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Take Five With Laura Ainsworth

Laura Ainsworth By

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Meet Laura Ainsworth:
I was born in Los Angeles but came to Dallas as a tot when my dad, jazz sax/clarinetist Billy Ainsworth, relocated to become a part of the growing commercial recording industry. Came up in the music biz (details to follow!). Graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Radio-TV-Film. Worked on staff and also as a freelance writer for jingle/broadcast services company TM Productions, where I met my husband-to- be, Pat Reeder. Together we write a syndicated topical humor service for radio stations called The Comedy Wire and also provide material for a produced, three- times-a-day radio show, The Huckabee Report. For most of that time, I've been writing and performing my own song parodies that have been heard on radio morning shows worldwide, performing in musical theater and clubs, and creating jazz musical revues and a show called Keep Young and Beautiful, about the obsession with youth and beauty that consumes our shallow little lives.

Until now, most of my work as a singer has gone out into the ether, but my debut CD, Keep It To Yourself, changes that!

Pat and I live between Dallas and Ft. Worth, with 16 very musical parrots.

Instrument(s):
Voice.

Teachers and/or influences?
First would be my dad Billy Ainsworth, of course, not as a teacher but in introducing me to the world of classic big band jazz. (He started at age 17 in the sax section of the Tommy Dorsey band and through the years played with Freddy Martin, "Tex" Beneke and numerous others.) My earliest musical memories are of beloved albums by Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme and Nat King Cole. Later, when my dad was in the Jerry Gray Orchestra at the Dallas Fairmont Venetian Room, I actually got to see him accompany some of these legends live, on "comp night" for band members' families! This was in an age when most kids were listening to rock and pop.

Of course, the aforementioned Miss Fitz and Peggy Lee were hugely influential, as well as Keely Smith, Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Dinah Shore. (Another major influence, the young Judy Garland, will be discussed under "My Sound.") I've recently started appreciating Annette Hanshaw, in part because of her sense of humor, and Ruth Etting. More modern influences include Sade, Anita Baker, Anne Hampton Callaway (great singer known best for her TV theme for The Nanny), Mary Cleere Haran (how tragic that she passed away recently), and Maureen McGovern, whom I consider to be right up there at the top of the singer pyramid.

My dad did have one bias that admittedly held me back during my early years of singing. He was so afraid of me "overtraining" and ending up sounding too "legit" that he discouraged me from studying voice in my teens. My loss! It would've been better just to find the right teacher.

That said, as far as I'm concerned, the best voice teacher in the world for me is the one I finally found: Dr. Sam Germany, director of the music department at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, Texas. I discovered him while appearing in a show he was directing at Family Music Theatre in Lancaster. His understanding of the female voice in all its incarnations is absolutely stunning. How does a man "get" that?

I'm also grateful to Betty Buckley for some insights that helped me with the recording of Keep It To Yourself. Overall, though, I've learned through experience that a teacher's own celebrity status and personal credits have little to do with his or her ability to teach voice in a productive way. Enough said.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
I knew by age six, when my sister and I used to go with our mom to see daddy at the recording studio. (We'd meet him there at the end of the day and then all go to dinner at the now-defunct Casa Dominguez in downtown Dallas.) I essentially grew up in a recording studio. Seeing the singers at work, even if it was just singing radio station call letters, was fascinating to me. Of course, there were always other things I wanted to be as a child, but music was the constant.

Your sound and approach to music:
I sing like an old-style band singer, like Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney or Margaret Whiting, with sultry shades of Lena Horne or Julie London that come through because of the mezzo quality of my voice and also my choice of material, which leans towards the torchy. I sometimes call myself "a big band singer in a downsized era." My #1 vocal idol is Ella Fitzgerald. But my greatest vocal model wasn't really a band singer, or even a jazz singer per se; that honor goes to the young Judy Garland, particularly in the way she interpreted wistful ballads like "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "You Made Me Love You." As Judy got older, of course, she became more belty and brittle (still great, in a different way), but her young voice was supple, rich and charged with emotional undercurrent. That's what I strive for. That's also what made Frank Sinatra so great: it wasn't just his musical tone; he was a great actor who could convey the full emotion of any lyric.

I try to stay true to the song, rather than "making it my own" the way they're constantly urged to do on American Idol. Oversinging, empty histrionics, unintelligible lyrics, and production fakery are avoided like the plague. Isn't it great when someone like Adele stands alone at a microphone and delivers a song simply and evocatively? When you as the listener are moved by something deeply expressed? How often does that happen anymore?

One note on choice of material: I get a charge from finding obscure gems and giving them a fresh treatment. For example, "That's The Kind Of Guy I Dream Of" was big and brassy as a B-side for Betty Hutton in 1952, but with my smoother interpretation and Brian Piper's killer jazz keyboards, it now has more subtlety and swing. And Helen Kane's 1928 hit "He's So Unusual" takes on a hilarious new meaning in the modern age.

Your dream band:
I had my own little dream band on Keep It to Yourself! For that I credit producer Brian Piper, who knew exactly what I wanted and brought in the right musicians to achieve the effect. Dallas has some of the best jazz musicians anywhere, thanks in large part to the legendary jazz program at the University of North Texas. Brian's own Brian Piper Trio (with John Adams on bass and Mike Drake on drums) served as the core band for KITY, with guest artists Chris Derose on acoustic guitar for "Skylark," and Noel Johnston on electric guitar and Chris McGuire on sax and clarinet throughout. Violinist Milo Deering of the jazz/bluegrass fusion group Beatlegrass contributed just the right flair to "La Vie En Rose." They are all just stunning.

Of course, my ultimate dream would've been to have my dad come in on sax and clarinet, but because he died way too young in 1984, that wasn't exactly in the cards. That said, I have to rave that McGuire was the perfect "sub" for my pop.

For something different in the way of a dream band, it would be enormous fun to sing with a funky little group like Leon Redbone's. One thing I do miss on Keep It to Yourself is some tuba! I'd love to sing "I Want To Be Seduced" with a tuba. (Hold on—did I just say "seduced with a tuba"??)

Road story: Your best or worst experience:
My favorite gig was performing Cole Porter music at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion a few years back. It was Christmas, the mansion was beautifully decorated, and my partner in the show and I were treated like visiting royalty. The Christmas parties were Gov. Mike Huckabee's way of saying goodbye and thanks to his cabinet and staff as his 10 years in office came to an end, so the atmosphere was special and emotions were high. My husband flew up for the final show, and we stayed in Little Rock for a few more days and had a mini- vacation. The governor even invited us to a lavish dinner/dance while we were still in town, featuring his own band, Capitol Offense. The Governor plays electric bass, and quite well!

Our association with Gov. Huckabee continued, and today we contribute material to his Huckabee Report radio show. He even said that if he ever became President, I would sing at the White House. But then he decided not to run, foiling my diabolical plan for world musical domination!

Favorite venue:
In general, that would be any venue in which the audience is there for the show, not just to yak over background music. In Dallas, jazz is usually background. Too bad. But there are some good new local venues popping up for listening, like the Kessler Theater. I hope that trend continues.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
That's a tough one, because I only record songs I'm crazy about. But it might be the title track from Keep It to Yourself, mostly because I've thought about recording it since 2003, and also because of its deliciously dark humor, courtesy of co-writers Amy Rigby and Bill DeMain. Presenting something funny in an elegant way has always been my very favorite thing to do. (Come to think of it, that could be why Cole Porter appeals to me so much.)

The first Jazz album I bought was:
It's hard to say for sure, because I grew up with so much jazz, but I'd be willing to bet it was Manhattan Transfer. It might have been the Pointer Sisters.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
This is the best interview question I've ever been asked.

The answer I'm going to give has a lot to do with my state of mind on this particular day. It happens that I've been thinking about the recent MTV Video Music Awards and considering my place in the world of music today. There were definitely a few high points in that show, but the absolute low had to be the big finish by Li'l Wayne.

What he did was such a crass assault on music that it brought tears to my eyes. I started hoping that Li'l Wayne's pants would fall the rest of the way off and that he'd trip and careen hilariously off the stage. So many of his lyrics had to be bleeped that I wished they'd just go ahead and bleep the whole thing! One long BLEEEEEEEEEEEP would've been an improvement.

Perhaps worst of all was the excited screaming of his young fans. Anyone who feels compelled to defend this sewage to me in the name of "cultural realism" or "street poetry" had better not even start. But I don't mean to single him out. He's just a particularly swill-tastic example of what's happening in music and in the culture at large. As author Mark Steyn recently said about so much of today's popular music, "It's not the vulgarity or the crassness or even the grunting moronic ugliness, but something more basic: the absence of tenderness. A song such as 'It Had To Be You' or 'The Way You Look Tonight' presupposes certain courtship rituals. If a society no longer has those, it's not surprising that it can no longer produce songs to embody them."

The mainstream music business seems hell-bent on destroying music. I'm sorry, but borrowing someone else's song or riff and talking foul, misogynistic thug- trash over it requires no talent, other than the ability to lope around the stage while keeping one's saggy pants on. Likewise, lip-synching a few formulaic notes over and over to a chirpy AutoTuned track while writhing around in a tiny costume requires little more than hot looks, attitude, a team of producers and stylists and a stripper pole.

The music being made today is best described by the old nursery rhyme: "When it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid." Those of us who are not cogs in the music-marketing machine—and even some of us who are—are trying to create fine, enduring work. I may not have the huge pipes of a pop superstar like Christina Aguilera, but I'll put my version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" against hers any day. I have the lush retro jazz sound that is "me," and a wish to leave it behind in the form of freshly-imagined and beautifully-produced songs for generations of future listeners to discover. If enough of us do that, maybe people fifty or a hundred years from now will relish the music from our time instead of wondering, "What were they thinking??"

Did you know...
Most people don't know that I'm actually a one-eared singer, deaf in my left ear after undergoing surgery to correct severe, incapacitating vertigo from Meniere's Disease. That condition seriously cramped my style during most of the '90s; in fact, during one show, I had to be walked smoothly out to the microphone by two co- stars, one on each side of me, because an attack was coming on! We covered nicely and no one in the audience knew anything was wrong. I just held tight to the floor mic and sang "Someone To Watch Over Me," while the room moved around. Fortunately, the huge waves of vertigo didn't hit till after I'd left the stage! It was then that I knew that to keep from being totally disabled, I'd have to risk having the surgery, which destroyed the hearing in that ear but did completely stop the vertigo attacks.

Turns out, for solo singing I really only need the right ear, because it's very, very good. If I'm singing in an intimate setting with no mic on the piano, I just have to make sure the piano is always to my right. I understand the 1950s- era singer Johnny Ray was deaf in one ear. American Idol finalist Elliott Yamin is, too.

Another thing about me: I'm a rescuer. Just as I try to rescue obscure songs from the past, I've renovated old houses and like to do what I can to preserve historic neighborhoods. I've also taken in many parrots over the years that were in need of new homes or had handicaps that required special care. The parrots are fantastic; some of them even do vocal warm-ups and sing with me. In particular, Dorian Gray, an African grey parrot, is my "little jazz bird," able to imitate various horns and noodle around—in tune—with jazz records he hears. He even dances excitedly and says, "Radio! Turn on the radio!"

CDs you are listening to now:
1. Bette Midler, Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook (Columbia). One of my favorite modern singers salutes one of my idols, and even makes "Come Onna My House" worth hearing);
Laura Ellis , Femme Fatale (Vintage Voice). A terrific singer revives torchy tunes from old film noir movies. Wish I'd thought of this first!
Brian Piper , TerrrRIFFic (90th Floor). My lifelong friend, musical partner, producer and accompanist, and one of the greatest jazz pianists on the planet. His idol is Oscar Peterson, but I love the Vince Guaraldi lilt on "Secret Love.";
Danny Aiello , I Just Wanted to Hear the Words (IN2N Entertainment Group LLC). Not the greatest singer technically, but his warmth and love for The Great American Songbook shine though. Plus, what a band! ;
Bobby Darin , In a Broadway Bag (Diabolo) (part of a double album reissue with The Shadow of Your Smile). The band and arrangements on "Broadway Bag" are as good as Sinatra's, with side one mirroring the Billy May/Nelson Riddle swing LPs and side two the Gordon Jenkins lush orchestra albums. Darin may be today's most influential, least-credited singer. This even features a smoking "Feelin' Good," 39 years before Michael Bublé.

Desert Island picks:
1. Peggy Lee , DIVA (Delta Leisure Group);
Louis Prima & Keely Smith , Live from Las Vegas Capitol);
Ella Fitzgerald , Songbooks(Verve) (cheating! I need the boxed set!! );
Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years (EMI) (Okay, this is really cheating, but who could pick just one Sinatra Capitol album? Besides, this is my island! I make the rules!);
Leon Redbone , BRANCH TO BRANCH (Atco).

(But that still leaves out the Nat Cole Trio, Tony Bennett, Brian Setzer, "Fats" Waller, Doris Dayâ; this is too hard. Amazon will have to deliver to this island.)

This wasn't asked, but here are my parrots' top five singles:

"Fats" Waller, "Fat and Greasy" (also like "Loafin' Time");
Brother Bones—"Sweet Georgia Brown";
"Under The Sea," from The Little Mermaid;
Cab Calloway, "Minnie The Moocher";
Anything by Django Reinhart and The Hot Club of Paris

My parrots have great taste!

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
The talent is there. Words cannot express my admiration/worship of the incredible instrumentalists out there. Singers, too. I wish jazz had more mainstream popularity, though. Young people need to hear more of it, instead of crap. (See rant, above.) But the success of artists such as Michael Bublé, Norah Jones and Diana Krall, to name a few, is encouraging. It also helps that established performers such as Elvis Costello and Rod Stewart have done so well with their new interpretations of standards. I love hearing creative new spins on standards and forgotten old gems (that's what I do, too), but I also appreciate the recent "vintage" movement artists who lovingly recreate the original styles, like the Nighthawks, the Singapore Slingers and Gelber & Manning, a terrific 1920s duet from NYC.

One factor that has proved surprisingly influential: American Idol. Two of the most jaw-dropping performances were Fantasia singing "Summertime" and Kelly Clarkson singing "Stuff Like That There." (Clarkson herself says she loves big band music and that her performance of that song is her favorite, ever.) Thanks to Idol, kids are occasionally seeing their pop favorites get up in front of a big band and sing songs with real tunes! On the other hand, Simon Cowell tends to dismiss contestants who gravitate to jazz, sneering, "You should be singing in a hotel." Well, I'd stay in that hotel! I'd even sing there.

The Internet as a dispenser of music has changed everything; people have unprecedented access to all genres and eras. I generally prefer stations and music websites that blend the legends of the past with new jazz artists. KAAM Radio here in Dallas is online, and so is another station I've just discovered, KZQX in Kilgore, Texas. (I love it! The only false note I've heard so far was when they played "Candy Man." I love Sammy Davis Jr., but that song? Ugh.) We've got Pandora, of course, but also Jango.com, all the AccuRadio formats, and great websites that specialize in new jazz, like AllAboutJazz.com and The Global Jazz Network. For a fantastic trip back to the jazz world of the '20s and '30s, there's Radio Dismuke out of Fort Worth, Texas.

I do wish that some radio programmers had a broader view of what "jazz" is. Some of them exclude everything that doesn't fall within an extremely narrow definition of jazz. My own musical taste is so eclectic, and the influence of jazz is so widespread, that the compulsion to micro-classify it frustrates me. I love genre-bending!

Just the other night, I saw Fitz and the Tantrums on late- nite TV and loved what they do with a baritone sax! There are no guitars at all. How do you classify something like that? The band itself describes their music as "soul-influenced indie pop." But the cut they played the other night would be right at home on many jazz stations.

The emergence of indie CD production is a huge factor in the continued popularity of jazz. Of course, we indie artists couldn't hold our own against big record companies before we had the Internet. And it helps that jazz listeners tend to be sophisticated grownups who actually buy music instead of assuming it's free for the taking. (If only the record companies would recognize that!)

What is in the near future?
Right now, I'm updating Keep Young and Beautiful to keep the monologue very current and to incorporate some new parody material. With all the recent focus on recording, I've started to miss doing the comedy thing! I have a particular venue in mind that has just started bringing in cabaret-style entertainment; it would be perfect to premiere the updated show. But Brian Piper and I also plan to record some new jazz versions of old songs in the public domain and give them away for free, so get on my mailing list now!

By Day:
Creating topical humor and parody songs for radio shows worldwide via the Comedy Wire.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:
One of the following, in no particular order:

Actress/writer/standup comic (just as now, without the music);
Interior designer and artist;
Neurologist (no, really!) ;
Animal behaviorist/trainer (I'm already known informally as "The Bird Whisperer.") ;
Kim Kardashian's personal stylist (oops, that's actually the last thing I would be).


Photo Credit
Courtesy of Laura Ainsworth

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