CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Alexis Cole: Teaching & Learning

The resourceful vocalist talks with Roseanna Vitro about the website she created to help her fellow singers

Alexis Cole

Alexis Cole represents a new generation of jazz artists and entrepreneurs forced by a worldwide pandemic to help themselves and their community. The new world order is living and performing in a virtual reality. The discipline once required to learn songs and practice improvisation has now been aimed at learning video technology and alternative modes of expression, and Cole—a committed vocalist with heart and skills that match her talent—is feeling the burn.

While on lockdown in her Pennsylvania cabin, with computer skills and time on her hands, Cole created JazzVoice.com. In one month, she designed a series of classes, workshops, and showcases featuring high-profile performers and teachers. They include Karrin Allyson, Jane Monheit, Michele Weir, and Vanessa Rubin, to name just a few.

The evidence is strong that Cole’s reach extends well beyond her responsibilities as the chair of vocal jazz at SUNY Purchase in New York. She is the complete package, with considerable influence: performer, educator, organizer, advocate, and vocal sister-in-arms. I was delighted we had a chance to chat.

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Roseanna Vitro: Starting a vocal jazz network by yourself must have been a huge undertaking. What was the catalyst?

Alexis Cole: When the pandemic first started and all my work was canceled, I went to my cottage in the woods in Pennsylvania, stocked up on TP, dried grains, and legumes, and just hung out by myself for a few months. I had to start teaching online to complete my semester’s obligation to my students at SUNY Purchase. As a longtime skeptic of online teaching, I was shocked by how effective it could be and how much I enjoyed it. I used a few good videos by other teachers about breathing and technique to supplement the lessons. Then, I got the idea to take some of my favorite teaching concepts and make my own educational videos. I had a lot of fun making the videos, and a day or two after that, something started tumbling around in my mind. I thought now that all the university teachers were probably comfortable teaching online, and all the touring singers were mostly home and out of work, it would be the perfect time to put together a site where students and teachers could connect for private study. I slept on it for a day or two and thought … I want to do it.

This project is a culmination of my life’s work, including:

  • My passion for teaching and a philosophical embrace of amateur art-making
  • A performing and recording career that gives me the credibility required to head an organization called JazzVoice.com
  • All my DIY web design and PR skills
  • My time spent as vice president of the NY Jazz Vocal Coalition, leading a professional development series for our members
  • My administrative skills, honed while singing in the U.S. Army Band for six years
  • Four albums for Venus Records, two for Motéma Music and two for Chesky Records, plus a big-band album produced by the Army

What are your primary goals for JazzVoice.com?

My first driver was generating work for my singer colleagues. My mother worked for the National Federation of Independent Business and she spent her career helping small business owners. She would often spend extra hours with them talking about marketing and strategy and personnel issues. After a few decades focused diligently on my own career, it’s really nice to concentrate my efforts on others.

My second driver is to democratize jazz vocal education—to provide an opportunity for singers of all levels to improve and feel connected to the jazz vocal community. We don’t all have the opportunity to go to college for music. While singing and musicianship are lifelong studies, we can teach pragmatic things to get singers better prepared for the bandstand. I love empowering people with knowledge, especially women, and I love jazz singing. If I can help singers around the world improve, and better enjoy making music, I’m in!

I’d like to delve into your recording career, starting with your favorite album. Do you have one?

My favorite of my albums is Someday My Prince Will Come with Fred Hersch, Steve LaSpina, Matt Wilson, Don Braden, and Grégoire Maret [Venus, 2009]. For the holidays I recommend The Greatest Gift – Songs of the Season [Motéma, 2009]. My father [composer, pianist, and singer Mark Finkin] appears on some tracks, and we even recorded one of his originals. We featured a cast of 50 musicians, recorded over eight separate sessions. I figured you only make a Christmas album once, so I went all out.

Let’s move into your early history, your family and inspirations. I know your father and grandmother were jazz singers. Tell me, what stands out for you?

My maternal grandmother, Estelle Cole, was a fabulous singer and pianist. She had a deep contralto voice and played classics from the American Songbook. She used to take me to hear music at her country club and other venues around Hollywood, Florida, and she would usually sit in. In the ’80s, a lot of older musicians used to snowbird in Florida, so there were lots of great players. My grandmother taught me “Pennies from Heaven” and other standards when I would visit her. We lived nearby and I saw her often. She wasn’t crazy about jazz, though. When my interest in jazz was sparked in high school, I took her to hear a show and she famously said during a solo, “I don’t know why they have to do all those alterations. Wasn’t the melody good enough?” She often harped on my diction in singing. Once in college, I sang an Italian aria for her, and she said, “I never knew you could sing.” She passed away in 2007.

My father is a tremendous composer and a pianist/vocalist. My parents split up when I was just one, so I didn’t grow up with him in the house. But I remember going to hear him play a few times, and I took piano lessons at the piano store where he worked. I really loved both of their musical expressions, and I think this apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree.

I recently began working on a project with my father to catalog his original compositions to celebrate his upcoming 70th birthday. The pianist Lee Tomboulian is transcribing all his songs into beautiful piano/vocal charts. My dad has hundreds of songs. We’ll see how far we can get. We’ve completed about 15 tunes so far. It’s very gratifying.

Do you remember when you first started singing? Did you have the opportunity to study voice technique in school?

I had a lot of great opportunities in my education. I was in All-State Choir in elementary school, and again in high school. For most of high school, I went to a wonderful magnet program in Miami—the New World School of the Arts—where I studied musical theater and got weekly voice lessons with a great teacher, Christine Arroyo. Her whole focus was on resonance and tone. She was very supportive when I wanted to start singing jazz. The head of our jazz band was the well-known educator JB Dyas, now Vice President at the Hancock Institute. He brought me in to sing with the band. I also got a gig in South Beach with a vibes player who led a group playing mostly standards and pop tunes. I remember whenever I’d sing Whitney [Houston]’s [version of] “I Will Always Love You,” the bartender would give the band shots. So I remember singing that tune often!

Was your primary interest jazz or a mix of pop, jazz and classical? Do you recommend any favorite programs or teachers?

As a teenager, I loved Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, but when I started listening to Ella, Sarah, and Billie, I felt like I knew what I wanted to sing for the rest of my life. I love improvisation and the aesthetic of jazz vs. other types of music—music of the moment, relying on co-creation instead of extensive preparation. It suited my personality and my voice type. When I transferred to William Paterson University in my junior year of college, Nancy Marano had just taken over the vocal department there. She and I got along great. I already had some good things going on. I felt that she met me where I was and gave me the tools and insights to become much better. It’s been very rewarding to engage with her over the years, and now she’s a teacher on JazzVoice.com! I also studied classical singing with Nan Guptill Crain at William Paterson University. She was a wonderful and nurturing teacher who gave me a lot of confidence. She treated me like an artist and inspired me. I think many times in life it’s what people see in you that helps you discover who you are.

You moved on to earn your master’s of music at Queens College.  What do you feel is most important in vocal jazz studies?

Funny (since I’m a jazz voice professor), but I actually think it’s preferable to study classical voice and jazz piano. In six years of my music education, I only took four semesters of jazz voice lessons, and instead, studied classical voice and jazz piano the whole time. I think good jazz singing is just good singing; you can learn harmony and swing feel from studying an instrument. I try to teach my students in this way, by working on classical vocal technique through Italian arias. The songs teach them—I hardly have to do anything! Either I or their other teachers get them working on transcribing solos and doing aural transcriptions of the great singers doing the heads of songs.

What do you expect from your band, to bring out the best in you as a singer?

The greatest quality any band member can have is the ability to listen well. For singers, it’s especially important that people be able to play quietly with intensity. For me personally as a singer/pianist, I love when the people I’m playing with hear what I’m doing and hop on board with a small rhythmic idea or something to ornament it. My drummer Kenny [Hassler] says that he takes what I’m doing and wraps it up with a bow. Whatever they’re doing, they make me sound 10 times better than I am. God bless them.

Thank you so much for all the work you’re doing and ideas you’ve shared for fellow jazz artists. In closing, how are you handling the pandemic, working primarily online?

I thought I would hate it, but it’s working out really well. I love all the found time from not having to go anywhere. I appreciate the simplicity of a life with minimal commitments. If I didn’t have an exciting new online project to pour all my soul into, I’m sure I’d be having a harder time. I’m so grateful for the JazzVoice.com project, which keeps my mind and time occupied and allows me to focus on something outside of myself.

Roseanna Vitro

Roseanna Vitro is a jazz vocalist who has released 14 albums on the Concord, Telarc, Challenge, and Motéma labels—achieving a Grammy nomination in 2010 for The Music of Randy Newman—and has toured as a featured artist on every continent but Antarctica, including two tours as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Also an educator, she taught college-level courses for New Jersey City University, SUNY Purchase, and NJPAC over the course of 20 years. As a jazz advocate, she has produced records for fellow musicians, chaired seminars, lectured and presented clinics globally, and regularly interviews other singers for JazzTimes; a full list of her JT columns is here. Contact her at RoseannaVitro.com.