Sassy Siren: Maxwell Chandler interviews
Jackie Ryan is an
international jazz star. She frequently plays both coasts and overseas, where
her gig at Ronnie Scotts in London garnered the critical praise:
the finest singers to perform at Ronnie's since Shirley Horn. "(The London
shared the stage and recording studio with many greats including Clark Terry,
Red Holloway and Buddy DeFranco.
Her recordings and
performances generate a genuine heat which rises above the flavor of the month
excitement which is sometimes associated with vocalists. I catch her on her
home turf of San Francisco for a brief chat:
you for being here. I do have a few stock questions, not out of laziness but
because, if I could I would ask them of all artists I admire. What were your
earliest musical years like? Where did you cut your teeth?
JR: I grew
up the youngest of 4 children north of San Francisco in a struggling middle
class neighborhood to parents who were both singers
although when they
began a family they no longer performed professionally Actually I come from a
long line of singers on both sides. I guess being from Irish and Mexican
parents one might expect that. My Dad was a classical singer who sang Schubert,
Brahms, Tchaikowski, etc, and my mom sang in Operettas in Mexico in her youth.
All of their siblings sang as did their parents and grandparents. When I was
growing up my mama would always be singing some sweet Mexican songs around the
.they also both sang in the choir and used to bring me up there with
them when I was little. I would hear all these great voices all around
singing Gregorian chants and Latin masses
.it would fill me
As a child I was
always singing. Used to keep my siblings up at night! In my teens I joined a
local dance band
started writing and performing
.I loved the Rhythm
and Blues giants
Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Mavis Staples
.and then I
and that was it for me! I started buying all the jazz records I
could. Sarah, Betty, Billie. etc
Then I met this eccentric record
his whole basement was stocked full of records
. He turned
me on to Oscar Peterson, Oscar Brown Jr, Eddie Jefferson, Charlie Parker,
Miles, Bill Evans
.we used to listen for hours on end. Those were great
there any arts done in mediums other than music which inspire or influence your
JR: All art
inspires me. Life inspires me. The art of life I guess. The beauty all around
that I see. Nature definitely.
One of my favorite
places is that of the sculptor, Rodin. The Rodin museum in Paris
Rodins mistress, the sculptress, Camille Claudels work is
. Her work actually moves me even more than his.
Unbelievable passion in her work. It inspires me just to think of it. It is
incredibly moving to view such beauty. Godly. Whenever I go to Paris I try to
get back there because it moves me so. To tears. So I guess all great art
inspires me and thus inspires my own art.
I think also that if you have a love of one
kind of art chances are you have a love of many kinds of art. Its that
right side/left side of the brain thing I suppose.
I have painted, sculpted, done pottery,
drawing, even have sewn the designs I created for clothes
I love to cook,
I love dancing
.I love to partake in it all art.
MC: In those
early years, had you had any of those infamous gigs or experiences which were
so bad, but you now can look back and laugh about?
JR: Oh yeah.
There have been some doozies. But some were funny actually. One time when I was
a teenager I came out to bow and did a dramatic curtsy
.just in fun and
kicked up my shoe and it went flying out into the audience! WAY out
.into the dark
it was hysterical! And it was a huge
so the shoe disappeared. I had to perform anyway
shoe. It was like a comedy routine
like a Lucille Ball skit!
On the break someone brought it back.
Thats pretty darn funny to remember.
MC: When not
recording/performing yourself do you listen to much music? What do you listen
to for inspiration or fun?
JR: I listen
to everything from Miles to Benny Carter to Red Garland to Brazilian to African
to Capo Verdean to Fado to Tango. The whole gamut!
MC: Do you
have any pre or post show rituals which you must do?
JR: No, no
real rituals. Ive been singing since I was 4
so you know, its
like anything else
Its like breathing. But its important to me
to be centered
.so ideally I try not to have too crazed a day before a gig
or an important concert. Of course that is ideally
not always possible.
Ideally I would want to be a bit quiet. Do a bit of soft singing
time getting ready. In general I have learned that being healthy and centered
is what it is all about for me. That takes a certain amount of upkeep. Your
voice depends on your state of well being to a very large degree. If you
arent healthy it will show in your sound. It may be more true for singing
than for playing an instrument. Because it is inside of your body literally
that the sound is produced.
I exercise a lot,
eat good clean food, dont smoke and try to stay balanced. The business
isnt easy and it can get to your head if you let it. So keeping the
stress of it away is important. Not always possible but very important. Getting
stressed can affect your singing. So its a very Zen like thing
just have to stay on top of it. And that is the challenge. You want to present
the music in the way it should be. To stand in front of people and deliver with
confidence. So its your duty to be as together as possible. And that
takes general consciousness about your health, both physically and mentally.
dictates what a set list will be like? Do you have any pieces that you try to
do 99% of the time? Do you find that your book changes depending on where you
are playing as far as city/country. Do different audiences have different
expectations as far as your set goes?
JR: Well, I
dont do anything 99% of the time. Just what the mood dictates I guess.
The musicians too. I have to go by how I feel at that time. If I am feeling
good about the music it doesnt matter what audience it is. They will pick
up on how I feel.
there any classics, from the Great American Songbook for instances, which you
feel are so associated with a particular singer you would never perform?
Certain Billy Holiday tunes for instance. They were hers. Or songs that are so
obviously coming from the African American experience. Although African
American singers were my biggest influence, I am respectful that certain songs
should only be sung if you are. Like Gloomy Sunday, Strange
Fruit --although a Jewish man wrote Strange Fruit
I feel to sing it one should be black in order to tell it from a personal
experience. I respect that. Thats just me
I am sure others would not
thats fine. Or Billies Dont Explain.
.I love the tune
but she wrote it out of her experience
personal one. I dont do the tune. Or Bettys song Jazz
Aint Nothin But Soul. I loved to hear her sing
and it is hers to me. Singing is very personal.
But other tunes
that are perhaps standards
even if they were written by singers
might do because they can be told from different experiences.
Im not real
absolute here either. I may even change my mind. Its not really something
I have put a lot of thought into.
I wont say
what others should do either. And I dont even have a judgment about it
for others. Its just how I feel for me.
important is it to your sound to have a permanent working band
behind you? Do you have a preference as to the size of what is behind you? Does
the size of an ensemble change what you would sing and how you would approach
everyone is always trying to work as much as possible
so having a
is nearly impossible unless you can put everyone on a
retainer to only work with you. And I cant. So I work with lots of
different people all the time. There are times when I have gone onstage with
.but the music connects us.
Jazz is an
international language after all.
Definitely the size
of the ensemble changes my approach. Actually the less people the more free you
are to use the space. But every configuration has its quality. Different
instruments bring different palettes of color to use and play off of also. In a
big band you are in a highly structured environment though and must stay within
strict boundaries. Hopefully the arrangements can leave you some room to play
within those boundaries though.
MC: One of
the great aspects of jazz is that it is ever in flux. It seems though, as if it
has largely shed this protean aspect. Jazz is now available far easier than
ever before via web retailers, but the ability to explore and expand ones sonic
palette is hardly taken advantage of. Has the audience become too rigid in what
they define as jazz, forgetting that many of the now established
sub genres (modal, free et al) were once also not considered jazz
Well I dont think there is just one audience
there are still
audiences for every kind of jazz. Though perhaps they are a little less
visible. Free jazz definitely has its followers. Though it may not be on a
commercial level. Any avant-garde form of any art has always been appealing to
a smaller audience. I can dig it all but many people find it harder to take.
But if you are talking about the business side of things
different. I think the business of jazz can be very one
.especially for vocalists, because lets face
it---its a business
and they want to play it safe and appeal to the
broadest audience they can.. But to define jazz
.and say it is just this
one style, is limiting. I suppose everyone has their own definition of what
jazz means to them. Thats the trouble with putting a definition on art.
It locks it in a box. But some people do love labels. For myself I am always
reticent to use labels. Jazz has to be about expansion and incorporating all
the artist can bring to it from their life. Any Art form has to be about
expansion. To me that is the nature of art. So obviously jazz being art
people should be able to allow all of its expressions. You cant listen to
the medias interpretation of what jazz means
.thats where you
make the mistake. You have to ignore that stuff and just go with whatever rings
MC: I know
that if one reads biographies of the late 50s early 60s there were
some heavy hitters living in expatriate communities in Europe, doing month long
club residencies (Ronnie Scotts in London, Quai de Chat qui Pesche chat
in Paris, Club Montmarte in Copenhagen). During this time there was a very
small group of European musicians who could play with great sympathy among the
Americans ( Pierre Michelot, Martial Solal et al). Now every major city in
Europe has its own home town heroes. While not a bad thing, has this changed
the dynamics for an American musician doing a (club) tour of Europe in regards
to availability or pay?
has changed a lot since those days. The European jazz musicians are heavy
hitters with a voice of their own. I know this because I have worked with them.
They often have the great beautiful advantage of having their countries
financially support the arts programs. Because European countries know
the importance of culture. America is sad today in that respect. The current
administration is shutting down all the arts programs. Its terrible. In
Europe, they sponsor young musicians. Holland subsidizes their musicians so
that they can come play here. That is so cool. Wouldnt it be fantastic if
America would subsidize our own musicians to play abroad? In many countries
they also make sure that children learn the classics at an early age. It is as
important as any other subject in school. And this isnt just for rich
kids, it is for all kids. So that any child with talent can be given a chance
to grow into an important musical voice. They get that classical discipline,
and later when they bring that to jazz
.they have so much to
say. So I feel that these days the European musicians are formidable unto
themselves. It is no longer about trying to just learn the American way of
doing things. The Europeans have created their own voice in Jazz. And
there is a fine example of what I was talking about earlier
dont know if this has changed the dynamic between us. Because I do feel
that there is still great respect for American jazz players. We are learning
from each other now I think. Because The American jazz approach is definitely
strong and very rooted in the fundaments---the feel for instance. The groove.
To me thats a very high place that isnt so easily taught as it is a
lifestyle. And thats very American because it is about our history and
the people who brought it here and blended together here. So as I say we
have things to teach each other still.
MC: I am a
music snob and have very low tolerance for pop-product music. We are some fifty
years later, still discussing Kind of Blue or falling for Lady Day as she
laments her heart ache, yet American Idol winners get the attention and record
company big-budgets to record an album which will have an artistic expiration
date of a season on them. Is this strictly an American phenomenon or a sign of
JR: I agree
with you. And it has nothing to do with snobbery. It is about integrity. You
shouldnt even call yourself a snob. I very much dislike the American Idol
thing. All that nasty critiquing of the performers has nothing to do with
or soul or beauty, And I am so sad to see young people aspiring to
that kind of garbage. And they are. Some of those critics on that panel are
mean spirited and can kill those sweet young peoples love of music. And
that hurts me to see that. And why the heck is this popular? Dont ask me.
We seem to have come to a place where we like to see people being humiliated.
How awfully sad. It is definitely an American phenomenon. And it goes
with a lot that is happening here with everything else if you know what I
mean. But I am afraid it is catching on elsewhere. So maybe it is a sign
of the times. What does this tell us? It is not a good message. I dont
understand it. It is like the other nasty stuff on TV---the realty shows and
the violence and crassness. Weve gotten too far from the beauty that is
in our nature. Weve let the money moguls tell us what it is supposed to
be about.. I can only just try to stay as far from it as possible! But for
young people, I do worry. Because they are aspiring to all that. And they are
and TV is a very powerful medium. It could be used in positive
ways, but it seems 90% is used in negative ways.
Although I suppose
there are some exceptions and occasionally someone with real talent gets heard.
I just dont like that whole weird, competitive process. It has no place
in art. No place in music.
But to look on the
bright side; there are hundreds of clinics and thousands of teachers doing the
right thing in the schools. Sometimes out of their own pockets. And there are
musicians who care about young people and they are doing great things like the
IAJE, Jazz Camps, clinics and the like. So
no matter what the media would
have us all believe there is still hope!! Plenty. In fact I have no doubt that
real music will survive. Because it is about truth
and truth always
MC: If you
were not a singer what would you be doing?
.I dont know
.I really dont. There are many arts
I have dabbled in, painting, pottery, sculpting, clothes design, gardening,
cooking even! Maybe I would have done those as a career. But if not an artist,
Lord I dont know.
I love archeology,
so maybe I would have made that a career. I love history, maybe I would have
I love animals,
maybe something in that field, Travel
I actually love to
cut hair and Im really good at it! I do it for friends
Maybe I would have
gotten married and had kids. I like kids. But I didnt. This was what I
did. Touring, always trying to grow musically. It is my life.
There are many
social causes I care about and contribute to
the environment, humane
treatment of animals, hunger, maybe I would have devoted more of my life there.
There would be so many choices. I have no idea!
It could be that
later on in life I will do some of these things also.
MC: If you
could go back and tell the artist you were in the beginning of your career one
piece of advice what would it be?
.thats a funny one. I dont think about that much
because you really cant go back. You did what you did and you do what you
do. You know, talking about going back like that feels like regret. Or that
if only things were this way, and it cant be that. You know,
I have thought
oh if only my family could have afforded music or piano
lessons for me when I was young
.bla bla bla
.but I know that
thats just all moot. You live your life the best you can and work with
the tools you were given. Some people were given a lot early
or a lot of focus because they were an only child
whatever. But perhaps you were given a more difficult set of circumstances. My
Dad worked his you know what off just to get food on the table. Music or piano
lessons were not at all possible. Nor was any type of music school. They did
the best they could for us. You work with what you have. I can only say that I
developed my sound from a lot of my own experience just in actually performing.
But my sound wouldnt have been the same if I had had training per
or had it all given to me. I might have sounded trained.
And I dont like that sound for what I do. Especially for singing. I hate
someone sounding too perfect and careful. I find to me the most interesting
people are the ones who have had to struggle a bit
.I find they have more
character. Like wine
if the grapes have to make it through some tough
seasons chances are the wine will taste a lot richer. But although my road was
a little tough at times I always had a lot of love ---always I have had my
beautiful and supportive family
.a mom who may have passed on too
but I wouldnt have traded her for another
gave me so much love when I was little
and I have always had great friends
who were real true blue. So I dont look back and say
or if I could have done things differently
it was and is
even if it not always easy. I am really grateful for my life as it
is such a gift. You just have to see that finally.
MC: Do you
have any artistic projects or ambitions you have always wanted to do, but have
yet to accomplish?
I want to hook up with someone who I can write with. A musical partner. I
imagine a really fine pianist or guitarist. It would be wonderful to do that.
Thats one of several fantasies. There are many ideas I have.
MC: What are
you currently working on and where can people keep up to date on your
appearances and projects?
JR: A new CD
will be out in a few months
You and The Night and The Music.
Recorded in LA with Red Holloway, pianist Tamir Hendelman, drummer Jeff
Hamilton, Bassist Christoph Luty, Guiraist Larry Koonse and a jazz harpist
Carol Robbins. Im proud of it. It is more modern than some of my other
CDs. Tamir did about 9 out of 14 of the arrangements and they are pretty
fantastic. It has a lot of elements
.soul, a tight rhythm section,
beautiful guitar work etc. Then there is a CD coming out early next year with
Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Alexander, Jeremy Pelt, Romero Lubambo Ray Drummond and
Carl Allen. IT has a lot more blues and a bit of Brazilian.
Since you asked
where people can get more information, I have a website that is
MC: For me,
it is always a pleasure catching one of the living masters when ever I can, but
there is still something about seeing cats on stage in a small club, not of the
staid supper club variety. Who of the up and coming/younger
players should we be watching?
you just saw me singing with Eric Alexander. He knocks me out. He is
disciplined, professional, and so fluent in his musical expression. And he has
his own sound
he isnt another Coltrane sound a like. Truly one of
the greatest saxophone players of his generation. And he is a great person all
around. Tamir Hendelman I work with
like a young Oscar Peterson
young players. A bassist in LA Carlitos Del Puerto has great energy and ideas.
Hot. Amina Figarova from Holland
one of the greatest composers and
pianists in the world. Very original. She astounds me. And her husband the
wonderful flautist Bart Platteau. They are both very serious musicians. And the
musicians she has in her band are all top notch. A trumpet player who works in
her sextet, Ernie Hammes, is the best I have ever heard anywhere. Its
that classical background I was speaking of earlier. I feel I have been
fortunate to have sung with these great players. And they will be around for a
long time. Continuing to expand and thrill their audiences.
MC: Do you
have a personal motto or philosophy?
believe its all about love. Everything. And it is easy to lose sight of
that. So thats the challenge. That may sound too simple but it isnt
because it affects everything. And that is about loving yourself as well. I
used to be acutely shy. So you see that standing in front of an audience used
to be a major challenge. And yet I had to do it. Its taken me years, but
now I am not afraid. Now I love singing in front of an audience
connection is palpable
when you all get to feel goose bumps at the same
time you know? you cant get that in a recording studio. It is about
sharing your art
and touching people. I dont fear the audience
anymore. Because I know they are just like me. I tell students
if you fill
your heart with love there is no room left for fear.
And with music also
this: its not about you. Its about the music. I have been teaching
at clinics where some singing students say that a different teacher says to
them.. It is about YOU! And dont forget it!! I strongly
disagree. We as artists are just a vessel. And we have to remain open in order
to let the energythat godly energy flow through us to others. Thats
not religious at all. I am not religious. I just mean that power that is in all
of us but that we lose touch with. Artists I believe were given the
responsibility to be messengers for that power. It can heal. But if what we are
thinking it is our ego, then we have blocked it.
Anyway, these are
just some thoughts I have. If you want to talk philosophy, well we could be
here all night!
thank you it has been an honor and a pleasure. See you side stage.
Max. It was so great to meet you! Keep up the good work spreading the word
return with more adventures in sound-