What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Actually, the last time I posted (with the exception of the March on Washington post) was Summer 2012. I am referring to Summer 2013.

A lot has happened since then. During the last six months I have been focusing on major life events that have kept me from devoting a lot of time to my jazz singing. I kept up with things, but not as intensely as I have wanted  Here are some highlights:

  • I have continued with Jazz Band Masterclass (JBM). Since last year, there has been a lot of turnover in personnel. Only the bass player, Darwin Codigan, and myself are left from the original group. The current group is really beginning to find its groove. Fred Hughes continues to challenge us to go a little further with the tunes. I am still learning.
  • I performed with three time sat 49 West Coffee Shop and Wine Bar in Annapolis – once in November 2012,  once in June 2013, and once in October, 2013 – with three almost completely different groups. In both instances, I used scatting techniques to perform tunes that were written for horns. I have added a Repertoire page that lists the tunes I have learned.
  • In March, I had the unfortunate experience of learning that water and technology just don’t mix. My MacBook Air became a brick after it encountered water. I now use an iPad as my personal computer. I have updated the Technology section of the Resources page so you can see how I have adapted. And yes, I am anxiously awaiting the announcement of the next iteration of iPad.
  • And as for the major life events, I became a mother-in-law and a grandmother at the end of July, 2013, as my son married a wonderful woman, and adopted her daughter. I had the privilege of singing at the wedding. Life is good.

And so it goes. Expect to see more here in the next few months. I still love to sing jazz, and am looking forward to what lies ahead on this journey.

Lessons from my Father, Part 2

I grew up in Greenfield, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Our school district was separate from the Milwaukee County system. There was very little diversity. There were two African American students in my high school of around 1500. (Yes, you read that right, Two.)

My grandparents lived in Barron County, Wisconsin. Their view of the world was sometimes a little more confined. I remember times when we visited them, and Grandpa would talk about “those damned niggers.” And when he did, Mom and Dad would always fuss, and say, “Not in front of the kids!”

I was really confused about this. After all, I had experienced very little interaction with anyone whose skin color wasn’t lily white like mine at that point in my life. A few years after my dad’s passing, I asked Mom why Dad had that reaction to Grandpa’s remarks. She said, “Oh, Dad played jazz with them,” referring to the African American musicians with whom he played jazz. 

On a day like today, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I am grateful for a lesson learned. And thankful that jazz helps to bridge the divide between the races. At least for me.

Thanks, Dad.

Family Affirmation

Cheese and MugsI know it’s been a long time since I have posted. Don’t worry, I’m still singing jazz. I just took a vacation from posting. Come back often – there will be more.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to spend time with my extended family at our biennial Miller Family Reunion. This is held every other summer at a location close to a relative of mine. This year, it was held in Willmar, MN, close to my super-talented cousin, Bill Gossman. (Bill is a potter. Check out his marvelous work at www.gossmanpottery.com. He also made the cups in the photo. )

One of the traditions at this reunion is the family talent show. I had entered before in the singer-songwriter genre, but it always seemed forced, and I was never very comfortable. This year, I was able to sing jazz. A couple of weeks before the reunion, I sent lead sheets another super-talented cousin, Duke Sharp, my brother Jim Reichart, and Jim’s son Jonathon, who accompanied me (on guitar, drums, and piano respectively) as I sang “God Bless the Child.” They were able to practice some before I got there, and it went off without a hitch. All of that practice of how to begin and end a tune and explain what I wanted paid off royally.

Before I sang, I described how my voice teacher, Alison Crockett, told me that “musically, you’re good, and vocally, you’re good. You just need to get out there and sing.” When the judges came back after conferring, they said they agreed with her. And I won. (Note the Mac and Cheese – it stems from a story that I’ll gladly tell over a beer.) I also sang Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore, and “Route 66″ during a jam session the next night.

Winning was gratifying, but what was even more gratifying was how comfortable I was when I sang. It’s so much a part of me now it’s second nature. And it was amazing to be able to show my family that I finally found my voice.

Lessons from my Father

I had an interesting experience last week. I sang at the monthly Jazz Jam, the same one from my last post.  I sang three tunes, (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, I Could Write a Book, and In a Mellow Tone) and even had charts for the one tune that I don’t sing in the original key. It went very well. I was extremely comfortable, and people seemed to enjoy it.

After I sang, another vocalist got up to sing. He took control of the situation immediately, asking folks to clap, drawing attention to himself. It was very clear that he expected to be the center of attention.  He was good, and it worked for him. However, this is the polar opposite of what I aspire to be as a jazz vocalist.

I was describing this experience to my sister, Nancy, and she reminded me of something our father taught us as we were learning the craft of music. And that was musicianship.

Dad (John Howard Reichart) was a jazz trumpet player. He was also the band director at my local high school. In his role as teacher, he didn’t have much patience for those students who expected to be the center of attention, but didn’t have the time or discipline to practice. He expected all his students to put the work into being a musician (myself included), and to respect others who did the same. In his work as a jazz educator, I can only remember one time when he played with the high school jazz band (called the Esquires).  His students were always wanting him to play, but for him, it wasn’t the time or place. He never wanted or needed to be the center of attention. It was always about the music, and teaching musicianship to those in his bands.

Fast forward to today. Since I started learning to sing jazz, I have aspired to be a not just a jazz vocalist, but a jazz musician. This means practicing, learning the form of a tune, and respecting the talent in myself and others. It also means that, when singing or playing jazz, that I am part of something that’s bigger than myself. Yes, there are moments when I am given the opportunity to solo. And then there are moments when others shine. It is this give and take that makes music, especially in jazz.

So thanks, Dad, for teaching this lesson again. Even though you haven’t been around for a while, you still continue to teach. And for that I am grateful.

Jumping In

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I have been taking jazz voice lessons from the amazing Alison Crockett. My plan when I started was to study for three or four months until I got my chops up. That being said, my last lesson was just a few days ago.

Alison’s admonition to me was this: Vocally, you’re good. Musically, you’re good. You just need to get out there and sing.

Well, today, I did that. I went to a jam session at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt, right in my neighborhood. I sang three tunes – Route 66, Gentle Rain, and All the Things You Are. I was nervous. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t horrible either.

I had a conversation with Terry Koger, (who plays a mean alto sax) after I sang. He said that for vocalists, it makes a really big difference if the vocalist knows the tunes, has the lead sheets, and knows the keys and tempos in which he/she wants to sing. I did great on the keys, but not so much on the tempos – I should have been more assertive about that.

All in all, it was a good experience, and I plan to do more of these. The jam season I did today is a monthly session. And as I do this more often, I will be more comfortable and confident as I sing.

What Have I Learned in 2011?

I have had quite a year when it comes to singing jazz. I think about where I was when 2011 started. I knew what I wanted to do, but had a hard time figuring out how to get there. Here is a synopsis of my take-aways.

  • Working with a combo – I have been with the same Jazz Band Masterclass for just over a year. I still have a lot to learn when it comes to singing with a jazz combo, but I’m a lot further along than I was at the end of 2010. The big lesson is communication as we are playing. It’s almost a game of “who’s on first” – who’s taking the solo when.
  • Practicing is important – It’s sometimes boring, sometimes revealing, and sometimes fun, but practice sessions are essential for building my voice. All year, Fred Hughes, our facilitator, kept driving this one home. Scales, chords, songs, you name it. Now, I will admit, I don’t practice every day. But when I do, I can usually get 30-45 minutes in, and it makes a world of difference at the next rehearsal or voice lesson.
  • Our first performance – The combo had its first performance in June at Twins Jazz Club on U Street. It went better than any of us expected – everyone brought their “A” game, and we all felt good about what happened that night. We were honored to have Wes “Warm Daddy” Anderson and Jeff Antoniuk sit in with us on some of the numbers. It was an amazing night.
  • Voice lessons – I started taking voice lessons in October from the amazing Alison Crockett. Through Alison, I have discovered a totally different way to sing jazz using my chest voice. It’s actually kind of a talk/sing technique. I have gotten to know this chest voice very well, and we have taken some journeys together singing amazing things. I never knew I could sing that low!

And the last thing I learned . . .

  • Being Diva is OK, but not to the detriment of the whole – One of my posts this year was about being the Antithesis of Diva. I have learned since then that as a vocalist, I need some amount of diva in order to be the best singer I can be. By this I mean confident, poised, and expressive as I sing, and in between songs when I perform. The more confident I am in my singing ability, the more this becomes reality.

So what will 2012 bring? Who knows. But I’m going to keep on singing.

Chest Voice vs. Head Voice

I’ve been singing for a long, long time. My first solo was when I was five years old, in kindergarden. Our class was singing “Spoon Full of Sugar” from “Mary Poppins.” I was five years old, and my teacher said, “Mary, you have such a pretty voice.” Long story short, I sang by myself for both kindergarden classes. No inhibitions, totally free.

When I went to college, I was still singing with that “pretty” voice. I became classically trained, always singing with support, in my pretty head voice. When I sang with my guitar, same thing. The pretty voice.

Now I sing jazz. I had my first voice lesson tonight with Alison Crockett. Alison was one of the teachers from Maryland Summer Jazz three years ago when I rediscovered this genre. In tonight’s lesson, she had me sing in my chest voice. Say, what? Yes. My chest voice. There was a resonance in my chest when I sang. It’s all so foreign to me now, but I liked it. It’s a lot more gritty than I’m used to.

I’ll be working on “Thou Swell,” and “Just in Time” for the next lesson. It will be in an interesting ride. Hello, chest voice. So happy to meet you . . .

Antithesis of Diva

At our last JBM rehearsal, I had a conversation with Fred about vocalists. The conversation caused me to realize yet again the role of a vocalist in a jazz group.

Jazz, in its essence, is communal. Most everyone’s instrument is featured at some point in a song. It’s a musical conversation where everyone gets a chance to speak. In a spoken conversation, it’s always uncomfortable when someone dominates and overtakes it. You’ve been there…someone pontificates about their knowledge or beliefs, and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. In jazz, it’s just as uncomfortable.

I think it’s important for jazz vocalists to realize that playing well with others is an essential skill in jazz. It’s not a situation where the rest of the instruments are back-up for the vocalist. In other words, there is no room for diva-ness. Ever.

First Performance

Tonight, after months of practice, our combo, Project 6, will take the stage at Twins Jazz tonight at 9:30. In addition, two other combos from the Jazz Band Masterclass program will be performing, one at 7:30 and one at 8:30.

We will perform a set of seven songs. I have memorized the order of the songs, and what we plan to do with each one, fully realizing that this is jazz, and it’s subject to change. I keep telling myself to remember to breathe . . .both now and on stage. Breath support will play a major role as to whether I am on pitch or not.

I have also been thinking more about how the voice is another instrument in the combo. It’s not all about the vocalist, and it doesn’t need to be. I have told the group that if I ever start showing signs of diva, please, shoot me and put me out of my misery.

So what am I feeling at this point about my journey? A little nervous, very excited, and proud of this first milestone.

Beginning and Ending

Last week’s rehearsal was simply awesome. The rhythm section is really coming together well. I think we all left feeling good about things.

The one thing we discussed was beginning and ending a song. What are the possibilities of beginning a song? V to Vsus? Last four bars? What’s appropriate for the tune? And how should the tune end? Should we tag it? Should it just end?

Fred mentioned that most jazz musicians are uncomfortable taking the lead. When I started Jazz Band Masterclass as a vocalist, I fit right in to that category. I realized that I need to step up and get over it. Time to lead.

As with all things, beginning and ending a tune is a skill that takes practice. So, as I practice, I will be thinking through and practicing starting and ending as much as I can. Hopefully the results will be evident at our next rehearsal.