Marion Cowings: Hey There
All About Jazz: So Marion, I understand you have a newly released CD.
Marion Cowings Yes, I have a CD that's a reissue of a recording I made about 15 years ago with Kenny Barron. It's recently mixed, mastered and now sounds nice and clear and the fidelity is up there with everything that's nice and clear. The performance is respectable if I dare say so myself...and I dare say so myself.
AAJ: Were they live performances?
MC: Yes, let me check. Well, yes we were both alive. We went into the studio, recorded 15 songs in about three-and-a-half hours, and kept 13.
AAJ: How did you decide which songs you wanted to keep?
MC: At the time we recorded them, the studio we were in didn't have the capacity to change the pitch of a wrong note like they have now so everything had to be done as perfectly as you could the first time. When I listened to the playback and heard a bunch of lemon notes coming out from me that was enough to scratch the particular tune. Fortunately there were only two such tunes out of 15.
AAJ: What inspired you to have this collaboration with Kenny?
MC: I was ending a marriage and very emotional about it. Kenny and I had recorded three albums together before with my ex-wife, and I asked Kenny if he cared to do a duo record. I had heard [pianist] Bill Evans and [singer] Tony Bennett together, and I thought, "Mmm, if they can do it, I can do it."
That was kind of the idea of having a duet. So I called Kenny and said, "I'm feeling really heavy emotional feelings and it would be a good time to write in our musical diary. Let's do it." And he said. "Ok." So, my friend, April Lang, put up the money for the studioand thank you April, if you're reading thisand we got to work. Kenny actually gave me his services. He said, "I can't charge you man, let's just do it." He's such a great artist and such a generous person. I can't say enough nice things about Kenny and his mastery.
I was really on my toes, 'cause I realized that I was working with the top in the field. If you were an actor it would be like having a scene with Lionel Barrymore, just the two of us, or, as a dancer, it would be just me and Baryshnikov doing a pas de deux.
So that would be the inspiration: a failed marriage and listening to Bill Evans and Tony Bennett.
AAJ: You have an amazing musical track record, some of which was with Jon Hendricks.
MC: I met Jon Hendricks when I was about 15 years old. My friend, [bassist] Eddie Gomez, said, "I'm going to the Newport Jazz Festival and I'm going to see Jon and tell him about you." And he did. Then one day I got a phone call and it was Jon Hendricks and he said, "What's up? I wanna meet you at Birdland." So I met him at Birdland and I said, "I'm doing your stuff and I love it."
And that was that.
I had a little group like his, Cowings, Cummings & Lang, and at one point we all sang together with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross at the Village Vanguard. It was a pretty amazing experience. And that's how I got started singing jazz and breaking away from my generational music, which was doo-wop and such like that.
AAJ: How long were you with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross?
MC: Well, Dave Lambert left the group and I was his original replacement, but after about six months, when I was about 17, I left the group 'cause my dad wanted me to go back to school to be a doctor. I went to a conservatory instead, so it was a compromise and dad wasn't thrilled, believe me.
AAJ: Tell me about your Elvin Jones/John Coltrane story.
MC: I was 15, walking with my friend Jim Cummings up by 155th St. He was a drummer and I was a singer. We passed a station wagon with writing stenciled on the car and it read Elvin Jones. "Wow Elvin Jones! Let's wait 'til he comes out." And we stood there waiting. It didn't matter how long, cause we were in high school. We owned our own time. Time wasn't money, it was homework.
And out from the building came [saxophonist] John Coltrane, not [drummer] Elvin Jones. I said, [in a high voice] "Oh, Mr. Coltrane, I'm Marion, I'm a jazz singer, I'm a protégé of Jon Hendricks and I'm going to be in the Randall's Island Jazz Festival." [In a low voice],"You are? Oh, I'm going to be there too. I'll look for you." "That's incredible," I said. "I just want to thank you, and could I have your autograph?" I got his autograph and it says: Thank youJohn Coltrane.
And, in fact, I did see him. I remember I was sitting on the side of the stage in the wings on [drummer] Gene Krupa's trap case. There was John Coltrane surrounded by reporters, like a politician on the court steps of a felony trial. John actually broke through the circle of reporters to come over to me. He said, "Wow, you're really here, you really made it." And I said [in a high voice], "Yes, I really made it." "Have a great show," he said.
And that was how I met John Coltrane. I made 25 dollars for that gig and the pay scale actually hasn't gone up since then. It's maybe 25 and a sandwich. That is, if you do a live gig for four hours.