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The JazzWest Blogs: Kim Nalley
About the Author

Named one of the "Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area," Kim Nalley is hailed as one of world's best jazz & blues singers. Visit Kim online at kimnalley.com.

Recent Posts

Posted on September 2, 2013:

On Singers "Sitting In" and the Importance of Female Mentorship in Jazz

Posted on July 29, 2013:

Florida Goddam... Thoughts on Race, Music and Trayvon Martin

Posted on July 15, 2013:

The Secrets of a Successful Singer: The Art (and Craft) of 'Woodshedding'

Posted on July 1, 2013:

Raising Voices in Support of San Francisco City College

Posted on April 1, 2013:

Music To Birth Babies By... One Mom's List

  Browse all posts...

Posted on February 1, 2013:

The Joys of Singing Gershwin

Posted on November 8, 2012:

Illegal, Immoral, Insensitive... or Just A Matter of Technology?

Posted on May 27, 2012:

"I Can't Get Started"... My Early Days as an Aspiring Singer

Posted on January 23, 2012:

True Confessions of a Pregnant Jazz Singer

Posted on January 3, 2012:

Need to Sharpen Your Vocal Skills? There's an App for That...

Posted on February 28, 2011:

My Last Gig with Jazz Legend Allen Smith

Posted on January 31, 2011:

An Old-Fashioned, Bona Fide Rent Party

Posted on November 1, 2010:

Life is Short and Difficult... Carpe Diem!

Posted on October 11, 2010:

Books, Best Friends, and an Impromptu Café Concert

Posted on August 16, 2010:

25 Things I Wish Somebody Told Me When I Was 18

Posted on July 28, 2010:

Packing 101: Tips from a Time-Tested Traveler

Posted on July 6, 2010:

33 Early Jazz Influences (because 25 is SO FaceBook)

Posted on March 23, 2010:

Music from the Streets

Posted on February 1, 2010:

Chick Webb: The Forgotten Little Giant

Posted on December 28, 2009:

A Christmas Quandary for the Bay Area Jazz Vocalist

Posted on December 4, 2009:

When Is a Friend Not Really a Friend?

Posted on November 6, 2009:

Q&A with Jazz Singer & Ex-Pat Daline Jones

Posted on September 8, 2009:

The Great American Music Hall Saga, Part II

Posted on August 27, 2009:

Tough Times for Jazz Festivals

Posted on August 19, 2009:

Blue Mondays

Posted on July 31, 2009:

Google Alerts, Birthday Wishes and a Few Pulled Strings

Posted on July 13, 2009:

Jazz That Makes You Wanna Get Up & Dance

Posted on July 1, 2009:

Gigantism in Jazz: Is Bigger Always Better?

Posted on June 25, 2009:

The Jazz Pantheon & the Cult of Celebrity

Posted on June 4, 2009:

Getting Recognized in Public: "You Look So Normal..."

Posted on May 27, 2009:

When is a Monitor NOT a Monitor?

Posted on May 14, 2009:

Bittersweet Memories of Mothers Day 2001

Posted on May 12, 2009:

When is a Jazz Singer NOT a Jazz Singer?

Posted on May 5, 2009:

A Mystery Resolved: Why Jazz Singers Do So Many Covers

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 29, 2009:

True Confessions of a Jazz Singer's Husband

Posted on April 10, 2009:

Denise Perrier's Fine Form the "Second Time Around"

Posted on March 23, 2009:

The Blessings of a Struggling Artist

Posted on March 10, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part II: The Autograph Mafia

Posted on March 8, 2009:

A Star Is Born, Part I: Signing Autographs

Posted on March 2, 2009:

I'm Beginning to See the Light...

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa & Friends in the Early 1980s

Posted on February 25, 2009:

BJ Papa (1936-2008): A Musician Remembered

Posted on February 23, 2009:

Valentine's Day for the Working Jazz Singer

Posted on February 16, 2009:

Memorial Services for Publicist Ave Montague

Posted on February 12, 2009:

New Vince Guaraldi Documentaries in the Works

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Monday, September 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm

On Singers "Sitting In" and the Importance of Female Mentorship in Jazz

"Sitting in" is one of the important cultural rites in the jazz community. Musicians sit in at jam sessions and, if they are established enough, sit in at someone else's show. It is something that not only hones your skill as a musician, but it gives you the opportunity to build new fans and to be seen by different jazz programmers. For most of my career, I received my gigs by someone seeing me; not by giving someone a promo package. For example, I got a gig at Jazz at Pearl's by sitting in with the regular band, not by giving Sonny and Pearl a promo package. Sitting in is a means of introduction, and also a stamp of approval. The artist who allows a musician to sit in at their gig is tacitly vouching for them. This is a great system except for the fact that it is often not singer-friendly.

At jam sessions a singer is allowed one tune. If they are good, they are given a second tune and that is it. It is hard to build up your chops with only 1-2 tunes. It takes 1-2 tunes to warm up. I would wait all evening envious of the saxophonist who got to solo multiple chorus' on several tunes, often times coming up in the middle of a hot tune furtively whisper-yelling "Can I have a piece of that?" With the jerk of a chin answer, they would jump in the tune at their first chance.

At Muziki Roberson's jam down at the Tropical Haight in San Francisco back in the day, the hot tunes were usually "Bolivia" or "Nancy." Sometimes Joe Henderson or Merle Sanders would come down, to everyone's excitement. One time Sonny Simmons came in and since he was considered jazz royalty, he got to sit in right away, shredding several tunes in a row to the delight of the audience who kept stuffing money in the tip jar. When Simmons finished, he stuck his hand in the tip jar, grabbed a fistful of money and walked out before anyone could say a word. It was a great jam session. Although I was only allowed two tunes at the jam, Muziki hired me to do an every Sunday gig with him at Tropical Haight. He even would come to my place to rehearse me.

The other great jam session in town was Vince Wallace's at Schooner's on Valencia Street in the Mission. Vince was hard-core bop. He would bend Picasso-like and pale-faced over his horn, spewing out impossible long solos that became increasingly more melodic with each passing chorus. Vince never resorted to the hackneyed and his preference for melodic improvisation made it easy for me to follow him. I watched in rapture, anxious for my tunes. Because I only got 1-2 tunes I would scat as long as I could before giving up the microphone. Then one day Vince said I could sit in on every tune if I wanted to at any point in the song. The only restriction was that I had to sing lyrics — no scatting! I was over the moon and came every week with standards books and listened to every tune asking softly, "What tune is this?" Then I would flip through the table of contents to see if there were lyrics for the song. After following along to a few solos, I would finally get the tune down well enough to jump on the bandstand and sing the lyrics for a couple of choruses. I loved this arrangement because musicians would often play two-feel on the head in and head out and start swinging as soon as the vocalist stopped. I hated that and wanted the band to swing hard behind me. At Vince's jam I could just jump in during the middle of a tune, just like a horn player.

Even though I was blessed to have a few wonderful people give me great opportunities for sitting in such as Scotty Wright, and above and beyond largesse like Denise Perrier, who would pass out my flyers to HER audience, for the most part musicians don't like singers sitting in. Famous musicians, whose names will go unmentioned, would expect to sit in at MY gigs, but never returned the favor. I have been given the excuse of there being no microphone available and when I replied that I didn't need a microphone I have been told, "No singers." At a jam session at SMOKE in Harlem when I sat in and called "The Very Thought of You" a drummer got mad and yelled that he had waited all night to sit in and he didn't want a ballad. There had been four burners in a row and the room needed a slower tune, plus my vocal chords were cold. The drummer refused to play, so I decided to sit down, but the audience became outraged and yelled for me to come back on. I ended up singing my tune wonderfully enough to get mentioned in the local jazz paper and I'm sure the drummer got an earful from Harold Mabern about the importance of ballads.

It is difficult for vocalists to find mentorship, especially in regards to sitting in. Can you imagine Wynton Marsalis strolling uninvited onto Miles Davis' stage if he were a vocalist? It just wouldn't happen. Have you ever heard of a vocalist being called a "Young Lion"? Or a "Young Lioness"?; The fact that most instrumentalists are male and most singers are female sets up a troubling pattern of de jure discrimination. The jazz world tends to be biased against females in general, so being a female vocalist is a double strike. Often I see high school all-star jazz bands who are all male with no vocalist or even a female instrumentalist in the band and I think to myself, here is another opportunity lost both for singers and for women, and more importantly for the band to learn how to play behind singers and work with females. The divide simply becomes vaster. Short of quotas, the best way to combat this pattern is for us female vocalists to mentor and support young female vocalists, because they are unlikely to be given a chance by others. Especially a chance that has no sexual strings attached.

People often think singers are catty and jealous, but I love my sisters and have gotten wonderful support from singers such as Denise and Lavay Smith. When I came to Dizzy's Club in Jazz at Lincoln Center, I met an up and coming singer and did not hesitate to invite her to sit in. Some people probably think I am crazy. I have only played at Jazz at Lincoln Center twice and this was my first time at Dizzy's, so my reputation was on the line. I don't think of myself as a big deal but I realize that when I was starting out having any regular gig was a big deal and Jazz at Lincoln Center is an apex in the scene. I can't play at JALC and Monterey Jazz and SFJAZZ and think of myself as starting out. That is as annoying as the people who make $80K in the Bay Area and don't consider themselves middle-class. You have to give back to the community.

The younger singer whom I let sit in is named Antoinette Henry. She did an amazing job and I'm very proud of her for rising to the challenge. She has a lithesome trained voice and an approach that it is original yet steeped in black musical traditions. I would write about our encounter, but Antoinette did fabulous job writing about it on her blog. I invite you to read it for yourself and listen to the video of her sitting in with my band.


Monday, July 29, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Florida Goddam... Thoughts on Race, Music, and Trayvon Martin

I'm on a plane to New York. This is the first time in a long time that I have travelled without my baby, and it feels strange. My last trip to New York was to perform at the Allen Room in jazz at Lincoln center, and traveling was a crazy mess. CDs weigh a ton and packing toys 2 sets of clothes and pajamas per day for an infant plus carseat stroller etc...left me with no space for myself. I took one gig dress and 2 non-gig outfits. I didn't bring any reading material because my arms were full of my little one. My back and arms throbbed with pain.

Today I feel light and I suddenly remember the old feeling of traveling before the baby... that quiet netherworld between one place and another. Time and space to reflect prepare and transition.

I should be thinking about the music. I am playing with Eric Reed, an amazing pianist and skillful accompanist. I met him at Umbriajazz over a decade ago. He was playing with my favorite singer, San Francisco native Mary Stallings. I was playing outside in the piazza and at a restaurant called La Rosa. Mary introduced me to Eric and, unlike many jazz musicians who can be dismissive of young singers, he was very nice to me. When I called him for the Dizzys gig, he wrote, "Ms. Nalley! What took you so long? I've been waiting for you!" I could hear the laughter jump from his email.

I know I am in good hands working with Eric, but it is still a new band for me and I should be thinking of the set list, keys, rehearsals. I am supposed to record with saxophonist Houston Person in the daytime as well, and I left the baby at home so I could concentrate on my job. I now have the luxury of six hours to think uninterruptedly about music... but all I can do is think about race and music.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy seems to have permeated everyone's thoughts. There have been many other racial cases in my lifetime, but none have seem to have had the same emotional effect on me. I am supposed to be doing the music of Billie Holiday, but am sure I will sing the song that I wrote for Trayvon instead of "Strange Fruit." I would sing both songs, but I don't think I can handle both in one show, two shows a night. I think about Abel Meeropol (a white, Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx and a member of the Communist Party, who wrote "Strange Fruit" as a protest against lynchings, originally composed as a poem before Billie recorded it back in 1939) and what moment possessed him to write about the horrific imagery and legacy of lynching in the American South. I think about the difference between doing "Strange Fruit" during parlor parties in the safety of one's home (as Meeropol and his wife did), as opposed to singing it in public at a club and then making your way back home after the gig in the middle of the night, as Billie Holiday did. I think about the difference between the song coming from white lips as opposed to black lips, the difference coming from female lips as opposed to male lips the lips of someone who sings as a hobby or a professional only just starting out as opposed to the the lips of someone who has great respect as an artist.

I recently sang "Blues for Trayvon Martin" live in Mendocino. I had no microphone and no idea how the predominately white audience would receive it. When I finished a white woman came to me with her eyes full of tears and told me she had two African American sons and was so happy that I sang the song. I hugged her tightly as one mother to the other.

It is hard to write songs, much less protest songs. Although there is still inequality in our world, it is not as overt and institutionalized as in the past. Many of the most substantial advances were fought for and won by my parents and other ancestors. The fight that remains is like a formerly obese person trying to lose the last 20 lbs, slow difficult and by many people's eyes unnecessary. And even after you lose all the weight the skin remains.

On August 26, I will be part of a march on Washington 50th anniversary presentation at Palo Alto City Hall, produced by Claibourne Carson and the MLK Institute at Stanford. As I watch the footage of Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the songs of civil rights protesters I think about the power of vocal song. It is not implied or simply dedicated. Lyrics put the message in your face. I love jazz and the play of harmony, rhythm and improvisation, but I can't help but think I should sing folk music… music with lyrics that say something more profound than the promised kiss of springtime. Perhaps that is why Nina Simone considered herself more of a black folk singer than a jazz musician.


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