Artists - Janet Lawson
"That was what was so loving about this band, for I felt so safe, so secure, I felt that I could go anywhere that the music called me and it didn't matter if it was right or wrong."
"The Dream Jazz Voice" who gave us the Jazz Dancers' classics,
"So High", "Dindi", "Dreams Can Be", "Shazam (Captain Marvel)" with David Lahm, as well as many other musical gems, talks to
Seymour Nurse at The Bottom End in a very special in-depth interview.
Seymour Nurse: I was first introduced to your music at 13 years old, and remember being deeply moved by your voice. How did you first get into singing?
Janet Lawson: That's a deeply emotional question, because I feel at this point in my life that I didn't choose my entry into singing at 3. I think that was a decision that came from my Mother who had been a professional singer with my Father, who was a professional drummer, so I do not know if a 3 year old says "I want to do this and I want to do that!", maybe there are some who know? I don't know if I was one of them?
So what I am experiencing now is a feeling of fear when I was on stage. It was a Saturday morning kiddy show from the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore that was called, "Uncle Jack's Kiddy Club". In fact a few years ago, his daughter or granddaughter got in touch me with, and she wanted to know what my experience was like, as they were honouring him and were collecting stories from people who had been on the show. So here's what I remember, my Mother showed me a write up in the Newspaper, probably the "Baltimore Sun" in which they said at one point "We got the biggest kick out of little Janet Polun!" (their last name). What they were saying was that I stood there twisting the front of my dress up with my hands because I was so nervous and they thought that was cute.
It was a disturbing idea when I finally put that together that I had been so nervous, so that was a strange entry into the world of singing, but it's an experience that I could see reverberating throughout my entire career in places and in certain parts of my life, where, in my 20's, I would throw up before a performance. Now, with these tremors, I am experiencing releasing stress of fear from what felt like tyranny at some level. This may sound extreme in an interview to do with my singing and my music as I embark on this resurgence, but that's what's coming up, so I am being honest.
SN: Well I appreciate your honesty and openness Janet. Many children experience this from parents that are unaware of the affects that this kind of pressure has upon them. At what point did it come through where you were actually enjoying singing, and taking it somewhere you wanted it to go without the external pressure?
JL: When I connected with the instruments. When I was 15 years old I went to a dance and there was a 17 piece Big Band in Baltimore and I kept guiding my date to the stage as we were dancing, as all of those instruments knocked me out! I was drawn to them, mesmerised by them. I would listen to Frank Sinatra late at night at home with the Count Basie Big Band, with Nelson Riddle and I could sing those arrangements. I felt as if I actually heard them live. It was so exciting!
So when the Band was playing at these dances I went to, I came home and I said to my Mother, "Gee, there's a Big Band and I would love to sing with them, do you think they would let me?" she said, "Ask the leader, some will say yes, some will say no, but ask you never know till you ask!" So I did - and his name was Bill Maisel. He was a saxophone player in a wheelchair, and I'll never forget it. I went up to him and said that I would love to sing with your band, and he said "Sure what would you like to sing?" and I said, "All Of Me". It was not the female vocal key, so when I sang it, it was so high that the whole place applauded at the end of it because it was ridiculously high, but I was able to do it, it was such a funny experience but I loved it.
I sang again either at the next dance or later, and then he hired me for 4 years until I came to New York. For 12 dollars a night I sang with the Big Band and I did what I called "Letter D Singing", because at Letter A it's the head, it's the full band playing. At "Letter B" in the arrangement sometimes the key modulates or it's a different section of the song, "Letter C" modulates to a horn or trumpet solo, and at "Letter D", it usually modulates to the female or male key and the singer gets up and sits down at "Letter E" and I didn't like that I did a ton of "Letter D" singing. I wanted to sing as much as the instrumentalists played, so I think that was the beginning of my hunger to improvise, for that planted the seed.
SN: That's beautiful and makes a lot of sense as you once made a reference to singing like a "horn/instrument" than an actual vocalist, and that is what makes your singing so outstanding and unique, for you do literally sing like a horn!
JL: Well there's something I would like to share about that. The great jazz journalist, Ira Gitler, who did the liner notes for the first album, and whom I just went to see (he's in hospital for he had a heart operation and a small stroke but he's doing so great now) ... he was the first person to come up with that phrase "vox instrumentum" and he put it in the liner notes, which was brilliant!
SN: Who were the musicians that inspired you the most?
JL: Well, once I got to New York it was Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Before that it was Teddy Wilson, for my parents had a Teddy Wilson '78 and also Andres Segovia inspired me, for I had a wonderful Segovia record with him playing those great Spanish composers, Torroba and Tarrega, and I got to see him live at the Lincoln Center years later in New York and hearing him live, I felt he taught me how to sing. I was sitting way up in the back feeling the music come to me and through me and I really do feel that he actually did teach me how to sing, for the experience was just incredible.
There was another piece to this instrument story that I want to share. I was just about to form my Quintet as I hadn't quite put it together and there was a club on 13th Street and 5th Avenue called "Beefsteak Charlie's". Originally, it had been just a piano room and then it became a piano and bass room and then they added a horn. As soon as I found out that they added a horn I called up the manager and said, "I would like to work your room!" He then asked me what I did and told him that I was a singer and he said, "Sorry, but we do not hire singers, just horn players" and I replied, "Yeah, but I'm a singer who sings like a horn". He then asked me to send him a tape, so I sent him a demo and waited a week. I called him up the following week and re-introduced myself. Before I could ask if he'd heard my tape, he immediately replied, "You DO sing like a horn!"
SN: That's a great story! How did you form the Quintet?
JL: It was at that club ("Beefsteak Charlie's"). All these cats were just moonlighting and taking gigs wherever they could and so every week I gigged there quite a bit, and every week whatever musicians were available just came in. Gerry Niewood, oh my god what a great player! His son, Adam, is a brilliant player, as well. There were so many brilliant players that passed through that club. So what happened was, Gerry Niewood sent in Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax, and Roger said he was working with Mongo Santamaria and that there was this great pianist who was working with him by the name of Bill O'Connell and suggested bringing him in, too. I thought that was great, and once Bill got in I felt a connection in terms of how the songs took shape, like not quite arrangements but stylistically how they took form, so that was the beginning.
Jon Burr was on bass and Jimmy Madison was one of the drummers... there were several others including Adam Nussbaum. Eventually Ratzo Harris came in on bass and other horn players came in and out, so eventually it all fell into place and the Quintet consisted of Roger, Bill, Jimmy, and Ratzo, all great players! That's when John Wilson came in from the New York Times and one of his headlines was "The Dream Jazz Voice." This struck me because I remember telling somebody that it's always been about the music, it's never been about to achieve anything. It was just about, and still is, the music, for that's what draws me, calls to me and inspires me. So when the band formed it was like "this is it!" It settled in and formed like jello.
SN: "The Janet Lawson Quintet" recording is the quintessential jazz vocal album for me, where every tune is of such high quality. This album was nominated for Best Female Vocal Jazz Performance In 1981. Can you tell me about your delightful arrangements of the "Jitterbug Waltz" and
JL: Thank you for wanting to know about two of the most influential songs in my evolution as a jazz singer. First: "You Promised" is a song by a beautiful guitarist, Sam Brown, with the old Dave Matthews band - the song is called, "Dance of the Wind Chime". My dear friend, and world renowned composer and author, Carman Moore, (who also collaborated with me on the children's history of jazz book, "Grandma Sage and Her Magic Music Room"), wrote the lyric and changed the name of it, to "You Promised". I used to go to the village to hear Dave Matthews' great band and Sam's tune mesmerized me. One night I asked if I could record it - took it to Carman and he gave the story for that haunting melody.
"Jitterbug Waltz" - I first heard that played by the master Tommy Flanagan at Bradley's - a mostly piano - sometimes piano and bass - haunt on University Place in the Village. His fingers would float over the keys with that melody and it lived in my heart and head for quite a while until I realized it was asking me to sing it. That was before Abbey Lincoln wrote her stunning lyric. Both arrangements evolved out of the work I was exploring with the JLQ. That's hard to describe in words - but just singing those beautiful songs gave me how to sing them.
The relationship deepened and I discovered what they meant to me and what they asked of me. Singing songs improvisationally, without scatting, phrasing over the bar line or laying behind the beat were musical expressions that came naturally to me because of my parents' influence (especially from my father's time feel and sense of rhythms) and my comfort in the flow of time. So, later when I started improvising, losing where one was never worried me - I felt I could play with where ever I was in the time and find my way home, again. And, having heard Monk live for years and feeling how he played with rhythms kind of gave me permission to play with them, too.
I could lay down a phrase anywhere. I could hold a note as long as I felt it connected with what else was happening in the music from the other players. I could be Rouse with Monk in my head. Or I could lay down a line up and down my range like Monk. I learned freedom from Monk. He taught me to be playful, unpredictable; spontaneously surprising to myself and whomever I played with, as well as the audiences. We all discovered the music at the same time. That was heaven!
SN: Your "Sunday Afternoon" is such a beautiful track, and your interpretation of the lyrics really takes the listener on an exquisite journey. Bill O'Connell's delightful piano solo, as well as your joyful scat, and Roger Rosenberg's solo creates a real magic to the Blossom Dearie/Len Saltzberg composition. This must have been a joy to record for you and the band.
JL: Blossom Dearie and Len Saltzberg's "Sunday Afternoon" came to me through singing with David Lahm (the son of lyricist Dorothy Fields) during my early years in New York. He arranged the tune with a playful extension of the form in 5/4 and I loved singing it that way. Actually, it was the only way I knew the tune and the first time I'd sung in five. And the guys in the band enjoyed playing it too, so when we went into the studio to cut our first album, after gigging together for a few years, we just played the way we'd been playing in the clubs, included that tune and our other repertoire and 5 hours later, had our first album.
Like I said, my father was a professional drummer and when I'd come home from a gig and he had his drum pad out, I'd sing the songs I'd sung that night with the big band and he'd play with me - drum pad and voice! So, when I heard Monk, I was ecstatic, digging the rhythmic angles he created. And this was way before I started improvising. I enjoyed playing with that lyric and I think David's meter change enhanced the fun of re-shaping the lyrical interpretation. His mother was a masterful lyricist. He learned a lot from her.Bill and Roger had fun with it too, both of them being such strong lyrical players.
SN: There are so many versions of Thelonius Monk's classic "Round Midnight", but of course you put your own unique twist on this composition. Monk had quite an effect on you.
JL: Thelonius Monk had a transformational effect on me. When I first heard him, live at the Five Spot in the East Village, I had never before heard or seen anything like Monk's sphere and what came through his brilliant spirit. There I was, barely out of my home town, Baltimore, singing there with big bands for four years, arriving in NY when I was 19 and soon after meeting Jules Colomby, who with his brother Harry, managed Monk's career. Jules brought me to the Five Spot in the East Village to hear Monk every night he was there with Roy Haynes or Ben Riley and I think John Ore and of course, Charlie Rouse. I was mesmerized - blown away - thrilled to be drinking in those unexpected rhythmic phrases, playing with the time. How I loved that feeling.
SN: You recorded the joyful "Nothin' Like You". I always loved the Miles Davis version featuring Bob Dorough, but yet again you take this composition to another level, giving it more flavour... How much of an influence was Miles to you?
JL: Miles was an influence that came to me from afar - first hearing him as a teenager on a date with a group of friends at a club in D.C. near to my home in Baltimore. Then, when I'd moved to NY, a bassist friend, Midge Pike, gave me the Savoy Recordings of Bird, I heard Miles with him there. Other friends laid albums on me from his different periods, "Kind of Blue", "Steamin'/Workin'", "Porgy and Bess". When I donated my record collection to the Al Cohn Memorial Library at East Stroudsburg University in PA., I was surprised to find I had more Miles than any other instrumentalist. - So, I came to absorb Miles not from my own choosing but because he was being brought to me for me to savour in bits and pieces. By the time I heard Dorough with Miles, I'd connected to the Miles of his different periods and this seemed like another step in his expression. And, when I started singing "Nothin' Like You", I probably had the influences of all I'd listened to in there - especially how he played with space and rhythms - I think those two aspects affected me a lot - his and Monk's.
When I read Miles' autobiography and he talked about how he heard the whole line in his head but only played bits and pieces he confirmed how I'd heard Miles. It also connected with how Warne Marsh had taught me to sing up and down my range on all the minor scales, in sixteenth notes, leaving out the notes I took a breath on. It strengthened my ears to hold the notes in my head that I wasn't singing as I stayed connected to the line I was singing. Around the time my voice began to elude me and I was having trouble accessing the ease I'd improvised with for so long, I started a project with my Quintet (this time Mike Richmond on bass and Billy Hart on drums), produced by Jack Perricone, who produced my first album, the one that was nominated for a Grammy. Jack had this idea of our creating a vocal tribute to Miles.
It hadn't been offered by any one and Jack felt I was the singer to bring that to Miles' music. So Bill O'Connell and I started getting together working on the arrangements and choosing the tunes with Jack, too. Bill and Jack also wrote some tunes for the album. Because of some distressful complications with the recording studio and my voice beginning to tank we took away just four tunes that were recorded - "Joshua" (Bill wrote a great shout chorus at the end), "It Aint Necessarily So", "It Never Entered My Mind" and "I Thought About You". For "I thought About You" I listened to Miles' phrasing and realized he was playing the lyric when he stated the melody, extending syllables when the notes were embellished. And when he ended the head and started a solo that led into Coleman's tenor solo, I learned it that way.
So in our recording I sang everything Miles played and then Roger Rosenberg picked it up for his solo. Then we brought it back to how Miles played the head out - I just phrased everything the way Miles played it and the lyric fit so emotionally. I had no idea his lyrical interpretation was literally because he played those lyrics! Like I said, earlier, I was surprised to find I had more Miles than any other instrumentalist. I highly recommend Miles for all jazz singers who want to phrase from a deep place emotionally as well as feel space as part of their phrasing. Just two of the masterful gifts Miles gave to the music, eternally!
SN: The "So High"... what can I say? It's regarded by some as
"The Greatest Jazz Dancers' Vocal Track!" It is an extraordinary piece of music! How did you first hear about this song, and what inspired you to record your own version of it?
JL: That was the time of Diane Snow; she was still Diane Snow until she later married and became known as Diane Snow Austin. She was studying with Steve Browman, who was a mutual friend of ours, an excellent pianist, composer, arranger who worked with Diane on this song. Also, about that time Diane and I were writing "Jass Is A Lady", a musical about an all women's band, taken from stories, interviews we took of women Jazz musicians from all over the country, which the NEA funded and the ASCAP Workshop supported. In the musical, Diane wrote the lyrics to which I wrote the music. The songs are a riot! Agents were telling me at the time "You're so pretty! Why do you want to sing like that?" So Diane wrote a song called "What's a nice girl like you doing with a face like that?" So I sang it in a 'Brechtian' style (Janet starts singing "What's a nice girl like you doing with a face like that?"... having a lot of fun with it, laughing...)
Another song was called "A Travelling Freak Show" (again, Janet starts singing the lyrics "A travelling freak show of virgins and whores, desire us, defile us, we'll never be yours...") It was quite vile (Janet digging remembering it), and this too was sung in a Brechtian style. It was at that time that Diane showed me "So High" and I loved it! It seemed like such a challenging piece of music. It came out of the work Diane did in her studies with Steve Browman.
SN: That's so typical of the male chauvinistic attitude that permeates the music industry through some individuals... The band certainly embraced the challenge of "So High", for they were really flying on this one, and all your solos were truly outstanding. What was the vibe in the studio when you were recording it?
JL: That was what was so exciting playing with the band, because we performed live and then would go into a recording studio; it was as though we were still performing live. It had that energy, for we did not feel that we were now going to do a recording - it was like "we're going to play!" It could have been one take, as the whole album was recorded in 5 hours and the most we did was 2 takes on a tune. I think that "Round Midnight" was the first take. Several tracks were one take, because we were just playing.
Roger Rosenberg once told me that he was walking in a London park not long after the album was released, and he heard somebody playing "So High" from a cassette player there. I have always been so appreciative and stunned and moved deeply by the feeling of generosity and appreciation that people in London have given me through the music that they felt and heard, and the fact that they loved "So High" like that, I have always felt grateful for that kind of response wherever I have travelled. It's always an amazing, experience, to feel that, and here in London, was especially special.
SN: Did you ever conceive that people would be dancing to it?
JL: No, it never occurred to me, ever. That was what was so incredible, that this was a dance piece. It never entered my mind, as Miles said...
SN: The second album with your Quintet was "Dreams Can Be", which was another outstanding recording. The title track "Dreams Can Be" is an exquisite samba, how did this track manifest?
JL: Well, Roger Rosenberg wrote the melody first, and I loved it and asked him if I could write a lyric, and Roger said, "yeah, sure!" So for me the music writes the lyric, so I just did free association with it. (Janet starts singing) "If you dream you may not always wake up with a smile, though you try remembering may just not be your style, but if you can see it just like a movie, even scary things can be kind of groovy"... Then I did all these Freudian allusions and stuff... it just poured through me.
SN: The "Dreams Can Be" has a similar energy and excitement as the
"So High", even though it's a mellower track.
JL: I think that comes from the music frankly, I give that to Roger Rosenberg.
SN: You also recorded an outstanding version of the hauntingly beautiful
"In A Sentimental Mood." The bass intro has so much depth to it.
JL: That's Ratzo Harris. He felt my connection to the song and laid out a beautiful carpet of sound for me to just float over. What inspired me about that song was Sonny Rollins would do these long cadenzas at the end of songs and I said to myself, "I want to do that! I want to just go off, and take it out and go where the music takes me and then come back in and end the song." So when we performed at places like "Seventh Avenue South" (The Brecker brothers' club) I would do that, I would just take songs out and go off. I did this with "Body and Soul" and with "In A Sentimental Mood", which is not an easy song to do that with. Sometimes when I came back in, and this is what I loved about Bill, was that I wouldn't come back in on a note that was part of the chord to end on. So Bill would hear it and supply a collage of sounds that made my notes sound brilliant. He always covered my you know what! So I got better and better because I knew that I would be taken care of, I knew it and that gave me the courage to keep experimenting and venturing out.
That was what was so loving about this band, for I felt so safe, so secure, I felt that I could go anywhere that the music called me and it didn't matter if it was right or wrong. I'll never forget once I said to Ratzo at the end of a gig, "Ratzo did I sing a right note in that song at the end?" and Ratzo replied, "It doesn't matter, it's not about that." So everybody encouraged me to go where I heard the music, because they were going to be there with me, for they did not think in those small terms. Duke Ellington said, "If you play a wrong note play it again." Thelonius Monk said, "There's no such thing as a wrong note, just some notes sound funnier than others." Isn't that great!!! I keep trying to teach my students that at the New School University where I am an Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz - not to play it safe!
We just had a Vocal Jazz meeting with the committee a couple weeks ago, and 2 of the singers who are part of the program, Kate Baker, who is a beautiful singer and works with singers who have vocal problems, she is also married to Vic Juris, the great guitarist; and Elizabeth Loehinger, who is a magnificent musician herself and a beautiful singer, both singers said what they loved about the concert that they came to of my class was that the students really took chances and it wasn't about whether they made it or not, it was that they felt free and open to do that, isn't that wonderful!
SN: That is so inspiring to hear from a musical perspective, because as a dancer that's how I have always approached dancing. For me, it's not about the technicalities of the steps or the moves one does (even though I do have fun with that occasionally), for they are the tools to assist one in reaching those higher states of consciousness - it's about the feeling and being free in the dance itself, so that totally resonates with me. The Quintet is really cooking on the "Hot House."
JL: I'll never forget that for Roger really helped me with that one. He said to sing it soft, lightly and not push, for that will make the sound come out fast. So the softer I sang it, the lighter I sang it, the faster it would feel. That was a big insight for me to sing it lighter and have a lighter touch. It also connected with, when I studied with Warne Marsh, how he taught me to sing up and down my range on all the minor scales, in sixteenth notes, leaving out the notes I took a breath on. He played the head for me very slowly into my tape recorder so that I could sing it with him and practice it that way, wasn't that cool!!
SN: Yes it was!! "Better Get (H)it In Your Soul" has a nice bluesy, soulful vibe to it that produces a different kind of sound for the Quintet.
JL: I went to Sue Mingus and she gave me the lead sheets to that written in Mingus' own hand, and Bill, Roger and I created this expression of the tune. We listened to Mingus' version and we were inspired to do our own version from his.
SN: The band definitely did it justice. The "Break Free" for me is very special, for there is something about that song that has an almost child-like freeness about it... it's very magical.
JL: I have to tell Bill that for it's his song. He wrote the words and the music. It was a very freeing feeling singing that song.
SN: I really sensed that. The "Out Of This World" has a very passionate introduction to it, for you sound as though you are travelling 'out of this world'. You're very open on this track.
JL: That was pure inspiration from John Coltrane. I told Bill that I wanted to sing this, and he arranged it for me. Afterwards I was sharing what the song felt like for me, as I wanted to create a feeling of Trane playing it and I feel so disappointed that I didn't feel I accomplished that, but at least I attempted it. It was in the mode that I was hearing it but I was just never able to sing what I heard. But it's like what we say, it's not about accomplishing, it's about going for it and honouring that.
SN: That's beautiful! In 1977 you released a version of the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic, "Dindi." This is a very exciting rendition relative to the arrangement, its originality and your unique interpretation of the lyrics. There's a wonderful story behind this track too.
JL: Yes, there is quite a story! I had gone to the Village Vanguard to hear the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Band and I met Sonny Lester who was producing that band at the time, and I gave him a demo, he heard me and said that he wanted to produce me. It sounded great, I thought that I would have a producer - a producer and a Jazz team. But it ended up that he wanted to make money, so he got somebody to write a tune that was a country song called, "Two Little Rooms", which by the way hit the country charts. I thought, "Oh my God! I'm going to be a country singer!" Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not my path... it wasn't how I was hearing the music. (Buddy Rich was asked once if he was allergic to anything and he said, yes, Country music :) So Sonny Lester threw me a bone and put "Dindi" on the back. It was Sir Roland Hanna on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Mel Lewis on drums.
I had never worked with any of them before, so I was trying to explain how I heard the tune, and it wasn't that way, the double time feel - that was not how I heard it. I just couldn't explain it well enough. So because that wasn't what I heard, I was thrown with it so I created that whole phrasing. (Janet starts singing) "I let you, let you, let you, let you, let you get away..." the whole way of phrasing that line came out of desperation (laughing).
SN: Well you flowed with the change beautifully, and it really worked. That's my favourite part of the song.
JL: I know!! It's a lot of people's favourite part. Even my friend, Nina Sheldon, uses it all the time when she sings and plays it. (A fabulous pianist and singer!)
SN: I love the way "Dindi" fly's towards the end, but I have to say that I wish it went on longer.
JL: I just think that he just did not want to give that whole idea any room.
SN: It's still a treasure of a tune. You've worked with some real legends including the great Duke Ellington, Eddie Jefferson, Bob Dorough, and others. First, how was it working with the great Duke Ellington?
JL: That was just an amazing heart story. My Father who, when he was alive, had got into graphic art because he was also a visual artist and he started a school called The Visual Arts Institute in Baltimore, and he created programs for people to go through and get a job. So he worked with the Veterans Administration and worked with the prison system for the prisoners who came out to go through his school, and he would place them in a job. He had 100% employment.
One time when I was visiting he said he was going to a meeting in the Maryland State Penitentiary, and I asked if I could go with him. He said "Yes, sure!" So we went and there was this meeting that my Dad was part of and they were talking about a spring dance in April, and I suggested going there to sing for them. They were so excited! So when I left the prison we walked past a club, I think it was called the "Chantacler" and I saw a poster that Duke was coming so when I went back to New York I called his office and asked if it was possible for Duke to come to the Maryland State Penitentiary and play for the prisoners, and they said "Absolutely!"
So my partner at the time who was also my manager picked up the Duke at the train station. I was too overwhelmed.... that here was this legend....to sit in the car with him, can you believe that? How foolish of me!!! I drove myself; I didn't drive with Eddie and the Duke. So we get to the prison, a lot of people were there and it was a beautiful event. Throngs of African Americans surrounded the Duke when he walked into the prison, and I heard an elderly Caucasian couple say, "who is that colored gentleman"? It was the 1970's in Baltimore, Maryland, and some people didn't recognize him, but what happened was my Dad had hired a bassist and a drummer from the local Musicians Union, who were blown away to be playing with the Duke.
They had a rickety upright piano, and the Duke and I sat down next to each other in these metal swing out seats in metal tables and he said to me, "Oh, you're going to be singing." I replied, "Yes", he said, "What are you going to be doing?" and I said, "I was thinking of "Love You Madly" do you know that?" We were just laughing hysterically with each other. He said, "Yeah, I do!" That was his song, of course, and he asked me "What key?" and I replied "F", then he replied, "I think that I can do it in F." Then I did "Sophisticated Lady", and I wish that I had a tape of it, nobody taped it, I did not think to do that.
I'll tell you something that was really magical. When I heard him being interviewed he said that he would write and arrange not for the instruments but for the individual musician, so when he was writing a trombone part he wrote for Quentin Jackson, not for trombone, isn't that interesting? All those cats were in his fingers, so I was singing with the band even though they weren't there because they were all in his hands, and I could hear it! That was profound, that was truly profound.
SN: That's a wonderful story about Duke Ellington, and an honest recollection of those times too, which I appreciate. That must have been so exciting for you, and the other musicians. You also worked and recorded with Eddie Jefferson, how was that experience for you?
JL: The New York Times article by John S. Wilson came out, saying I had "The Dream Jazz Voice" and I was walking down the street, this was the day of answering services like prehistoric days, so I went to a phone booth on Broadway and 50th Street and I checked my answering machine and there was a message from Irv Kratka, from Inner City Records who asked me to call him right away. So I called him right away, and he said, "I want you to come over, we are recording "Moody's Mood for Love" with Eddie Jefferson and I want you to do the girl part." I told him that I didn't know that and he said, "Well come on in and we'll teach it to you." So they actually taught it to me right before we recorded it, because I didn't know Moody's version. So I got the opportunity to just practise it and I went into the booth and sang with Eddie. I have to tell you that so much of my experience came from innocence and ignorance at the time that evolved later on, but in the beginning there were things that I didn't even know.
I used to go to a party on 77th Street on the next street from where I lived on Riverside Drive; I was on 76th and Al Jeter who took over Riverside Records when it defuncted because he was part of the bank that took it over, he lived on the top floor on 77th St. and would have these parties with all these great Jazz players that would go on for days. I would just sit on the floor in this tiny little room and a Spinet piano and listen to all this great music. I swear to you I have no idea who was playing there. I met Ira Gitler there, I met Dan Morgenstern there, but I have no idea who the cats were that came through. I am sure that they were infamous and Miles Davis lived up the street, I am not sure if he ever came? A lot of my early years were from not knowing and in a way it was a gift because it came to me pure through the music and not through the names.
SN: You worked with Rufus Reid producing a beautiful version of his "Perpetual Stroll", and you wrote those great lyrics too.
JL: He wrote that music, and again the music wrote the words... (Janet sings the lyrics) "I'm on a path unknown, yet my feet trust the earth 'cause each step's a rebirth, of a never ending soul, needing to be, on a never ending stroll to take in life. What I see as I make my way may be dark for a while or glow bright as a smile, but whatever meets my soul, I'll live at ease on my never ending stroll, because I know life isn't always getting for yourself, we've much more to give if we feel whatever's real, then everything becomes a part, of every other heart as we all stroll, just perpetual strolling."
SN: That was beautiful, thanks for sharing the magic! You also worked with the talented Bob Dorough.
JL: We worked together quite a bit! First of all when I lived in New York he came to my apartment and taught me "Yardbird Suite" because he had written the lyrics for the head and Charlie Parker's solo. This is what I mean, all these great musicians gave so much to my learning. If they hadn't done this I don't know what I would have done because I was so green, and I didn't know a lot. Bob would come to my apartment and teach me Bird's solo - "No, it's like this... there isn't any triplet here..." Oh my god! It was just incredible! Then he would come to my gigs with his then wife Corrine when she was still alive, to Fat Tuesdays, and I would sing "Devil May Care" and he loved my version of "Nothin' Like You."
SN: I love the version of "Nothin' Like You" that Bob recorded with Miles too.
JL: Yes, that was the only vocal ever recorded with Miles, the only vocal!!! In the Poconos, where I lived for a dozen years, we had a group called "ImproVocals" with Stephanie Nakasian, Bob and me, and Stephanie's husband, the great bebop pianist, Hod O'Brien and Bob wrote these 3 part harmonies and we all improvised together, it was wild, it was brilliant, it was great! Then I included Bob in my Jazz Journey program which is an interactive program for children about the history of Jazz. We would tour Western Pennsylvania going into schools doing Artist in Residency programs. Bob is just an amazing being, apart from being a great musician; he is an extraordinary human being. He just recorded a new album called "Eulalia", Ira Gilter wrote the liner notes for it. You've got to hear it, it's magnificent! His daughter, Aralee, a brilliant flutist, is on it.
SN: You are well aware of the mystery behind the track, "Get Off The Ground (The Bottom End)", and how for many years' people thought that you were the vocalist. You were credited on the Acid Jazz bootleg of it under the name "Brother Davies Miles" (which is a nice synchronicty considering how much you admired Miles Davis as a musician), and one record dealer even said that he had the album which was a live recording of you with a Japanese trio. This was quite a story!
JL: This is hysterical! It wasn't me! I never performed or recorded with a Japanese trio! Whoever put that out saying it's me was sorely confused....
SN: Yes, that was hilarious! I remember sending you the track years ago on a tape, and you replied to me saying, "That's not me Seymour!" Well, we all know now that it was the wonderful Valli Scavelli, and the 'record' has definitely been set straight... (laughs)
You worked with David Lahm on the album, "Real Jazz For The Folks Who Feel Jazz", which is a great recording, (and album title). Let's first talk about "Harold's House Of Jazz". Again, your voice and lyrical interpretation is outstanding on this track.
JL: David Lahm taught me that tune, which was Richie Cole's composition, and we worked with him, so I was able to learn it singing with Richie which is always great... to learn a song from the composer. I used to have these long into the night discussions with David about me improvising because he didn't want me to scat on the tune, so I needed to find a way to play with the time and the lyrics that fulfilled my musical hunger. So as they say, limitations create opportunities to express one's self that you might not have if you didn't have those parameters.
SN: It's a great track and a wonderful trumpet solo from John D'earth.
JL: He was great!!
SN: The "Shazam (Captain Marvel)" is a truly phenomenal piece of music, relative to what you did lyrically to Stan Getz's solo. I have said to so many people who are unaware of this to listen to the solo from Stan Getz's version (off the album, "Captain Marvel"), so that they can appreciate exactly what you pulled off. This was another big track on the dance floor in the Jazz Rooms, but as I said, many people did not realise exactly what an achievement this was for you to tell the story of "Captain Marvel" with all the characters, by interpreting Stan's solo with lyrics. Amazing!!!
JL: David Lahm would come over to my apartment and say, "Ok, let's work on this." We would play Getz's solo and David would say, "He did 2 half steps and then a whole" and then I would say "No man! He did 2 whole steps and then a half." We would have these long discussions about what the pitches were because they went by so fast and we each heard them in different ways, isn't that funny (laughing)...
SN: It was a huge challenge, and I know how hard you worked on this track. How did you approach this task?
JL: I dove in, I just dove in because it was an instrument, and it was the way the instrument played and what it played, and that was the light that drew me in and David helped the way Bob Dorough helped. David came over and we worked on it for a long time, and then we had these gigs where I would shed in the clubs, I would shed the "Shazam" and so we got to the studio and then he and Barry Rogers edited it because it couldn't be gotten from just one take.
SN: Did you have Stan's solo with you when you were singing it, for how exactly did you work on getting it so precise?
JL: It was Stan and David's lyrics and that is David's genius, for he knows how to draw out a word from a sound, he just knows how to do that. His mother Dorothy Fields was a genius in that so it's in his DNA, so he has that connection, all I had to do was sing it right there.
SN: You didn't just sing it in a perfect pitch and timing with Stan's solo, but you also gave the comic characters life through your lyrical interpretation of the story.
JL I think that was David's guidance. At some point it all just merged into one experience, and all the steps that led up to it just merged into that oneness.
SN: It's as though one can hear the jubilation in your voice when you sang those final lyrics, "Quick, got to save the city from Dr Savannah's Buzzard Band!"
A very dear friend of mine, Robert Moore, loved the "Shazam" too. We listened to it together, and created this imaginary scenario in the studio when you were laying down the vocals.
It's funny because we pictured you all in the studio, and when you sang those last words, "Quick, got to save the city from Dr Savannah's Buzzard Band!", the coffee cups were thrown into the air, confetti flew all over the studio, people were crying and hugging each other, and you were lifted on the producer and engineer's shoulders and carried around the room, as the band continued playing with tears streaming down their eyes... we used to have such a laugh imagining that... : )
JLYou and your friend Robert tuned into another level of the lyric - the spontaneous expression of utter freedom and playfulness!! Thank you for your sensitivity to that!
SN: Roger Rosenberg's soprano saxophone solo is outstanding as well, for it is so expressive.
JL: Yes it is! He is a great musician!!
SN: There's also great support from Bill O'Connell and Lincoln Goines, but I really have to say that Bob Moses' drumming on the "Shazam" is just sublime.
JL: Bob Moses was filled with music madness - everything just popped out of him - it was exciting to watch him as much as listen to him - everything was moving at the same time - his arms, his legs, his face, his whole body....
SN: I would love to have been in the studio when you were recording that track. Janet, your singing career took a major setback in 2001 due to illness, and I know how challenging it has been for you, but it's a real testament to your character and spirit how you have embraced this.
JL: Sheila Jordan says she holds me in her prayers every day, isn't that something... and it's helping. I think that my voice would be in a fairly decent shape if it wasn't for these shakes that I experience these days, but I just have to take new steps, I don't know when the next one's coming? I am just taking each step, as I am on a path unknown. And, actually, it's all taken a new turn. I've discovered the core stumble bum. Because of the Lyme Disease I contracted in 2001, my diaphragm tightened up - the trauma of it all and the neurological aspect.
So, I pursued Feldenkrais exercises and renewed the breath work I'd learned from Carl Stough and discovered a teacher who's teaching that work now, Steven Flam. Since Carl passed some years back, there was no one passing along his genious of releasing the diaphragm and getting rid of air - a concept that most teachers don't teach. So, thanks to Steven, he really is an amazing guide, my voice is actually re-learning in a new way, how to allow the diaphragm to support the air and allow the notes to ride on that air.
SN: I trust that all will work out well with you Janet, and it's so encouraging to hear about the progress you have made in the past few years. You have a great gift of writing too, as I have read your work, and your
"The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way Of Life" is very inspiring.
JL: That's my mom! My mother was a beautiful lyricist and she had the gift of words which I connected with, and also I loved Shakespeare and she read me Plato and Socrates when I was 10 years old and we read poetry together. I got an original copy of Emerson from a bookstore up in Massachusetts and gave it to her. My mother and I shared on a deep level that aesthetic for writing and words, so I think that started in me from a very young age.
SN: We touched on the Miles Davis tracks earlier, and you are re-releasing your first album, "The Janet Lawson Quintet" on BBE Records with those 4 unreleased Miles Davis tracks ("It Ain't Necessarily So", "I Thought About You", "It Never Entered My Mind", and "Joshua"). This is great news!
JL: Jack Perricone who produced that first album which was nominated for a Grammy said that he thought that we could do a Miles tribute, and Bruce Lundval of Blue Note Records, wanted to hear it because we had all been at the IAJE Convention and we laid a CD onto Bruce, he loved it and said let me know when your next project is, so when we started that we said hey we can take it to Bruce. So Jack and I talked about the tunes and we got together with Bill and he created these amazing arrangements, and we talked about different parts of the arrangement together.
Bill and I always worked in tandem. Then Jack gave me the cut "I Thought About You" from Miles' "Someday My Prince Will Come" album and when I heard that it stuck like Velcro, for it stuck to my insides because I could feel and hear he was playing the lyrics, he didn't play the music, he played the lyrics!!!
All I did was add the lyrics to what he was playing and it flowed, it just flowed and even the parts that had more shape, I just reshaped the words to fit because I know that's what Miles did. It was such a profound experience singing that song. It was the extraordinary Mike Richmond who took the bass chair, the great Billy Hart on drums (whom you know, played with Miles), along with Roger Rosenberg and Bill O'Connell.
SN: This gave a new dynamic to the Quintet. Mike Richmond is one of my favourite bass players, and Billy Hart is an exceptional drummer. The original Quintet is quite an act to follow, but this one is just as solid. All of the 4 tracks are great! For me, the "I Thought About You" is my personal favourite... the "Joshua" has that dynamic vibe of the original Quintet too.
JL: "Joshua" was exciting to sing, I tell you! We recorded these tracks in March of 1995, and we presented them to Bruce but by then he had decided to give Cassandra Wilson a Miles Davis project and there it was, we didn't get ours to him. The business is filled with stories like that. I would just like to say that I am grateful to Lee Bright, Jesper Christiansen and Julia of BBE - Barely Breaking Even Records - for this opportunity to get the JLQ music out there again, so that a whole new generation of singers, instrumentalists and Jazz lovers can familiarise themselves with this music that comes through me from my deep love and respect for all those who have contributed to it.
SN: The tradition of Buddhism is very important to you and your spiritual journey. Can you talk about the effect that it has on your life, and creativity within your music?
JL: So much of how I teach is immersed in the teachings of Buddhism and Eastern thought and reflection. I attach an excerpt from my forthcoming book - soon to be available on line - to my syllabus I create for my students at The New School. These principles - no mind practice, listening, hearing, connecting, are all a way of life - as I call the whole book:
The Integrated Artist: Improvisation As A Way Of Life.
When we're present, we ARE improvising - because we're not controlling anything - things are just unfolding and we are witnessing it and allowing it to be and creating the space for it to appear and be with us! So, in the creative moment - which each moment is, really - there is nothing to do. As Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Sufi Master says, "every note that's ever been written or will be written already exists - and not only that, it's looking for you!" I love saying that to my students. I love reminding myself!
I also inform myself pretty much daily that there are no impediments. I don't know if that's a Buddhist principle per se but it helps me a lot. And sitting - meditating - you've seen the cartoon - sit....stay.... with a dog - only its meditating. Those help me a lot ...it's a constant practice, constant attention to the moment - to the discursive thoughts - letting them walk right by me like people in the street ... these thoughts that try to grab onto us, out of habit - from when we believed them. Now I know they're just thoughts. And, as Suzuki Roshe says (and how I want to live), Knowing that life is short, enjoy it day after day, moment after moment!
SN: Those principles are very profound, and it's understandable why Buddhism has resonated with many Jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Buster Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ernestine Anderson, etc...
Can we look forward to seeing you in London in the near future?
JL: I certainly hope so. If nothing else I would love to come over there and give a vocal improvisational workshop in which the singers themselves would jump in and I can help guide them demonstrating some techniques, and giving them a platform to experience their fullness and discover who they are in their depth of music, for that would give me great joy.
Seymour, I have to publicly thank you for all the support that you have given me over the years, not only professionally but also as a friend. The years that I sank into deep, deep sorrow about my process and that my voice wasn't accessible to me, your kindness and your support and your heart really got me through some dark, dark times, and I just want you to know how grateful I am.
SN: I really do appreciate your kind words Janet. You have given me and many others so much joy through your music, which has been a real comfort and inspiration to me during some challenging times too, and it's an absolute pleasure to have you as a friend, and to be there for you in that way.
JL: Also, you connected me to your child Thiyana and her excitement of the music filled my heart with joy.
SN: As I shared with you before, Thiyana learnt the alphabet from the "Shazam (Captain Marvel)", for we used to play the 'Alphabet Game' from the lyrics you sang, "... what Z is, what Z is, you can't guess what Z is..." We would go through the alphabet together from "...what A is, what A is, you can't guess what A is..." all the way to Z, so that was a really fun way for her to learn and sing too! So the "Shazam (Captain Marvel)" was, and still is one of Thiyana's favourite songs.
Janet, it has been an absolute joy doing this interview. Its been a long time in the making and well worth the wait. Much love and appreciation to you.
JL: Much Love and appreciation to you, Seymour.
Final word from Janet...I M P R O V I S A T I O N... it's the only word that holds... carries... offers the moment and all its truths - and joys!!!!
Janet Lawson's Official Website:
Janet Lawson's Writing: The Integrated Artist
Janet Lawson: The Integrated Artist:
Improvisation As A Way Of Life
Janet Lawson's latest release:
"The Janet Lawson Quintet"
with 4 unreleased Miles Davis Tracks
This album (with track samples) is available at:
(click on the link below)
Photo by Walter Bredel
The Janet Lawson Quintet at the recording session for the Miles Davis tribute tracks
(Back row, left to right - Jack Perricone, Bernard Fox, and Roger Rosenberg -
Front row, left to right - Mike Richmond, Janet Lawson, Billy Hart, and Bill O'Connell)
Mara Paul, Janet Lawson, and Paula Hampton
The Janet Lawson Quintet
(From left to right - Roger Rosenberg, Bill O'Connell, Ratzo Harris,
Janet Lawson, and Jimmy Madison)
Copyright 2015 © Seymour Nurse