At the Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach, Va., between April 8 and 10, the Vocal Jazz Summit convened in person for the first time. The Summit originally began as the brain child of the theater’s Artistic Director Bart Kuebler and its Music and Community Series producer Elizabeth Terrell (also a jazz singer known professionally as Liz Terrell), who later invited vocalist Alexis Cole to collaborate in the programming and planning. The event was a hybrid of festival, conference, and workshop with performances, master classes, panels, and jam sessions all targeted at vocalists as well as vocal jazz fans. Among the artists who appeared as performers and/or clinicians were Kurt Elling, René Marie, Samara Joy, Melanie Charles, Dominique Eade, Stephanie Nakasian, and Jocelyn Medina.
Cole, who was inspired by the Summit planning to create the online community jazzvoice.com, served as artistic director and acted as a veritable host for the event, which enabled singers to share ideas and resources, both in-person and virtually. More than 100 vocalists and vocal jazz fans attended the events held over three days at the theater’s two state-of-the-art venues: a main stage with a capacity of 300 and a smaller room, the Studio Theater, that held about 100. The sessions were all streamed live, and participants from around the world commented and asked questions during the workshops and panels.
Kurt Elling kicked off the Summit on Friday night with a performance by his SuperBlue band featuring Charlie Hunter, Corey Fonville, and DJ Harrison. This electric, groove-oriented group might have seemed out of place at an event in which scatting and repertoire choice were certain to be hot topics. However, Elling did do a lot of scatting, perhaps more than he would have done at other SuperBlue shows, what with an audience of jazz vocal enthusiasts listening intently. And his much-heralded adaptations of jazz tunes with either his own lyrics or those of a noted poet offered plenty of lessons for singers wanting to create engaging music. Besides, there would be plenty of opportunities in the next few days to discuss how best to scat and how to handle the challenges of repertoire.
Indeed, one opportunity came right away during the first session on Saturday, a master class presented by Melanie Charles, who talked at first about her own evolution as a vocalist, explaining that she eventually realized “I don’t have to scat to call myself a jazz singer.” Other advice from the Brooklyn-born singer with Haitian family roots included advocating for yourself with sound people, learning how to record yourself, accompanying yourself on piano or guitar, and listening to different versions of a song when learning it and thereby looking for spaces that aren’t necessarily jazz. Charles then asked three different singers to come up to workshop a tune they’ve been wrestling with. Carolyn Lee Jones came up to sing “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and asked for input on scatting. What syllables would work best? Melanie said her Haitian background makes certain sounds appropriate for her and recommended that Carolyn explore her own Norwegian background for the sounds that felt right.
Sela Foster, a 17-year-old high-school junior, came up to sing a surprisingly mature “The Nearness of You,” after which Charles suggested redoing the tune, this time thinking more about the meaning of the lyrics. Finally, a retired music teacher initially struggled with her version of “If I Should Lose You” but was coached through it by Charles and the pianist Daniel Clark. She also had some trouble with an original but soared after Charles suggested that she sing it a cappella. That sort of personal and hands-on feedback would typify subsequent master classes conducted by René Marie and Stephanie Nakasian.
Later that same day, Marie opened her class by singing “Smile” a cappella, demonstrating the importance of bringing emotion to the delivery of a song. She discussed how things that are beneath the surface affect your singing. “It’s about being vulnerable,” she explained, and she proceeded to address vulnerability by asking the audience where they felt most comfortable singing. Naturally, the usual familiar locations—shower, car, kitchen—were suggested. Comfort zones all. She also recommended that they think of when they were children and sang without worrying about what anyone thought. “What did you feel then?” she asked. Marie explained that singers “can go to bed with our instrument and wake up with it as well, and that any criticism about our voice is a criticism about ourselves, so when we come up to the mic, we have internalized all these doubts and judgments.” But how to get out of them? She said that for her, the relationship with the audience is a key factor. “There’s a space between the singer and the audience,” she noted. “So how do you bridge the space between the singer and the audience?” There were all sorts of ideas from the singers in the audience, including an inverse of that old public-speaking saw of thinking of the audience as naked. In this version, it’s the performers who think of themselves as stripped—a notion that would resurface over the next few days, but one that not everyone felt comfortable with.
Marie also strongly recommended that singers practice by taking one tune in as many different keys and tempos as possible. She illustrated that approach when Sally Terrell came up to sing a powerful Carole King-style original called “Blue Piano” about her relationship with her father. Marie suggested that she try it as a bossa nova, and then in 6/8 time. The song seemed to have a new life.
When asked about choosing repertoire, Marie (known for her wide-open use of songs across many genres) told the story of an encounter early in her career with a noted Chicago jazz club owner, who reprimanded her to stay still and just sing standards. Though initially conflicted, the physically expressive and intellectually creative Marie said that she ignored his advice, did her own originals and moved about the stage for the rest of her run at the club—and was, ironically, rewarded with a favorable review by the noted jazz critic Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune. The message: Be true to yourself. Marie would even turn that experience into an “answer” song, “This for Joe,” which she recorded on her 2011 album Black Lace Freudian Slip.
In the next master class, Stephanie Nakasian took a more technical approach, offering instruction from two of her books—her singing text You Already Know How to Sing and her jazz rhythm manual It’s Not On the Page—all considerably enhanced by her fast-paced commentary and colorful asides. One of her central messages was that the goal of a singer is to tell a story and to connect with words, rhythm, and timing. A true singer’s singer, Nakasian also succinctly demonstrated how a singer could use pulsing quarter notes and sustain in a clear and distinct way.
In addition to the master classes, there were performances by the hosts in a series of teacher showcases, in which each vocalist would sing two songs with a house rhythm section of pianist Daniel Clark, bassist Chris Brydge and drummer Imre Katari, all players of note from the Richmond and Virginia Beach area. For instance, Nakasian showcased all that technique during her renditions of “Nica’s Dream” and “Close Your Eyes.” In most cases, these performances were followed by a vocal jam in which the attendees got onstage for a song or two in what was clearly a safe and supportive space. To name just one example, Liz Terrell ran through an original adaptation of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” with an arrangement she had been working on but hadn’t fully developed.
Both Cole and Samara Joy presented full-fledged concert sets on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Cole, who accompanies herself on piano, was backed by bassist David Finck and drummer Kenny Hassler. Her set featured a mix of standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “God Bless the Child,” and “The Girl from Ipanema” with originals, including a few from her album Sky Blossom, in which she revisited material from her time served in the U.S. Army. “American Anthem” was a particular highlight. Her duet with Finck on “Jitterbug Waltz” was also impressive.
In her event-closing concert, Joy was accompanied by that same rhythm section along with a longtime collaborator, guitarist Pasquale Grasso. Like Cole, Joy couldn’t resist doing a vocal/bass duet with Finck, in her case on “Say You Love Me.” Her chemistry with Grasso was particularly evident in their performance of “’Round Midnight.” The aptly named Joy has an old-soul quality with a deep affinity for the jazz tradition, as evidenced by her writing lyrics to notable jazz instrumental solos. The show culminated with a group scat that Joy set up as a competition, knowing full well that she had an audience ready and willing to sing in full voice. In just a few years, Joy has become an in-demand performer at clubs, theaters, and festivals all over the world, following a career path similar to those of singers like Cécile McLorin Salvant, Cyrille Aimée, Veronica Swift, and Jazzmeia Horn. But as much as these vocalists may share, they’re all individuals with their own distinct voices, which bodes well for the future of the music.
Earlier that day, in a panel moderated by Dominique Eade and featuring nearly all of the vocalist hosts, Joy—who studied with Cole at SUNY Purchase and is a product of the New York City public school system—talked about her recent experiences as an emerging artist dealing with the industry. She also shared that she didn’t get into jazz until her senior year of high school. The panel discussed the necessity of formal music education for vocalists; Marie pointed out that all of the great vocalists of the past had none and had to learn on the bandstand. However, she added that there are no shortcuts and that the learning process continues off the bandstand and out of school. Marie also responded with emotion and conviction to a query from a vocalist about how she could command respect from her sidemen: by knowing the tunes as well as they do and, more importantly, by not calling them sidemen, regardless of their gender. “The band doesn’t need you, they can play without you,” she said. “But you need them, so treat them as equals on the bandstand.” Another panel featured jazz radio hosts Jae Sinnett, Mary Foster Conklin, and Jack Frieden, who discussed the ways and means of airplay for vocal jazz recordings. Each explained their process for programming their shows.
In the end, the Vocal Jazz Summit offered a wealth of ideas, experiences, and career strategies for the attendees—who, it must be noted, were mostly women. Why there weren’t more men attending or, in a larger sense, why there aren’t more male vocalists in the field was never discussed. Nonetheless, the predominantly female composition of the event made for a supportive environment, which enabled the participants to take chances and explore new possibilities in their approach to singing jazz, whether they scatted or not. In much the same way that Roseanna Vitro has done in the past with her panel sessions and interviews, Cole and Terrell are well on their way to building a jazz vocal community, which should produce welcome benefits in the future.
Next year’s Vocal Jazz Summit will be held March 31 – April 2, 2023. For more information about the event, visit their website here.