and musicians and meet them after if possible.

Share ideas and your music. No matter how many obstacles you face, don¹t give up. Learn from people who succeed and people who struggle. Always be supportive of others and surround yourself with supportive people. The scarcity mentality is no help. The world needs as many wonderful singers as possible to heal and bring beauty and heart back to this planet. Know that you are an important part of that. Have faith that you will find your place. There is only one Ella, one Billie Holiday and there is only one you. You are enough. You don’t have to be a better you. Just be the best you that you can be in each moment. Believe in your uniqueness. No one has ever had your life. Tell your story; share your thoughts, experiences, feelings with as much joy and honesty as possible. When you take the stage, be an owner, not a renter. You are who you are so enjoy it, whatever stage you are at. I wish every person who is reading this grace and inspiration for their dreams and talents to unfold to their greatest potential.

RV: Who are your favorite singers and why?

AHC: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, Blossom Dearie, Joao Gilberto, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Dianne Reeves, Karrin Allyson, Eva Cassidy, my sister Liz Callaway, and my many brilliant peers like you, Roseanna, for each has learned how to bring truth and beauty to this strangely out of tune world.

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For more information about Ann Hampton Callaway, you can visit her website.

Discography:

At Last (Telarc)
Blues In the Night (Telarc)
Who Can See The Blue The Same Again? (Discmakers Single CD)
Slow (Shanachie Records)
After Ours (Denon Records)
Ann Hampton Callaway (DRG Records)
Bring Back Romance (DRG Records)
Easy Living (Shanachie Records)
Sibling Revelry with Liz Callaway (DRG Records)
Signature", Shanachie Records
This Christmas (After 9 Records/Angel Records)
To Ella With Love (Shanachie Records)

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