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Roberta Gambarini: Very Easy to Love

By Published: October 3, 2006
AAJ: That often comes with the territory.

RG: True. But everything's a struggle: for heaven's sake, if you're a Pakistani boy making bricks for 50c a day, I would say that's a worse struggle than being in New York and trying to make it as a jazz singer. You may skip a few meals, but think of that—twelve hours making bricks—or even worse, living in a drought, where there's no food. You can be penniless in New York, but someone can invite you for a good dinner.

AAJ: In talking to people about you, someone actually called you "a cult figure." Do you know about that?

RG: Yeah... it's flattering, it's very nice. I think it's because most of my "notoriety"—or why I'm known to the jazz fans—is through word of mouth. And that's good, because I don't have a big publicity machine behind me, or access to the media. But I was lucky to know a great many wonderful musicians. I understand in this business it's hard for take a chance on somebody unknown, who speaks with the accent of a pizza girl...

AAJ: But you don't sing with an accent.

RG: I know, but still, it's someone who looks different, doesn't have the same history—a lot of people took the chance, and risked for me, and I really appreciate it. Without that, I'd be in my little room, singing to the birds.

AAJ: Somebody took a gamble...

RG: I really appreciate that, especially in a world where everything is calculated on money. People took chances because they loved the music—so many great musicians—[saxophonist] James Moody and his wife Linda, they were just great to me.

AAJ: Benny Carter?

RG: [Saxophonist] Benny Carter was one of the first people that I had a mentoring relationship with. And Hilma, his wife, who is great. Benny organized my first gig in Los Angeles, and told all of his friends, but Moody is my mentor too, a father-figure—everywhere he tries to plug me, and he speaks about me.

AAJ: Ever feel like quitting?

RG: Nooooo. If I did, what would I do? I don't know how to do anything! I don't even know how to sing the way I'd like to, so I'm always wanting to sing better and better.

AAJ: I think that's why jazz guys are living and working to such advanced ages: there's always something else to figure out.

RG: Hank Jones is the same. His attention and focus are always excellent; there's always something to reach for.

AAJ: Excellence is a word that's often used in our culture, sometimes very loosely.

RG: But it doesn't necessarily mean striving to get above everybody else—that's the competition factor. It's more like Ulysses—the instinct that drove Ulysses to go places—the demon of knowledge. The will and the grit to know things. That's why you can go on without food, because you have that hunger. When you understand something, there's a special pleasure in that—and musically, when you really hear something...

AAJ: I have a vision of you sitting in a bus station with your suitcase, looking at the cards on the bulletin board to find an apartment. Was it that bad?

RG: No, I had an apartment in Roxbury, a little room. It was shared and very cheap. Then I was starting to think I would be a singing waitress in an Italian restaurant, because my money was going, we didn't even have living expenses paid for. When the Monk competition came in, I got a little sum of money that got me through the next two or three months. Then I met a publisher from New York who hired me to do something I've always done with pleasure: transcriptions. So little by little I realized I could support myself.

AAJ: Did you ever consider doing anything else but singing?

RG: Oh no, it was do or die. There wasn't even a question. My parents helped me a lot in that. They are jazz fans—my dad used to be a tenor saxophonist—but the economic situation in Italy was too bad in those times, so he went to work in a factory, and my mother is a seamstress. But they are true jazz lovers.

I'd always been singing to records, but when I first started getting opportunities—local musicians heard me when I was 17—they were very happy, they never said, "No." I was always received very well, I have to say... I moved to Milano two years after that, because Milano was the center of jazz life, with a lot of musicians. Those were really hard days.

I used to go [home] to Torino, which is a short train ride, on Sundays. My mother would give me a big sack of rice that would last me a week. So it was rice and potatoes and strachinella—which is a type of soft cheese—but little by little, things picked up. My parents saw me go through all kinds of stuff—one day I'm going write my book!—and they never once said, "When are you going to get yourself a real job?" I would be discouraged and then call my dad, and he would say, "Are you kidding me? What? Now that you're so successful? One day you'll be in America, and you'll do great." That's always been my support system, and to this day I'm still amazed. Maybe they saw that the power of my commitment was beyond rational: this blood connection with the music that I honestly feel.

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