Renee Fleming has enjoyed a celebrated career as an operatic soprano, but sang jazz in college and considered a career in that direction when saxophonist Illinois Jacquet asked her to tour with him. She ultimately decided on the path for which she is best known, but I talked with her in 2005 about revisiting her jazz roots with the release of her jazz-influenced CD Haunted Heart, in our conversation for my Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio show.
What kind of music did you listen to as a child?
Well, everything. My parents were both high school vocal music teachers, so I heard a lot of classical music. My father conducted several different church choirs, so I grew up singing all that repertoire. I discovered and started writing my own music when I was about twelve years old and wrote for about ten years. And then I just stopped, inexplicably. Because I was the oldest child, there were no older siblings listening to popular music and I came to pop music late. It wasn’t until I was in middle school. I remember the first time I heard Top 40 music. I was in middle school in art class. She [the teacher] played the radio, so that was a revelation to me. It wasn’t until high school that I found music on my own and I began to explore a bit. It was Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which came into my hands from a girlfriend in another art class that was incredibly influential. And my father always listened to jazz so I had a little of that exploration from him. My taste is a little bit formed by him because he was the only one who wanted to do recreational listening. My mother when she came home from teaching music all day really wanted a break from it. But he listened recreationally to classical and jazz.
What kind of jazz?
He was interested in singing groups and Dave Brubeck and maybe George Shearing. I can’t remember really everything I heard, but there were lots of different things.
What kinds of things were you writing?
I think my first song was called “Stargazer” and I performed it in the sixth grade in fact. I continued writing all through a couple of years of college as well. And I also wrote some classical music. Some art songs that I performed as well. I guess it was a kind of a precocious thing that I did. I think I needed it. I was so shy. Communication was not easy for me. I’m so grateful that my children have a better time of it. That was a way for me to express myself. I think that’s why I stopped actually in my early 20s. I became better at talking, so I stopped writing music.
Did you listen differently when you were growing up? Did you listen to jazz differently from classical music?
No, it was all music. I never questioned genres in that period. We never discussed it. It was all music. In growing up singing in as many choirs as I did, I also had enormous influence from my teachers. I was fortunate enough to go to schools that had very highly developed and sophisticated music programs. One of the reasons I wrote music, as well, was able to take guitar class in middle school. I really mastered that instrument pretty well. I played a lot all through high school, accompanying myself. I wrote music on the guitar as well as the piano. I had a terrific musical upbringing and training.
I love to hear this because I’ve talked to people where music is just music and they grew up with both classical and jazz. I’ve had a number of people tell me that they were specifically told, “Don’t listen to jazz because it’s bad for you.” Why do think that happens?
I don’t know. It could be a generational thing. It could be the way they were brought up in more of an elitist household, at least as far as the arts are concerned. They might have been afraid that if their children discovered pop music or rock and roll or jazz, that they would turn away from classical music. The truth is, what we all understand now, that the roots are there and if the seed is planted at a young age, whether it’s taking your child to the opera to hear a concert or to the ballet or to any of the arts, as much as they whine and groan and complain, the seed is planted. Even if they go away from it in their teens and twenties, they often will return to it later when their sensibility and maturity enables them to develop a sophistication and appreciation for the finer arts. I think it’s important to plant that seed and allow children to go wherever their imaginations take them artistically.
If you met someone who was a longtime classical listener and you thought you might introduce them to jazz, what jazz would you play for them to try and entice them into this world we love?
Certainly Wynton Marsalis has bridged both worlds brilliantly. There’s no question that some of the jazz musicians who have classical training have better chops. They can do more on their instruments. That in itself does nothing. It’s only a tool. It’s really the imagination that does everything. Some of our most compelling musicians never heard classical music. Brad Mehldau is a very good example of somebody who plays in a style that is reminiscent of his classical training.
Jazz [the term] now almost doesn’t mean anything any more. I would probably also send them to the ECM label, because Manfred Eicher has managed on a very sophisticated level and even esoteric level to marry cutting-edge classical music, in particular new compositions, with jazz. It would depend on their taste. I know many people for whom that would not be appealing but would love Oscar Peterson. It’s exposure. It’s saying: “This is a fantastic banquet. Taste everything and see what appeals to you.”
You sang jazz in college, which I don’t think a lot of people know.
I sang first with a big band and then with a trio every weekend for two and a half years. Different players would come and guest with us. We became a very popular hit in our little college town up in Potsdam, New York, every Sunday night at Algers Pub. I learned an enormous amount about performing in general, through that experience. I came out of my shell. I became less inhibited. I was forced to communicate with an audience, which I had absolutely no clue how to do. I did not come naturally to that. I was never a natural extrovert or a natural performer. So it was an incredibly formative experience for me.
A jazz audience is very different from a classical audience.
Well, this was actually a college party audience, so you could barely hear us from the talk, but they all felt it was the place to be, so we must have been doing something right. At the end of my four years, I was able to perform in a master class for Illinois Jacquet. We formed a fast friendship which existed until he passed away a year ago in 2004. That was a really enlightening experience, because he was the first person to say, “You could do this professionally and I would encourage you to tour with me, and I’d love to introduce you to the world of jazz as a singer.” At that point I had not made any decisions about what I wanted to do because of course, as a student, I was being classically trained and enjoying that. But at that time I was more interested in singing jazz. It was a crossroads, because I was too afraid to move to New York at that point on my own. I felt too young. I felt too immature and too frightened. So I went to graduate school instead and it became the road not taken. It was more circumstantial than not, I think.
I think that happens a lot with other people too.
Probably. I’m thrilled with what I’m doing. In fact it suits me better. It suits my personality better. And I love it. But there’s a part of me that has remained a passionate fan of jazz.
Who were your models with jazz? Did you listen to a lot of jazz singers or jazz instrumentalists? Or both?
I first came to be passionate about Sarah Vaughan. She was my first real love in this music. I explored everyone. I listened to everybody.
But why Sarah?
It was her sound, her style. I felt she really interpreted the music. It just appealed to me. It’s a matter of taste more than anything. I always felt she was the baroque performer and Ella Fitzgerald was the classical performer. She had a much more Mozartian style, if you can connect the two in some odd way. Eventually I came to appreciate Shirley Horn, who was my next great love. Recently, I’m a huge fan of Kurt Elling. I love his ballads disc from a couple of years ago. I almost don’t go anywhere without it. I also listened to a lot of instrumentalists. I was fanatical about Pat Metheny through my college years. And offshoots of Wayne Shorter and Weather Report. And lots of artists from the ECM label, because I studied in Germany and I was exposed to a lot of that. I heard Jaco Pastorius live in a tiny basement bar in Munich when I was a student there. I had a tremendous exposure to this music. It really inspired me in my classical work.
In what way?
First of all, being able to improvise for those two and a half years and being compelled to improvise and sing scat and all of that freed me up. I always had good ears, but it really developed my ear to a much higher level. It lent itself perfectly to the Bel Canto repertoire in which I sang many many roles. In Bel Canto, as well as in Handel, and probably Mozart too, although it’s not the fashion to do it that way now, artist singers improvised. Even if the parts were written out, they still were able to put their own creative stamp on this repertoire. Since then, we as interpretive artists remain exactly faithful to what the composer has written. In baroque and some classical music, singers were expected to completely personalize the roles they were singing. Writing cadenzas and in essence, flights of fancy. Just like a jazz artist, taking the aria as a chart and making it their own. It’s a different style of music, but the exact same process and the same skill. I really have used it.
When I first sang Handel, it was in Paris a number of years ago, and William Christie, who’s been the director of Les Arts Florissants all these years, was the conductor, and he said, “I want you to sing it like jazz.” And I said, “You’re kidding, right?” I had this preconceived idea of baroque music and particularly Handel as this pristine, perfect world and that I needed to get out of the way and sing with no vibrato with as pure and white a sound as possible. He said, “Absolutely, not. I want you to make us cry in the aisles. I want you to make us swoon. I want you to use your vibrato as an expressive tool and swell and bend the line.” During the whole rehearsal process, I kept saying, “Are you sure? I’m going to get crucified for this. I’m gonna get killed.” He said, “No, this is absolutely correct.” Within the realm of my own daring and my own courage, I went into that world a little bit.
And he knew you loved jazz?
Yes, he knew I would understand. Those were formative years for me when I sang jazz and they have, no question, made my classical style more personal.
I’m always curious with a classically trained singer, what it’s like listening to someone like Billie Holiday or some of these jazz singers with a lot of dirt in their voices. Is it hard for you to listen to it?
No, I love it, actually. In fact, I was actually kind of fortunate because when I made my recording, I had a cold. So there’s a lot of dirt in my voice too, but it’s appropriate. I said, “Oh, good, I don’t have to work to get away from a purity of sound.” Having said that, sometimes I go to a Broadway show and I’m mortified, not just with the singing, but the speaking, because you can hear either that someone is not well or they’re in the process of doing damage to their voice or any number of things. There are times where I can go and be disturbed by that, because I’m a singer and I know exactly what’s happening. But with someone like Billie Holiday, who’s no longer with us, I’m just thrilled to hear that incredibly recognizable, within one note, voice. And that unique sound with her life experiences and pain in that sound. I’m a huge fan of her. I’d never think all singers have to be held to our standard of purity, by no means.
Just as long as the emotion and intent and sincerity are there.
Right, in fact some of our favorite voices were not perfect voices, were not either beautiful voices or flawed voices. In fact, probably the most famous singers in recorded history have been voices like that. We almost identify with them more for their imperfections in a funny way. They also develop as more interesting artists because they were never able to rest on the laurel of a perfect voice.
To listen to the entire conversation with Renee Fleming, along with her music and the music that influenced her, or to hear interviews with other notable people inspired by jazz, go to Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired web site.