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Interviews

Deborah Brown: Jazz Diva Extraordinaire

By Published: May 26, 2009
On the Road



AAJ: You lived for over a decade in Holland. What brought you there?



DB: I started out in KC, and then I began traveling all around the United States with a no-name group, and went to almost everywhere in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii. From there, I developed a desire to go international, and a friend went to Japan, and made a contact for me to go there. I did a couple of tours in Asia for about six months, not only to Japan, but to Jakarta, Indonesia and that area. And I developed a taste for international travel.



At one point, I went to Europe to visit a friend who was a singer. A pianist there heard a tape I did of a spin-off of a PBS special called Women in Jazz, hosted by Carmen McRae

Carmen McRae
Carmen McRae
1920 - 1994
vocalist
. I was in a small snippet of that. The pianist, who lived in South Africa at the time, heard the tape, and said, "Look, I can get work for you in Europe." So I moved to Europe in 1985 and stayed there until 1995.

Deborah BrownAnd in those 10 years, I recorded albums with many great musicians, and that really catapulted my career in Europe. I did some very unique things. I did a record with James Baldwin, the writer, the only recording he ever made. I also did recordings with five great musicians, Horace Parlan

Horace Parlan
Horace Parlan
b.1931
piano
, Ed Thigpen
Ed Thigpen
Ed Thigpen
1930 - 2010
drums
, Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
Johnny Griffin
1928 - 2008
sax, tenor
, Benny Bailey
Benny Bailey
Benny Bailey
1925 - 2005
trumpet
, and Red Mitchell
Red Mitchell
Red Mitchell
b.1927
bass
. And I got that special feeling you experience with these guys. As they grow older, it's harder to get that original feeling directly from the source.



AAJ: Speaking of great musicians, in 2005, you released a duet recording with guitarist Joe Beck

Joe Beck
Joe Beck
1945 - 2008
guitar
.



DB: He was amazing. And that record was just the tip of the iceberg. After that, we collaborated more closely. We really wanted to record again, but we never got a chance to.

MH: That whole album was done in five hours—it was intended as a sort of demo record.



AAJ: Was that collaboration with Beck inspired by the recording Ella Fitzgerald did with Joe Pass

Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
?



DB: Not really; it was really inspired by Joe Beck himself. He was a one-man show. He designed his own guitar, with strings from several different instruments. I never heard anything like it.



AAJ: He did a recording with Jimmy Bruno

Jimmy Bruno
Jimmy Bruno
b.1953
guitar
, Polarity (Concord, 2000), with that guitar. It's a beautiful album—just the two guitars.



MH: It was called the alto guitar, and has two guitar strings, two bass strings, and two banjo strings.



AAJ: Could you tell us a bit about the Blue Note recording you did with the Doky Brothers?



DB: They are just fantastic musicians. They are part Danish.



MH: And originally from Vietnam.



DB: Neils Doky has played with everyone, Randy Brecker

Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
b.1945
trumpet
and Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
, for example. Neils also played for Pope John Paul, with Gino Vanelli. He's played everywhere, as has his brother.



MH: Both have performed in New York, and more recently Neils moved to Paris.



AAJ: So you were building a career in Europe back then?



DB: We had a house in a small village in the Netherlands, and it provided a base for getting around Europe, and also I was invited to teach there.



MH: We started out in Brussels, and then got the opportunity to go to Holland.

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Brown's Approach to Jazz Singing



AAJ: What do you emphasize in your education of vocalists, once they've achieved a level of competence? You're such an exceptional singer, that you must have a lot to convey to those who are coming up.



DB: I try, for starters, to teach them some discipline, Because most people can sing, but to be a professional singer really takes a lot of work. And you have to understand your voice. I try to teach them technique. My strongest suit is probably vocal technique. I treasure my voice because at one point I got very close to not being able to sing, and then I took a lesson from George Peckham, a fantastic teacher, and he turned around my whole singing career using his method, and that's what I share with my students as well. Peckham opened up my whole vocal approach, where I could begin to sing all the different notes and registers, and this was the key to my really growing. It's just like any horn player has to learn to use their lips, their mouth, and their embouchure to the best of their ability in order to facilitate the music itself.



AAJ: Your rhythm is extraordinary—it embraces the Kansas City beat, a la Basie and the others. Do you think the best vocalists are right on the beat?



DB: Except for Betty Carter

Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
I love Betty Carter
Betty Carter
Betty Carter
1930 - 1998
vocalist
along with Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day
Anita O'Day
1919 - 2006
vocalist
, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan—all the classic singers. But to learn from, there's really something special about Betty. I'd really love to be someone who breaks the time barrier like Betty.

AAJ: In her later career, Betty Carter really broke new ground, are saying you'd like to follow in her footsteps in that regard?



DB: I would definitely like to do something that is so innovative, that it's a new way of listening to the music. But who can say—is that really a goal of mine? No, it's not a goal, but I would love to stumble on something that would have the same impact as Betty did. Today, singers are relaxing their time a lot, not sounding like Betty Carter, but taking more risks, so she has inspired singers to follow their own instincts.



DB: I did a Jazz Connect contest where I had to listen to over 200 singers, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how many people are out there doing it. And, of course, each of them was trying to get to the top and get noticed, because the record companies were keeping their eyes and out.



But, one wonders if there are any record companies any more, because right now it looks like the Internet is the record company in a way. We're on CDBaby. So there are so many jazz singers emerging, and I'm really happy about that, but there are so many trying to be heard, that the attention to the details of the music is being a bit lost.

You can't just repeat the past. How many times can you sing "My Funny Valentine" like everybody else? You have to find your own unique interpretation and expression. So many pop singers are trying to be jazz singers, but jazz is an art form. Imagine a rock singer saying, "OK, I'm gonna do a jazz album." It's ridiculous. I think most rockers appreciate and acknowledge jazz, but what they don't do is play jazz.



AAJ: What's your take on how a singer can and should move in a creative direction?



Deborah BrownDB: The objective is to really be a musician. Consider the difference between Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand
b.1942
vocalist
and Betty Carter, for example. Streisand reads what's on the chart, and interprets it. She's a beautiful singer, and I love that.

But Betty Carter understands where the music is, where the time is, and can take it apart and reconstruct it. Barbra just sings the story, and even though Betty is singing the story, she's taking the music along with her. Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart
b.1945
vocalist
, Chaka Kahn, they have a story they're singing, but they're using the lyrics, not the music as such to tell the story.

Betty gets into the music itself. That's why she sometimes sounds so funny: she can take a phrase and put it in a different place, and it gives a new meaning to the song.



AAJ: It seems the best jazz singers always become a part of the group they're performing with; they share the stage equally with the sidemen's solos, and you can tell they're always listening to their accompanists and instrumentalists.



DB: That's good. That's like my former student, J.D. Walter—he's that way. He's really grown, and I'm so proud of him because he really is going on his own. He just got a few tips from me, and he went for it. He's a warp-drive man. This guy is really great.



AAJ: People refer to him as using his voice like an instrument, but he says his emphasis has always been vocal.



MH: There are so few real jazz singers, just a very few. And I think the influence from instrumentalists does have a lot to do with it, because if you're going to improvise freely, you have to get away from the delivery of the lyric.

Jazz is about using the framework, about creating alternate melodies; but you have to be careful not to be confined too much by the lyric. That's why people don't appreciate true jazz vocalists so much, because they give less significance to the lyric.



AAJ: You used the word reconstruct, and a lot of jazz is indeed about taking the music apart and transforming it.



DB: I love the novel called Jazz (Penguin, 1993), by Toni Morrison. It's the first book I ever read that had a jazz form, where it gave you the main story, but the book was based on all the people who witnessed one event. It was the same event described from everyone's point of view.



AAJ: You just indirectly gave us a new way to look at jazz singers. To notice specifically how they each transform the tune to reflect their own point of view, a matter of multiple perspectives on the same song.



DB: When I was working in Japan, I always wondered why their singers only sang a limited number of the standards. And it's no secret, they actually have a list—and those are the only songs they'll sing. At first, I thought, that's awful. It's so limiting. But recently, I returned there, and played with some Japanese musicians, and we had jam sessions that were wonderful.

I heard how they took a few melodies everyone knows, but they individualized it so incredibly that each was a work of art. I said to myself, "OK, I'll never look at the standards the same way again." Now, American musicians have always done that, it's just that it really clicked for me in those jam sessions.



And when you think about it, it really is the Japanese way of doing things. For example, their artists have been doing paintings for centuries that repeat the same subject or landscape over and over. And each new painting gets accolades for the way it imitates the others. I used to think that was strange, but now I understand.



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