Jazz vocalist Tina May talks to Lou Beckerman about her life in jazz…
Tina May is a highly versatile jazz vocalist and recording artist with a phenomenally busy international career. I first met her about six years ago. Since then I’ve encountered only a huge sincerity, generosity of spirit, sharing and fun in her performance, teaching and general being. It was a pleasure to conduct and subsequently work on this interview for Sussex Jazz Magazine which we fitted-in between her afternoon vocal workshop and evening performance with the Wayne McConnell Trio (Wayne McConnell on piano; George Trebar on bass; Milo Fell on drums) at The Verdict jazz club in Brighton on 18th July.
Can you tell us about early influences… I think your dad was a great supporter of jazz so was his influence significant?
“Dad was a very good amateur stride piano player. Although he had studied he played very much by ear and he just loved Fats Waller, Earl Hines and others in a similar vein. So I listened to that. I remember as a six year-old the joy and fun of Slim and Slam doing Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy and Cement Mixer. My mum had always sung (she was a really lovely singer) and played the piano (and probably would have taken it further given the opportunity) and I remember doing duets with her. She played tunes from the shows and would only do things from music so, if it was a Duke Ellington tune, for instance, she would play just whatever was in front of her. So she actually liked quite modern stuff (for then) such as Ellington and beyond, whereas dad was much more 20’s and 30’s but together we covered quite a lot of jazz! I studied classical clarinet at school and my sister played fiddle. I remember playing along with the Count Basie Orchestra and seeing where I could fit in.”
Did you have an inkling then that this would be your path?
“I don’t know that I even thought about it that way. I just loved it. Subliminally I thought ‘I love this; I want to be part of this’, but it didn’t go further than that. There was the Gloucester Young People’s Orchestra where I was playing clarinet and bass clarinet. Then they needed a singer and so from aged sixteen onwards I did classical singing every Saturday morning. I had a fantastic teacher – she was wonderful. She knew I wanted to do the light material. I wasn’t really interested in opera, although I did like Puccini and some of the lighter pieces. Either way I knew I wanted to get to grips with the voice as an instrument. I found that this has been my saving grace as I’ve never hurt myself even though I sing practically all the time.”
You’ve had the necessary scaffolding in place…
“Yes I’ve ‘got the chops’ as they say.”
So you went on to music college?
“No. Because my dad didn’t want me to do music and drama, which is what I wanted, I changed it to French and drama. Tragically my mum, who was my biggest supporter, died young – I was 19 years old and just ready to go out into the world. Dad had a real fear of this business. He really didn’t think you could possibly survive in this work (though I don’t think I really cared). My elder sister was a doctor and he was worried about which path I would take. Anyway, the other thing I loved was languages so I dropped the drama and did just French. But from day one I was acting and singing, which I loved, and in fact got my equity card even before I sat my finals!”
“When I got to Paris I knew I wanted to visit all the jazz clubs. I do think if this is what you want to do you’ll find a way and meet like-minded people. There was no career path then. Maybe there is now but I don’t think there was even a jazz college then. They hadn’t even started in Leeds. I just listened a lot.”
One reviewer described you as ’technically gifted’. However I feel the word ‘gifted’ can underplay the amount of sheer graft you must have also put in to honing your craft…’
“Yes – hours! Long notes while other people were going out. But I could see there was a point to it. I wanted the freedom to do what all the saxophonists were doing.”
So have you learned primarily from horn players or from vocalists?
“Being a clarinettist helped me. And much later on when I got to hear Cleo Laine live I could hear that, of course, she was doing amazing things. Johnny (Dankworth) would write a solo for the alto and she would respond. That for me was almost like the missing link and I thought ’why not – of course it can be done.’ They made it very palatable with beautiful arrangements. Cleo is another one who honed her craft. She’s still got amazing chops.”
So that was your own education in jazz but how important is it, in turn, for you to be an educator – to pass on what you know?
“I want to hand it on. It’s such hard work on your own. I think it’s always been like that. If you look back in jazz, musicians took other young people under their wing. Like Monk and Bud Powell. There’s Ellington and Strayhorn. I’m not putting myself in that category but I feel if you can stop somebody from making some unnecessary mistakes, you can, at least, nudge them in a direction. You still have to find your own way; in jazz you’ve got to find your own voice – but people can still be helped. For me I think I would be terribly selfish and mean-spirited not to teach. I want to share it. Music is for sharing. And there’s the whole vocal instrument to become acquainted with and master of. It’s really important that we protect this poor little reed – this tiny flap of skin. I think there’s a lot of mystery surrounding voices and I try to de-mystify it. It’s important and I don’t want anyone to hurt themselves.”
You’ve taught at top institutions and conservatoires such as Trinity and Leeds Colleges of Music, Birmingham Conservatory, Royal Academy, Paris Conservatoire and also international jazz summer schools (and Brighton Jazz School today). I understand you’ve also worked with all ages starting with the very young…
“Yes I love that. The youngest I’ve worked with are children leaving infant school. I did BBC Schools Jazzamataz for seven year-olds which went round the world. It was very popular. There was another one called Dig It. Foolishly the BBC stopped it when the plug was pulled on several radio educational series (they weren’t considered sexy on radio). A lot of music – in particular jazz – doesn’t get a chance in the media. Radio is a fantastic and fun way of reaching people. When I was working with Humphrey Littleton he absolutely nailed it when he said ‘We must hold on with an iron grip to silliness!’. For the good of the soul you need to be able to throw your head back and laugh at life (‘and at oneself I guess…’). Absolutely! It’s part of the music – there is tragi-comedy in everything.”
Apart from a busy UK schedule you’ve travelled extensively with your work – Australia, USA, the Far East, Tuscany, Paris…worldwide really…’
“Yes – ‘a wondering troubadour’!”
How have you managed to balance work/ play/ family and friends?
“Well there was a time when the balance was really tricky because I brought up my daughter and son pretty much on my own, and I turned down more work than I took – certainly with foreign trips. It’s only recently that I felt I could go. Luckily some people believed in me and still wanted me to do it. When I went to New York to record with Ray Bryant at the Rudy Van Gelder studio it was my daughter Gemma’s eighth birthday and I made sure she came. Ben, my son, also came with me to Australia and Hong Kong so I’ve always tried to make them a part of it. Both of them have been backstage in some very nice theatres! Gemma knew the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook show absolutely note for note and she was prompting me from the side of the stage (especially when – in the spirit of Ella – I was forgetting things and making them up!).”
I’ve lost count of the number of albums you’ve recorded.
You have a long-established recording relationship with the 33 Jazz Records label. There’s one with Linn Records and two with Hep Records (with another on the way in January)…
“Hep is based in Scotland but they get very good distribution in the States. That’s with a little big band – which is groovy. My most recent one is with Enrico Pieranunzi Home Is Where the Heart Is. He is a Rome-based amazing pianist. It’s with his music but my lyrics and a few standards. I’ve put lyrics to a Chet Baker solo on Night Bird which Chet recorded with Enrico in the seventies. It nearly drove me insane – took several drafts until I was happy but it was a marvellous process and another challenge. I love that. We had only a day and a half in the studio and were joined by Tony Coe on two tracks. I know there’s no one way to do anything, and it rather depends on the song, but for me it should be one take while we’re all reacting to each-other.”
A little more about writing… Apart from the ones you’ve mentioned I know you’ve written lyrics to Kenny Wheeler’s Gentle Piece and Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus amongst many others. Do you also compose?’
“Generally I collaborate with melody-writers. There’s the Ray Bryant Song Book – which I’m very proud of. I’ve got lots of half-written things which I shall finish one day. I suppose because I didn’t have a formal training (I did a literary degree) I’ve felt I’ve always been more of a wordsmith and that I was better at that. Mostly people ask me to do it – like Ray. I had written some lyrics to a couple of Bobby Watson tunes so he said ‘why don’t you write for some of mine….’ I don’t tend to foist myself upon composers but I do absolutely love to write. That’s something that I feel I can contribute because it’s new material for singers. The more we can trust ourselves to release our ideas as opposed to making them happen the better they are.”
We are of course forever changing as creative beings but is there one album that you feel defines you as an artist? One that you’re particularly proud of? If I were to recommend an album to somebody which one might typify Tina May…
“There are different shades. For instance my duo album with Nikki Isles is very special. Then my latest album with Enrico is also special because it has deeper colours and my own lyrics so people won’t necessarily know all the music. And there were some really important pieces on The Ray Bryant Song Book.”
Let’s talk about your collaborations. Your alliance with pianist Nikki Iles for example. There‘s an obvious rapport and musical affinity which was described as ‘more than the sum of its parts’ in one review.
“It’s been nearly twenty years now that I’ve worked with Nikki. We both think we knew each-other in a previous life because it’s uncanny the amazing amount of synchronicity that happens with us. Finishing off each-other’s musical phrases which is inspiring for us both. Our first album – for various logistical reasons – was completed in five hours. That was it! I think we found each-other and trusted each-other. This music lends itself to that and I don’t think you can do it any other way. It’s that Duke Ellington thing – you’re a human being first. Of course you are musicians but you meet foremost with a common humanity, breathing the same air and the same music. It’s a meeting on a soul level.”
“Just before this last album I recorded one with a great string quartet (Bowfiddle) and that was lovely to do. It’s called My Kind of Love on the Hep Records label with some beautiful arrangements. I’ve done a few enjoyable gigs in the Brighton area. We’ve called it the Tina May Jazz Chamber Ensemble. It’s a ten-piece set-up including French horn, viola, violin, and percussion – all Brazilian music arranged by multi-instrumentalist Robin Blakeman who is a completely amazing arranger (think Claus Ogerman) and it’s great to explore different sounds.”
Can you tell us about other genres of music that you sing? You have a broadness to your repertoire, for example the Piaf set with your impeccable French.
“And it’s getting broader I hope. I was drawn to the chanson very early on when I was doing my classical singing. I had two wonderful teachers – the first, Ursula Hughes when I was a schoolgirl, and then at university the fabulous Eileen Price. She knew that I loved that impressionistic style – so I could do Faure chanson which are very jazzy. We’d have no jazz harmony if it wasn’t for Debussy. You could say there’s a delineation: the musical world before and after Debussy. Also there are the most wonderful lyrics. When I was a student in Paris I just fell in love with this thing called chanson réaliste. The most heart-warming and heart-stopping stories are in these.”
“I’m interested in how people are drawn to different types of music and their influences. Kurt Weil, for example, had three distinct music phases – the first in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht, then in Paris (fleeing the Nazis) where he sounds like a completely different composer because he absorbed the ‘Frenchness’ of it; and then he went to Broadway where he fell in love with jazz. Quincy Jones, like so many jazz people, studied with Debussy’s protégé, Nadia Boulanger. There’s that amazing harmony and then if you add the rhythm it’s extraordinary.”
“I’m drawn to Brazilian music but people like Jobim were very influenced by the French composers. They weren’t remotely influenced by what was happening in America. Their influences came from other places.”
“I’ve always felt that jazz isn’t just for contemplating one’s navel – it’s music to feel good to – it’s music to dance to if you feel it or not to if you don’t. It’s definitely not to be categorised as some cerebral thing. For me it’s about having good times to; about communication and people getting together and enjoying (whether the music is live or not). For me it has that joy which not too many other types of music have.”
You’re very good at bringing about themes for shows that you put on.
“I think sooner or later one will appear. For instance I’ve done this show with Opéra de Lyon: Lady in the Dark, which is where My Ship, The Saga of Jenny and This is New come from. They are all jazz standards now. We did a huge tour in 2008, 2009 and 2010 – a big production with a twenty-three-piece orchestra – but it was jazz. Then I thought I could do a really interesting show as I love Kurt Weil and Irving Berlin, and I thought of Berlin – Paris – Broadway so I put something together. I wasn’t looking for a title – it just evolved.”
Your performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2000?…
“The Worshipful Company of Musicians have been in existence from Shakespeare’s day – they used to supply the musicians. They were giving their first jazz prize and I won, which was amazing. It was the most gorgeous evening and I got to be on the same stage as Cleo Laine. Nowadays the Worshipful Company holds a jam and selects people.”
I think people love to hear and watch you. How much does presentation and stage craft matter to you?
“I think I don’t consider it so much, but then I’ve done a lot of other performance. However I think all musicians need to be in the communication business. We need to build that bridge between the edge of the stage and the first row of the audience and that’s our responsibility. If people don’t get it, it’s our fault. We have an obligation to ‘serve it up’ in a very palatable way – though I’m not saying we should dumb-down anything. We have to find a way to tell the stories. Obviously there are those who go to jazz and they’ll be into it regardless.”
“I‘m really interested in how songs came into being and how they fit into context historically. I tell these stories in my performances. For instance, in Tin Pan Alley where publishing companies hired composers and lyricists to create songs, at the end of the day they would listen to what the old janitor (in his grey overalls) was whistling and that became ‘the old grey whistle test’!”
So although the song tells a story it is, in itself, part of a bigger story…
“Absolutely! They are social documents which tell of the time.”
What creative process might you use for your song choices? Is it primarily emotionally or musically driven? Do you have favourite song-writers?
“I tend to go on a gut reaction and I take inspiration from just being human. In tonight’s gig I’ll be doing some things people know plus the occasional unfamiliar piece. I do like to take people on a bit of a journey. I just trust and hope that if it’s special to me they’ll like it also. If a song/story is really extraordinary I’ll try to tell people why I think it is. That helps. Carmen McRae sang a song called Behind the Face and when I go to hear someone I want to go slightly behind the face. Perhaps the big difference in jazz as opposed to other types of music is it’s about letting people in and it’s not so in-your-face – more of a subtle process. Sometimes it can be rhythmically assertive but it uses smaller brush strokes. Again music is a bit of a miracle as you can analyse the hell out of it but just as easily say ‘it works though I don’t know why’. People will find different things but it’s this wonderful alchemy of good ingredients: good musicians, a melody and a story. It is about people.”
One of my own passions in teaching is to empower people to go beyond their magic-reducing performance anxiety. Have you, like so many, ever suffered from ‘stage fright’ and do you have any strategies to share?
“Oh yes – all the time. I still get very nervous. I’ve just got better at covering it up. One of the funniest times is when you realise you’re not alone, as when teaching on the summer courses when all the tutors have to get up and be ‘perfect’. It’s like being under a microscope. But of course life isn’t perfect. You don’t want to screw-up but actually it’s quite good in a jam situation like that for people to see how you manage if you do screw-up i.e. forget the words or the chords. How you get out of it is more important and sometimes something really good can come out of that.”
“Sometimes waiting in the wings, if you’re not careful, the brain takes over the body. So I advise taking slow inhalations and to not concentrate on anything but the breath coming in and out of the nostrils; not thinking about anything else but the feeling and that will bring you back. Breathing definitely helps. When you do allow yourself to breathe properly it’s also oxygen to the brain.”
“We’ve got natural rhythm – there’s the heartbeat. I think a lot of it is about getting in rhythm with our surroundings so then it’s more obvious if we’re in rhythm with the other musicians. Being in rhythm and losing yourself in the song – not being so self-conscious – and literally being. As I’d never been to jazz college I didn’t know there was such a thing as the ‘Jazz Police’, but you just know it when it works and you know when it doesn’t work. But it’s not brain surgery and nobody dies. How on earth are you to learn without taking risks and just doing it? I reckon Ella, before she recorded, might have made the odd musical faux pas… you can’t not. We all do it and it’s OK. There’s the muscle memory too: you only have to make that clash – for instance a major 7 against a 7 – and you only have to do it once!”
“It’s just the same with any other instrument but as a singer it’s more immediate and there’s nowhere to hide. On the other hand, vocalists have so much to give as we also have lyrics as a whole way of interpreting. Perhaps ‘nowhere to hide’ equals ‘nothing to hide’. I do think that for singers it’s a kind of weird masochism…wanting it to be perfect. But of course there’s no such thing as ‘perfect’ – just being in the moment – which is as good as it gets.”
“We need to remember it’s about giving and you don’t feel so nervous when you’re giving something. This becomes quite empowering. I genuinely want people to have a nice time. I see no point otherwise. I don’t want life to be complicated and this is simple. I don’t want any of the instrumentalists to be worried at all. I want them to treat me as another instrument but with added lyrics. I just want us to have a good time and I believe that’s how good music happens. Not just our music but any music under these conditions.”
“All we’re doing is sharing. But maybe I feel this because I didn’t come into it in any particular cerebral way. I want people to have the same joy just letting it wash over them as I had when in some jam session where Uncle Jimmy and Auntie Mollie used to join in and think ‘this is fun’. You don’t have to understand how a microwave works to use it. It matters more about the melody than the chord construction. So we don’t always have to be in control. I love being in the audience and not knowing what it is if there is something new. As an audience member if you just ‘go with it’ it’s wonderful. It’s OK and a good state-of-being to be open and not feel we have to know everything. Otherwise it’s a tricky path being slightly on edge thinking you have to know it all. We live in quite a judgmental society and it’s great if, occasionally, we can have a part of life that is nothing to do with all that. It’s about music and release – allowing our ideas to flow. We know it’s therapeutic. On a good gig you could wire-up everyone and see that they are relaxing, breathing properly, and blood-pressure settling. It’s so hard to relax these days – you have to really try which is a contradiction in terms!”
You’ve had a wonderful and successful career to date.
“All I can say is ‘so far so good’!”
Do you see your life in jazz continuing to flourish? Are there plans or dreams you’d still like to achieve?’
“I’ve always got dreams. Hopefully more of the same but different and growing. I have loved working with strings and different instrumentation. I did an album which is available only online – it was a bit of going back to my roots with guitar (wonderful guitarist Dylan Fowler who specialises in world music), squeeze box and Brazilian percussion and quite folky really. I love being open to all this. We’re all on a journey and how do we know what we are going to be doing in so many years’ time. Getting the music out to more people and touring is where it’s at. Workshops too. This exchange is where it’s at for me and holds the excitement.”
Is there something you would like an audience to specifically take away with them from a Tina May performance?
“Well it’s a warm feeling that they’ve been touched. Whether they are moved to groove or to just listen to the story of the song. That’s all – just to have been on a journey. What you don’t want is indifference!”
Is there a piece of advice you’d have for an aspiring jazz musician?
“Be hungry to learn. Bit by bit absorb all you need to learn. Be curious and don’t be scared. Go for it. Just get stuck in. It’s there to be enjoyed and music has to be made. Nobody can tell you that you don’t feel what you feel and nobody can take your music away from you. It’s gold dust.”
Lou Beckerman, July 2015
For more information on Tina May, her albums and live performances, visit her website: www.tinamay.com
To read Lou Beckerman’s review of Tina May’s vocal workshop, click here.