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Chatting With Jackie Ryan

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I just love to take them [the audience] on the journey with me. I don't always know where I am going, but when I am inside of a song I can feel the audience is right there with me, taking that ride.
Jackie Ryan is a San Francisco-based vocalist with three excellent CDs available. The most recent two are on Open Art records, the latest is titled This Heart of Mine.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on your latest CD, This Heart of Mine. It is an exceptional vocal album and certainly one of the best in the past few years.

Jackie Ryan Thank you so much, Roger. It was so fun to do... a labor of love—all the way through to the mix. I loved working with the engineers as much as I loved recording it. It was the most enjoyable project I have ever done. The musicians are all friends and we took our time with it. I am so glad you like it.

AAJ: Your beginnings? I think that I read that you are from a musical family. Where did the love of jazz begin?

JR: Yes, my parents were both singers, but they were more from a classical background. My mother sang in operettas in Mexico and my dad sang at concerts. He performed all the classical compositions of Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, etc., in all the languages they were written in. But they were also, I think, both very natural singers first and foremost. And they both came from a long line of singers also. My mama always sang sweet little Mexican folk songs around the house and my dad loved to sing songs from musicals like Tevya in Fiddler on The Roof. A lot of entertainment there! So there was always singing per se, but not jazz. I discovered that later somewhat by accident.

AAJ: When did you start singing?"

JR:I think I started at about 4. I used to just sing all the time. I sang myself to sleep at night and drove my siblings crazy...no one could shut me up! When I was about 15 I joined a band and wrote my own material and performed for local dances. Then I got into R&B pretty heavily. Otis Redding type stuff. When I was about 20 I had burned out my voice belting out all that heavy gospel. My mom had passed away when I was 15 and my Dad worked 11 hours a day. So no one was really around to give me much guidance. Didn't know the boundaries of what I could take like I do now. I ended up not being able to talk for 2 years. It put me through a big change. But in hindsight it was a blessing. When you can't talk what do you do? You listen. I started listening to jazz radio at home a lot. Wow! I fell in love with the music! Then I took a music class at college. There I met a record collector who turned me on to all the great music masters. I really owe him. He turned me on to Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Monk, Charlie Parker, Eddie Jefferson, and Oscar Brown, Jr.... the woiks! I still have many of the tapes I made from that time. I was hooked. I remember the first two jazz tunes I learned were "Lush Life" and "Sophisticated Lady." I loved the challenge of their melodies. Jazz was it for me!

AAJ: Jazz is a minority art and jazz singing is a stepchild to that minority art. So, do you ever feel that you should have chosen another career? (I heard one musician say that "I did not choose jazz; it chose me.")

JR: No. And that's it exactly. If one "chooses it" I would think that would have to be a calculated decision. And then it could not be from the heart. I had no choice. Actually, I think that goes for just being an artist in general. It drives you, pushes you and eats at you every day. You can never rest. You are never satisfied for long. It is not always easy. There may have been safer roads. But, they would not have been easier. I tried at one time and I was miserable. So, as tough as it gets—and trust me it gets REALLY tough at times—this is my calling and I have no choice. I have thought a lot about it.

AAJ: Your sense of phrasing, your handling of a song's text is often stunning. Does this come natural to you or do you decide to focus on lyrics?

JR: Singing is as much about HOW you sing that lyric as it is about the lyric itself.

Just as speech is loaded with subtle tonal inflections that can make one sentence mean something entirely different from how it is written, so it is of course with a song lyric. Singing is a form of communication and speech. Your personality shows in your speech and humor, right? So it has to naturally come through in your music. How you "phrase" the lyric can give it your own special meaning. It is all about how you communicate those words. And to be playful is what makes it art.

AAJ: What attracts you to a song? Lyrics first or melody? How do you select them and your CD "themes?"

JR: Both. I like something that is not predictable. From a musical place you can find great surprises in jazz, because the possibilities for musical choices are absolutely endless. And so it is also with some Brazilian music. Some of their melodic turns are really thrilling. Of course the lyric has to touch me. I love to write, so I really appreciate a well-written lyric. And I hate bad, or lazy, lyric writing. You do find that in some jazz tunes where someone has taken a hip tune and put lyrics to it. I'm not talking about the vocalese masters like Jon Hendricks, or others in that class...but a few obscure ones I have heard. Some compositions are better left without a lyric. The melody speaks for itself. Also, a lyric needs to touch me in some way. It needs to be clever, it needs to be thought out well and most of all it needs to be honest.

I select songs for CDs by just whatever may be attracting me at that time. I'm not hugely into themes, per se. But if there is a theme, sometimes it will just come out after you have already recorded—like deciding what to name a painting after you have painted it, I guess.

AAJ: Many of the best singers began singing with bands. Have you worked a lot with larger groups and bands?

JR: Ah, the Big Bands. The singers in the 30's and 40's ALL started that way. That's how they got their training, their road experience, and their exposure. That isn't the case anymore. And perhaps it is a little tougher now -a-days. But that was a different era.

I worked with a big band here in San Francisco for several years just for the experience. It was great. Completely different from working with a small band. Much more of a discipline, of course. You have a very structured environment and you have to find creative ways to play within that tight structure. It's amazing to feel the power of that many horns behind you.

AAJ: If I browsed through your music collection, who would I find?

JR: Any jazz singer you can think of: Betty Carter, Sarah, Ella, Billie, Shirley Horn, Chris Conner, all of them. Instrumental: Bill Evans, Bird, Miles, Duke, Louis, Clark Terry, Terry Gibbs, Pres, Joe Henderson, Barry Harris, Egberto Gismonti, Toots Thielemans, Jim Hall, Coltrane, too many to list. Classical such as Stravinsky and Copeland, lots of Brazilian music such as Milton Nasciemento, Dori Caymmi, Jobim, Djavan, Ivan, Nana Caymmi, Leni Andrage. Opera singers, Cuban music, African music such as Salif Keita, Yousou N'Dour, Black Mombazo. Lots of Ethnic and cross cultural CDs like The Soul of Black Peru, some Fado, obviously too much to list! Also, of course I still have my old vinyls.

AAJ: Do you have a favorite composer (or a favorite five)?

JR: All of the above and then too many to list!! All of the famous jazz musicians were amazing composers as well as masters in playing their instruments. Of course the obvious we all know: Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen and Count Basie. Their music will live on forever. But there are so many categories. For instance, recently I was listening to the guitarist virtuoso, Egberto Gismonti, on a drive from LA To SF. So that comes to mind. To me he is as brilliant as Stravinsky! Incredible compositions.

Also, I love so many Brazilian composers. Jobim was so prolific. As he got older his compositions took on an almost modern classical approach. He was also very influenced by jazz. So his music had the best of three worlds in it to me. He gave us so much, didn't he. And I love many of the new Brazilian composers as well. Ivan Lins' material still knocks me out. His melodies have surprising turns that are so much his style. And they are wonderful to sing.

AAJ: What are you most happy with in respect to your own singing?

JR: I guess, because it is so much a part of who I am, I am just grateful for its "company" at times, you know? It's like a friend who never lets me down.

When I sing to myself it feels so good. And for an audience I just love to take them on the journey with me. I don't always know where I am going, but when I am inside of a song I can feel the audience is right there with me, taking that ride. It's an amazing thing. I love to sing so much. It is so much an outlet for me to express things I cannot express in another way. As much as the lifestyle can be challenging at times, I am always grateful for being able to have this extra way to communicate and share.

AAJ: Will you be appearing live in any concerts or tour gigs soon?

JR: Yes, several in San Francisco as I write this. I am going to Hawaii in a couple of weeks to do some fun gigs and radio shows with friends out there. Then a few more big ones in Northern SF and then down to LA to do some. In the fall I will be at Ronnie Scott's in London again and then Luxembourg and looks like Berlin may be shaping up. The head of Jazz Radio there has written and is trying to set something up. Cannot wait! That's another special thing about being a musician. The travel. I love that. Also, I am working with wonderful musicians everywhere I go so it never gets boring. Always stays a challenge and the musicians are always inspiring to me.

AAJ: Any words of wisdom for aspiring singers?

JR: Oh yes, of course. I have a young Goddaughter who is singing. She is 15 and was of course influenced by the music that is popular to her generation. But I have sent her some great music to listen to. She just knocked me out recently with an incredible performance of "In A Sentimental Mood." I cried it was so great. I would say to young aspiring singers (and I do): study the music theory. Listen to the masters. Listen to the musicians. Concentrate on listening to your own sound for tone and intonation, which I think is extremely important. Yes, a lot has to do with listening. Become friends with your voice. And most of all sing from your heart. If you do, you cannot help but create your own sound. And very importantly, get out of your head and get into the music!

AAJ: Describe your "dream" CD, assuming that money and availability of musicians were no object.

JR: There are so many thoughts I have about that. Musician-wise, of course there are many I would love to play with: Kenny Baron, Kenny Werner. But I feel so fortunate to have a CD with people like Toots Thielemans and the other wonderful musicians that I have recorded with that I am quite satisfied. And I have already recorded a couple of dream CDs.

But I am always thinking of new ideas. One idea for a CD is that it will involve a situation that is a very creative one where the whole band is involved. Perhaps some original material that I would write with the band. Interesting musical arrangements made by the band as a whole. I do have some things in mind. It will be different from what you have heard so far. I want to explore some new rhythms also. I am just starting to think on this one. Can't say much more at this point.

AAJ: With whom would you like to be stranded on a desert island?

JR: I better not answer that one! (chuckle)

AAJ: What puts a smile on your face? (Sean Connery's face, farmhouses by the sea, a cozy fire,a ballad by Ben Webster, etc?)

JR: Clark Terry's mumbles, Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing and singing "Mood Indigo" at the same time, Ibrahim Ferrer doing the Cuban Chicken dance at 78 yrs old, watching Toots Thielemans get down, ah that's all just "Better Than Anything" to me!

And nature. And animals. I remember once I was feeling blue and came home and my cat came running up to greet me and did that cute thing they do when they are happy to see you. Threw herself down, rolled over and stretched! I had been so sad and when I saw her do that I immediately cracked up, it was so cute. I live in a beautiful town that, fortunately, is loaded with nature. It keeps me smiling. Lots of deer outside. Sometimes you see the little white-tailed baby deer prancing around or even suckling their mothers. I get to see hummingbirds every day. And tiny finches hop around my backyard. There is a Blue Jay I have named "Sneaky Pete" who continually sneaks into my office when the door is open. I yell at him and he runs out and then sneaks back in again. I hear a shuffling, turn around and see him peering around the door at me. It's a game. One time I came in and he was sitting on top of my computer screen. It's hysterical! And then children always make me smile.

Also, all of my friends and my siblings have a great sense of humor and keep me laughing. I have to have fun people around me! So there ya go, a few of My Favorite Things!

AAJ: How do you see yourself in your Golden Years?

JR: My "Anos Dourados"! I intend to be still excited by life. There are so many things to do in life. So many art forms to explore. I have dabbled in painting, pottery, gardening, and photography. I love to cook. I would like to sculpt. I want to travel a lot more. To experience as much as I can in life. As you get older I think it is important to try to stay open and loving no matter what is thrown at you. Everyone gets stuff thrown at them. The real challenge is staying positive and forgiving, of people and of life. I know some older people who are angry at life. They end up bitter. You have to find a way of accepting that life has its own perfection. And be at home with that one.

In my older years I will want to make new young friends because they will keep me young. And I hope that I will always have time. To create. To be with friends. Time to listen.

AAJ: Any last comments or observations?

JR: Thanks Roger for your wonderful reviews! Thank you for supporting jazz! And thank you and All About Jazz for this fun interview!

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