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The Royal Bopsters: London Journey’s From Broadway to Belgium and Back Again

The Royal Bopsters: London Journey’s From Broadway to Belgium and Back Again Courtesy Jane Wilkins
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She may have been a newcomer, but singer Amy London began working with an A-List of fellow jazz pros right after she crossed the George Washington Bridge and hit Manhattan in the mid-1980s. They included stellar artists such as Fred Hersch, Victor Lewis and Byron Stripling. London gravitated towards American Standards and Broadway sounds. By the end of the decade, she had been selected as an original cast member in Broadways' City of Angels, Cy Colemans' private-eye musical circa 1940s LA. The play had a successful run of over two years. As for London, she continued performing—from coffee shops to cabarets, from Broadway to Belgium and back to Birdland in NYC. London has been passionate about delivering jazz vocals that were both supple and swinging yet she found herself drifting closer to classic vocalese (the delicate alchemy of turning jazz instrumentals into creative vocals) as well as scat and more.

The mid-2010s saw London reaching out to and recording with jazz and vocalese veterans including Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks from the iconic 1950s trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, as well as Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan. More than half the songs on that disc, officially christened The Royal Bopsters Project after the name of the quartet she was in, were covers composed by veteran writers and musicians. During a fall of 2021 interview, I asked London about the intricate art of setting lyrics to melodies originally written as instrumental compositions. "As singers that are in love with jazz and bebop, it is the ultimate fun to be able to sing along with great recorded instrumental solos. Following in the tradition of Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Mark Murphy and such living singers as The Manhattan Transfer, Sheila Jordan (and others), writing lyrics to these great solos gives the vocalist the ability to tell the story with words that the audience can understand. It adds an entirely new dimension to these solos, while honoring the creative invention of the instrumentalist."

So did Hendricks, intentionally or unintentionally, lay the groundwork for rap and hip hop when he began recording in the 1950s? "I am not the first in the jazz world to consider Jon Hendricks as an early rapper. I invited Jon to the New School to work with my students (in New Jersey) and he performed his famous "Evolution of the Blues Song" for us, narrated in rhyme, his story about the history of jazz. Jon also proto rapped on George Russell's record New York, N.Y. But really, it's vocalese, not scat, that prefigures rap" London believes.

As for how the Royal Bopsters approach songs in the studio, London revealed that the team gets a feel for what they want to convey and act accordingly. "We use (overdubs) when we need to! 'Music Is Forever' is actually based on Richie DeRosa's big band arrangement, written for Annie Ross's National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2010. I was at the event, I fell in love with it, called Dylan Pramuk, (of the Royal Bopsters) from the lobby immediately after the concert and said it would be a great vehicle for Annie and us. Richie was kind enough to send the big band arrangement to Dylan, who then reduced it to 8 voices, so each of us doubled..." thus creating an even fuller sound.

The album could be viewed several ways: as a fond farewell to several vocalese veterans who have since passed away, a summit meeting of 'yesterday meets tomorrow' artists or the passing of the torch to the Royal Bopsters. As for the Royal Bopsters' album, it was ultimately a smart and sophisticated collection of entertainment. It was a rare official gathering of scat and vocalese masters who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s and rolled out a red carpet for the next generation. Next up was 2020s Party of Four album with a slightly different Royal Bopsters line-up of London, Holli Ross (no relation to Annie,) Pete McGuinness and Dylan Pramuk. Source material continued to draw from rich jazz and American Standards and offered bright, fresh sounds that balanced somewhere between instrumental and vocal. A scatting Sheila Jordan was welcomed back on "Lucky to be Me." London explained that "The lyrics on both of The Royal Bopsters CD's are a combination of the published lyrics of the jazz standards we have recorded and the vocalese lyrics we have written... The majority of our lyrics were written 'in house,' by us, but we have also outsourced several such as Mark Murphy's lyrics on Freddie Hubbard's 'Red Clay' and...Annie Ross's lyrics on 'Let's Fly' and 'Music Is Forever;' Jon Hendricks' lyrics on 'Music in the Air' and others..." London shared. In addition, "Our songs are highly arranged and memorized, including scat syllables. However, within the frameworks of each tune, there are often open sections for scat singing, or a soloist might reinvent the melody with lyrics each time, such as my solo sections in 'Let's Fly...' You might think of us as a bebop/post-bop four-horn small group."

London reminisced about the origins of the group. "The Royal Bopsters grew out of a combination of several planets converging. In 2010, Mark Murphy was relocated to the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey...One day, Holli Ross and I went to visit Mark. I took it upon myself to pick him up in my car as often as I could. I would call him and say, 'C'mon Mark, get dressed, we are going to a jazz club in NYC!' We became very close friends, he was always happy to get 'sprung' from the home, and I began to bring him to my classes at the New School (NS)... At the same time, Dylan Pamuk, a 2009 top performing graduate of the NS Jazz BFA program, returned to my VJE as a bass ringer, post-graduation, in 2010. One day he brought in the chart on 'Red Clay,' and I had the idea to produce a concert with Mark Murphy, with the VJE singing with him. I became the soprano ringer, and Holli the alto ringer. We rehearsed at the school on Saturdays, and in December 2011, we presented a concert there to a sold out/standing room only audience. After the great success of this concert, I asked Mark if he would record with us, and he said yes. Darmon Meader was very interested in the project, became the tenor and a contributing arranger, and The Royal Bopsters Project was born. We were so very lucky to invite the other four bebop singing masters to join us, in addition to Mark, Annie Ross, Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan and Bob Dorough. We sadly lost Mark on October 22, 2015, merely five weeks after the release. I did go to the Home and play the entire CD for him, so he got to hear it. We lost Jon Hendricks not long after that, November 22, 2017, and we lost Annie on July 20, 2020. We were lucky enough to record again with Bob and Sheila, on Party of Four, but again, very sadly lost Bob, April 23, 2018. Sheila Jordan is the only legend left from the original CD, and we perform with her whenever we can."

London reflected on a long and true friendship with Holli Ross. "Holli Ross was diagnosed with cancer around mid-2016. We were continually rehearsing, recording and performing together, she never once complained...we managed to record Party of Four in 2016 and 2017. Holli was involved in every step along the way." As vibrant as Party of Four was, there was a sad footnote. Holli Ross passed away in the summer of 2020 leaving a gap in the group.

London reminisced about local and international performance (including Ronnie Scott's in London) the four core members were able to present in 2019 and was thrilled that Holli ..."was able to enjoy the fruits of our success. We had our last gig with Holli in NYC on March 6, 2020. We Bopsters will always cherish and miss Holli... We are so appreciative that her vocal artistry lives on through our recordings, in addition to her own. Holli had a female vocal trio for more than 30 years, String of Pearls Orchestra. They performed frequently, in NYC and globally, and made several excellent recordings. She also has a wonderful solo CD released in 2011, You'll See."

So what's next? "When it came to finding a new alto, we chose Jeanne O'Connor, who was the alto in String of Pearls Orchestra. Jeanne is performing with us regularly now and has already contributed lyrics and song choices to our repertoire for our third CD, which we are working on now. Also, Darmon Meader joined us on the first CD, but Pete McGuinness replaced him in 2016, and is an amazing tenor and multi Grammy-nominated big band arranger, and the tenor on our second CD," London confirmed. In addition, Dylan is focused on the future as well. "We Bopsters are so lucky to have Dylan's amazing arranging talents at the core of our sound. He contributed eight arrangements to each of our CD's. It is truly rare to find a younger singer who digs the vocalese tradition and has such a deep knowledge of the history of the jazz songbook, as well as a keen eye on the present and future."

McGuinness was now about to make a full commitment to the quartet as well. Years earlier, Darmon Meader "heard about our concert at the New School with Mark Murphy, he expressed a lot of interest in the project, so (we) invited him to join us as tenor on the recording, and lucky for us, he accepted" London shared. "After our first album, he needed to get back to (his group) New York Voices full time, and there was only one person in the entire world that we could think of to replace him, and that was Pete McGuinness. Pete is multi Grammy-nominated for his recordings with the Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra, as not only a brilliant arranger, but trombonist and vocalist as well. His arrangements are uber challenging and joyful to sing, he is a dedicated group member and terrific performer on stage. Pete is a superlative scat singer, his fantastic, improvised vocalizations are based upon decades of improvising on the trombone."

With the addition of Jeanne, the new line-up is set—for now it seems—and ready to resume performing with an eye to recording. Everyone is cautiously optimistic about the future. "We are still basking in the glow of Party of Four, which received four stars from DownBeat, has enjoyed daily airplay on WBGO (Newark, New Jersey) since its release on November 8, 2020! And The Bopsters were named 'Best Vocal Group' by the JazzTimes 2020 Critics' poll" London said with pride. "We have several new charts in the works already for our third CD, but as these recordings take some time, that may not be completed for a year or so" London concluded.

Smart arrangements, top-notch craftsmanship and uber-professional. Close your eyes and take your pick: an espresso at a smoky European bar, double shot cocktails at a jazz café in New York, a joyous spritzer at a summer festival, The Royal Bopsters keep going and have held onto the best of yesterday and will carry on the tradition of vocalese for numerous tomorrows.

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