Interview: Lucy Yeghiazaryan


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I discovered Lucy Yeghiazaryan by accident a month or so ago. I was flying through Facebook before turning in for the night and there she was, singing away. I was most struck by her 1950s phrasing. She clearly had done quite a bit of intensive listening. I also was curious about her Armenian past and how she learned to swing. Before I roll out my interview with Lucy, here are a couple of tracks (scroll down) so you can hear what I heard.

On Monday (April 5) at 7 p.m. (ET), Lucy will be featured live online at Emmet's Place with tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart. If you're unfamiliar with Emmet's Place, dig my recent post on pianist Emmet Cohen here. To watch and listen to Lucy, Grant and the Emmet Cohen Trio, go to Emmet's Facebook page at 7 p.m. on Monday here.

Here's my chat with Lucy:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Lucy Yeghiazaryan: In a small town in Armenia on the Ararat Plain. The town was a huge agricultural hub during the Soviet era but had been reduced to a village by the time I grew up there. My mother is a child psychologist, and my father is a woodcarver and a calligraphist. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many people found themselves unemployed. The U.S.S.R. had been the country's main employer. As a result, the main source of income switched to a family member working abroad and sending back earnings.

JW: What did your family do after 1991?

LY: My father somehow got work designing interiors for all sorts of people, including questionable characters and warlords. But the income from this work was inconsistent and at times posed dangers. So life Armenia for an artist like my father was nearly impossible. My parents had four daughters to support. I'm the third.

JW: How did you wind up listening to jazz in Armenia?

LY: My father is now 75. His generation grew up under U.S.S.R. control and was obsessed with America. It represented everything the Soviet Union was not. America held a particularly special appeal for those who were artistically inclined because it seemed to be a place that fostered uplifting art forms such as jazz. In my father’s view, jazz represented the best of America.

JW: What albums did your father have that you listened to?

LY: He had only a few albums. One was Duke Ellington at Newport (1956) and scattered recordings by Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and some Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson. I think because people had to sneak this stuff in, Armenia never had large quantities of anything. Whatever you had on tape was a copy of a copy of a copy. Most of the time what you heard were random tracks, not entire albums.

JW: Tell me about those tapes.

LY: My mother had a live recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing Flying Home taped over a Michael Bolton cassette. That's how it was. We switched to tape after our record player broke. The tapes we acquired were recorded on top of other music. So the vocals would cut in and out. Also with tape recorders, if the electricity went out, which was often, you could use batteries and continue to listen. If the batteries died, you'd wind up singing the stuff to yourself so you could hear it again. As a result of these experiences, I’ve always been an obsessive listener but not an expansive listener. I don't know too many recordings, but whatever I do know I know them intimately.

JW: What was Armenia like when you lived there?

LY: My recollections of my childhood are very bright and happy. My mother was an excellent parent who fostered a deep love for the arts in all four of her daughters. In part, this was because she understood how terrible our prospects were and she needed a fulfilling distraction from the very grim reality of post-Soviet Armenia.

JW: But growing up in Armenia must have been difficult during these years, yes?

LY: Of course. The economic collapse was so massive that the entire country didn't have electricity for years. Every kid I knew was always hungry. Corruption was pervasive and an accepted way of life. Poverty has a strange way of breaking down people and then bringing them together. Because poverty was a new way of life for so many, it hadn't resulted in ignorance yet in the 1990s. Most people had been very well educated during the Soviet era and still believed that things would get better. In a very strange way, I consider myself lucky to have been a kid during this period. It was a hopeless time, but people were still full of hope somehow.

JW: Your parents had to leave?

LY: Of course. We had to find a way. My mother was brave enough to come to America on her own. It was the only way. We had no family there. She worked for three years by herself to sponsor us to come over.

JW: Where did you live when your parents moved to America?

LY: We relocated to rural West Milford, N.J., just after the 9/11 attack in 2001. I was 11. It was a super conservative town with zero immigrant presence. Nothing tragic happened to us, but we weren't exactly welcomed either. I’m glad this was our first experience because it left no room for delusions about this country. Emigrating is an extremely traumatic experience, especially if you don't speak the language. It wasn't pleasant but we stuck it out and I'm glad we did.

JW: How did you begin singing jazz?

LY: About an hour's drive from our home, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center had a program called Jazz for Teens. I attended classes there when I was a teenager and they'd always have a rhythm section on hand to accompany singers. They helped me become comfortable performing in front of a band. I sang in school as well. We had a good choir director. Before all of this, I sang with my sisters for years and had been in this a cappella group continuously until about two years ago. I also play some classical violin, so I think I became very good at distracting myself with music from a very early age. The isolating experience of emigrating does help in developing introverted habits. I'm a decent artist, so I would always be listening to music and working on something with my hands. Slowly it turned into more active listening and practicing.

JW: Did you always sing around the house? Did you take voice lessons?

LY: I did always sing around the house and I still do. I recently married, and my husband has asked me to stop humming while he’s working. I usually forget and begin humming again. I think for singers, this “inactive" form of practicing is very important. It sort of helps you put certain things on autopilot without overthinking. As for lessons, there was a vocal teacher at NJPAC, but I never bothered. I’ve always found singing with a rhythm section to be much more helpful than any vocal lesson I ever got.

JW: How did you learn to sing jazz before you understood English completely?

LY: I'm obsessive about the pronunciation of words and I think I got this way very early on from jazz records and from wanting to erase any trace of my past after emigrating. I didn't speak the language at first, so the words were just sounds. I had to mimic the sounds I heard. In a sense, after I learned English that way, I was reintroduced to the music through the actual lyrics. They were twice as good to sing once I understand their meaning.

JW: How did you learn about American jazz singers?

LY: We acquired the music in Armenia indirectly on mix tapes. As a result, we never saw an album cover or liner notes. I never knew anything about the jazz musicians I heard other than their music. I only got to see what they looked like after I emigrated to America. I've since read biographies, but that aspect never interested me much. The art is all in the voice.

JW: What did you study in college?

LY: I started in college as a jazz vocal major at William Paterson University but switched to world history a few months into the program. I don't think you can teach anyone how to sing. You just have to sing with a band. I quickly realized I could do that in practice rooms and in people's basements without having to get a degree. So I changed majors.

JW: Wow, that will come as a shock to some.

LY: A lot of people don't like to hear that, but that's what worked for me. I moved into New York after college in 2015. Initially, I didn't intend to become a jazz singer. I wanted to make use of my history degree. But music creeped back into my life. I had a much easier time finding work singing than a job as a historian. People hired me as a singer to replace horn players because I knew a lot of tunes and had the stamina for long gigs. So I started singing to pay the rent and never looked back.

JW: How has the pandemic affected you?

LY: At this point in the pandemic, everyone in the jazz world has sort of reached the end of their rope. Everyone wants to be back on stage and in the studio. The few gigs that I've had made me realize how out of practice all of us have become and how difficult this job really is. Without constant attention to singing and playing, the feeling slowly recedes and you change as a person. My career was just starting to take hold right before all of this started in March of 2020. So a part of me is a bit annoyed at the timing of the virus but one must be patient.

JW: Hey, you found a husband.

LY: I did. I was married during the pandemic with only my mother in attendance. It has been great, but the inability to share things with friends and other artists in person is frustrating and bittersweet. I've done my best to switch gears. I wrote and received three grants: South Arts Jazz Road Tours (which was supposed to take place in March but has been postponed); NYC Women's Fund for Arts and Media, for an album that should be released this summer; and Chamber Music America's Performance Plus program, which will allow me to do some work with the great tenor saxophonist Houston Person. And some of my illustrations will be featured in an Armenian translated folk tale that will be published within the year.

JW: Why wasn't your father at your wedding?

LY: My dad moved back to Armenia about 10 years ago. He's 75 now, and I think leaving Armenia, even in 2001, was too hard on him. He just couldn't make the adjustment.

JW: Have you been back to Armenia since you left? Do you miss it?

LY: Yes, multiple times. I most recently went back last year for the Armenia Jazz Festival. I was astonished at the popularity of jazz in the capital. We played a small club where the entire backroom was singing along to a bebop head arrangement, something I’ve never seen happen in New York. The first time I went back was 10 years after I relocated here. The long absence made my visit feel like a dream.

JW: How so?

LY: Being there becomes more and more real the more often you return. But it's never home again, like being here is never being home. I think the real trauma of immigration is that you become spiritually homeless. I miss Armenia but I know I could never live there again. Armenia had a velvet revolution two years ago and it seemed as if things would move in the right direction for the first time since the '90's. But we lost a terrible war this year against Azerbaijan and Turkey, so the country is in a really terrible place. All Armenians are in their darkest hour right now.

Here's Thou Swell, from her most recent album, Blue Heaven (Cellar)...

And here's Lucy in 2019 singing You're Driving Me Crazy...

JW: What are your favorite vocal tracks and albums?

LY: I was recently introduced to a singer I had never heard of—Ozzie Bailey. He recorded with Duke Ellington starting in 1956 and recorded in the studio with pianist-composer Billy Strayhorn in 1965. The tracks appear on a Strayhorn compilation called Lush Life (Red Baron). It's some of the most beautiful singing I've ever heard.

One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert (1947) with Lester Young and Sarah Vaughan is amaing. I don’t know why they didn’t record together on any of the tunes, but it’s still one of my favorite albums. Sarah does some ballads at excruciatingly slow tempos, but they feel like a breeze.

Etta Jones: Don't Go to Strangers (1960). You can put this album on any time to listen, while doing things around the house or just to fall asleep to. It's beautiful.

I was going to do a concert honoring Maxine Sullivan before the pandemic, but that obviously has been put on hold. She recorded this tune called Restless, and I just love how simply she sings it. She makes a complicated melody pleasantly digestible. Here it is...

I love Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (1958). Everything begins and ends with Ella for me.

Billie Holiday's live version of I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone in 1949 touches me. Listen here...

Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead (1961) is so unique in its content and arrangements, I don't know any other vocal albums like this one.

Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters is a terrific album on Blues Sounds. I found a YouTube clip of Smooth Sailing. I’ve never been big on jazz vocal groups. Most sound corny. But this is an example where you can’t help but snap along. Go here...

I like Barbara Winfield on Tadd Dameron’s album The Magic Touch (1962). She recorded just two tracks—You’re a Joy and If You Could See Me Now. They're the only recordings she made. Although she has a slight lisp, there's something so open and beautiful about her singing. Go here...

Another live video I love features Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie singing Going to Chicago. So relaxed and tasteful. It's here...

And finally, I'm not a huge Betty Carter fan, but I love her Out There album (1958).       

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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