It was the month of my birthday, a time of reflection. I’d come a long way, I thought, since I’d decided to start pursuing a life as a jazz singer, but there was still a long way to go. And one seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the way.
Sam Carelse has a cold.
I was to start the year 2019 as all the best years start – with that most common and trivial of illnesses. Or something like that. Some horrible gland-y thing that ebbs and flows with my energy and motivation to fulfill my new year’s resolutions (of which there are many, having accrued – with interest – from the previous 10+ years).
As every musician knows that when you don’t have the energy to keep doing the do, it’s an opportunity to listen, plan, and plot your next move. But if you’re me, that translates into prodigious levels of procrastination. Doctors is still on the telly, did you know?
Thankfully, esteemed singers Claire Martin and Elaine Crouch landed in our People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove just in time to rescue the likes of me from the ashes of failed dry Januarys and abandoned resolutions, to give us some sense of self-worth, of progress, of accomplishment. I was invited to join them on their 4-week course at Brighton’s Verdict Jazz Club – ‘Vocal Jazz – The Nuts & Bolts: An Introduction To The Art Of Jazz Singing.’
This course was advertised for all abilities, from ‘enthusiastic beginners to experienced singers keen to discover and deepen their understanding of the genre’. And even though at this point I’d somehow managed to convince people to pay me to make sounds out of my face – and had written a tongue-in-cheek guide to just about faking it as a jazz singer in SJM Dec ‘18 issue – I still feel like my jazz singing is a hobby that had got out of hand, and that one day I’ll be found out. This course struck me as the perfect opportunity to actually find out what jazz singing *is*.
And so, against my better nature, I found myself leaving the flat before noon and entering a jazz club in the daylight hours. The first workshop started with everyone introducing themselves, and outlining what they were hoping to get out of the course. As the introductions went around the circle, it became apparent that most of us singers – from absolute beginners to professionals – had huge issues with confidence – yours truly included (the first step to recovery is admitting that you’re a jazz singer). And this, mingled with the fact that we were a group made up predominantly of women, who may feel that we’re not often taken seriously, and/or are used to being explained to, added to a sense that this workshop was almost a feminist act – a group of women empowering themselves to stand up to, or at the very least hold their own within a group of instrumentalists, which usually, even in 2019, are mostly made up of men.
However let’s face it, we can’t blame men for everything. Singers of all genders get a bad rep by turning up with plenty of ego but zero charts and zero keys. Broadly speaking, it seems like Claire and Elaine’s course, amongst other things, gives singers an overview of the tools to show that they know what they’re talking about and can command a band.
Recordings are shared to illustrate certain points, and the group discusses their thoughts and feelings around this in depth. Amongst old favourites we hear less familiar names – Chris Connor anyone? – and a crash course in vocal resonance instantly gives another tool in the toolbox for sounds and textures.
A temporally-challenging version of My Favourite Things by Carmen McRae is held up as an example of the high watermark of jazz singing, Kurt Elling’s tongue-twisting and undulating rendition of Resolution another. At this point I am desperately trying to turn my feelings of intimidation into inspiration, but I am keenly aware that I’ve got a lot of work to do (and a lot of daytime screenings of Doctors to ignore in favour of good-quality music practice).
In the second workshop we breeze through the topics of form, arrangements and repertoire. In the third, as well as some lovely stories and insider gossip being shared, mic technique, basic sound technics, and different styles of delivery were covered. Claire highlights the importance of the three C’s: staying Cool, Calm and Collected. Make it your priority the audience feel relaxed, safe and lovely. Stay in the moment and own the space. And how to do this (our narrator says, with her clipboard and pen at the ready)? No magic fix alas – it takes experience. Happily there are plenty of inspirations available on YouTube, including a famous clip of Erykah Badu performing Tyrone live next to what looked like her bedside table to one side of her, and a large illustrated Ankh symbol on the other. I try to imagine what my newly-empowered diva alter-ego would bring on stage with me to make me feel at home. How would the Paris House feel if I turned up to my gig in my fluffy rabbit slippers with a hot water bottle and a tub of Vicks for my dodgy sinuses, I wonder?
I come away from the third workshop with new comrades, fresh inspiration, and a sense that Claire and Elaine are doing a fine public service for the betterment of jazz singing. Oh, and all courses ever should have an Erykah Badu module.
Find out more about Claire and Elaine’s courses here: https://clairemartinjazz.co.uk/well-versed/