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Jacqui Sutton: At the Edge of the Frontier

C. Michael Bailey By

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Vocalist/bandleader Jacqui Sutton has a vision that was fully realized by the time she started recording. Her vision had a long incubation period, spent in a variety of musical wood sheds all leading to her debut, Billie and Dolly (Toy Blue Typewriter, 2010). And this was only the beginning.

All About Jazz: In your press bio, you begin, "Turning 50 and starting a garage band is not the usual vocalist's narrative..." You are a child of the '70s with a most eclectic taste. What popular music did you grow up listening to and what of that spoke to you most clearly?

Jacqui Sutton: We really didn't have much music in the house, but we heard it on the radio plenty. My earliest memories of being profoundly moved by music takes me back to at least age eight. I remember vividly leaning my head against this furniture-like wooden radio that sat on our kitchen table and for some reason, it seemed that this one radio station played The Beatles' "Yesterday" every morning at the same time. I felt this heartsick, pain, loneliness; I'm surprised I don't have a negative association with eating oatmeal, because that's usually what we ate in the mornings before going to school.

Of the few records that my mother owned, I remember an LP for "Boogaloo Down Broadway," and it had foot patterns on the back so you could learn how to do the boogaloo. Later, there were the usual pop staples: The Jackson Five, The Osmonds. "One Bad Apple" was one of my favorites. As I got older, we were really subjected to the American Bandstand/Soul Train Top 40 culture that brought in those groups.

In high school, the music got "naughtier," with groups like The Ohio Players (who doesn't remember [Fire (Mercury, 1974) with] the picture of the nearly-naked woman on the cover holding a fire hose?). The music also got classier with the introduction of Earth, Wind & Fire. If I recall correctly, as they were ascending in popular culture, I got to see them perform live in our high school gym of all places. Or maybe it was the local performing arts auditorium. I seriously can't remember. I even got into Muzak, otherwise known as "elevator music." "Going Out of My Head," and "Cherish" were two songs in particular that hit me right to the bone.

The only formal childhood musical education that I received was playing the flute from around age eight to eleven. I got pretty good at it, had a couple of recitals. And then in junior high, I somehow lost the flute; and because I went to a public school (and because I had a seriously unhealthy regard for authority), I never reported the lost flute, assuming that I would be arrested if I did so. That was the end of what probably would have been a promising instrumental career.

I didn't even think about music as a pursuit until I was in my early 20s, living in San Francisco after having gone through (but not graduated) Syracuse University. To this day though, I would say that The Beatles' "Yesterday" probably had the biggest impact on me emotionally and musically.

AAJ: Your debut, Billie and Dolly, was conceptually focused, particularly for a first recording. How long did Billie and Dolly have to percolate before becoming a workable goal and what went on during that conceptive period? Did you consider any other singers as a focus and, if so, who?

JS: Billie & Dolly literally took about 25 years to brew, and the majority of that was unconscious. Even though I was singing in my early 20s (with the San Francisco-based vocal jazz ensemble Jazzmouth), I had neither the confidence nor sense of direction or passion to pursue it full-time. I had too many bad habits, mostly born from that stubborn authority fear from my youth: mainly, that I literally and figuratively "held my own tongue." I can't tell you how long it took me to feel comfortable initiating sound from my gut, rather than producing a non-offending shallow sound from my throat. I didn't understand vocal mechanics. Most of what I felt inside (physiologically) felt like so much "crush, kill, destroy" that I interpreted all those levers and pulleys as "bad"; in other words, "my voice cracked," or it sounded different in my head moving from one register to another.

It was through years of studying theater, and continuing to study voice, moving from one voice teacher to another, each adding to my understanding as I went along, until lo; 25 years and many voice teachers later, at age 50, I finally understand what the mechanics were all about. Some people are very visual in the way they understand their voices. I've always been a kinesthetic learner, so when I had a teacher that explained physical mechanics, I fared much better. I think this goes back to my years as a competitive gymnast. If I can understand something physically, I do a better job of incorporating it intellectually.

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