Marion Cowings: Hey There
AAJ: What inspired you to sing and how did you get started?
MC: I was born to sing, I didn't need any inspiration. I don't know why. I could always sing, I sang for my mother when I was a little kid. My mother said [in a sweet voice], "When I was a child there was a movie that I really loved and it's going to playing on TV today, and I want you to watch it. It's The Wizard of Oz" We watched it on a little eight-inch screen, one of the first in the neighborhood in '51 and, when it was over she said, "Well what did you think? Did you like it?" And I started to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
I sang it all day, 'cause I had a musical photographic memory. She was astounded, and paid attention to me 'cause she couldn't believe what she was hearing. But I knew I could do this all the time.
AAJ: How old were you?
MC: About five or six.
Then I was in school plays, and in junior high I didn't sing; I played trombone. I entered oratory contests, which I won, cause my dad grilled me in the back of his grocery store. But then I got really lucky because a role came up for a male soloist with the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein. It was an Aaron Copland piece, which was televised and recorded. It's on Sony Masterworks. I learned a lot from that experience. I got a lot of my teaching style from Leonard Bernsteinand how to conduct, which is really required these days for singers and bandleaders.
AAJ: Wasn't [pianist] Larry Willis singing, too?
MC: Yes, he hadn't started playing piano yet.
AAJ: How is jazz different today than when you arrived on the scene?
MC: The rhythms have changed and people seem to be gravitating towards simpler forms. A lot of people put down rap, but rap musicians are really the champions of the First Amendment. They really say what's on their minds. I'm encouraged, though, by the strength and dedication of young players today and their awareness of the past. There's still gotta be a market for American standards though. More chords are going to come back.
AAJ: How do you see yourself in the future?
MC: Dead. No, really, I see myself living happily ever after in a country environment where I can take the cat, but also have a city studio and students, and jump into a plane that doesn't use gas.
AAJ: And musically?
MC: Musically, I've been thinking a lot about the blues, and the tremendous impact it has when I sing blues with the band. It's very visceral, not intellectual. It doesn't require the kind of attention span for the listener that jazz does.
AAJ: I heard your blues band and you have a very different singing persona.
MC: Yes, a different attitude. The mean side of me shows up, no more mister nice guy, Cole Porter stuff. Mister "in the closet, can't find my way out of the emotional doldrums": the blues. You can tell people what you think in just a few words with blues.
MC: "You left me and I'm going to step on your neck," or of "If you don't come back I will step on my own neck." You can tell women more directly what you really think when you sing the blues.
AAJ: What would you say to your woman?
MC: Come back baby. Please don't go.
AAJ: I just have a few more questions for you.
MC: Yes, I sleep in the nude, No, I don't smoke.
AAJ: If you could do it all over again, would you do it all over again? Any changes?
MC: Yes; I'd have cell phone so I could have so many more gigs. Instead of going to the coin box, I would have had a career like the kids in the playground with the swing thing. "Hello; yes, I'm available to swing, goodbye." 'Cause if you don't call back right away you know they'll get the next person.
AAJ: Talk about the power of music.
MC: -There's hope, and I think music can bring people together under conditions that seem insurmountable. I've walked into hospitals, sung to mental patients and they've come out of their trance. Alzheimer's patients remember the lyrics, though they may not remember anything else. It wakes them up.
I like to "voyeur" my audience. I enjoy their pleasure. They think they're watching me, but I'm watching them enjoy the music. Someone may come up to me after the gig and comment how great the concert was, but they are only responding to the feelings, the storytelling. You see, I'm not the wine; I'm just the glass holding the wine.
Marion Cowings/Kenny Barron, Marion Cowings and Kenny Barron (Redcow, 2012)
Marion Cowings, Hank and Frank II (Lineage, 2009)
Marion Cowings, If You Could See Me Now (EmArcy, 1996)
Marion Cowings, Kim and Marion (EmArcy, 1993)
Marion Cowings, Inside (Good Guise, 1984)
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic, The Second Hurricane (Sony Classic, 1960)