When putting together her latest project—Sing a Song of Bird, a dynamic production that features Charlie Parker compositions with new arrangements and lyrics—Roseanna Vitro nearly wrote herself off her own album. That wasn’t intentional; she was generously making room for the contributions of other singers, including Sheila Jordan, Marion Cowings, and the late Bob Dorough. However, when Vitro started the process of submitting the album for Grammy Awards consideration, she realized that she had to be on at least 51% of the disc for it to be categorized under her name and not as Various Artists. Her husband, the accomplished recording engineer Paul Wickliffe (also the album’s producer), meticulously counted the minutes; it turned out that she was on exactly 51% of the album.
Why is Vitro willing to share the spotlight to such an extent? She says it’s because she’s always aware of, and thankful for, all the mentors and supporters she’s had in the past. In addition to having a long career as a recording artist, performer, and educator, she’s worked hard to strengthen the community of jazz singers, by hosting a series of roundtables at the Jazz Connect conference and by creating “Voices in Jazz,” a column for this publication online, in which she’s so far interviewed more than two dozen vocalists about their lives and music.
“I’m definitely a team and family player,” she says. “I was already from a family that were givers and loving people. I learned not to be a bitch with other singers. And not to be a jerk to other musicians. The more I got into teaching, I found that I wanted to enhance our art. That’s why I wanted to do all those interviews, to have the stories of Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Carol Sloane, and all the different singers I talked to.”
For Vitro, it all started in a somewhat unlikely place for a modern jazz singer: Hot Springs, Arkansas, a hotbed for nightclubs and entertainment. Her father, an Italian-American from New York, had ties to the famous gangster-turned-club-owner Owney Madden and met her mother, then a waitress, at one of his clubs. “My mother was a beautiful tall redhead from the belly of Arkansas: Nashville, Arkansas,” Vitro recalls. When her parents split up, she moved with her mother to Texarkana. “We were on the Arkansas side—the poor side of town. I lived with my grandma and uncle and my mom. Me and my two sisters lived in one room in this apartment. It was humble beginnings.”
In those close quarters, the family shared a love of singing. “They’re all gospel singers. I mean, shouters and hollerers. My uncle Dalie and aunt Corine made a couple of gospel albums. My other two uncles both sang. Everybody could make up harmony. My mother was a beautiful soft-voice alto. She could pick the harmony in anything.”
Vitro was married for 10 months when she was 17, but when that marriage ended she decided she was not going to stay in Texarkana. “I was going to be a singer, hook or crook. I knew that Dallas and Houston were the two places you could go to do what I was looking to do. I knew one friend from Texarkana who was a real intellectual.” After graduating from high school in 1969, she moved to Houston to join that friend, Paige Arnold: “I took a Trailways bus for $200. I’d never even seen big buildings.”
It was the early ’70s, with all that entailed. She lived in a big house, commune-style, and soon found herself singing with rock bands. “I loved Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. I’d already sung classical music in school. I sang in All-State choirs. I took singing seriously and wanted to sing correctly. I was learning all the time.”
A bass player in the band she was singing with told her that she was actually a jazz singer, something she hadn’t considered. “I’d never heard any jazz at all at that point. I was 22 and I’m like, ‘Jazz? Well, I know “Misty.” Is that jazz?’” The bassist recommended her to singer Ray Sullenger, who invited her to sit in at one of his gigs and was impressed.
“It was unbelievable,” she remembers. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re the most talented singer I’ve heard in 10 years. I would coach you for free if you want to learn the jazz repertoire. I could hook you up with club dates and parties and you could start to work. I think you’d do great.’ I said okay. I used to ride my bicycle over to his house.” Most importantly, Sullenger connected Vitro with Bobby Henschen, a pianist who’s still alive and playing in Houston: “I became his club-date singer, for what we called the ‘crab claw parties.’ I’d sing for four hours and make $125, which seemed great. I loved Texas.”
From there, Vitro played some shows with tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb, then formed her own band, Roseanna with Strings & Things, with guitarist Scott Hardy and pianist Louis Rodriguez. She soon nabbed a regular gig at Houston’s Green Room, where she started putting together songs that would later end up on her debut album, 1984’s Listen Here (recently issued on CD for the first time). After a two-year run there and a stint as host of her own radio show, she again realized she’d need to move in order to reach her goals. “I was really famous in Houston. I thought, I don’t want to end up stuck here doing one of those gigs at the Top of the Whatever Hotel.” She and Hardy sold everything they had and drove to New York, knowing just a few people there: “We got there in 1978 and started touring to work. Man, it was hard. Talk about going from the top of the tree in Houston to the bottom of the barrel in New York.”
Undaunted, she worked at clubs, weddings, parties, etc., all over the five boroughs. “All the mafia guys wanted me to sing in their clubs because my name was Vitro. All the guys seemed to be named Patty. They told me, ‘If someone gets shot, just keep singing.’” She hit the jam sessions, got to know the players on the scene, and ended up living with pianist Fred Hersch and his roommate Ed Felson in a Greenwich Village loft right down the street from prime musicians’ hang Bradley’s. What she now calls her “unbelievable tenacity” enabled her to persevere, eventually going on to tour the world and record 14 albums for Concord, Telarc, Motéma, and other labels, including the Grammy-nominated The Music of Randy Newman in 2011.
“All the mafia guys wanted me to sing in their clubs because my name was Vitro. They told me, ‘If someone gets shot, just keep singing.’”
Vitro says that Sing a Song of Bird was a culmination of her 20 years of teaching. “When you teach vocal jazz in school, you meet singers that are taking voice lessons, studying classical and theater music, singing R&B, and so on. Not many of them know anything about singing jazz, so you start at square one.” She found herself teaching three Parker tunes: “Billie’s Bounce,” “Now’s the Time,” and “Anthropology.” “It’s not easy music. You have to swing and you have to be light enough, with a high level of precision.”
Bob Dorough was the project’s original catalyst. “He used to come see me at the Deer Head [in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.], wearing a white suit with a martini in hand. I told him that I’d never woodshedded on Charlie Parker because I thought so many of the lyrics [written to Parker tunes] were bad. He said, ‘I have this vocalese I’ve never finished.’ I said, ‘Really, what’s it about?’ He said, ‘Audubon, the guy who knew birds.’” The result: “Audubon’s New Bluebird,” on which Dorough sang lead. He also guested with Vitro on “The Scatter,” a new arrangement of Parker’s “Red Cross,” and with Vitro and Jordan on “These Foolish Things.” One of the few living musicians who knew Bird personally, Jordan sings on three additional cuts: “Bird’s Song,” “Quasimodo,” and “Sheila, Jazz Child,” her adaptation of Parker’s “Cheryl.”
The underrated vocalist Marion Cowings, known for his association with Jon Hendricks, shows his formidable technique and range on “Now’s the Time” and “Parker’s Mood.” Vitro says that when she first met Cowings back in 1978, he was singing those songs. “Marion came into the studio and sang those two heads and it was perfect,” she says. “He combines a Broadway theatrical voice with the smoothest bebop singer. He sings it better than King Pleasure, Jon Hendricks, or Eddie Jefferson. Really.” Gary Bartz, another friend from Vitro’s early New York days, is featured on the instrumental “Koko/Cherokee,” accompanied by Alan Broadbent (piano), Dean Johnson (bass), and Alvester Garnett (drums). Vitro arranged “Yardbird Suite” as a waltz and “Scrapple from the Apple” as a bossa nova. Wickliffe wrote new lyrics for three of the tunes, including a clever adaptation of “Steeplechase” that bemoans the downside of a modern fast-paced life.
Vitro says that the Charlie Parker estate loved the record and gave the necessary approvals for the adaptations. “Charlie Parker could be for everybody,” she says. “It used to be that singers would shy away from it because it’s too fast. I’m not really a bebop singer, so I made my arrangements according to who I am. What we teach in jazz school is that you learn all the information, but you have to do your own thing. This project so filled my heart. I’m not Jewish, but it’s a mitzvah for this Arkansas girl.”
Listen Here (1984; Skyline, 2021)
Passion Dance (Telarc, 1996)
Conviction: Thoughts of Bill Evans (A, 2001)
The Music of Randy Newman (Motéma, 2011)
Sing a Song of Bird (Skyline, 2021)