Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled
“ I didn't go into the music business. I was really pissed when I realized I was in the music business. I didn't do this to be an artist either. I just wanted to sing and to play. ”
The difficulty in writing about a genuinely original jazz musician is vocabulary. The old labels, those shorthand phrases jazz writers use to categorize everything, don't really apply.
So what word do we use to describe Kitty Margolis? The San Francisco based vocalist does not sound quite like any other jazz singer past or present. One might be tempted to describe her work as 'groundbreaking,' and in many respects it is, but that label misses how much of her work has been influenced by the vocal jazz tradition. 'Innovative' and 'experimental' are good words. However, they both carry an air of self-involved pretension that is definitely not present in either Margolis's singing or her personality. You could say that Kitty Margolis is in the vanguard of jazz singing, but someone might confuse her for one of the abstractionists that make up the vocal jazz avant-garde. If you tried to clarify by adding that her singing is funky and hip and incorporates elements of world music, you only make it sound like she is closer to being a pop singer than a jazz singer, which is not the case at all.
The problem is that labels by their very nature seek to distill things into their simplest form, and there is nothing simple about Kitty Margolis's musical identity. Growing up in San Francisco, she found herself exposed from a very young age to a wide variety of musical influences. During these years, she attended concerts by everyone from Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin and B.B. King. 'I grew up so that I didn't consciously realize there were these musical categories,' observes Margolis. At the time, she was focused primarily on the pop and folk music of her own generation. 'I had a guitar and that was my thing,' she affectionately recalls, adding, 'I was a little Joni Mitchell freak.' While attending college at Harvard, Margolis became active in the Boston area music scene and landed a gig with a western swing band. 'That was the big band western music in the 40s that people translated into a kind of electric rock format in the 70s,' she explains. 'It was a really big bridge into jazz for me because of the kind of guitar chords and the swing feel. You use 6th and 9ths and it's kind of like that Freddie Green four-on-the-floor type comp. So I learned to do that.'
Once Margolis discovered jazz, she fell hard. She spent years obsessively studying the finest improvisers in the bop universe. She stubbornly decided to pursue jazz singing at a time in the late 70's and early 80's when the art form was on life support. 'I am the most impractical person, I must be,' laughs the vocalist before observing thoughtfully, 'I don't think I had a choice. I didn't choose music. Music chose me.'
Not surprisingly, Margolis's role models became those singers who had managed to pursue a unique musical vision in the face of almost total commercial indifference. 'You just realize how many dues they've had to pay,' Margolis observes with a touch of awe in her voice. 'The reality of being out there on the road. A guy like Mark Murphy is out there on the road doing it. Sheila Jordan. Look at those guys. These are the people that set the stage.' Other influences have included Eddie Jefferson ('he was very encouraging to me and someone who I studied like a dog'), Etta Jones ('she was the purest essence of jazz singing. I adored her.'), Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams, Flora Purim, and, of course, Betty Carter. 'An incredible band leader,' enthuses Margolis. 'Her sound. Some people say she's out of tune, but personally, I couldn't care less. She's an original, great musician. Original concept of how to treat tunes, all about pure sound. She flies when she sings. Powerful energy. Totally goes for it. Complete risk taker.'
Although her bop roots go deep, Margolis's musical reach is wider than straight-ahead jazz. She has been particularly fascinated by world music most notably the singers, songs and rhythms of Brazil and Africa. She also loves to explore that area where jazz meets the blues. 'When I got into jazz, I thought I couldn't do the blues any more, even though when I was in high school I was playing Robert Johnson and Bonnie Raitt tunes. Jazz blues became more like Charlie Parker's 'Billie's Bounce' type blues,' she explains. 'Blues is a huge part of jazz history. We all know that, but for the younger person who doesn't know that or hasn't figured that out, I would recommend listening to a singer like Joe Williams or Ernestine Anderson or Etta Jones. Those are the three for understanding the connection between blues and jazz.' Margolis tends to avoid traditional 12-bar blues in favor of blues songs with a bridge, which, it should be noted, she sings with more idiomatic authenticity than one would expect from a Harvard-educated white woman. 'The message in the blues I like to sing is usually a powerful message for women rather than, 'my man done left me and slapped me around.' I don't like those kind of blues.'
Unlike some jazz fans, Margolis is not a genre snob so much as she is a quality snob. 'The best jazz is original to me as is the best pop,' she explains. 'The first thing I look for in music is does it have soul? It either hits me or it doesn't. Singers like Van Morrison and Abbey Lincoln are just oozing soul.' Within jazz, Margolis tends to admire musicians like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and John Scofield, artists who have not confined their pursuit of self-expression to narrowly drawn categories.
What makes Kitty Margolis such a remarkable artist is the way in which she melds together all of these different musical impulses into her own unique vision of what it means to be a jazz vocalist in the 21st Century. There is a double-take quality to her singing. She makes you sit up and pay attention because she is not a musician particularly interested in making mood music. 'There are so many things you can do to spice things up without being precious or overly self-conscious. Things that are integral to my sound,' says Margolis. 'You can use elements of pop and world music, or at least I fully intend to. The thing I like about jazz is the amount of freedom it gives an artist.' Margolis takes full advantage of that freedom by utilizing non-traditional rhythmic ideas, unusual time signatures, varied instrumentation, and challenging reharmonizations.
Although her music can be startling, it is neither coldly cerebral nor densely inaccessible. What separates Margolis from some of the other more adventurous jazz singers is that she never loses sight of the fact that music resides not in our heads but in our hearts. 'The most important thing to me is to make people feel something,' she says. The riot of sounds and inventive musical ideas simply become new garments Margolis wraps around the emotions that have long been the concern of great jazz singers. Of course, there will always be some people that want to hear those emotions expressed in the same familiar ways. However, Margolis doesn't spend time worrying about the accessibility of her work. 'I don't think the jazz audience is as dumb as some music industry traditionalists would have them be,' she explains. 'I think we should expect more from the audience. I certainly don't think they are unsophisticated.'
Respectfor her audiences, for her material and for the jazz traditionis definitely part of the formula, but the chemical reaction that generates Kitty Margolis's art comes from combining that sense of respect with a healthy irreverence for convention and a thirst to explore the unknown. The way those elements interact to produce fresh and exciting jazz singing can be heard on Margolis's recently released fourth CD, Left Coast Life.
Recorded with an impressive group of West Coast musicians, Left Coast Life highlights the vocalist's distinctive approach to making music. Too many jazz singers misinterpret the goal of 'finding your own voice' to mean that every song should be performed the same way. Kitty Margolis, on the other hand, approaches each song on its own terms and looks for ways to individualize rather than homogenize her performances. 'Individual songs have their own intrinsic message,' explains Margolis. 'Usually, as soon as I think of a song, I don't think of it in its old form. First, it's how you interpret the lyric. You bring your own subtext to it from your life experiences. That's one layer. The arrangement, the instrumentation, the production. That provides a context. You put all of those together and get a completely new gestalt of the tune. So each song is an attempt to say something different in the jazz idiom.'
Left Coast Life certainly says something different than most jazz vocal albums. The CD is a series of character studies that evoke life in the culturally diverse and economically schizophrenic San Francisco Bay Area. 'I've lived in the same neighborhood in the heart of the city for twenty-some years,' explains Margolis. 'I have watched the proliferation of BMWs and Porches takeover my neighborhood, and the rents just zooming up, and the musicians in my band having to leave the Bay Area because they couldn't afford to live here anymore' [and] now, obviously the whole economy has changed.'
Margolis brings the dreamers and the schemers of the Bay Area to vivid life in a series of performances that are by turns brazen, witty and rueful. A strutting version of 'Lonely at the Top,' Randy Newman's paean to egomania, performed with tongue planted firmly in cheek, segues into a time-stands-still reading of Frank Loesser's 'Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,' sung with heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity. The cynical nonchalance of Bob Dorough's 'Devil May Care,' given a near-definitive performance, precedes a joyous 'Without a Song' reimagined by Margolis as an idealist's celebration of art and life. As in a Robert Altman film or a Tom Wolfe novel, the drama of Left Coast Life lies not in an overarching narrative but in the juxtaposition of these seemingly disparate characters.
Of course, Left Coast Life can also be appreciated simply as a collection of interesting tunes rearranged with great creativity by a talented improviser. As with any CD, song selection serves as the foundation on which everything else rests. Margolis keeps a running list of dozens of tunes she might like to record. To make the final cut, a song must appeal to her at every level ' emotionally, melodically, harmonically and lyrically. 'It all has to be there,' she says. It is not a coincidence that her repertoire is dominated by standards. 'I love the classic repertoire. Where else do you get the songs? The complex way they're structured harmonically is something you don't often find in contemporary songs, except for in the case of Dave Frishberg or a few writers like that. That was the Golden Age of American song.' However, unlike other vocalists, Margolis doesn't use her affection for the Great American Songbook as an exclusionary rule. Left Coast Life also draws on good rock era tunes and smart original compositions. Margolis penned the lyrics to 'It's You,' which has a melody by renowned guitarist Joyce Cooling, who also appears on Left Coast Life. The Brazilian-flavored song proves to be one of the disc's highlights. 'You Just Might Get It,' a witty indictment of finger popping celebrity culture, is the first tune Margolis has recorded where she wrote both the music and lyrics. 'I used to write a lot of songs outside of the jazz genre, but then when I started doing jazz all I would do was write the lyrics to other people's songs,' she recalls. Unlike some jazz singers, Margolis doesn't turn a blind eye to quality when it comes to her own songs. 'I have high standards, so I wanted to do a good job.'
After a tune has been selected, Margolis begins work on the arrangement. 'I usually try to think from the groove on up,' she explains. 'Then I play around with the chords and play around with the bass lines.' Of course, not every song undergoes major surgery. For example, the haunting performance of Tom Waits's 'Take It With Me' that serves as the album's coda, 'I did it in the same key and used the same changes. That's all the song needed. It didn't need reinvention. 'Money' did need reinvention.' Margolis's memorably bluesy take on that Pink Floyd tune is done 'much slower, spacier, and with some different changes and instruments.'
Because of their ubiquitousness, Margolis tends to radically rethink standards. As a result, she can tackle a warhorse like 'The Best Is Yet To Come' without fear of boring her audience or herself. 'I didn't really picture myself doing a Frank Sinatra version,' observes Margolis with a laugh. 'I heard a more polyrhythmic treatment of that. Then I started playing around with the changes. That came next. Then I started playing around with the stops that are in there and the rhythmic notation and dynamics.' The final result, which finds Margolis singing her own multi-tracked harmonies over a 12/8 groove, sounds like an entirely new song. At the same time, the reinvention is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of brash optimism that distinguished the original tune.
That may be due, at least in part, to the fact that Margolis is always keenly aware of the original parameters of the songs that she sings. 'In my teaching, I always emphasize singing the melody correctly,' explains Margolis. 'The first time you have to show me that you know the melody. No going off it. Rhythmically, you can phrase it anyway you want, but you've got to give me pitch for pitch every pitch in the tune. Otherwise, what are you improvising on?' Margolis goes on to observe, 'That's one reason why a singer like Rosemary Clooney is so important, because she sings the melodies right, and you should listen to her for the melodies and how to sing them the way the composer wrote them. There are certain people that do sing them right. Ella Fitzgerald in her song book albums sang them right, at least the first time through the song. I think it's great that there is a real conservative/retro group of singers on one end that's taking care of that job so I don't have to do that. I can do it, but it's nothing I want to do.'
While there is little doubt she could, Margolis's phrasing is so improvisational in nature that it difficult to imagine her as a straight singer. 'The main thing about jazz for me is freedom and improvisation,' observes the vocalist. 'Having it be different every time.' Margolis places the accent in 'jazz singer' over the word jazz. 'I have spent a lot of time listening to the great horn players,' she explains. 'I work with saxophone a lot. My main teachers were sax players.' It shows. Margolis does not sing so much as she plays her voice. Her articulation and attack on up-tempo numbers and the breathiness of her timbre on ballads closely resemble the sounds of an alto saxophone. She also has an instrumentalist's preoccupation with structure rather than a singer's preoccupation with tone.
Left Coast Life features less scat singing than on previous recordings, which is a shame because Margolis is one of the finest vocal improvisers on the contemporary jazz scene. For many jazz fans, the very mention of scat summons an image of clueless singers blazing through chorus after chorus of nonsense syllables. However, Margolis punctures that stereotype both with her extraordinary musicianship and her ability to contextualize her scat choruses. Like the wordless improvisers she admires (Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Nancy King, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan), Margolis brings a distinctive sound to the idiom. 'Scat has its own vocabulary. For me there is a bop vocabulary that has a completely different set of syllables than I would use on a Brazilian tune. With bop, I use a more consonant attack.' That distinction is underscored on Left Coast Life by the very different styles of scat heard on 'Without a Song' (rapid and fiery) and 'It's You' (cool and hypnotic). Even those who claim to dislike scat singing may be surprised at how organically Margolis integrates the lyrical and wordless parts of her performances.
Margolis sounds as relaxed and inventive when improvising within the lyrics as she does when she dispenses with them altogether. Her clear diction allows a listener to understand the words even when they aren't the point of the performance. 'If it is a real fast song and you can skate through it, the lyrics are less important,' explains Margolis. 'The overall vibe of the tune becomes more important. The lyric can then be a little more trite or stock. Like 'I Want to Be Happy' [on Left Coast Life]. That's a cute lyric, but it's not exactly a depth charge. That's all about burning and joy and energy and an abstract feeling of happiness. The lyric is the vehicle for sound and stretching out.' Ballads are, naturally, a different matter. A jazz singer performing a ballad must be careful that her improvisational choices do not distort the syntax of the lyric or otherwise interfere with her ability to communicate the meaning of the words. It is altogether a far more difficult task than a performance like 'Heart's Desire' from Left Coast Life might suggest.
On the modern jazz scene, it is not uncommon to run into singers who, like Margolis, are also arrangers, songwriters and bandleaders. It is, however, a rarity to encounter a jazz singer who is also a producer and record label owner. All four of Kitty Margolis's albums have been released on the Mad-Kat Records label, which Margolis co-founded with the fine jazz singer Madeline Eastman in the late 1980s. In the history of jazz, artist run labels have been rare and unsuccessful. Despite the fame and personal popularity of their owners, both Tony Bennett's Improv and George Shearing's Sheba bombed. Only Betty Carter's Bet-Car label and Blossom Dearie's Daffodil Records remained viable over an extended period of time due in no small part to the rabid cult following enjoyed by both singers.
Still, it is one thing for a singer with an established audience to set up shop and quite something else for two unknown singers to start their own label. 'At the time [in the 1980s], no one was doing this in our peer group at all,' recalls Margolis. 'Now everybody is doing it. It's fantastic.' Technological advancements have both reduced the cost and increased the availability of the tools necessary to manufacture CDs. The Internet now provides musicians with an alternative outlet to distribute their product. '[Madeline Eastman and I] both do a bit of consulting on the subject of independent labels. We learned everything sort of by trial and error. Now you can take classes on how to do it. It is much easier to get a CD out now. The hard part is still how do you get it into distribution and how do you sell it.'
Mad-Kat Records has managed to do both and in the process has helped establish Margolis as a jazz artist of national stature. 'Our albums keep selling and every time someone orders one, they order two of the others. And our albums don't go out of print, because we don't let them. That's another cool thing about having your own label.' No one is more surprised at the long-term viability of the Mad-Kat project than Kitty Margolis. 'I'm not a person with a five-year plan,' laughs the singer. 'That's not me. I'm a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person. But it has ended up working out for me.'
Although she didn't plan her career this way, Margolis has difficulty imagining any other path. 'I am an independent artist. I would think that a lot of people would not enjoy the kind of work I have to do, but I'm happy to be working for myself. I could be doing this work for someone else and it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.' Although she has received offers to record for other labels, Margolis says, 'I wouldn't want to give up the control of my creative process for what I'd consider a lateral move.' That's not to suggest that she's making any serious effort to trade up either. 'I've had managers and A&R people call me up and say, 'I really want you to send me some stuff.' My husband just wants to kill me because I'll forget or I just won't do it, but he knows that if the right opportunity came along at the right time, I'd look at it. It would be silly not to remain open-minded about life's possibilities.'
Margolis genuinely doesn't view a major label contract as the brass ring of a career in music. 'There are people who get into the music business,' she notes, 'and they hook up with the right people and look at it as a business from the beginning. I'd be willing to bet that most of the artists I like didn't do that. They didn't go into the music business. They went into the music. I didn't go into the music business. I was really pissed when I realized I was in the music business. I didn't do this to be an artist either. I just wanted to sing and to play.'
Other than distribution and publicity, which admittedly are much more than inconsequential side benefits, it is difficult to see how a major label contract would enhance the product that comes out of Mad-Kat Records. As Margolis likes to say, 'There are cheaper ways to make albums than the way I make them.' In fact, only her debut record, 1989's Live at the Jazz Workshop, feels like an independent label production. Immaculately recorded and stylishly packaged, Margolis's studio albums always feature a formidable array of musicians. She is willing to pay to attract players like legendary saxophonist Joe Henderson and blues guitar virtuoso Joe Louis Walker (both of whom appeared on 1994's Evolution) or young lion trumpeter Roy Hargrove and blues great Charles Brown (who were featured on 1997's Straight Up With a Twist).
For Margolis, studio recording presents a creative challenge quite apart from the experience of singing for an audience. 'It's just like apples and oranges to me, performing and recording. It is much easier to perform than it is to record,' says the singer. Whereas live performance is an extroverted act, the recording process offers a self-aware artist the opportunity to look inward. 'When you hear yourself through earphones, through the cans, it's an intimacy with your own voice that you don't have when you're hearing yourself through monitors [on a stage].' Margolis welcomes that opportunity to explore her own sound. 'It is a way to learn about yourself on every level,' she says. It is also a way to achieve textures and nuances that could not necessarily be replicated on a stage.
Like any good producer, Margolis pays close attention to the post-production end of making an album. It helps that she has more than a vague understanding of how the technical side of the recording process works. After leaving Harvard to return to the West Coast, Margolis enrolled as a communications major at San Francisco State and studied studio engineering. 'It's been immensely helpful to me to have learned how to hear frequencies and know what they're called,' explains the singer.
Although her fans would like to see her record more frequently, Kitty Margolis isn't entirely convinced that is a good idea. 'Too many people go and slap down a bunch of tunes not very thoughtfully,' she says. 'One of the good things about being an independent artist is that you didn't sign anything that says you have to make an album every year. I don't think I would necessarily have so much to say to make a studio album every year. I just like to wait and see where my creative road takes me.'
That creative road has paralleled, in many ways, Margolis's development as a jazz artist. For the last 20 years, jazz singers have been struggling with the question of where to take vocal improvising in a post-Betty Carter world. Margolis begins to address that question on her first album by stepping into the tradition at the point where her idols left off. Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the two most influential vocal improvisers in history, made their finest jazz records improvising on standards with a trio in front of a live audience. Live at the Jazz Workshop places Margolis in the same setting. Although it was her first record, Kitty Margolis was hardly a neophyte. She had been honing her craft as a professional jazz singer for nearly a decade. Live the Jazz Workshop is the work of a singer who has acquired the discipline necessary to channel her talent. 'With a Song in My Heart,' 'All Blues' and especially 'I Concentrate on You' are models of creativity and virtuosity.
Having proven herself capable of making a straight-ahead blowing album, Margolis expanded her vision for her first studio recording. On Evolution, she accounts for the different ways in which the art of vocal jazz has developed over time. Each branch or offshoot of jazz singing is explored. Margolis moves with equal skill between Tin Pan Alley standards ('I'm Old Fashioned') and jazz tunes ('Ancient Footprints'), scat ('Anthropology') and ballads ('Midnight Sun'), Brazilian tunes ('Evolution') and blues songs ('Someone Else is Steppin' In'). She transforms jazz tunes into songs ('Firm Roots') and songs into jazz vocalese ('When Lights Are Low'). She trades fours with the horns ('Gone With the Wind') and goes it alone singing with just piano ('Where Do You Start?') or bass ('You Don't Know What Love Is').
Three years later Kitty Margolis offered her own unique vision for jazz singing. More than a clever CD title, Straight Up With a Twist perfectly describes Margolis's approach. If you read the album's play list, you might think you have an idea of what to expect. After all, everyone knows tunes like 'Fever' or 'All or Nothing at All.' But knowing that 'Getting To Know You' opens the record hardly prepares you for the polyrhythmic treatment of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune that comes out of the speakers. The album's unquestionable highlight is a breathtaking duet with Charles Brown on 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?' that takes the song off of the Broadway stage and places it in the cold, dark alleys where the homeless live.
Some jazz critics found Straight Up With a Twist too adventurous. The irony is that they are displaying the same reactionary blind spot as those now-forgotten critics who ridiculed the playing of the young Louis Armstrong. After all, 'straight up with a twist' really is just another way of describing jazz itself. What Kitty Margolis understands is that after nearly 90 years of jazz history, what we used to consider as the twist has now simply become the part that is straight up.
Left Coast Life very much follows in the path of Straight Up With a Twist, but feels like an entirely more integrated whole. What makes Left Coast Life an album worth waiting for is that it is a record with multiple layers. And if it is like Margolis's other albums, it will reward repeated listening not with boredom or familiarity, but with a greater appreciation for the music itself.
Still, Kitty Margolis concedes that a four-year gap between records might be too long no matter how accomplished the final product. 'My husband, Alfonso Montuori, who is my co-producer, says he is going to make me make an album sooner,' laughs Margolis, adding, 'I might make another live album.'
A Kitty Margolis concert, and thus presumably any live album based thereon, does not simply replicate her studio work. 'There is more soloing by the instrumentalists, more scatting by me, and less under six minute songs,' explains the singer. A live set is also an opportunity to dig deeper into tunes. 'I'm one of those singers that if I would re-record all the songs I've recorded, they would come out completely differently,' observes Margolis. 'The tunes have evolved a lot more than they had when you recorded them.' Her live set list tends to evolve as well. 'There are tunes that you outgrow,' she admits. On the other hand, some songs seem inexhaustible. 'I've been singing 'My Favorite Things' for like a 100 years, and every time I sing it, I get more out of it. 'All the Things You Are,' I could sing a million times and not get tired.'
Margolis strongly believes that live music provides a vital communal experience. 'There is something about having all these people brought together from different backgrounds sitting together in a room listening to the same music. When it is all working, everybody's ego barriers melt, and people forget they're separate from each other. There is no more powerful way to realize that than through music. When I'm performing there are no boundaries between me and the guys in the band. We are all one. I forget who I am. I sure forget what I look like. It's just an amazing phenomenon. That's what you fall in love with. That feeling of unity.'
If during that creative process Kitty Margolis takes a wrong step, then so be it. 'That's part of jazz,' she explains, 'Learning how to navigate what are mistakes into something that is part of the path. That has to do with staying completely in the moment. Who wants perfect? Every now and then it's wonderful to hear something perfect, but I'd rather hear a person stretching out. Experimentation. Risk taking.'
'I feel like I have a responsibility to kind of guard this art form and steward it forward,' explains Kitty Margolis. She recognizes that different jazz singers will arrive at different conclusions about how to do just that. However, for Margolis, they all must meet one essential requirement. 'Authenticity. I think that's the single thing that makes music good or bad for me. Is it a pose or is it authentic?'
And so there is the answer. In the future, if you are searching for the perfect label to describe a genuinely original jazz musician, remember, save yourself time and just let the musician label herself.
Let's try it again. So what word do we use to describe Kitty Margolis?