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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.'

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.'

Respect—for her audiences, for her material and for the jazz tradition—is 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.
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