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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 December 10, 2014:

Mariah & Me: The Art (and the Craft) of Singing Live

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

  Browse all posts...

Posted on April 1, 2013:

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

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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Wednesday, December 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Mariah & Me: The Art (and the Craft) of Singing Live

In a previous blog I mentioned that a soundperson can make or break your performance. Treat them nicely and thank them profusely. If I have had a particularly good show, I will sometimes announce them as the nth band member. Well, apparently a lot of people don't do this, because the Internet has been flooded recently with unmixed vocal-only tracks.

First of all it is wrong and illegal to publish unauthorized recordings. But that doesn't stop anyone. And while I am guilty of taking pleasure in some pop star's inability to sing live, it has now gotten to the point where the public is one who has no clue what a live performance is all about and what it should sound like.

My husband recently forwarded me a video of Mariah Carey performing live at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony. I listened for a minute and asked, "Does it get bad later?" He shrugged his shoulders. I listened all the way through, gasping only at the fact that she was wearing little and then threw off her shrug to reveal bare arms, throat and chest in frigid New York weather. Did she sound bad? No. Did she not hit some of the highest notes on her studio recording? Yes? Did she substitute notes that were harmonically appropriate and execute the substituted notes in rhythm? Yes. So what do you all want? A lip-synced stripshow? Probably.

The voice, like every acoustic instrument, does not like the cold. Even Yoyo Ma used a prerecorded track for an outdoors Presidential performance. It is unreasonable for people to execute everything live like they do on a studio recording. It is absolutely positively unreasonable to expect a vocalist to hit her entire range like she did in the studio while performing outside in New York city in December.

Yes, I understand she was unprofessional by not showing up on time, missing her sound check and not prerecording a track. She is going through a major divorce; cut her some slack. I could barely sing at times of major stress. When going through my divorce, I sometimes cried in the middle of a ballad, which then would swell up my throat, resulting in choked notes. That is what live performance is all about.

Second, why is it that horn players can crack notes all over the place but if vocalists crack, flub or even this case simply avoid a note, they suddenly "can't sing" And without hearing the backing musicians I am sure it makes little sense to anyone but other music professionals. Singing acapella is much different than singing with a loud band outside with no sound check. If we listened to Miles Davis' trumpet extracted from "My Funny Valentine" (recorded live at a NAACP concert), I am not sure it would hold up to the scrutiny of this generation. Nor should it. It was live, there were other musicians on stage and whatever "mistakes" are part of the grief felt in connection with the string of assassinations during the Civil Rights movements (including Medgar Evers, the four little girls killed in the Alabama church bombing and the high-profile 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy).

Third and finally, people need to go out and hear some real live music. Not simply the pre-recorded concerts in stadiums that revolve around spectacle and highly choreographed dance numbers, but real live music. A Jazz club. A Blues club. A Gospel church (preferably Pentecostal, where people catch the spirit and start riffing). Listen to nothing but live music for a year. Heck! Just listen to live music for 30 days and, just like a food cleanse where you need to cut out all sugar before you can finally taste the extreme sweetness of fresh fruits and vegetables, you will develop your taste and appreciation for live music.

Even if you can't get out every night and you have to rely on couple of live albums recorded by some of the masters of jazz you will hear Ella Fitzgerald occasionally sounded flat, especially during the Chick Webb years. The smoother than smooth Joe Williams' voice cracking on "Live at Birdland." The one and only Betty Carter cracking wildly out of control with a fierceness and beauty. And finally, Sarah Vaughan forgetting the lyrics so badly on "Thanks for the Memory" that she has to stop and restart the band several times in a row. And there are scads of crappy, obscure Billie Holiday live CDs in bargain bins.

In short, the general public's expectations today in regards to live music is pretty similar to a guy who has never made love but has watched a lot of porn at home. The expectations are unrealistic and the focus is not on the things that matter. Trying being present. Put your phone camera down and enjoy the show. Be in the moment and be glad you are there live. Your energy is part of the performance.

I am not Mariah fan, mind you, but there is no doubt in my mind that the woman can sing. The problem is most people have not learned how to be audience members.

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.



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