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An Interview With Cécile McLorin Salvant

From Monk Competition winner to Grammy nominee

Cécile McLorin Salvant, London Jazz Festival, Nov. 2015
Cecile McLorin Salvant, London Jazz Festival, Nov. 2015

Since the passing of vocal icons Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, fans have wondered, will we ever see this level of talent again? A rightful question. Yet, as a vocal instructor and judge for the Thelonious Monk and Sarah Vaughan competitions, I’ve learned to have complete faith in the future of jazz singing. In a short time, Cécile McLorin Salvant has affirmed that promise.

I recall standing backstage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2010, watching Monk finalists Salvant, Cyrille Aimée and Charenee Wade. Cécile walked out onstage, dressed simply, demure and understated. She was focused and calm, methodical and hypnotic-she was in charge!

As she sang, her vocal skills became clear; she evinced phenomenal range, phrasing and tonal shading reminiscent of Vaughan, Betty Carter and Bessie Smith. While scatting, she hit her marks with conviction and authority. In short, Salvant stepped out, ultimately showcasing a level of talent rare among modern-day singers.

Since that auspicious beginning, she has toured the world and released two critically acclaimed albums. Her debut release in 2014, WomanChild, was nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Jazz Vocal Album. Her current album, For One to Love, released last year, has proven that lightning can strike twice in the same place-she earned a second Grammy nomination in the Jazz Vocal category.

Salvant has a singular point of view, which underscores her standing in the jazz community. Her sudden arrival is reason enough to feel confident-the future of vocal jazz is in good hands.

Roseanna Vitro: What is your earliest memory of music?

Cécile McLorin Salvant: It’s hard to say; music was always playing in the house when I was growing up. My mother took me to my first piano class when I was about 4. I feel very lucky that from an early age I was exposed to many different genres of music (jazz, Haitian music, R&B, hip-hop, reggae, bluegrass, disco, Motown, classical music, fado, Senegalese and Cape Verdean music, French chanson, folk music from Argentina and Paraguay, among many others). This allowed me to develop a curiosity for music regardless of language, genre or the time in which it was recorded or composed.

RV: Did you know you wanted to be a singer when you were very young? Does anyone in your family sing?
CMS: My father has a beautiful voice, but he never pursued it. I loved to sing, but didn’t only want to be a singer, and certainly didn’t think of being a jazz singer. I remember having a long list of things I dreamt of doing. I wanted to be a history or literature professor, a writer, some kind of visual artist, an actress and an opera singer. But none of these things particularly stood out. I was very happy to be in school and that seemed to be my main focus, I wasn’t really thinking ahead.

RV: I recall reading you began playing classical piano when you were 5 years old. How do you feel classical piano helped to shape your concept as a singer?
CMS: I’m not quite sure. Playing the piano as a child had many benefits for me beyond music. Of course, it developed my ear and sense of musicality and allowed me to experience some important pieces of classical music on a deeper level than I would have as a listener. It was also an obligation! I didn’t particularly want to practice, or go to class, or work on anything extracurricular, but I had to. It taught me that the tedium and loneliness of practicing can lead to something beautiful. I was certainly not the most disciplined piano student, but when I did put in the time and effort, it always paid off. I think this is something that children experience in school with homework and studying, but piano was something beyond school, and ultimately with lower stakes. It was all up to me if I wanted to get better and nothing terrible would happen if I didn’t. I think having that choice to push oneself to try and share something beautiful with others is a really wonderful thing for a child to be confronted with. I also think it’s a wonderful opportunity for any musician to practice more than one instrument, and to really get into other genres of music, because it allows that musician to have another angle, a more global vision of music and its roles. I believe the same can be said for any profession, and any artistic endeavor. It’s good to look at things from another perspective. Today, when I practice and compose, it is almost exclusively at the piano.

RV: Were you a competitive or dramatic child or were you more shy and introverted as a young musician?
CMS: I was terrified when I had to play my annual piano recital! There is something about playing the piano for an audience that still deeply frightens me. However, I loved to perform. In French class, we would regularly have to recite poems, and I was always so melodramatic when I recited them!

RV: Who were the first singers or musicians you wanted to imitate? What spoke to you?
CMS: The first singer I wanted to imitate was Sarah Vaughan! She had such a glorious, warm, versatile, virtuosic voice. I fell in love with her singing long before I started actively listening to jazz.

RV: Were your parents supportive of your music studies? Who were your pivotal vocal teachers and did you perform in school?
CMS: My parents were extremely supportive. I had a classical voice teacher when I was around 13. Her name is Ana Maria Conte Silva. When I was in high school, I started studying classical voice with a teacher at the University of Miami named Ed Walker. I never did music in school.

RV: When I first saw you perform, I thought you must have studied drama in school. You have a way of interpreting your lyrics and painting the story with your voice that’s spellbinding. Did you study acting?
CMS: I was not in the drama department! I auditioned for a music high school when I was 13, to study voice. However, I decided instead to go to Coral Reef High, in the International Baccalaureate program, in part to keep studying French in a rigorous academic program, and in part to be in school with my friends.

RV: What inspired you to study in France after your studies at the University of Miami in 2007? When did you decide, singing and composing might be your career?
CMS: I wasn’t a University of Miami student. I only took private lessons from a teacher who worked there. After high school, I had no idea what I wanted to study, or where I wanted to go. The college application process in the U.S. was making me a bit uneasy. I decided to go to Aix-en-Provence, France, for a year, to experience something different. It was a kind of sabbatical, but rather than move to France with no structure, I enrolled in a political science prep school with an option to complete the first year of a bachelor’s in law. I also wanted to keep studying classical voice, after school, as I had been for a while. It was in this music school that I met Jean-François Bonnel, who became my jazz teacher, and encouraged me to pursue a career in jazz. I hesitated for a long time, but eventually decided I might try being a professional musician in the summer of 2010, two years after starting the jazz program in Aix-en-Provence.

RV: How long did you study in France and how has it changed or influenced you as a person, as an artist?
CMS: I was in France for about four-and-a-half years. I am not sure I would have really gotten into jazz if I had stayed in the U.S., because I wasn’t around any jazz musicians, and because, like many Americans in my generation, I had a preconception that it was clean, old, intellectual, classy and not exciting. When I moved to Aix, I was surrounded by people who loved jazz, who really cared about its history, and who saw it as an art form.

RV: I think when we’re younger, say before 21, we get lost in our favorite singers and musicians, as we absorb their sound and essence. I know Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Bessie Smith are credited as your influences. Can you describe your feelings toward each one and what you feel you learned? For example, some students sing with a mentor’s tracks, exactly with their phrasing, plus learn their solos and personality inflections. What did you gain from each one of these singers?
CMS: Sarah Vaughan is the singer I listened to first. I wanted to sound exactly like her, and since I had no ambitions of being a professional jazz singer, I didn’t care about sounding original, or having my own creative vision. My mother also listened to Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson and Billie Holiday. I was introduced to Bessie Smith by my jazz teacher when I was about 18. It took me a while to get over the sound of those old recordings and actually listen to the music. When I finally did, I spent months listening only to her, every time I had a minute to myself. She had such power and vulnerability in her singing. Her intonation and choices were extremely interesting. She had the raw quality of folk and blues music within a very “urban” style of the blues, with vaudevillian influences in the music. Her repertoire was equally fascinating: songs that did not solely focus on love, or longing, but also nostalgia, homesickness, food, sex, sin, addiction, prison, abuse, poverty, the supernatural, with oftentimes a touch of humor. Here is a non-exhaustive list of other singers that deeply influenced me: Louis Armstrong, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Blossom Dearie, Valaida Snow, Lil Armstrong, Betty Carter (I started listening to her three years ago), Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, Mildred Bailey, Big Bill Broonzy, Babs Gonzales, Ruth Etting, Blanche Calloway, Julie Wilson, Judy Garland, Maxine Sullivan, Ethel Waters.

RV: What a beautiful list of influences. I had quite a passion for Bessie Smith in my early years. I’ve seen a couple of your videos on YouTube of your scatting. You’re a lovely soloist. Were there specific books or programs you would recommend to young scat singers?
CMS: Thanks! I actually don’t scat very much. It’s mainly because I’m so attached to lyrics that I enjoy improvising while still singing the words. I actually almost felt it was becoming an obligation for jazz singers to scat, which is contrary to what I think scatting is about. I believe scatting has to come from a place of complete freedom. There’s almost an element of embracing the absurd in scatting. When it becomes an obligation, or a tool to prove something, it loses that element. I worked on scatting mainly by transcribing solos, both by instrumentalists and by singers I love.

RV: I’m a big fan of improvising with lyrics and I’m in total agreement with your feelings about improvising to “prove” something. That’s not musical. When I attended the 2010 Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition, it was thrilling to see you and the other finalists. Your soloing was so hip and very “Sassy.” Was that a Sarah Vaughan solo you sang? I remember the audience went crazy.
CMS: I actually don’t remember singing a Sarah Vaughan solo! It is, however, more than likely, that I was deeply influenced by her scatting at the time, and that it was noticeable.

RV: How did you prepare for the Monk Vocal Competition? What would you suggest to singers entering vocal competitions?
CMS: My mother suggested I send in an application. I had gotten rejected from another competition and lost one in the summer leading up to the Monk Competition so I entered it completely resigned and ready to have my application be rejected. Everything after that came as a surprise. I didn’t particularly prepare for the competition other than simply continuing to try and develop as a singer, as I normally would. My suggestion is to avoid approaching it like an exam one has to “cram” for. Developing as a musician should be an end in itself. It’s also important to know oneself, strengths and weaknesses, and above all, to try and remember that although it is a competition, it is mainly a performance, and musicality, emotion is key. The skills we develop as musicians are only in service of the music, of the stories we are trying to tell, of that common experience. In my opinion, singers should be in service of the song, and not the contrary. Even in the context of a competition, it is important to continually remind oneself of that.

RV: Thank you for the wisdom in your reply. Younger singers need to hear these words. We are in service of the music, absolutely. Would you recommend any singing or theory books, or computer or phone apps to singers who would like to pursue jazz singing?
CMS: My recommendation is to listen to music voraciously. I also think it is great to read books about the history of American popular music. I love Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz.

RV: Practice. How often do you practice technique? Do you still study voice? Do you have a specific practice method for learning new material and memorizing lyrics?
CMS: I don’t practice technique as much as I’d like to, but I try to develop my ear, by working at the piano and transcribing when I can. For me, learning new material and memorizing lyrics are done by repetition.

RV: You are a composer. If you had to list your favorite originals in a column, which would be first? I was very impressed and moved by your composition, “Look at Me.”
CMS: I would say “Left Over”

RV: I look forward to your growth as an artist and composer. Congratulations on the Grammy nomination for best vocal jazz album. What are your next goals and dreams?
CMS: I would like to continue developing as a musician, and to keep writing. I have so much to learn about music, it seems endless. I also want to teach eventually. I want to work on my piano playing, baroque singing, and visual art as well. I want to find a way, if possible, to combine my interests and do something positive with that, to help people.

Assistant: Elizabeth Tomboulian

Special thanks to advisors and editors:

Paul Wickliffe

Jeffrey Levenson

Originally Published