J.D. Walter: Being a Verb

Victor L. Schermer By

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It's curious to me that the highest compliment you can give a singer is that he or she sounds like an instrument, while the highest compliment you can give an instrumentalist is that he or she sounds like a voice.
J.D. WalterJ.D. Walter is a jazz singers' singer—a purist and an innovator. Although his style has been compared to many vocal titans, it is in the same breath, uniquely his own, and he has become a singular phenomenon on the music scene.

Respected and lauded by the great musicians of the contemporary circuit, Walter has shared the stage with many legendary artists including: saxophonists Dave Liebman, Bill Evans (saxophone) and Tim Warfield; singer and songwriter Bob Dorough, drummers Billy Hart, Gregory Hutchinson, Ari Hoenig and Bill Goodwin; trumpeters Nicholas Payton, John Swana, and Randy Brecker; pianists Jean-Michel Pilc, Jim Ridl, Orrin Evans and Andre Kondokov; bassists John Benitez and Taurus Mateen; and singers Mark Murphy and Miles Griffith; and poet Sonia Sanchez.

Walter has thus far recorded five CDs as a leader and co-leader and has attracted an international audience from the shores of America to Europe, Russia, and the Far East. He is also a featured member of pianist Orrin Evans' Luv Park Band (Imani Records, 2004), as well as making guest appearances on numerous other recordings.

A vocal coach for many emerging artists, Walter is in demand as a clinician at schools, conservatories and universities. He has mentored and inspired many emerging singers.

Since Walter is that rare innovative singer who is completely true to the jazz tradition while, at the same time, continually stretching himself and pushing the envelope, it's important to understand his musical development and approach. Warm and accessible, Walter is also articulate and forthright about the issues and controversies that concern him, other musicians and fans today.

Chapter Index

  1. Biography and Early Influences
  2. Influence of Other Jazz Singers
  3. Singing Style and Technique
  4. Teaching and Mentoring
  5. Current and Future Interests

AAJ: If you were to go to the desert island, which five or six recordings would you take with you?

JDW: I would say, Betty Carter's Social Call (Columbia, 1956) and Dropping Things (Verve, 1990). And then, some Count BasieBasie at the Sands (Reprise, 1966)—maybe Benjamin Britten's Missa Brevis, and a record I frequently listen to, Vladimir Horowitz Plays Liszt (RCA Victor Red Label, 1993).

AAJ: That's a piano album—did you study a musical instrument?

JDW: My mother was a music teacher. She started us kids on piano and voice, but frankly, I never took to the piano as an instrument to play, but for compositional purposes. I played poorly, but composed, even as a child, but I wasn't that interested in playing piano. I played drums at a very early age, and that was a huge foundation for me. I frequently call jazz "African-American classical music." Jazz is a rhythmically based art form, so having that background in percussion really helped me get in touch with the rhythmic sensibilities endemic to that art form.

I also briefly played cello and saxophone, and trumpet. I could try these instruments because my mother had access to them. But what I really followed through with were singing and percussion. I studied mallets, drum sets, tympani, snare drum, and so on.

J.D. WalterAAJ: The reason I asked that question was because your singing involves the sort of precision typically associated with the best instrumentalists.

JDW: Sometimes people will say, "You have really great ears. You must have played an instrument." To be honest, my harmonic understanding did not come from playing an instrument at a performance level, but from transcribing and learning solos vocally. Nothing has come from an instrumental perspective, except understanding harmony on the keyboard. Why I'm adept at what I do is not from an instrumental vantage point. Chet Baker, of course, sang and played trumpet, Curtis Stigers sings and plays well, and there are some others, but what I do I learned from home base in college—chords, harmony and learning and memorizing solos.

AAJ: Dave Liebman says that you uniquely use your voice as an instrument, but it may be a bit deferential to say you need to learn an instrument in order to sing because the voice is really the most special instrument of all.

JDW: Well, it's curious to me that the highest compliment you can give a singer is that he or she sounds like an instrument, while the highest compliment you can give an instrumentalist is that he or she sounds like a voice. While I'm not aspiring to sound like a horn, improvisation is coming from my head and my heart. I'm looking for emotional transference. If people want to make that distinction it's their deal. For me, it's all the same. The special thing about the voice is that we have text, so we vocalists have that wonderful ability to combine drama and the text with the notes.


Biography and Early Influences

AAJ: We'll come back to that later, but I was wondering what your childhood and adolescence was like in terms of your exposure to music. Am I right that you were born in a Philadelphia suburb, Abington, Penn.?

JDW: Yes. I was adopted. My folks moved out to the Lebanon-Lancaster area of Pennsylvania. I spent most of my childhood there, until the middle of seventh grade, when I went to the American Boy Choir School in New Jersey. As I said, my mother was a music school teacher. She was a fine pianist and contralto. I also had an older sister who was a fine pianist. It was a natural thing to compete for the attention she was getting. So I tried to excel at singing. Actually, my first paid gig was six years old. I got $17 to $20 a month for singing in my family's Episcopal church men and boy choir. For a kid in the early 1970s, it was nice to have that.

As far as musical tastes and what was played at home, my parents were classical fans, but they also had some big band music, and Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and some Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Nat "King" Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. So I was exposed to these things on the periphery, but I was a classical geek. The early '70s pop music didn't appeal to me, and listening to the radio actually made me sad. I was a sensitive child, and the music all seemed depressing to me. My refuge was to sit in my room with my little portable turntable, listening with my headphones on to King's College Men and Boy's Choir, or Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique.

There was one rock group I enjoyed, Queen, with vocals which I loved. Friends would come over, and I'd put on Switched On Bach (CBS Records, 1968) with Walter Carlos. I thought it was cool that Bach was played on a synthesizer, but my friends didn't understand. I liked Maria Callas, Pavarotti, and that kind of thing.

AAJ: If you were so into classical music, how and when did your passion for jazz develop?

JDW: Part of it was rebellion, and part of it was circumstances. My voice changed in puberty, and so I was no longer the golden boy soloist. I studied drums, because it took a couple of years before my voice became decent again. In my ninth grade, I couldn't return to the American Boy Choir School because my voice had changed. That was quite a school—we recorded Handel's Messiah with the Smithsonian Institution, among other recordings, traveled the world, worked with Giancarlo Menotti and sang presidential inaugurations. It's an unbelievable institution that is America's answer to the Vienna Boy Choir. It was a boarding school. We had uniforms. Heavily music theory-oriented. Six hours of rehearsal a day.

But when my voice changed, I got into percussion, and I started to get together with some local kids who were interested in jazz. A family moved into the house next door to mine, and their father was an amazing musical educator and saxophonist who pointed us in the right direction. We'd play out of the fake book. He'd give us pointers and things to listen to, and we'd sometimes play through composed things like the Claude Bolling suites for flute. I started playing with this jazz trio, and then, once my voice came back, I started singing and playing drums with the trio. We stuck together all through high school.

AAJ: So that's when you started tuning into jazz music as a focus. According to your biography, you then went to the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, in the Dallas area.

JDW:In high school, I continued studying classical voice, and I studied at a local liberal arts college and participated in competitions. I was interested in a college that had classical and jazz, and North Texas offered that. Ray Brinker, who now plays drums with Tierney Sutton, told me about The University of North Texas, that Stan Kenton had a huge influence in the development of the school. They had 12 big bands, as well as numerous other jazz-related ensembles, and it was a jazz Mecca. It was the first school in the world to have a jazz degree.

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