Happy 105th Birthday Viola Smith

“I had the field pretty much to myself; there weren’t many girl drummers”

Viola Smith

If you think of female jazz drummers today a few will come to mind straight away:

Cindy Blackman, Sheila E (scovedo), Terri Lyne Carrington, Sherrie Maricle, the UK’s Michele Drees. In the pop world there’s Meg White from the White Stripes, Ruth Underwood who played with Frank Zappa and who could forget the drumming of Karen Carpenter, who was happy at the back playing drums before she was forced forward to sing. In a world where the number of female instrumentalists don’t equal that of their male counterparts these drummers must be thankful to the trailblazers of the 30s and 40s especially one particular musician, a drummer called Viola Smith.

Viola Schmitz was born on the 29th November 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin and became one of the first professional female drummers. Not only did she perform in orchestras and swing bands her playing was seen in films, TV appearances and on Broadway.

She gained popularity and earned her fame during World War II, which enabled Viola and other female instrumentalists the opportunity to ‘keep on swinging’ after the men went to war, perform to mass audiences, and be taken seriously, “given a chance”. There were groups such as The International Sweethearts of Rhythm who famously had Roz Cron, a white saxophonist and clarinetist musician in its otherwise all female, black groupAda Leonard’s All American Girls; and the Prairie View Coeds who made a star of trumpeter Clora Bryant (who also played with Dizzy Gillespie). As the war ended men fell back into their old band positions while the female groups disbanded. Some would go on as soloists or have smaller groups but the time had past for the appreciation they received during this time; ‘substitutes’ rather than the real thing.

Viola came from a large family of eight sisters (and two brothers) who were encouraged to play at least one instrument. Their parents ran a concert hall so the family started a group to play for weddings and other social occasions held at their hall. Their performances grew out beyond the hall to Milwaukee and to other states. Viola’s father chose the drums for her, which she started playing at 11 years old and by 12 she was travelling with her female siblings around the RKO circuit as the Smith Sisters, applying for permits for the underage musicians. She says of the time:

“During the summer we’d play county and state fairs. In those kinds of venues it wasn’t so unusual to see an all-girl band because the fairs always featured the strange things that were happening in America such as the 800-pound man. As girl musicians we were part of that, we were strange in the early 1920s”.

On the Keith-Orpheum circuit they shared the bill with the Andrew Sisters. Some of the sisters moved on or got married but Viola stayed with the drums and created an orchestra for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show, a talent show in the 30s. She came to New York in 1935 with the Jack Fine’s Band Box Revue. Sister Mildred who played the clarinet and saxophone joined Viola in a female orchestra called the Coquettes, formed by them in 1938. They were together for four years and performed with musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. She appeared on the cover of Billboard in 1940 and on the front of Variety on numerous occasions.


In 1942 she joined Phil Spitalny’s 22-piece band known as the Hour of Charm Orchestra and appeared on the radio program, The Hour of Charm, hosted by Arlene Francis. The program aired in various time slots on CBS and NBC from 1934 to 1948. The orchestra had commercial success and even performed at the inauguration of Harry Truman in 1945. Spitalny interviewed over 1000 female musicians before he settled on his choice.  Viola recounted:

In 1944, I was playing with the Phil Spitalny orchestra at the Paramount, on 43rd and Broadway. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, my father died. A relative called me and told me right before my show. In the theatre Phil Spitalny had already announced me and was waiting for me to play. I didn’t play because I had fainted, but somehow I remained upright on the chair. Spitalny indicated to the horn player nearby to come over and give me a shove, which she did, and I immediately came to like a robot and played the solo like a robot. However, I did miss catching a stick that I had thrown on a drum, bouncing up high and not being caught, accompanied by an automatic thud on the bass drum. I was told later there were gasps in the audience. I had told a friend in the orchestra not to tell the others that my father had died. It was easier to make it through the performance by pretending I had not received the news.”


It was while she was working at the Paramount that she met Frank Sinatra who was working with Tommy Dorsey. She said that he asked her on dates but she refused not because he was married but because he was unattractive to her. She went on to say that he would become very handsome and the request for dates stopped!

Jazz in New York during WWII was centred on 52nd Street – Swing Street – as it was known, featuring smaller versions of the larger orchestras such as a pared-down Count Basie band. These clubs were full of military personnel. She said that Louis Bellson came to see her during this time to see what she was doing with all her drums. She had lessons with Billy Gladstone who also taught Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, Joe Morello and Gene Krupa when they came through New York with their bands.

At this time she ‘achieved notoriety for an op-ed that she penned for Downbeat, entitled “Give Girl Musicians a Break”, imploring jazz groups and orchestras [to] not discriminate against female musicians’. She also played with the Kit Kat Band; a group that was part of the original Broadway production of Cabaret, a time she says her playing was at its best. This led to a TV appearance with Liza Minnelli on Liza with a Z. As well as stage she featured in films such as When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942) and Here Comes the Co-Eds (1945) featuring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. TV appearances included I’ve Got a Secret (CBS) and she appeared on the Ed Sullivan show (CBS) five times.


In 1948 she entered Juilliard via a scholarship and became part of the orchestra studying timpani and played percussion in 1949-50 with the National Orchestral Association. In 2000 Viola was one of eight women honoured by the Lincoln Center as legends of jazz.

She had a style of her own and became the face of Zildjan cymbals and Ludwid drums. Some named her the female Gene Krupa because of the way ‘she would hurl her drumstick onto her drum, then jump up in the air and catch it as it bounced’. She would set out her tom drums high, something she saw a drummer in Texas do. She played more than the average twelve drums adding toms to her left and right; the only drummer to have done this. Although she continues to live her life she gave up the sticks when she was sixty-six. She said of her playing, “When I play drums, I have to play loud”.

Long may her heart continue to beat.


Let the rim shot be heard around the world,
it’s Viola Smith’s birthday.  
Splash out the champagne,
this centenarian does it again. 
Splash Viola, make a crash Viola,
drums boom.
Firecracker creates a new permutation,
a new scene.
No need to ghost note,
your presence is heard.
Hemiola to New York.
Modulate to new,
improviser, pocket the job.
No vamping for you,
centre stage.
Toms piled high, left and right
sustaining the scene,
your timbre is strong.
Thunder is the applause,
roar for more.
Reverberate for years,
ostinato reputation.
Your reach is as long 
as your stretch around the toms.
Diminuendo, cut time,
drums come to an end.
But what a life, Viola?
Vamps ever onwards for you.
Happy Birthday 102!
A dedication to Viola Smith
(c) 2014 Sarah Weller

The legacy of all-female groups lives on:

Sherrie Maricle’s Diva Jazz Orchestra

Ann Patterson’s intergenerational Maiden Voyage – formed in the 70s and featured original ‘Sweetheart’s’ saxophonist Roz Cron

Alive – A ten-piece San Francisco band who released 3 albums from 79-82

The Seattle Women’s Orchestra – now in its 14th year

Tia Fuller Quartet

Deirdre Cartwright’s Blow the Fuse

Terri Lyne Carrington’s ACS – Carrington, Gerri Allen and Esperanza Spalding

Rachel Z’s all female trio on her first visit to London for her On the Milky Way Express release in 2001 with Miriam Sullivan on bass and Alison Miller on drums.

Ronnie Scott’s celebration International Women’s Day with a series of gigs under the festival of Women in Jazz in 2010

The Girls in the Band a documentary film based around The Sweethearts of Rhythm was released in 2013.














Scene and Heard

“I had the field pretty much to myself; there weren’t many girl drummers”

Viola Smith

If you think of female jazz drummers today a few will come to mind straight away:

Cindy Blackman, Sheila E (scovedo), Terri Lyne Carrington, Sherrie Maricle, the UK’s Michele Drees. In the pop world there’s Meg White from the White Stripes, Ruth Underwood who played with Frank Zappa and who could forget the drumming of Karen Carpenter, who was happy at the back playing drums before she was forced forward to sing. In a world where the number of female instrumentalists don’t equal that of their male counterparts these drummers must be thankful to the trailblazers of the 30s and 40s especially one particular musician, a drummer called Viola Smith.

Viola Schmitz was born on the 29th November 1912 in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin and became one of the first professional female drummers. Not only did…

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It is the Autumn of a world that invites winter too readily


Autumn has shown its hand

beaten to submission by Winter.

“You’ve had your time, time too long!”

Autumn’s airy oblivion missed

the oncoming insidious mass.


Once unyielding, earth cracks,

derision begins to seep

steadfast in the epidermis.

Come lovers of dark corners

the blackness is upon us.


It is the Autumn of a world that invites winter too readily.


Seduced by Autumn’s colours

a spectrum of yellow, red and gold –

what light, what beauty.

Now light is a luxury

that Autumn can ill afford.


And so they come, dark web and all

marching on the debris

of Autumn’s hope.

Damp permeates

mould cell surfs

the disease is upon us.


Summer is a land that time forgot

with it’s majestic days

flawless philosophy.

Now we wait, patient

in our pursuit of Spring.


It is the Autumn of a world that invites winter too readily.

(c) S C Weller

The line “Come lovers of dark corners” comes from a poem called Autumn Sky by Charles Simic.

Cecile McLorin-Salvant – Glitter and be gay…that’s the role she is set to play

SET 1: She entered the stage in a quiet, undramatic way closely behind the band into a whisper of a new song – self-written – called Fog.  I was impressed and thought how well it complemented the covers she followed with.  The song will be on her new album called, For One to Love.

Cecile 2015  After welcoming us all and announcing her bitter sweet regret of this being the last date of her tour she asked if any of us knew who Ethel Waters was.  Ethel lived between the years of 1896-1977 and was more influenced by vaudeville singers of the time (20s and 30s) such as Fanny Brice (who I know through Babs’ films on her).  She had a theatrical flair that set her apart rather than her vocal ability although she did get jazz greats to accompany her later on in her career such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. The song was Sweet Man Blues.

Louis Armstrong will always be the one who is associated with her next song Jeepers Creepers, a song from the 1930s film Going Places starring Doris Day-favourite Ronald Reagan.  Louis plays horse trainer Gabriel whose horse is called Jeepers Creepers, lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by Harry Warren – a winning combination of songwriting!  The audience, as if enjoying for the first time a recognisable song, came to life, which set her up for the comic songs that were to come.  The wit of Cole Porter was masterfully emphasised in Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love. If only he was alive to see her perform his song.   It was from the film Leave It To Me from 1938. It also featured other great Porter numbers Get Out of Town and My Heart Belongs to Daddy sung by the fantastically named Dolly Winslow.

Aaron Diehl

It was time for a ballad with pianist Aaron Diehl – Billie Holiday’s ode to cheatin’ husband Jimmy Monroe, a lipstick on your collar song from 1944 called Don’t Explain.  Cecile has a French parent and sang in French last time.  My GCSE French only picked out Luna but my neighbour explained the lyrics.  I believe the song is on her forthcoming album called Le Mal de Vivre (living hell?)  Again, Aaron Diehl’s playing was superb.  Two serious numbers done and we were back to comic writing (there isn’t enough modern funnies!)  The song was called Confession, a song recorded by Judy Holliday in 1937 written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.  On Holliday’s album Trouble is a Man there is also a version of Lonely Town (Green, Comden, Bernstein) that Cecile also included as an encore accompanied only by Paul Sikivie on bass.  Confession was made all the better by Cecile’s impeccable timing and phrasing.  My favourite line, “wine can’t compare to gin.” YES Howard Dietz, but I suppose gin was THE tipple of the day.  Sarah Vaughan loved gin.  I am in good company.

The last two songs of the first set were Mad About the Boy (Coward) and Wives and Lovers.  As with all her versions Cecile brings something new to both the style and arrangement and it was refreshing not to smell a whiff of Dinah.  Aaron’s soloing was again inventive, interesting…I could go on.  He is fast becoming my favourite pianist!  The Bacharach/Davis collaboration was written as a promotional tool for a film of the same name but not actually in the film. Funnily enough I had been singing it earlier in the day as I whizzed around the building  – it’s a great song and glimpses of a feminist came through in Cecile’s performance especially mentioning that she laughed the first time she heard this song but then you often see advertising and advice booklets on the internet from this period (mid sixties) and it’s hard to believe women were encouraged to do what ever they could do to help, soothe, comfort THE MAN – live for their needs, not their own or the mutual needs of the couple.  Phew, thank heavens for progress…of a sort.

Cecile room

SET 2:  They started with the 1957 Blossom Dearie  (made popular) song They Say It’s Spring. Now we are a year on her voice was more confident, the colours of tone were more varied, there was a breadth in her range and the dynamics have increased. Stepsister’s Lament a favourite of mine from last year was included again and I’m pleased to see it has been included for the album.  Another reappearance was Garland’s Trolley Song, a song that was sorely missed from Jane Monheit’s set last month.  The band played the trolley, the wheels, the whistle and the horn all harmonically jarring (in a good way) against Cecile’s vocal – her voice perfectly pitched.  This is another song that has made it onto the album – good choice.

Bessie Smith’s Give Me Some came next.  Cecile explained that Bessie sang homesick blues, lovesick blues, dirty blues and this was a food blues – actually it was a dirty blues! The imaginary included sweet lollipops; all day suckers, lots of meat, peck like a pecker should, and lots of cream “catch it when you come”.  No wonder her mother felt uncomfortable when she sang it but Cecile delighted in the double-entendres!

I’m not well versed in the music of Bernstein so the next song was new to me.  It was called Glitter and be Gay, a song from the Broadway musical Candide based on Voltaire’s novella from 1956.  I went onto YouTube to listen to another couple of versions to get my bearings and again Cecile presented an interesting version – less show-like and light opera but with more drama, comedy and musical variation. Unfortunately this isn’t on the new album.

Cecile performed a different version of John Henry as heard on her previous album WomanChild and then finished with Something’s Coming  from West Side Story, which had various tempo changes, lots of drama and plenty of opportunity for the band to spread their improvising wings.

I had recommended this gig to a singer friend of mine – he loved it. For me the joy of seeing a singer develop so quickly into her own unique style and able to present a mix of interesting material that in the main no other singers are doing is so exciting.  A year on this show demonstrated a more daring Cecile in what she did with her voice and her material.  She is greatly influenced by the 20s and 30s and occasionally by the 50s but she breathes fresh air into these dusty blues and forgotten standards. With so much growth in only one year I look forward to next – I only hope that the artistic relationship that Aaron and Cecile have, continues – a match made in jazz heaven.

cecile ben

The new album is released on Mack Avenue Records on 4th September 2015.

Photos 1-3 copyright of Carl Hyde, photo 4 copyright of Ben Amure.

A Ronnie’s Debut for French Cyrille…

Cyrille 1

“Thank you for being in my dream.” She had been dreaming about this moment for four years. Not a bad completion rate for a relatively new jazz singer who introduced a Wednesday’s crowd to her latest album “It’s a Good Day”. Singer Cyrille Aimee made her debut on 29th April 2015 at Ronnie Scott’s. Her native tongue of French was demonstrated in “White Night” a song she had written about an all-nighter. To my ears she has the sound you would associate with French jazz, reminiscent of Madeleine Peyroux without the depth, hints of Billie Holiday and vocally very much like Stacey Kent – especially the vibrato. Her English was clear but I preferred her voice when singing in French… as I always do with any singer. It’s as if the vocal chords are confused by the change of language that gets immediately remedied when changed back. One complaint I have – sorry singers – if I hear one more version of A Foggy Day when in London…

There were many quiet moments in the set, quiet accompaniment behind a soft voice. The skilled arrangements were the highlights for me as were the two guitarists, although the whole band played sympathetically throughout. She was a petite vision in monochrome, angular arms reminiscent of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ Tiffany. Cutesy was a word that kept coming to mind – and not derogatory at all. She’s a singer who knows where she’s going and had the audience eating out of her dainty palms. I enjoyed her version of the Doors’ People are Strange. There were a couple of duo numbers with the bassist then the drummer where lots of scat was featured. I was disappointed not to hear her gypsy jazz version of Off the Wall but I can see this singer going far.

Cyrille 2

Pictures taken at Ronnie Scott’s copyright Carl Hyde.

Sarah Weller Band: Sarah Weller (vocals), Simon Golding (guitar), Duncan Haynes, Ross Stanley and Arthur Lea (keys), Jules Jackson (bass and drums) and Simon Pearson (drums)

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On the eve of our release I am looking back at how we arrived here and just how long it took.  Jules said to Simon, “Have we really been doing this album since 2005?”  I know we started it before Dolly was born in 2005 so yes, we have.

We had been touring with the Tarantino’s and continued until January 2008.   It was a sad end to an enjoyable six years of gigging, recording and visiting many European countries.  Those gigs (I’m sure) will be some of the best gigs I will ever experience so it was a hard thing to let go off but then we had two young children and some of the band had reservations about us bringing them on tour, (“Not very rock’n’roll!”) and then there was the usual internal wranglings of leadership and decision making…and egos.  Yes, it was just those things that made us leave…sadly.

We picked up on the project again in 2009. It was a busy year: my last year of studying to be a homeopath, we relocated from London to Herne Bay and then Dolly started school.  See how life gets in the way? It doesn’t take much.

In 2011 we did our first SWB gig at The Spice of Life.  It was a double bill with Rough Ramblers.  I met DJ and jazz expert Seymour Nurse and we got talking. We had just performed Stormy and he encouraged me to record it. Yes, why didn’t I? I loved the sound of Hushabye Mountain and realised that the album should move towards a fusion sound – after all, that’s where my heart lay. Poor Simon, back to another arrangement.

By 2013 I decided that we needed a couple more; I knew how I wanted the overall album to sound.  We recorded Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind, and The Carpenters All I Can Do.  By this time we had been playing with Ross Stanley and Simon Pearson on and off for years so brought them on board as our collaborator Duncan Haynes was no longer around.  He had flown to Lima via New Orleans and is currently studying and residing in Paris.

New songs give you a renewed enthusiasm and I recorded the vocals again…for continuity of course.

While living in Herne Bay and dancing at the fantastic Soul by the Sea night, I met DJ/photographer Carl Hyde and asked if he could take some pictures for the album.  We met on the bandstand one Sunday afternoon and talked about music and album cover ideas.  He came up with the idea of standing on the jetty beside the Old Neptune pub in Whitstable with just enough of the jetty showing so that I could walk inwards, and it would look as though I was walking on water, with the grey sea behind me. If it was early enough it would look as though the sun was rising.

We got there for 5.30am, Easter Sunday 2014.  It was freezing. I applied my make-up and got into my thin white dress.  I tried to fill my mind with images of warm baths and sunshine as I walked across the cold pebbles and got splashed by unexpected waves. My facial muscles were tight trying to keep the shivers away.  But Carl was right; the early morning sun rose up as I was standing at the end of the jetty.  I got home in time to watch the children hunt for their chocolate bunnies in the garden.

Once the album was mastered  I sent off four copies.  One to Mike Chadwick, one to Helen Mayhew, one to Seymour Nurse and one to Paul Pace.  I knew they would be honest with me.  Even at this point I said to myself that if Paul thought the album had nothing new to say and it was little more than an expensive vanity project then I would stop and not release it.

Mike suggested that I should get a remix done of Stormy and suggested Italian bossa king Nicola Conte.  It was extremely difficult to pluck up the courage to ask such a thing but I did and what a lovely person he was!  I also asked producer Mr Mundy to take the song in his own direction and we ended up with an album of jazz – and two house remixes.

The next step was having the album designed and manufactured – the least time consuming of the lot and of course I was chomping-at-the-bit to finish and release.

The album was due to be delivered on the 22nd December.  It didn’t turn up.  They tried again on the 23rd.  Nothing.  I was called Christmas Eve with the promise that it would be delivered that day.  The driver called me around one o’clock saying that he was outside and no one was in.  They had gone to my previous address in London…no wonder!  It arrived Boxing day and from then onwards I emailed, packaged and sent off in the hope of possible distribution, radio play, reviews, be talked about…

Will it be received well? Will we sell any copies? Will it be in the shops? Will anyone review it? Will anyone give me a gig.  Here’s where it all begins.

Dianne Reeves and her Beautiful (voice) Life

Dianne Reeves returned to Ronnie Scott’s with her first-rate band consisting of Peter Martin (piano), Romero Lubambo (guitar), Reginald Veal (bass) and Terreon Gully (drums) for three nights playing a selection from her latest album Beautiful Life and more.

Dianne Reeves board

The band started with Summertime (Gershwin) before Dianne came on and began her set with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, “thunder only happens when it’s raining…” starting the song with her unique style of scatting mainly on the bim, bey, yay, bo syllables.  Romero had both nylon strung acoustic and electric guitar.  In this song he used his electric to create soundscapes perfectly complementing Peter’s piano accompaniment.  This is a band has clear defined roles within each song and then locks back into a solid groove.

The second song Twelfth of Never from her 1997 album That Day sounded more classical, more ‘ooh’ syllables for the improvisations but once into the lyric each word was definitely placed.  For all her power both vocally and on stage Dianne sings with her eyes closed, something she confessed she has done since her twenties creating a combination of both inward reflection and concentration as well as the external control.  When speaking in between the songs she was gentle, soft, happy and said of her position, “This is not a stage but a playground”.

As the nephew of jazz singer Rosemary Clooney, George cast Dianne in the film Goodnight and Good Luck and from this album she sang One for My Baby (2005).  Beautiful Life (her debut for Concord produced by drummer Terri Lynne Carrington) has received great reviews for blurring genres so effortlessly but here was a classic, a male saloon song, made most famous by Frank Sinatra yet Dianne was confident in her portrayal of a strong women in this bluesy rendition, echoed by Romero’s blues inflected solo.  Reginald Veal started the song, intermittently slapping the bass between forceful bass playing. “Spank it!”, said Dianne. It was here with her deep, robust notes that Dianne’s voice was at its most beautiful.  I spent the evening shivering with the hairs going up and down on my arms, a sensation I feel too little these days.  She is a mighty leader and commanding but also part of a strong faction.

Dianne Reeves Pic


Photo by Carl Hyde http://www.hydeandhyde-photography.com

Song four was a self-penned wordless song called Tango dedicated to Celia Cruz, a singer who Dianne listened and danced to in her younger days emphasising how the meaning is conveyed even when the words or not understood or absent. She understood, “her soul”.  To my ears it started like an African spiritual before moving south to Cuba.  She used her left hand as her vocal expression whilst grasping the mic in the right.  Her songs are always passionate and hardy.

She started the second set with a song from her 2008 album When You Know called I’m In Love Again exposing the softer side to her voice.  She went on to talk about the impact of Sarah Vaughan and the two albums that had had a great effect on her; the first album from 1973 with Michel Le Grand and then talked of her 1954 album with Clifford Brown.  She spoke of performing a Bach choral piece in her 20s at a time when listening to these albums and the influence they had on her choice of notes.  She performed Misty as a dedication to Sarah Vaughan, a song written by Errol Garner and it brought into my mind an interview I did with Jean Carne, who got to sing this on the radio with Errol himself.  Jean was also a huge Sarah Vaughan fan (who isn’t?) and sang for Duke Ellington at one of his Sacred Concerts (sadly not on CD or vinyl).  Dianne has a very different voice to Sarah Vaughan but they both have the ability to cross genres from jazz to classical to pop interpretations; they have it all.

A song from Dianne’s own youth was reinterpreted with a great groove, Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes, a composer popular with female singers.  Norma Winstone covered Gabriel’s Here Comes the Flood  from her Grammy nominated album Distances on ECM from 2008.

She ended with the reggae classic by Bob Marley Waiting In Vain and then thanked her wonderful band again for their talents. 

She finished the show with a cover of Mali Music’s Beautiful, another track from her album Beautiful Life.

The following night the show was Livestream-ed via Ronnie Scott’s website.  There were some differences in the set.  She included Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather and a song I forgot to mention before called Cold, (written by Martin, Gully and Reeves) a number that sits well with the modern interpretations. Our Love is Here to Stay was anther nod to the past slipping in iPhone as ‘a passing fancy’ and then finished the night by telling the audience both in the club and via the WWW that she, “looks forward to coming back…to the most fabulous club in the world”.

Dianne Reeves has never been an imitator but a strong individual presence adroit at making any song from a variety of genres her own.  If Kurt is my King then Dianne is definitely my Queen of jazz. Long live Queen Dianne!

Cecile McLorin-Salvant – the return of a rising jazz starlet

Competing against your fellow professionals is not an easy route. Competitions in music and award ceremonies seem to be against what musicians are trying to do, which is improving, honing and trying to find your individual path. Over here we’ve had the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, the BBC awards, Jazzfm had awards last year, Yamaha hold competitions for certain instruments, we used to have the Perrier Awards but theu fizzles out after a couple of years and even Ronnie Scott’s used to have awards.

In America there is the prestigious and well respected Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. Each year a different instrument is chosen and then individuals can apply to compete against each other, a jazz version of TV’s talent shows. The panel is always the leading lights of the instrument of that year. Last night I looked at all the previous winners and a good number of them I recognised especially the singers: Jane Monheit, Gretchen Parlato, Roberta Gambarini etc. Industry looks to the awards to view the next name in jazz so if you win, just like the TV shows, it can be a big leg-up in your career – why else would you put yourself through it? The winner gets a certain amount of money and a record deal. 2010 in a judging panel that saw Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves judging, (all who have themselves performed at Ronnie Scott’s over the last year) was the year that US born, French trained Cecile McLorin Salvant won, aged only 21 (there is no age restriction to the awards). There had been 12 semi-finalist from 237 entrants. The judges were assessing, “tone, intonation, pitch, dynamics, interaction with the rhythm section, and stage presence”. They don’t judge scat and scat she did not.

Scat. A tricky thing for a singer: to do or not to do? Most try and fail and even the best limit it and when you have a bunch of instrumentalists on stage who in the main do solos a whole lot better, why bother? That’s my opinion. I am always happy to hear Kurt scat…but not for too long.

The NJ Times reported at the time: “Salvant chose not to improvise with scat-singing technique on Monday night, preferring to concentrate on subtle phrasing and interpretation of lyrics. Her controlled, dramatic delivery seemingly won over the judges. ‘I didn’t solo tonight because wanted to do, really, what I love to do best, which is sing the lyrics,’ she said. ‘All my favorite singers are the ones who maybe didn’t scat as much, but really — they molded the lyrics and the words in a certain way.’ When Salvant learned she was the winner, she appeared genuinely humbled and overwhelmed on stage. ‘I feel like I’m on a cloud,’ she said hours afterward. ‘It’s really weird — it’s really, really weird’.”

There had been much hype about the return to Ronnie Scott’s of the rising vocal star that is Cecile McLorin-Salvant. She did one show last year and tickets sold out pretty quickly, helped by her appearance on BBC’s Late…with Jools Holland. She was coming back to Ronnie’s with the same band except that Rodney Green had departed the drum chair and had been replaced by Peter Von Nostrand. I had heard the album and listened to the rave reviews so waited with anticipation. The tickets sold out quickly again but Ronnie’s were Live Streaming the show via their website…for FREE!

Ian Shaw came on and introduced her as she launched into When in Rome (I Do As the Romans Do), a Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh song from 1962, recorded by Peggy Lee (without the verse) and also by Barbra Streisand on her People album from 1964.The first thing that struck me was that I could hear every word, every syllable, and every note – pronunciation par excellence! She had great control; every pronouncement had a purpose, although there wasn’t much of that. Her voice changed throughout each song. You might catch a girly Blossom Dearie, a deep powerful Dianne Reeves, the quirks of Abbey Lincoln, the slow precise Shirley Horn. When she spoke she spoke with the giddy wonder of a child who has discovered musicals and all their magic.

THE SONGS: Cecile sang two songs about spring. It’s always great to hear a Fran Landesman (Tommy Wolf) song being sung. Cecile did Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. The second was They Say It’s Spring, a song made famous by Blossom Dearie written by Marty Clarke and Bob Haymes in 1956. A song and performer I had never heard of was Nobody by Bert Williams, his most famous song:

When life seems full of clouds an’ rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain ?


When winter comes with snow an’ sleet,

and me with hunger and cold feet,

who says ” Ah, here’s two bits, go an’ eat!”


I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time!

And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime,

I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time!

When I try hard an’ scheme an’ plan,

to look as good as I can,

who says ” Ah, look at that handsome man!”


When all day long things go amiss,

and I go home to find some bliss,

who hands to me a glowin’ kiss?


I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody,

I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time!

And until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime,

I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time!

Nobody, no time!

 Bert was a black vaudeville performer. Cecile said he used to imitate black people – such was 1905 I guess. Laugh Clown Laugh was a song recorded by Abbey Lincoln from her Abbey is Blue album but the song was actually written for a silent MGM film starring Lon Chaney in 1928 to be played before the film was screened. Her last vibrating note, coupled with Diehl, sounded like a laugh. Nice touch. Arthur Ball recorded the song first.


Based on a theme from the Opera “I Pagliacci”

(Ted Fiorito / Samuel M. Lewis / Joseph Young)

Life is a play and we all play a part

The Lover, the Dreamer, the Clown

The Dreamer and Lover are always in tears

The Clown spreads sunshine around

The life with a smile is the life worthwhile

The Clown till the curtain comes down 

Even though you’re only make believing

Laugh, Clown, laugh!

Even though something inside is grieving

Laugh, Clown, laugh!

Don’t let your heart grow too mellow

Just be a real Punchinello, fellow

You’re supposed to brighten up a place

And laugh, Clown, laugh!

Paint a lot of smiles around your face

And laugh, Clown, don’t frown

Dressed in your best coloured humour

Be a pallietto and laugh, Clown, laugh!

 Copyright Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.


Her enthusiasm for Richard Rodgers’ (and Oscar Hammerstein III) Cinderella and a song sung by the ugly sisters was my personal favourite, a light moment in quite an intense evening. It was called and I quote from the first verse:

“Stepsisters’ Lament”

Why would a boy want a girl like her

a frail and fluffy beauty?

Why can’t a boy ever once prefer

a solid girl like me?

The musical was written for the TV in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the starring role. When she introduced it she said, “I’ve been there more than once, more than twice actually”.

I heard a youthful Judy Garland in her rendition of the Trolley Song from Meet Me in St Louis. She did a Shirley Horn number called He’s Gone…Again and I felt tense in the quiet potency of it. It was incredibly slow and precise. I felt like I had held my breath for the last 10 minutes. The song was written by Curtis Lewis (1918-1969). He was one of the first black composers and lyricists to own a music publishing company on Broadway in the 1950s.

There are many colours in her voice, each one sounding natural and honed. She sang one of her own compositions Woman Child but the rest were interesting choices of songs from someone who has chosen to tread a classic but less trodden path of standards. There was a Billie Holiday number (What A Little Moonlight Can Do) with lots of emphasis on the Ooh Ooh Ooh. Technically she is all there; swings, sings ballads, note choice, etc., all great.

Aaron Diehl, whom I had seen in the Lincoln Center last year, was a perfect choice of pianist for the material and Cecile’s positioning. Aaron seems like a scholarly musician, one who has more than a keen study of the past. I watched him inform and perform the music of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The dynamics of his playing matched Cecile’s. There were times when the playing was so quiet I wondered if the mics on the piano were working. Very subtle.

When I got home I did a bit of research on her. Classically trained: I heard that in her voice, it’s what gives her the precision and the ability to hold the notes so quietly for such a long time. She reminded me a bit of Diahann Carroll and with Aaron Diehl’s admiration of MJQ I felt that they were a perfect partnership. She had studied jazz for a few years before releasing her first album, Cecile. It was only last year that Cecile released her US album Woman Child, a song she wrote herself and performed last night, highlighting the fear of standing on your own two feet. Her choice of Trolley Song and Nobody indicates a theatrical side not present in most singers on the scene and it’s probably one of the main reasons she has ascended so quickly. I enjoyed the characterisation of each song on stage although I felt it masked the real Cecile, and hey, that’s what she might be going for but we are used to vocalists wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Her theatricality reminded me of Barbra Streisand, who although not thought of as a jazz singer can characterise a song better than most. You only have to listen to her version of Cry Me A River, her pulling around of the vocal, building to the huge crescendo at the end to demonstrate how best to use a voice to it’s emotional best. She was also only twenty-one when she recorded that.

 Already so vocally established it will be interesting to watch where Cecile goes next.



Photograph copyright of David Sinclair http://www.jazzphotographs.com