Nancy King: Master in the Language of Jazz

Roseanna Vitro’s conversation with the noted Portland-based jazz singer

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Nancy King

Nancy King is a rare songbird among jazz singers. Not many vocalists can say they’ve earned high praise from Jon Hendricks, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis (to name a few). She’s comfortable singing in any key, improvising with scat syllables or lyrics, spinning as many choruses as her fertile imagination allows. Nancy’s signature sound is vulnerable, husky and warm. She slides seamlessly in octave jumps up and down, with a drummer’s mastery of polyrhythms. The mention of her name brings knowing smiles from all who know her, and inquisitive glances from those who don’t. She is real-life cult figure, an underground vocal doyenhard to reach and never easy to find (even with a smartphone).  

I began this interview in October 2017 after receiving exciting news from pianist Randy Porter about his new release: Porter Plays Porter, Randy Porter Trio With Nancy King. (I’ve included some of Randy’s observations at the end of this article.)  I downloaded the project immediately, and I loved it. To my delight, it has received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album

This is actually the second release from Nancy and Randy. In 2001 Randy released Modern Reflections, a template for their current record – solid standards, performed with Randy’s thoughtful arrangements and sensitive piano touch, coupled with Nancy’s matchless improvisations.

Occasional projects followed through the years, although Nancy remained out of the public eye off and on, for health reasons. She enjoyed an extensive tour with fellow vocalist Karrin Allyson, following their 2006 Concord release, Footprints. That same year, Nancy received her first Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Live at the Jazz Standard (MaxJazz), a collaboration with the renowned pianist Fred Hersch.

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Roseanna Vitro: Tell me about your family. Were you around music as a child?

Nancy King: We lived on a farm 18 miles out of Eugene, Oregon, near Springfield. I was a late-life child, the youngest of three siblings. My mother and father were both pianists. My mother performed classical music and dad was a bebopper; he’d played in flophouses in New Orleans, and had a bluesy left hand. Dad loved Duke Ellington. He owned the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings and I got to listen to an amazing record collection. My brother and sister had already left home, so it was just me, and I listened to music all the time.

Did you gravitate to the piano because your parents played?

I didn’t take any formal lessons, but I started learning solos around 4 or 5 years old. When I was 7, I received a pair of bongos. That was the beginning of my love for rhythm and drumming.

Did you sing in choral groups in junior or senior high school or take voice technique lessons?

No, at that time, in the 1950s, Doo Wop music and groups like the Andrews Singers were the thing. I didn’t study voice technique because everybody was singing all the time. I had a boyfriend, John Gaupp, who gave me a pair of drums, a trap set. He showed me a few techniques and then I taught myself how to play from listening to records. I began my career as a drummer and played in groups for 12 years. I’d play my gigs and still get up in the morning and milk the cows. It was a small-town scene.

Did you go to college or hit the road?

I managed to get into the University of Oregon for about a year. The racial climate was bad and we were all involved in the politics of that time. I realized I couldn’t make the scene at school, so I left, but I did meet bassist Glen Moore and Ralph Towner at school. Later, in the ‘90s, Glen and I recorded three albums for Justice Records, a Texas label.

Around 1960 I hit the road for San Francisco. I loved the music scene and found a world of excitement and hip musicians. I had a girlfriend named Sandy and we used to hang out all the time. She married Pony Poindexter and I’d go over to Pony’s house and everybody would be hanging out. It wasn’t unusual to see Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross or Lord Buckley. Everybody was cooking food all the time and improvising. Pony hired me to sing with his band. Those are great memories. I was soakin’ it all in, all the music, all the time.  I also met saxophone player Sonny King. I joined his band and we played the famed Jazz Workshop for two years. We didn’t get married, but we did have three beautiful children together. There were too many hip musicians on the scene to remember everyone I sang with but off the top of my head: Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, Vince Guaraldi and John Handy. This was a special time.

You’ve worked with several great pianists. Chemistry and listening are required to create the magic you’ve made on your recordings. Who are your favorite pianists to sing with?

I have to say Steve Christofferson. We met around 1977. Steve and I breathe together, there’s no thinking, the music just happens. We’ve been making music together for 40 years. In 1993 we recorded our first album, Perrenial, the title derived from Steve’s original tune. I’m delighted to say Perrenial is currently available on CD Baby. I have to mention how much I loved singing with Leroy Vinnegar on this recording. Leroy was a great player and a dear man. Our recording also featured friends Dave Frishberg and Ralph Towner.

In 1996, the Grammy-nominated Metropole Orchestra asked Steve and I to record an album. The orchestra is one of the largest in the world and they’re based in the Netherlands. The title of the CD is Straight Into Your Heart  (Mons Records). It was an extraordinary experience. Sharing the moment with Steve was like a dream. The arrangements were over the moon. Songs such as “Moonray,” Frishberg’s “Zanzibar,” “Waltz for Debbie,” were arranged beautifully around me.

In 2000, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Jazz Beat series asked Steve and I to make a recording we called Dreamland. We went on to make three recordings for this series. These are very special to me. On Dreamland III, I recorded “Rain” an original story about my mother. Dreamland II received a lot of notice. Steve and I still perform whenever possible and we love to play together.

I know Randy Porter is another special pianist you’ve recorded with previously and you have a new CD together. When did you first meet Randy?

I think Steve Christofferson and I were playing at the Brasserie Montmartre in Portland in 1984. A young man walked into the club and listened to Steve and I. He came up and introduced himself to me after the set. He told me he was a pianist and that was the beginning of our relationship.

Eventually, in the nineties, we played some gigs together and made an album, Modern Reflections with the great Leroy Vinnegar and Mel Brown. I loved Leroy! What a swinging band. I was delighted to receive the call this past year, from Randy to record our second album, Porter Plays Porter. At first Randy only wanted a couple of songs but my participation grew. The same thing happened on our first album. I fondly remember Leroy saying, “Man this is swingin’, but when Nancy’s singing, it becomes something special.” I totally dig singing with drummer Todd Strait. His swing feel inspires me. John Wiitala on bass is solid and always supportive. Randy has a history arranging and playing with creative singers. His touch at the piano sets a mood. We’re excited about this year’s Grammy nomination. I think my favorite tunes on the project are Randy’s original, “Inside Your Mind” and the classic “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” I am honored to receive another Grammy nomination this year and to share this moment with Randy Porter.

Your early recordings with bassist Glen Moore are super hip. The song choices and arrangements are fresh and not classic jazz repertoire. Tell me about your early recordings with bassist Glen Moore.

Glenny was one of the first musicians I hooked up with. Glen is a hell of a composer. He plays piano and flute, as well as bass. The first recording we made was Impending Bloom in 1991 on Justice Records. This was the first of three recordings. I’ve had many good comments on our renditions of “Mountain Greenery” and “All By Myself.” It was jazz music, but our minds were wide open with no limits or labels. Glen’s title track was psychedelic back-to-back with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Secret Love.” There wasn’t a conversation about what is jazz? Our second album on Justice Records was Potato Radio. Art Lande was on piano. “Moonlight to You” was a special track I co-wrote with Marilyn Simpson. Glen and his wife Samantha were writing a lot of tunes we recorded on this CD. In 1993, we recorded our last project for Justice Records, Cliff Dance. Art Lande was on piano again. Art is always open, fun and creative. “On Green Dolphin Street” was a memorable track from that date.

Tell me about your relationship with great bassist Ray Brown.

Ray Brown knew my father. I remember hearing Ray Brown play on many albums in my father’s collection. I used to practice drums to his tracks. Ray actually played on my very first album, First Date, released on Inner City Records in 1976. Steve Wolfe was the tenor player. Jack Sheldon’s on the album too. Irv Kratka was the owner of the label. Ray was always supportive of my singing. He offered me a huge contract years ago, which I turned down for personal reasons. In the late nineties, it was great to reunite with Ray on his recording, Some of My Best Friends Are Singers, on Telarc International. Geoff Keezer and Greg Hutchinson smoked in the rhythm section. I scatted Ray’s original blues head to close the album, “The Perfect Blues,” and also sang one of my favorite ballads, “But Beautiful.” Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Etta Jones, Marlena Shaw and Kevin Mahogany were also featured. I always loved Ray Brown.

Tell me about your tour and recording with Karrin Allyson. You were featured on six tracks of her Grammy-nominated recording Footprints.

I think I first met Karrin at an IAJE Conference. I know in 2000 Karrin and I sang at a concert in Chicago. Karrin’s a good musician and she has a great spirit. Around 2005 she asked me to sing on her Footprints album, along with Jon Hendricks. We had a blast. Karrin’s a fine singer, and Jon – he’s the bebop master. We did some nice gigs touring behind the album, a great gig in Israel. Yeah, we had fun in NYC at Dizzy’s.

I heard you guys together at Dizzy’s in 2006, which was the last year of the IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education) Conference in New York City. Everyone was buzzing about your gig and Karrin’s album. I recall Sarah James putting together a master class with you for a packed room of serious jazz singers. Your stories were priceless. It was extraordinary to sit in with you and scat – unforgettable! Peter Eldridge, of New York Voices, asked you how you developed your scatting, and you said, “I listened and learned a lot of solos and I played the drums.” You also enlightened us with exactly how you developed your skill to jump octaves seamlessly. You said, “I sing in any key the band calls and I make it work.” This is a concept for other jazz singers to consider. Most teachers recommend finding your best key. All experienced singers learn, many instrumentalists cannot quickly play a tune in a new key off the top of their heads. You bypassed this situation and it is pivotal in your style. Thank you for the lesson.

In the same year, Fred Hersch, renowned pianist and a dear old friend of mine, asked you to record Live at the Jazz Standard. This became your first Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.  Tell me about your experience with Fred.

Singing with Fred was like falling off a log. He plays beautifully. We talked down tunes, picked out the ones we wanted to record and it was just that easy – arrangements on the spot. All that was required was listening.  It was exciting to receive my first Grammy nomination, especially on a live project that was so easy. I look forward to reconnecting with Fred. I’ve heard about his new book and projects.

When we spoke on the phone, I realized I could write a book about you and highlight my favorite recordings. As a master musician do you have wisdom you’d like to pass on to up-and-coming singers?

Yes, the first thing is: Singers, do your homework. Forget the gymnastics. Pretend the world is blind and learn the damn tune. Really learn it. The lyrics are secondary if you’re out of tune and you don’t know the song. Once you really know the tune, then remember you’re telling a story. That’s what I always did. Singers and instrumentalists, listen. Listen to each other. That’s how you create the magic by knowing the tune well enough to explore every new twist and turn—it’s listening.

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Interview with Randy Porter

Roseanna Vitro: What was it like when you first heard Nancy King?  

Randy Porter:  I was 27 years old and I’d been playing with Diane Schuur for a couple of years. I walked into the Brasserie Montmarte in Portland and heard Nancy with Dave Frishberg. Hearing them together freaked me out. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard.

What attracted you to Nancy’s singing, and what do you feel other singers could learn from listening to Nancy?

I love Nancy’s rephrasing of a lyric, melodic invention in her scatting, harmonic awareness and swinging rhythm. It seems with Nancy, what to do and how to do it, come together in some kind of brilliant “seat of the pants” moment. Whether ballads, or burners, medium swing or straight eights, she brings a deep and personal voice to the music. Her vocabulary in note placement, pitch, shifting timbre would be hard to copy, but an interesting study for vocal students. She is a listening member of the band, not just a leader and she always knows where she is in the tune.

I love your arrangements and sentient touch on the piano. Your group communication and listening make Porter Plays Porter a highly appealing recording. My favorite track is your original, “Inside Your Mind.”  Who wrote the lyrics?

Thank you. I wrote the lyrics and the music. I composed with the mindset of two people learning to manage the pain of separation. The day of our recording, Nancy transitioned from learning the challenging intervals to imbuing the lyrics with emotive timbral inflections. Frankly, that has left many of us emotionally raw after hearing it. Todd and John had been my working trio for 15 years. I love them because they leave space for the music to breathe, they swing and we always have chemistry. Nancy’s not easy to reach or nail down, so having her join us was very special; otherwise it would have just been another date.

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Recommended Listening for Nancy King

I made a post on Facebook asking singers*: “What are your favorite Nancy King recordings?” Every Nancy King album was listed. Do yourself a favor and research these tracks from Nancy’s catalog:

Mountain Greenery

The Midnight Sun

Moonray

The Nearness of You

The Buzzard

Zanzibar

I Sing for You

A Crooked Road

St. Thomas (several teachers use your solo as a teaching transcription)

Old Blue Station

Everybody’s Got a Home But Me

Poinciana

Secret Love

When the Wind Was Green

Lazy Afternoon

Impending Bloom

From Me to You

Out of Town

Useless Landscape

But Beautiful

Small Hotel

If I Should Lose You

Nancy King Discography:

Impending Bloom (with Glen Moore) (Justice Records, 1991)

Potato Radio (with Glen Moore) (Justice Records, 1992)

Cliff Dance (with Glen Moore) (Justice Records, 1993)

Straight Into Your Heart (with Steve Christofferson and the Metropole Orchestra) (Mons Records, 1996)

King on the Road (Cardas, 1999)

Moonray (Live, Philology, 1999)

Dream Lands, Vol. 1 (with Steve Christofferson) (Stellar!, 2000)

Dream Lands, Vol. 2 (with Steve Christofferson) (Stellar!, 2002)

Perennial (Ornry Diva Productions, 2011)

Noted Guest Appearances:

With Randy Porter, Porter Plays Porter (Heavywood, 2017) Grammy Nomination

With Fred Hersch, Live at the Jazz Standard (Maxjazz, 2006) Grammy Nomination

With Karrin Allyson, Footprints (Concord, 2006)

With Ray Brown, Some of My Best Friends Are Singers

 Learn more about Nancy King here.

 *I’d like to thank this group for all of your recommendations and comments on Nancy’s catalog:  David Craig, Andrea Wolper, Ellen Johnson, Ellyne Rey, Cindy Scott, Angela Bingham Longino, Jennifer Scott, Allen Chase, Sara Leib, Marty Elkins, Gabrielle Stravelli, Dan Bilawsky, Jane Stuart, Dan Gaynor, Stefano Nuzzo, Perez, Scott Morgan, Dave Garduhm, Jack J. Hanan, Roz Coral, Ann Tappan, Trist Ethan Curless, Louri Grankin, Marla Kleiman, Carri Bella, Daria Jazz, Whitney Marchelle, Elizabeth & Lee Tomboulian, Andrea Claburn, Elaine Lee Martone, Jane Dunham Vandiver, Kate McGarry, Nancy Shallman, Deborah Shelton, Garry Bywater, Jeffrey Gimble, Dominique Eade, Cherrie Adams, Rick Holland, Jon Wikan, Suzanne Pittson, Kristen Korb, Arthur Satyan, Suzanne Carroll, Buzzy Smith, Bob Mover, Tracy Jazz, Marilyn Fischer, Dena DeRose, Holli Ross and Kelly Johnson.

** special thank you’s to: Paul Wickliffe, Jeffrey Levenson and Elizabeth Tomboulian