“I was born into a family of musicians. My mother was a classical pianist who was in the first graduating class of the NY School of Performing Arts. My Aunt Theodosia (her sister) was an opera singer who turned to the blues. They won Amateur Night at the Apollo and signed a contract with the greatest black music producer in the US, Clarence Williams. He was responsible for producing Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to name a few. My Aunt fell in love with him and they had a child together, so we became part of his musical family. Meanwhile my other aunt, Kate, owned a soul food restaurant near the Apollo called Kate’s Soulfood which served all the stars of the day. We spent Sundays there and I got to meet people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and many others”.
Today, the special guest of MentiSommerse.it is Allan Harris for an exclusive interview.
You grew up in Brooklyn, in which is possible to find a mix of very different sounds. How much did it influence you musically?
I grew up in Brooklyn and my family listened to all kinds of music. Being in New York City meant we had access to opera, jazz, blues, soul and we listened to it all at home and live. I learned the standards because my mother played them so much and she was giving me piano lessons. But my Aunt Theodosia went out and bought me a guitar for my birthday and I fell in love with it. That changed everything. I was influenced mostly by soul, blues and rock as I grew up. But I moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager and the music there was not only jazz but a lot of country. I always wanted to combine jazz with country… along with the blues they are America’s indigenous art forms after all.
“Cross that river” is your journey into the roles of African-Americans in the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century. How was this album born?
I started writing Cross That River after I heard country music star Dolly Parton do a jazz standard. I had been wanting to express myself musically in a more inclusive way, and hearing Dolly break boundaries from her blue grass background and do a jazz standard made me realize I shouldn’t hold back in my writing styles. The first song I wrote is called Blue Was Angry, it expresses a longing to be free, and to be treated like a man in the times of slavery. Americans mostly don’t know that a majority of the cowboys were actually men of color. It’s been written out of history and I wanted to tell this story … its one I learned on my Grandfather’s farm where men of color worked with livestock.
What does Nat Kong Cole and other crooner’s musica represent for you?
Nat King Cole is the quintessential example of a true artist, and humanitarian. He led by example with his excellent musicianship and his elegant bearing. His music has influenced me on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin… his phrasing, his pronunciation, his swinging, casual yet precise arrangements. I love all the crooners, especially Tony Bennett who was a mentor to me early in my career.
What are the top 5 records that have had a greater meaning for you and why?
Nat King Cole – Live at the Sands
Frank Sinatra – Songs for Swinging Lovers
Sarah Vaughan – Brazilian Romance
Jeff Beck – Blow by Blow
Chick Corea – Return to Forever
What is your opinion about the new American Jazz scene?
I love what I’m hearing in New York and across the country. The young artists are taking jazz and making it their own. They are also helping to create alternative venues and touring ideas.
You wrote “The Survival Handbook for the Performing Vocalist”. What advice would you give to a young jazz vocalist?
My advice… be prepared to be a leader, know your keys, work on your arrangements, be on time, and make sure you know your lyrics.