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Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton: The Dynamic Philadelphia Songstress Duo

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The music community is very important -- it's a family in itself. When you're up there doing a gig, it's a family. —Meg Clifton
In the jazz arena, as is all too often true in opera as well, vocalists, despite their sometimes fine voices and charisma, often lack true musicianship. This shortcoming is so pervasive, that we no longer expect such musical fine-tuning from them. Billie Holiday and the opera diva Beverly Sills were two great exceptions to the rule. Their style, their precision, their care with interpretation marked them as musicians, not just singers as such. There are others, of course — Sarah Vaughan, Irene Kral, and Johnny Hartman immediately come to mind- but not very many, who meet these criteria.

In Philadelphia, we're fortunate to have two jazz vocalists who are not only exciting performers but fine musicians from whom the listener can always count on not having his or her ears offended, but rather encountering music as a craft as well as stirring vocal expressiveness. Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton are jazz singers who each work regularly in the Philadelphia area, nationally, and internationally. On account of their consummate musical skill, they attract the best musicians to accompany them. In 2002, they were induced by agent Alan McMahon to co-create a Tribute to Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney, both of whom passed away that year. (For more information about their work and the Tribute CD, visit www.mcmahonmusic.com .) The venture led to a CD and many jazz festival and nightclub gigs, and they expanded their co-performing repertoire to include swing and "The Great American Songbook." I've reviewed their Tribute CD on this website, as well as a recent performance at the Chadds Ford Wine and Jazz Festival.

When jazz musicians pay serious attention to nuances and the elements of the craft, they often have something worthwhile to say regarding jazz artistry. Moreover, I've never had an extended conversation with a vocalist, although my CD collection includes a multitude of vocal recordings. So I asked Mary Ellen and Meg if they would do a joint interview with me, and with their typical "lightness of being," they happily accepted.

AAJ: For a warmup, let's do the infamous desert island question: Which recordings would you take with you to that desert island?

Mary Ellen Desmond: We could be here for an hour and a half!!!!

AAJ: Well, I mean the recordings that are really the most precious to you.

Meg Clifton: Ella Fitzgerald Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert. Miles Smiles. A band called XTC — their album called Nonesuch. It's British pop rock. They write their own songs. They're excellent. Joe Williams: Live in Birdland. Betty Carter: Inside Betty Carter.

MED: The Marriage of Figaro.

AAJ: That's a surprise, but I do know that you sing opera on occasion.

MED: On the jazz side, Carmen McRae sings Thelonious Monk. I would also take an Elvis Costello recording. Anything from the 1980's, or his latest CD.

AAJ: Does my memory serve me correctly that there are some songs of his that you like to sing?

MED: Just one: Almost Blue. And then I would take Ella Swings Lightly with the Marty Paich Orchestra. And Karrin Allyson: From Paris to Rio.

MC: I'd like to add something by the composer Morton Feldman. He does piano and strings, some vocal pieces. Really stretching and experimental, testing the instrument itself.

MED: The Coleman Hawkins Quartet: Then and Now.

AAJ: Who are a few of your favorite vocalists?

MC: My two favorite jazz vocalists are Betty Carter and Joe Williams. Among the more contemporary singers, there's Cassandra Wilson.

AAJ: Meg, you have a very striking singing voice. Is there any singer who is an inspiration for your voice?

MC: Betty Carter. She's incredible.

MED: For myself, I'd have to say Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. They're the first two that I really listened to in depth. Also, Karryn Allyson is contemporary and very broad with her genres — she's done jazz treatments of rock tunes and sings in different languages. In the Paris to Rio recording she sings in French and Portuguese. Sheila Jordan. And June Christy.

MC: You know how to pick 'em, girl.

AAJ: Who are some of the most supportive people in your life?

MC: My family, of course. They helped me get into music. My dad played a lot of music — he played piano, played recordings, a big inspiration. My boyfriend is very important. The music community is very important — it's a family in itself. When you're up there doing a gig, it's a family. And if they really like you, they'll do a gig with you even if it doesn't pay a lot, just because it's you. You're not blood related, but it's a family thing. Every one in the jazz scene is very supportive of one another- and we all want to see each other succeed. Of course, Mary Ellen is a part of that family, for me.

MED: I'd have to agree with Meg about the community of musicians and their support. I feel blessed to be in a career where the communication is so intimate. When you're on the bandstand and you're creating the tune and the moment, it's a very intimate thing. There's nothing else like it.

In the past, there were my friends at art school who recognized my musical talent. I recently ran into one of the people who at that time said, "You should take voice lessons and go to music school." I thanked her.

Most importantly, my husband, Michael, has been extremely supportive. I've learned a great deal from him, and he helped me come out of my shell. He encouraged me to network and develop my career.

AAJ: We're leading into the next question: how did your musical interests and career develop?

MED: I grew up in Westfield, NJ and started singing in front of people when I was in third grade. My dad did play banjo and guitar in society orchestras in the forties and fifties. His name was Tony Berodyn. He was always playing music around the house. I sang in choir and musicals in high school. My dad encouraged me, but he passed away when I was sixteen. As a result, I got very depressed and stopped performing in school productions.

In college, with my friends' encouragement, I took voice lessons at the Philadelphia Music Academy. Later, I attended The Philadelphia College of Performing Arts for two years. Then, in the early eighties, I studied privately with operatic soprano Judith Rosenfeld and simultaneously began listening to Ella, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan. But I developed severe stage fright and went through a period where I was terrified to sing in front of people. To force myself out of that I asked some friends who shared an interest in Country and Western music — Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, etc. — if I could join their Country review. That gave me invaluable stage experience. From there, I went on with their guitarist and bassist to learn and perform jazz standards.

MC: I didn't sing before the public until I was in high school. My parents were always playing music around the house: Ella, Miles Davis, from jazz to Billy Joel. My mom sang around the house. My dad plays a little piano. I was very shy, and I would only sing in the basement (laughter!). I would make up songs on a little tape recorder and think about sending them into Star Search, but I never did that. Finally, my dad was like, "Well you need to audition for a musical at school." So I finally tried out for "The Little Shop of Horrors." I was one of the three "doo wop" girls. I had a blast! The show had some "Motown" music, which was fun. I loved it. I found I loved singing in front of people. So I joined the choir. After high school, I spent a year taking voice and piano lessons at a community college and sang in a rock band.

MED: Meg and I realized on one of our road trips that we both liked the band "Squeeze."

MC: Yes! Squeeze is awesome! So — after I took a year to study voice and piano, I auditioned for the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia, and got in as a vocal major and received my Masters degree in jazz voice and jazz studies. Then I joined the faculty, along with Annie Sciola, Kelly Meashey, Tim Brent. The head of the vocal department is Jeff Kern. I love teaching. I teach voice and an ensemble.

AAJ: I'd like to ask both of you, what were some of the key formative moments in your singing career?

MED: Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to Japan and sing. There were two nights at a place called Club Groovy in Nagano, that had a kind of "Ortlieb's Jazzhaus" atmosphere. I started out somewhat timid around these guys, and I could tell they were turned off. They were Japanese, and there was a language barrier. So I started to pick up the pace. By the second night, there was a moment when I was improvising, and I looked around the room, and there was such an energy with the musicians and the audience. My husband was there, and I looked at him, and we just knew — wow! — I had never improvised like this, and I would never be intimidated about this again. Such an exciting moment. I was so glad my husband could share this moment with me. I just came out of my shell. It was a high. The whole experience of having a bunch of musicians whose language I couldn't speak, giving them the charts, and having this chemistry happen.

MC: One epiphany was when I heard the vocalist, J. D. Wolter. I eventually studied with him and we became friends. He's amazing. He does a whole 'nother thing and takes the voice itself to another level. I remember thinking, wow, I wonder if I'll get there some day. I remember that feeling of being floored by him.

AAJ: What is it about him that's so special?

MC: He really stretches it. He takes his "instrument," the voice, to all these different levels, and really knows his instrument and how to use it, inside and out, vertically and horizontally. It's amazing.

Another experience was when Mary Ellen and I were recently in Kentucky doing a concert. We got out on that stage, and there was a huge TV screen showing us, and there was my head! And all these people! It was a great band, great chemistry. I'd never been in that kind of performance situation! And then Kathryn Crosby came up and shook our hands. It was very surreal.

MED: The enormity of it. The physicality of it. 1200 people in the audience. I had that same moment of looking at the huge TV screen, and seeing myself in that cocktail dress!

AAJ: What was the concert?

MC: It was a benefit concert to raise money for the Russell Theater.

MED: I felt that we came up another notch in exposure and gaining respect from people. Recognition for a job well done.

AAJ: You got that respect for your work.

MED: Yes. I do opera music once a month at a restaurant in South Philadelphia. Aside from keeping my classical voice in shape and learning new material, that's a concert setting, where dinner is served first, and then the audience is quiet, and really listens. That generates a feeling of respect for the music and the musicians. That doesn't happen often in jazz clubs, unfortunately.

AAJ: How did the two of you meet, and what made you decide to work together?

MED: Actually, someone else decided for us. A few years ago, Alan McMahon, the agent, called both of us. It was the year both Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee had passed away. He said he'd like us to do a night at Chris' to do a tribute to them.

AAJ: What was your interest in them prior to that?

MED: I always liked and appreciated both of them, but I really became enamored of them once we started this project.

MC: I had some of their recordings, but frankly hadn't listened to them much, but did some heavy listening when we worked on the tribute.

AAJ: What made McMahon contact you?

MED: I think he liked both of us. I know he was a fan of both Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.

MC: He had just planned the one night at Chris', and it was packed! They had to turn people away! So, he became excited about it and said, "We're gonna do an album! You two get together and start to plan songs and arrangements." We only planned that one night, but it mushroomed from there.

AAJ: About the Tribute album, I was surprised that there weren't any duets!

MED: We recorded the tune "Sisters" as a duet, but we didn't like the way it turned out. It didn't fit in with the rest of the material.

AAJ: When you were recording, were you trying to emulate Rosemary's and Peggy's singing styles?

MC: I think we were thinking more of putting our own stamps on the songs, but keeping mind their ideas and their memory.

MED: We're always careful to point out to people that we're not impersonators. We approached the tunes with our own style.

AAJ: How were you affected by the research and listening you did regarding their singing?

MC: My appreciation of Peggy Lee, while I always had it, increased greatly. Her phrasing and the way she approaches the music and lyrics, her diction, is very interesting. Regarding Rosemary Clooney, she went through various changes and aspects over the years. I love it when she sings ballads, because you just never know where she's going to breathe! She keeps you on your toes. I've really expanded my collection of their recordings.

MED: One of the first jazz albums I ever bought was Peggy Lee's "Black Coffee." I love that album — I'd take it to that desert island of yours — and so my interest goes back a long way. I was grateful for the opportunity to sing "Black Coffee" on the CD.

AAJ: Were either of you supposed to be one or the other of them?

MC: It just sort of evolved that way.

MED: Someone asked us at the beginning, "Who's going to be whom?" My answer was, "Well, that's not the point." Ultimately, though, it fell mostly into Meg doing the Peggy Lee material and I doing the Rosemary Clooney material. And I'm very happy it turned out that way. And I've become a much bigger fan of Rosemary Clooney.

AAJ: On that album, there are some great sidemen: Larry McKenna on saxophone, Mark Kramer, piano, John Swana , trumpet, David Brodie, bass, and Jim Schade, drums. Generally, I'm struck by the quality of the musicians who work with you. Musicians whom I greatly admire. How did you establish rapport with these various fellows? What makes jazz instrumentalists interested in working with vocalists? I do know that some of them refuse to work with singers, while others gravitate towards it.

MED: (Laughs) The challenge of playing in all the different keys they have to adjust to!

MC: I don't know whether it's a challenge or not. Maybe some don't wanna play in different keys or deal with the stereotypical vocalist who might not have his or her charts together, or might not know when to come in. I'm very big on that with my students — if you're going to be a vocalist, you need to have those things together. You need to know your songs, when to come in. Unfortunately, there's that stereotype that the vocalist doesn't know her music.

MED: Some of the guys worry that the vocalist is going to put herself on a pedestal and not give them enough opportunity to do their thing. For me, I certainly don't try to dominate over the musicians.

MC: I think we're both the same way. When we're up there, it's an ensemble. I bring my stand and microphone back so I stand in the same line with them, and we're a group. I make eye contact, and I'm not different from them — we're all making music together.

MED: The musicians we work with know that. And therefore it all comes together as an equal exchange.

AAJ: Do the guys have particular tunes they like to do with you?

MC: We have several specific "books" of music. The Rosemary Clooney-Peggy Lee Tribute; The American Songbook; etc. We kinda psych it out with each other. We sort it out together.

MED: They each have their own preferences. Like Steve Myerson (pianist) loves "Cheek to Cheek." Tom Lawton likes almost any tune — his thing is that he loves to play in the key of A. If I can, I try to transpose a tune to A, and he loves it! I try to remember tunes and tastes of the musicians. Sometimes, I'll let them choose the tunes. It should be an equal footing.

AAJ: In my review of your sets at Chadds Ford, I pointed out that you really created a feeling of an ensemble. But to change the subject, how come the two of you don't do more scat and vocalise (singing transcripts of instrumental solos)?

MED: For me, I used to be terrified of scat, but I've grown more comfortable with it. I actually went to a jazz vocal camp in Chicago for that reason, which got me over that fear. Nowadays, it depends mostly on the venue and the musicians I'm working with. It has to feel like the right situation. It's intuitive and has to happen spontaneously.

MC: I do improvise, and it does depend on the venue, and sometimes it just doesn't feel like the right time and place. There are gigs where I'll improvise on every set, and there are gigs where I just don't. I'm working on it in my daily practice routine, and eventually I may get into doing it more often. I want to improvise more and more, and being able to trade fours and eights with the drummer and the sax, and so on. It's a process. You know, I work a lot with vibraphonist Tony Micelli, and he's a great support to me improvising.

AAJ: It would seem that vibes and female singing are a great and not very often utilized combination.

MC: I work a lot with Tony at the Philadelphia Museum of Art concerts. We'll be doing some new things with rock tunes with a jazz twist.

AAJ: Do either of you write music and/or lyrics of your own?

MC: I'm working on that now. I'm trying to get up the nerve to actually do them in public!

AAJ: It takes a certain courage.

MED: I've written some lyrics. I wrote my own lyrics to the tune "How About You?" Strangely enough, I wrote it while waiting in a doctor's office. I was very nervous when I sang it. But people liked it. It was a thrill, adding lyrics to an established tune.

AAJ: What projects are coming up for you in the next months individually and together?

MED: In April, 2005, we're at the Sellersville Theater again. Alan McMahon is working on signing us up for a jazz festival in Florida.

MC: I'm working on my first solo CD, called You're a Sweetheart with Lee Smith on bass, Dan Monaghan on drums, Peter Bernstein on guitar, John Swana on trumpet, and Eric Alexander on sax.

AAJ: No piano. Hmm, that's interesting.

MC: We're using the guitar instead. It's been a great experience to record it, and it's being mastered, and soon will be released. I have some gigs at the (Philadelphia) Art Museum, and at Chris'.

MED: I'm going back to Japan, to perform at three of the clubs I did last time, and possibly a new one. I'm also talking with an agent in Tokyo who books people into resorts. I'm studying Japanese. Like, Meg, I'd like to do another solo CD. And Meg and I are going to do another project together — we're brainstorming it right now.

AAJ: What are some of your longer term dreams?

MED: I sometimes think of doing an educational talk show interviewing creative artists and musicians. Musically, I'd love to perform with Karryn Allyson if the occasion arises. Meg and I would, of course love to get the Tribute CD picked up by a major record label. I would like to see both of us get signed by a big label.

MC: I would also love to see me writing songs and doing a CD of them.

AAJ: Are there any particular musicians you'd like to work with?

MED: Outside of the great local players I work with, most of the people I'd pick have passed away- Ben Webster, Ray Brown, Nelson Riddle. But Elvis Costello and Kenny Barron are still here!

MC: The list is too long. There are so many great musicians in this area and elsewhere. I'd like to sing backup for Prince, though!

AAJ: In your daily lives other than music, what are some of the things you are into?

MED: I like to sew. I started out in textiles at Philadelphia College of Art. I went from visual art to music. Sewing includes making drapes and re-upholstering furniture. I like doing things around the house. Painting, renovations. My husband, Michael, is a carpenter. A comfortable home is very important to me.

MC: I like to garden. I like plants. Whatever will fit in the tiny back yard outside of my apartment.

AAJ: One question that I always ask: Do you have a spiritual life or practice? I see jazz as expressing that dimension. Is there a faith or a way of thinking about life that is of special importance to you?

MED: I have a faith and consider myself a spiritual person. I was raised Roman Catholic, but in my late teens I moved away from the Church. After Michael and I married, we became Episcopalians. I prefer smaller, more intimate types of religious services. My faith gives me a structure and a focus, and a positive outlook which prevents me from becoming too discouraged. Recently, I read about animal totems, particularly frogs. They are so fragile in their natural state in comparison to the adversities they face in order to survive. So now I keep a small ceramic frog on my piano. It reminds me to keep re-inventing and re-examining myself. To shed layers and keep moving forward in my life.

AAJ: We'll look forward to your singing "Ribbit!" (laughter).

MED: Ha ha — I should do that song!!! I should do that song, "It's Not Easy Being Green!"

AAJ: Meg, what's your take on spirituality?

MC: Right now, I don't have any particular religious faith. I believe in people, and that we try to do good things and be kind to each other. I believe in the human race and hope that we all are kind and support one another. I think about faith often. There are bits and pieces of many religions that are wonderful and beautiful. But I can't really label myself one or the other. Christian. Buddhist. I do think of myself as spiritual, but mostly in terms of people.

AAJ: As a Christian minister said, "Be like God — become a Human Being."

MED: I can really appreciate Buddhism. And that's another reason for going to Japan.

AAJ: OK. We could go on indefinitely, but let's stop for now. Thanks so much to both of you for doing the interview.

MC: Thank you, too.

MED: I have to say this was one of the most relaxing interviews I've done — you made it so easy.

AAJ: I thought it was the other way around — the feeling's mutual!

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