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The Art Of The Song

By Published: August 8, 2012
Although the three singers have very different styles, they have all performed and recorded with some of the finest of Britain's young jazz players: Jackson, with saxophonists Nathaniel Facey of Empirical and Brandon Allen; James with saxophonist Tony Kofi and bassist Larry Bartley, Simmons with pianist Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
and drummer Dave Smith. Collaborators such as these might suggest that all three singers see themselves as firmly within the jazz genre, but things aren't that simple.

Becoming A Singer

Jackson, Simmons and James all started to sing at an early age, but followed different paths to their professional careers. Jackson studied music, but not on a specialist jazz course. "I think I was the first person to complete the course as a jazz performer" he says. After graduation he moved to London and earned his living playing piano in cocktail bars: "Which I still do. It pays the rent for me."

His attitude to singing is intriguing, as he doesn't see it as his primary activity. "I very rarely describe myself as a singer. The singing is part of the musicianship; I don't describe myself as a singer first and foremost. I feel like I'm a songwriter first. I play piano and sing to back that up."

Simmons (pictured above) grew up in Brighton, where she began to sing at the age of four, later studying classical guitar. She moved to London to further her studies on the instrument. "I went to Goldsmiths College to do a music degree but didn't know what I was going to do after it. I didn't get onto the classical guitar performance course—I was really gutted—but I did get into the jazz and pop module. It was amazing: Issie Barrett was teaching us and I fell in love with all her stories about Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and people like that. I also took jazz singing lessons and then people started asking me to sing in their bands. A few years later I went to Trinity College to do a postgraduate jazz course; then, a little while after that, I recorded my first album. It just happened, no real master plan."

Despite her undoubted talents as a guitarist, at first Simmons didn't use the instrument while performing jazz. "I've only been singing and playing guitar together for the last few years. People would say 'Why don't you sing and play?' and I'd think 'No, don't be stupid.' I was singing standards for a long time but I started to get a bit bored, never thought about the songs. Then I discovered Rufus Wainwright. I wrote an arrangement of one of his songs and played it to my dad at Christmas. He really liked it so I did it at a gig and it went down really well. That inspired me to write songs."

James also went to university, but her chosen subject was media studies. Co-incidentally, James studied in Simmons home town, although the two didn't meet there—they actually met via Twitter.

"I did media studies at Sussex University. I was going to be a journalist or TV presenter because I had to be 'sensible.' My parents were always telling me to get a good pension!" James and Simmons both laugh at this before James continues: "When I was younger I sang when I was home on my own: my secret pleasure. Then at university I met a lot of music students and got really influenced by their enthusiasm. My first gig was actually an open mic night on campus. I got up and sang Sam Cooke's 'Wonderful World.' I thought I was terrible, thought I'd never do it again but I got the bug. That was a key moment: after a couple of weeks I made it a regular thing and started planning what I'd do. Once I came back to London I had to get serious, get a proper job, so I joined a magazine publisher. I still spent my evenings at the open mic nights."

After a while James stopped singing for about a year. Then she began to visit the Half Moon pub in Putney, where she started singing again. When her partner's job took the couple to Paris James began to spend more time on her music, continuing to do so on her return to London. Finally, with the release of her debut album some 15 years after her graduation from Sussex University, James feels comfortable being referred to as a vocalist. "Now I finally feel like I can call myself a singer. It's been quite a long process singing all the while and not really calling myself a singer."

The Art Of The Songwriter

Many great jazz singers are interpreters of other people's songs, rather than composers in their own right. Contemporary singers are more likely to be songwriters as well, a reflection of the scene's changing expectations. Jackson, James and Simmons all write their own songs; but here, too, their approaches differ in some fascinating ways.

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