"Those musical associations are among the great parts of her long trip from her home town of Torino, where her parents, Giuseppe and Anna Maria, listened to jazz music. Her father played some sax and liked Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins, so there was lots of music in the house and lots of jazz. The Gambarinis had a special fondness for the tune "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and their daughter was named after the Jerome Kern musical revue "Roberta" from which the song came. (In the 1935 RKO film, Roberta, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance to that song).
They also took their daughter to venues where American jazz greats played, and Roberta was able to see some of them. She listened to their music on record too, and not just Carmen McRae, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and so on, but instrumentalists like Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and bands like Duke Ellington. So Gambarini always had a connection to jazz, as well as to the English language, which she began studying as a child.
There was no music training in Italian schools, but as a teenager she met some people who were involved in a network of jazz clubs around Northern and Central Italy. They would organize gigs and at times get calls to play with touring Americans like Dexter Gordon, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Johnny Griffin. She ended up doing some gigs and little by little entered into the professional circuit. She longed to come to the United States, but it wasn't economically possible.
Then she heard about a program at the New England Conservatory of Music that could get her to the U.S. and into a program to get some training and also perform and teach. First she sent tapes, then went for a live audition and was accepted. She moved to the Boston area in 1998. Shortly after that, she entered the Thelonious Monk Institute's vocal jazz competition. She finished third there and got some buzz. She made contacts on the New York scene and did some gigs there. She heeded her inner call to get to the Big Apple, passing on the NEC program.
Benny Carter was an initial champion of the singer in the U.S., and other veterans like Clark Terry and James Moody were also key. Moody has been a part of her projects ever since, right up to So In Love. Hank Jones also became an important figure, and the two have done tours together in addition to the excellent duet recording.
It might be worth quoting what Jones, an elite jazz pianist, told this writer in 2003 about Gambarini: "Given a chance for people to hear her, a lot of people would become fans immediately. She has a versatile style and she has a voice that is almost limitless as far as range is concerned. She has wonderful clarity. You can understand every word she says, which is not possible with some singers. ... Her versatility reminds me of Ella Fitzgerald. I worked with Ella for about five years. ... She certainly has the versatility that Ella had. If she gets a chance to be exposed like she should be in this country, there's no question she'll be recognized as one of the great singers to come along perhaps in a generation. Without mentioning any names, I'll go on record as saying she's better than the ones I've heard, by far. There's no comparison. Playing for her is one of the highlights of my life. It's a pleasure working with someone like that. It doesn't become work at all. It's a pleasure."
So, guys with great jazz pedigrees discovered Gambarini about a decade ago and her fan base grows, the more people get to experience the music. She comes through the legacy of Ella and Sarah and Carmen, and there is no one doing it these days who carries those flags with more style, strength and spirit. Her recognition is growing.
"I'm grateful I had the opportunities that I had, honestly," says Gambarini, who always speaks with humility. "I could never have had those opportunities if I hadn't moved (to the U.S.), as heavy as it was. As I look back, it was very, very difficult. It still is, to a degree. Your status changes, your friendships. My family is still all in Italy. So it was very, very difficult choices on a personal level.
Roberta Gambarini with James Moody
"I realize it was necessary. I'm very happy. I love this country. I feel like I really belong. It's my new home. I have a lot of friends. Moody and Linda (his wife) are like family to me. It was a good move and it was worth it, at least for me. I grew up with this type of music. Those (jazz musicians) were my idols and (playing with them) were my dreams. The dream of living in New York. It was all worth the sacrifices.