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Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled

Mathew Bahl By

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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.'

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