J.D. Walter: Being a Verb
AAJ: So you're refining your musical abilities there. And then at some time thereafter you go to Amsterdam to study with Deborah Brown.
JDW: At North Texas University, I was talented and had a scholarship. But at a music school, you get a reality check and find out there are many just like you, and many even better. There were so many great drummers there, but I started getting attention in their vocal jazz ensembles, and they asked me to pilot their new vocal jazz degree. But they had no vocal instructors. So I was studying with instrumentalists, so that's where I got the whole instrumental approach. But I thought, "I have to study with a singer." And I heard Deborah Brown in New Orleans at an IAJE (International Association of Jazz Education) Convention, and I contacted her and said, "I want to study with you," and she said, "I'm located in Amsterdam." So I sold everything I had, moved there, and studied with her for about a year.
She's the "real deal." She's one of those rare singers who hasn't been tainted by the music industry telling them what to do. She was following her own musical desires and instincts. And also, I was interested in her vocal method. She studied with George Peckham in Seattle, who taught what is called a "one voice" method, which instead of labeling the singer as a tenor, soprano and so on, lets one use their own voice well into the upper register, or "head voice," as women call it, or falsetto for men.
Deborah was studying with her teacher at the same time as Diane Schuur and Abbey Lincoln, if I recall correctly, among other jazz greats. Peckham was a guru, and lots of jazz singers were going out to study with him, as well as pop singers like Rod Stewart, and a rock group called Heart. He helped them get their voices back in shape, because a lot of the methods he was using are those that laryngologist physicians use to rehabilitate voices. So you could use his instruction for rehabilitation or as a regular vocal method.
AAJ: I notice two things about your singing that are wonderful and may derive from this method. One is your range, and even the very highest notes don't sound like falsetto. And the other is how clear your voice is throughout the register. It's pure and unspoiled.
JDW: I got that absolutely from Peckham's "one voice" method through Deborah. For him, there's no such thing as falsetto or head voice. You're using only one voice. Making the connection between the two areasthey are one voice. Most people damage their voice by singing or speaking improperly, or by drinking or smoking. Peckham's method has been a godsend to me. Even in the middle of a gig if I find my voice tired, I'll go do some of these warm-ups and I get my voice back again.
AAJ: Getting back to Deborah Brown, what did you learn from her?
JDW: At the time, she was singing with a great group: Horace Parlan, Red Mitchell and Ed Thigpen. She would say, "I'm having a rehearsal today. I'd like you to come and sit there and not say a word, and listen and watch the rehearsal." So first of all, I got to hear great music. And I observed the way she rehearsed a band. And she clued me into people historically I should have known but didn't know, so I listened to some singers who were unfamiliar to me at the time, such as Babs Gonzales, the Mills Brothers, King Pleasure and others. I knew Eddie Jefferson, of course, and some others. Sometimes Deborah could say things that would crush me, but she was always right.
First of all, I was instrumentally oriented, and I didn't know how to deliver a song. One time she said to me, "You should listen to Chet Baker." I was a musical snob, and I considered Chet Baker to have a wimpy voice, and I was interested in singers who had obviously good voices, and she said to me, "Well, you should listen to Chet Baker because he means what he says, and you don't." She was very gentle with me, but very firm about many things. So I started listening to Chet, and it changed my biases.
One thing about jazz is that it is very forgiving as far as the instrument is concerned. Jazz is more concerned about the particular intention, rather than the sound coming out. For example, Bob Dorough does not have a beautiful voice. But he has more intention and meaning than I'll ever hope to have. Blossom Dearie is another example of a voice whose intention shines through the quirky voice. There are singers out there who don't have pretty voices, but it doesn't matter, because the intention and feel is the value, and that was a big lesson for me to learn.
AAJ: Louis Armstrong is, perhaps, the prime example of that.
JDW: I've often pointed out to students, that Maya Angelou, or any great poet can say "I love you" in so many complex ways. But a three-year-old child comes into the room and says to his parents, "I love you," and it's just as deep and strong as any poet. Because simplicity and intention can be just as effective as loquaciousness.
AAJ: Billie Holiday is a strong example of that kind of simplicity.
JDW: Absolutely. And I'm not a big fan of the quality of her voice, but I am a huge fan of her intention. It was a unique voice, of course, but it was the sorrow, the underlying emotional content that drew me to her as much as anything else. She's a beautiful case in point. And sometimes people will say that a jazz singer is one who improvises (scat). Well, not necessarily. But they may be improvising with rhythm, with phrasing, with other elements that are involved. Billie certainly knew where to take liberties. But you must be able to understand what's underneath what we're doing. You must understand the landscape underneath, because this is an interactive, conversational art form.
AAJ: That underlying emotion and intent really comes through in your own singing. Holiday also had an incredible sense of timing, and the same applies to you. You're right on the money with the rhythmmany of even the finest singers have trouble keeping time. To continue with your biography, could you give us a quick fast-forward as to what ensued after you left Amsterdam?
JDW: I came back to Texas, and I was tapped out on jazz, and started singing with a rock group called Worlds Above. I had a great timeheavy harmonies, very intricate almost fusion rock. We had some success and toured in the South, and then there were various hardships, and I had an offer to play with a famous guitarist in Dallas, Giampiero Scuderi, a prodigy Italian jazz guitarist. And I sang with him five nights a week for about a year, was making money and living somewhat of a more normal life, and getting back into jazz.
Then, in 1993, my father had a stroke, and I moved back to Pennsylvania and got a cottage near my folks in Mt. Gretna. I started playing in Reading, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Philly and Washington, D.C. I ultimately wanted to move to New York, and with that in mind, I started to network the New York scene, by bringing players down from there to play at the clubs that I booked. And I would book them to play in my area, and got to know a lot of the New York players before I even moved there. That was a good move on my partit helped me to move to New York in the fall of 1998.
AAJ: Who were some of the New York musicians who especially inspired you while you were in Pennsylvania?
JDW: Jean-Michel Pilc. He had just moved to the United States, and I would bring him down for a few days at a time. When I was living in Pennsylvania, I would drive to New York late at night and hear the jam sessions. Then I'd leave New York around six in the morning. I was living on a thoroughbred horse farm and was required to work four hours a day and didn't have to pay rent, so I could go to my gigs at night. I did that for about three years, from 1994 to 1997. It gave me an opportunity to practice a lot.
One great thing was the people I was bringing down from New York would love to stay on a hundred-acre farm in Lancaster Countyit was like a vacation for them. I met Jim Ridl during that period. A guitarist from Ohio, Cal Collins, Philadelphia area pianist Ron Thomas, Ari Honig, Francois Moutin, David Liebman, Bob Dorough, Jeff Lee JohnsonI met them all during that period. I was just looking to perform with great players.
I moved to New York and then was offered a job at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. At first, I commuted, then moved to Philly for a couple of years. Then Liebman said to me, "You gotta get out of Philly! Get back to New York!" We made a recording together. We were playing some gigs in promotion of the record. And I started wondering what I was going to dostarving all those years to settle into a teaching job, which wasn't bad in itself but that wasn't what I had set out to do. Currently, I teach adjunct at three universities in New Yorkbut teaching isn't my main interest. I was just recently offered a position in NYC with more hours and I turned it down. The deal I now have is that the students work around my hours and they come to my house. What I'm saying is that performing is the main thing in my life. Teaching has to be done around my schedule.
AAJ: Now, getting back to the music itself, Betty Carter has been a major influence on you. I heard Betty Carter of course on that fabulous album with Ray Charles.
JDW: She never got paid for that, by the way.
AAJ: Unbelievable. But then she matured and became very avant-garde. I heard her in person in the latter part of her career, and she was so far out, it was a bit hard to keep track of what she was doing. Was it the early or later Betty Carter who had an impact on you, and how did she influence you?
JDW: There are a number of reasons why she's been an iconic figure for me. Actually, I've been strongly influenced by a number of figures. One of the first, in bebop, was Babs Gonzales. He was one of the first vocal improvisers. On one of his records, he was predominantly singing without words. He was singing as part of the instrumental ensemble. That greatly influenced me. I was then performing with a lot of the older bebop musicians. I asked them a lot of questions, and then, when I became interested in Betty Carter, I set out to perform with as many players from her bands as I possibly could. I've played with over 35 musicians who have been in her bands, partly because I respect them as musicians, but also because I wanted to know what Betty's methodology was, how she dealt with the band, and so on.
But the greatest impact she's had on me is that I consider her a verb, in the sense that if you listen to her, before she sang with Ray Charles she sang with the Lionel Hampton orchestra, and then she worked with Ray Charles and also King Pleasure. Then in 1956, her album Meet Betty Carter and Ray Bryant (Columbia, 1955) came out, later released as Social Call. And that record fits right in with what Sarah Vaughan and others were doing at the time, but then she kept evolving, and I think that's a very important thing.
She was always growing. She was kind of the Art Blakey of jazz singers in the sense that so many people from her bandlike Blakey'swent on to great success. And why is that? Did she just have an ear to pick out great players? Yes, but also she had a lot to teach them.
I remember riding in the car with [drummer] Greg Hutchinson, going off to record my first album, Sirens in the C-House (Encounter/Dreambox Media Records, 2000) in 1997, and I put on a Betty Carter recording, and I had questions. I asked Greg, "Why did you do that herewhy did you do that there?" Invariably, he answered, "Betty told me to." Some of the phrases were peculiar to me or repetitive, but she had things she wanted done a certain way. I respect and admire her as somebody who to her dying day pushed the envelope. And I think she also sacrificed a chance for great popularity by doing that, because people didn't get it. People would say, "She sang out of tune." Well, the truth is that she got in touch with African music and scales that are not the tempered like the western musical tunings. She knew what she was doing.
AAJ: Another influence for you has been the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. Could you comment on him?
JDW: I'm very interested in the South American singers, like those who have sung with Pat Metheny. My first introduction to Milton was with Egberto Gismonti. I love the purity of their sounds, especially in their upper registers, and it still had an edge to it, along with their wordless style of singing. Other singers: Pedro Aznar from Chile, and Brazilian singers like Airto and Flora Purim, and Rosa Pasos. These singers do something to me, and I enjoy singing in that style.