Jazzmeia Horn: Going Where the Spirit Leads

An interview with the winner of two prestigious jazz vocal competitions

Brooklyn, NY - November 30, 2016 - Jazzmeia Horn. credit: Jacob Blickenstaff

Jazzmeia Horn (photo by Jacob Blickenstaff/Concord Music Group)

Jazzmeia Horn takes jazz singing seriously. As a winner of the 2013 Sarah Vaughan Vocal Jazz Competition, followed by a victory lap at the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, Ms. Horn announced her arrival in a big way. Her career saw the kind of ignition young artists dream about.

Honoring her Texas gospel roots, Jazzmeia presents a voice and identity onstage that embodies true conviction. She possesses a soft sound, coupled with the means to deliver lines with lightning speed, often in the service of improvisational scats informed by trumpet players such as the great Clifford Brown.

I found Jazzmeia focused and wise. She has made fearless choices in the teachers with whom she’s studied. She’s landed on the scene with a respect for and knowledge of jazz history, a growing body of music and a trunkful of personality.

On her debut disc, A Social Call, released on Prestige Records as part of the Concord Music Group, Jazzmeia celebrates her heroes as well as her gospel roots.

I first became aware of Jazzmeia when I was teaching vocal jazz at NJPAC (The New Jersey Performing Arts Center). But the moments that really got my attention occurred during her performances at the two competitions. I was a preliminary judge in each.

During the Sarah Vaughan competition it was clear Jazzmeia could be an heir to the legacy of Betty Carter. The Monk competition at the Dolby Theatre in L.A. drove home the point. After two intense days featuring semi-finalists, then finalists, in a field rich with talent, Jazzmeia stood out. Veronica Swift and Vuyo Sotashe, runners-up among the finalists, touched me deeply with their sound, improvisation and spirit, but ultimately Jazzmeia won the top honors.

The evening was pure magic: Jazzmeia lighting up the room, Al Jarreau offering a dream-state rendition of “Human Nature,” and Quincy Jones accepting an award celebrating his life and achievements. A lasting memory for me – and Jazzmeia was in the center of it.

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Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest memories of music and singing as a little girl in Texas? Did you always want to be a singer? Were you born with the name Jazzmeia Horn?

Jazzmeia Horn: My grandmother played piano and my mother sang in the choir at my grandfather’s church. I was influenced to sing because I grew up watching my whole family sing and I was always amazed. Eventually, my grandmother told me to come sit by her and the next thing I knew, I was in the choir. I was 3! I remember that. Jazzmeia is my real name. I was given that name by my grandmother.

Tell me about your family, memories and inspirations from grade school through junior high school. You radiate daring and confidence. Did those traits grow from your family’s encouragement?

My family didn’t know or expect that I would be a professional singer. Everybody in my family sings, has beautiful voices, all sing in the choir. So the idea of anyone being a professional singer didn’t occur to them. At that time, everything was about church.

My life is daring. When I moved to New York, I had no money and no job. Everyone said, “How could you do that?” And I said, “I don’t know; it will be cool.” I did it and it was cool. I never know how to answer questions about daring because I just go where my spirit leads without regard for the outcome, without thinking about whether it is daring.

Which teachers and classes in the Dallas school system guided your skills as a musician? Did you study voice technique? What classes would you recommend to young aspiring singers who want to become professional vocalists?

I went to a performing arts high school in Dallas—Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Roger Boykin was one of my greatest inspirations. He taught blues ensemble. He also taught a class called “The Jazz Singers.” He wrote a song for us, titled “We Like to Sing.” I am still in touch with him. We talk all the time. He was one of the only black teachers left at the school.

I would recommend “storytelling” and jazz combo classes where you can see how other musicians function. Chart-writing classes are essential.

How old were you when you moved to New York City? Why did you choose the New School for your college studies? Who were your pivotal teachers?

I was 18 years old when I moved to New York. I was going to go to either North Texas, Berklee College of Music or the New School in New York. North Texas accepted me, but not for music, and offered me no scholarship. Berklee accepted me but only offered me a 15-percent scholarship. The New School gave me an 85-percent scholarship and I took the rest out in loans, so the decision was made.

My pivotal teachers were Billy Harper, who taught the vocal jazz ensemble; Amy London, who taught the chart-writing class; and Charles Tolliver, who taught me how to sing with a big band and read big band charts. Reggie Workman taught me the legacy of John Coltrane; that was a spiritual thing and the first time I had a spiritual teacher in my life. Bernard Purdie taught me about soul and said you can arrange charts with music that is not what’s on the record.

Junior Mance was the first teacher I had at the New School. He taught the vocal blues ensemble. I took his class twice. Privately I studied with Richard Harper, who taught me that the body is the first instrument known to man. He was a vegetarian and taught me how to treat my body as an instrument. Cecil Bridgewater taught me how to approach changes. Jimmy Owens taught me the business of music: licensing, publishing and copyrighting.

Do you have a disciplined practice routine? For example: beginning with a voice warmup, moving into ear-training exercises, followed by improvisation work, songwriting and new music. What are your recommendations to other singers regarding a practice routine?

I don’t have an established practice routine. My life is improvisation. Sometimes I have to figure out how to do a practice and figure out how to do what I need to do, together with being the mother of toddlers. As a rule, I drink three cups of water every morning upon awakening, then meditation. Before I go to bed, I warm-down. I don’t normally do warmups because I am talking all day.

Who were your biggest inspirations in the development for your scat singing? Do you transcribe instrumental solos? Are there specific books or programs you would recommend to singers who want to scat sing?

The biggest inspirations for my scat singing were a lot of trumpet players, but especially Clifford Brown and Roy Hargrove. Also Miles Davis solos, Freddie Hubbard and Louis Armstrong.

What stood apart for me about Clifford Brown was that he influenced me to have my own style. I transcribe vocal and instrumental solos. The Jamey Aebersold Jazz Play-A-Longs are good. Also learn how to play block chords, even if it is just starting from the root, 1, 3, 5, 7, with no inversions. At least be able to play those. I like to play the chord and then sing it 10 different ways, then move on to the next chord and sing it 10 different ways. Just two chords at a time.

Naturally I hear lots of Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan in your sound. Listening to the history of vocal jazz is as important as singing. Which classic vocal recordings would you recommend to budding jazz vocalists?

Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown, The Audience With Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, Ella and Louis. Any Clifford Brown album. Rachelle Ferrell albums, especially First Instrument.

So much of that could be heard on the nights you competed. The Monk event, in particular, made for a dramatic evening. How did you feel in the midst of all that excitement?

The night I participated in the Monk competition I was very nervous because all of the singers were very good. And I was also very nervous because there were a lot of celebrities there—Al Jarreau, Patti Austin, Ledisi, Freddy Cole, Luciana Souza, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gretchen Parlato and Quincy Jones. I was shocked that I won, and also happy. I was trying to get back to the hotel to feed my baby, but torn because I wanted to stay and hang out. I ended up going back to the hotel. I couldn’t even get back to the after party.

I understand Dee Dee Bridgewater took a special interest in your life and career after you won the Sarah Vaughan competition. How has Dee Dee’s support shaped your presentation, confidence and music? Did Dee Dee guide your choices for A Social Call? Would you give Dee Dee credit for your new look evoking an African Princess who sings jazz? You’re quite beautiful and it’s a stunning look.

After the Monk competition, Dee Dee Bridgewater hosted me and my child in her home, after a relative who was supposed to host me couldn’t do it at the last minute. Dee Dee has been a staunch supporter since then, mentioning my name whenever [she’s] asked about new young singers. I am grateful to her for that. She had nothing to do with my style, however. After I won the Sarah Vaughan competition, I was going through some spiritual growth, getting back to my African Roots. I came across the African market in Harlem, where I saw all of these beautiful fabrics, and I taught myself how to sew. Then I decided to make clothes for myself. That is where the headwraps and the African fabric come from. My style developed from there.

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I wholeheartedly recommend A Social Call to all lovers of jazz singing. After listening to her new CD, you’ve got to hear her in concert: She is a force! You can read Christopher Loudon’s JT review of A Social Call here. Tour and info for Jazzmeia Horn here. Learn more about Roseanna Vitro and Voices in Jazz here. Special thanks to Gail Boyd and Jeff Levenson.