Jazz interview with jazz singer Shirley Crabbe. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Shirley Crabbe: – I was born in New York City and spent half of my childhood growing up in the Bronx (one of New York City’s more infamous boroughs). Just before I turned 11, my parents moved me and my two siblings out to the suburbs. From that point on I have mostly lived just outside of NYC. I cannot remember a time that I have not been interested in music. As kids, my Mom made sure we had piano lessons. I actually studied piano with a rather famous African American teacher named Arnetta Jones. She was also the teacher of child prodigy Philippa Schuyler and one of the first African Americans to be a member of the National Piano Guild. My sister and I also used to write our own musical reviews and perform them for our parents in the front room of our house in the Bronx. After we moved to the suburbs I studied the violin for 6 years and then at 16 began studying voice with a teacher that I now think about almost every day of my life. She made a huge impact on me. Her name was Margaret Franzone.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the jazz vocal?
SHC: – I was first introduced to jazz watching Ella Fitzgerald perform her song “A Tisket, A Tasket” in an old Abbott and Costello movie. Ella was young and, I was very impressed with her singing. I would try to imitate her voice and the way she improvised. But I never imagined becoming a jazz singer until I arrived at college and joined a band. I somehow convinced the band leader that I could sing jazz (even though I had never even sung a note of jazz in my life). Needless to say, my introduction to jazz included a lot of on the job training. In my senior year, I joined a vocal jazz group at school and began having solo performance opportunities. After I graduated, I returned to NY and attended graduate school with the ambition of pursuing opera. But, I still had an interest in singing jazz so, I studied opera by day and after class headed downtown to lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to learn jazz from the masters. It all started with a workshop called Discovery Voices. The workshop was organized by Cobi Narita, one of NYC’s most ardent supporters of vocal jazz. The classes were led by accomplished and legendary singers Etta Jones, Dakota Staton, Tina Fabrique. My first rhythm section was led by pianist Harold Mabern with Jamil Nasser on bass. What an incredible time for me. It was then that I realized that I really loved singing Jazz. I feel totally free when I sing Jazz.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
SHC: – I first had to accept that I am who I am. I’m me, and that’s good. My sound is “my sound.” And letting out the sounds that I hear in my head, my heart, and my voice comes from my personality, my life experience, the way that I feel about myself and the influence of the millions of notes of music that I have heard throughout my life. My challenge now is to keep moving as far away from my comfort zone as I can get so that I can reach a place where I am my most authentic. I have no idea what that will sound like.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
SHC: – Although it has been many years since I pursued classical music, I still warm up/vocalize like I was as an opera singer. I work on flexibility, good breathing technique, and range. Then I take a short break to allow the voice to “calm down” before I sing jazz.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
SHC: – Thanks for the kind words. I find this question very interesting because, in my heart, I love dissonance! When I use dissonance, it’s like adding a bit of color to the phrase that I am singing, making that moment more edgy and interesting. It is interesting to hear how others hear me and I am inspired to explore this other side of me.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
SHC: – “To thine own self, be true.” Although I definitely care about what others think about me and try to get as much good advice as I can, at the end of the day, I have to embrace my uniqueness, my voice, and my vision. But none of this really works unless you to consistently strive to be humble and learn from your mistakes, all the while focusing on spiritual, emotional and musical growth
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Bridges>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
SHC: – I love the songs, the strings, the rich sound that the band produced. I was blessed to work with wonderful people who also happened to be great musicians. Vega and Budway are the best! I found the set technically challenging, and the lyrics rich. As they say “that’s how I like to roll!” The whole concept of the album is about Bridges: the ones we build, the ones we cross, and the ones we tear down. Each song is connected along those lines.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
SHC: – It’s a delicate balance for sure. I definitely get excited about hearing or learning music that is technically challenging or completely cerebral. But at the end of the day, if I am not emotionally stirred by the music, it is of no use to me. I believe that one of the goals of music is to move the listener. Whether they break out in dance or break down in tears. It’s got to speak to their heart and soul. l.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
SHC: – I have learned that not everything that I want to sing is what other people want to hear. I have very esoteric tastes. But just like I said earlier, if the music doesn’t move the listener, what good is it? Ultimately, I believe that what people really want, is to be moved.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
SHC: – I was once the opening act for Abby Lincoln. We shared a dressing room. Unfortunately, I was a typical fanatical fan – I tried to impress her and talked too much before the show. I even asked her if she wouldn’t mind giving me a copy of one of her signature songs – Strong Man. so that I so that I could sing it too! I don’t know what she thought of me, but I am sure that I drove her crazy. I will never forget that experience. She did a great concert. I later transcribed the song and sang it on my debut album HOME.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
SHC: – I just had a great conversation with a 23-year-old guy who curated a nightly jazz radio show while he attended college. I asked him why he loved Jazz so much and he replied, “I love the way the music is like a big conversation between the instruments”. His face lit up when he talked about Jazz. Why is that? He had access to it. He heard it and fell in love. Although good music never dies, it does get forgotten. Here in the states, High School Band Teachers are an important force keeping the music alive and deserve a lot of credit for introducing younger audiences to Jazz. As far as keeping young people interested, I think the music speaks for itself. But, if they don’t have access to the music, they will never know it’s there. Therefore, Jazz musicians, lovers of the music, curators, and governments need to work together to ensure that this music is properly financed, culturally supported and nurtured.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
SHC: – Wow, this is a great question! For me, music is VERY spiritual. It is the only art form that is mentioned time and time again in the Bible as a personal and collective form of expression. It even soothed the madness of a King. Every time I open my mouth I feel like I am sharing a piece of my soul. I have to decide to be vulnerable and let people in. The joy that I get from it is the way that the music changes people’s hearts. I know how much I have been inspired by what I have heard and the places that the music has taken me. I see my music as a gift that I can give to others. I love that it is a beautiful gift and that it leaves people feeling good. I can relate to Coltrane in that when I sing I am sending my spirit out into the audience. I pray all of the time for the Spirit to sing through me and that others benefit from the time we spend together.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
SHC: – I would have the televised version of the Grammy Awards include Jazz and Classical Music. Each year Jazz musicians take a hit because the biggest advertising event of the night doesn’t include us.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
SHC: – Oh, my goodness, I listen to everything and anything. I am really digging the NY Voices’ new alum with the Bob Mintzer Big band, “Meeting of the Minds”. Very good stuff.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
SHC: – I am not sure that I want to go back in time. Life was so hard for everyone back then. African Americans were oppressed, Hitler in the 40’s, slavery, there are no happy times back then. I couldn’t even go back to the garden of Eden for long. I think I would rather go forward and see what the future holds. Having said that, I would like to go to Washington D.C., the seat of the American Government, in the year 2100. Are we OK? Did we manage to fix some of the problems of today? Are we still united?
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
SHC: – I would like to know where YOU would go if you had a time machine to travel in? I would also like to know about your interest in Jazz. When did you know that you loved it?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. If I had a time machine, I would come back to Kind of Blue! Jazz is my whole life, my blood flows through jazz!!! And everything began very seriously in 2002, when I visited live concerts, festivals and a got sick with jazz!
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
SHC: – Life is good! I am very happy and looking forward to what the future holds. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my thoughts and my music with you.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan