Jazz interview with jazz singer Andrea Wolper. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Andrea Wolper: – I grew up in California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can’t remember when I didn’t sing or there wasn’t music. My mother had been a semi-professional singer as a young woman; she sang a lot around the house, and we often sang together. And my parents had a record collection, so there was always music.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the jazz vocal? What made you choose the jazz vocal?
AW: – When I was in college studying theatre, I had an Ella Fitzgerald fixation, but I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of jazz, and I didn’t think it was something I could do. As time went on, though, I listened to more and more jazz, and when eventually I found myself on that path, I felt like I’d found my home.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
AW: – I think of a musician’s sound as being both their tonal qualities and what they do with their instrument. It’s always evolving. An important factor for me, I think, is that I sing different kinds of music: straight ahead and big band jazz, original music, experimental music, free improvisation. Everything influences everything else.
But I have a story from when I started singing jazz: I was going to be in San Francisco, where Mark Murphy was living, and I contacted him about taking a lesson. Since he wasn’t going to be in town he suggested I send a tape instead, which he’d listen to and evaluate. I sent my demo cassette, the only recording I had at that point. He sent back a tape telling me everything that was wrong with my sound—and I mean everything! It really hurt, so I put the tape in a drawer and tried to forget about it. Yet I couldn’t ignore what he’d said, and I started trying to figure out what my sound was, and how to contour it. Years later, I came across Mark’s tape in the back of the drawer. I listened to it again, and realized not only that everything he’d said about my singing was absolutely right, but also that I had changed a lot because of it.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
AW: – I vocalize to keep my voice in shape and flexible, and I practice and explore different aspects of music to keep my skills developing. Piano, ukulele, harmony, rhythm studies…all sorts of things. And I teach vocal technique, and jazz and performance workshops, so I have to keep my skills growing. There’s a practice I love to share with jazz students that I learned from Connie Crothers, who got it from Lennie Tristano: singing along with the foremothers and forefathers of jazz, like Louis, Bird, Billie. It’s not about being an imitator; it’s probably the most direct way of internalizing jazz rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary and feeling, and it’s for all instruments, not just singers.
And of course I practice for any work that’s coming up. For example, I just did a recording for William Parker, and one of the melodies was very tricky, so I spent a lot of time learning it, practicing the difficult intervals over and over in the hope of getting to where I’d know it well enough that I wouldn’t have to think about it by the time we went into the studio.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
AW: – Many years ago I had a gig in a very lively, popular restaurant in New York City. Music was just part of the scene: cocktails, food, fashion, jazz. One night a group of people came in late and sat near the band. I couldn’t see them well from where I was, but then someone stepped up to the bandstand and started soloing on harmonica. Suddenly, the whole place got quiet. It was Stevie Wonder! If nothing else, I can say that Stevie Wonder once sat in on my gig!
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
AW: – I think it’d be better if some of the younger folks gave me business advice because I think they’re better at it than I am!
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
AW: – Jazz is music, music is art. But everybody needs money to live, so most of us also have to navigate the business aspects of being a musician. Things are not as they once were, for better or worse. It’s harder to make money, and we have to take most things into our own hands, which leaves less time for music itself.
JBN.S: – Which collaborations have been the most important experiences for you?
AW: – I’ve worked with so many musicians, and every one of them has been important. I really mean that. I’ve learned from the good experiences and the not-so-good ones. There are many people who deserve to be mentioned, but I’ll mention three. The guitarist Michael Howell, who I started working with pretty soon after I started singing jazz. He’s an under-recognized, old school heroes. I did so many gigs with him and learned so much, from things he told me and just from playing with him. The pianist Connie Crothers, who started as my teacher, then became my friend, and then she and the bassist Ken Filiano and I formed a free improvisation trio called TranceFormation. I learned so much about improvisation, jazz harmony, freedom, life from Connie. And Ken Filiano. This summer we’ll have been working together twenty years. His approach to music, the depth of his musical knowledge, and his artistry have all had a profound impact on my music. He’s my husband, too!
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
AW: – Jazz hasn’t been limited to standards for a long time. It’s pretty wide open, as it should be, because music preserved in amber is the antithesis of jazz. I love singing standards, and as a songwriter, I’m very grateful that I came up on them because they’re so beautifully, so expertly structured. But I do a lot of other music, too, including my own.
Ironically, I’m seeing a lot of young musicians doing a very nostalgic, retro kind of jazz, songs that aren’t half a century old—more like 70 or 80 years old! I don’t get it. Nostalgia and kitsch in music don’t appeal me at all, but this has been having some popularity for a while. For this and other reasons, I’m not convinced that standards, the music that we might think of as a foundation of jazz, are a problem.
But something that might make jazz feel outdated and irrelevant is that a culture of machismo lingers, and half the population is underrepresented. I don’t think subsequent generations are going to stand for exclusionary art forms. Why should they? Maybe if more girls were encouraged to play in their school jazz bands, if more women were hired to teach at the college level, if presenters and jazz orchestras hired more women, we’d find there’s a real future for jazz.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
AW: – Ooh, that’s what I call a question! This is a lifelong quest, isn’t it? To understand not only why we are, but also what we are. What is it to be human? I think music, and perhaps especially improvising, gives us a window into something elemental, organic, primal. It’s the job of musicians, dancers, poets, painters to express freely, deeply the questions and feelings that we are discouraged from expressing in everyday life.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
AW: – In January I tend to get pretty introspective because of the new year and my birthday, and it’s not always an easy time. Actually, 2017 was great in a lot of ways: I had some wonderful tours, I got some gigs that had been goals, and a few festivals. I do feel very fortunate to be able to do music, but sometimes I get discouraged about what I’m doing.
And of course the political situation in the United States is extremely distressing. Which is not to say that everything was great prior to the November 2016 election. But what’s happening now has increased the underlying level of anxiety for a lot of people. I’ve always been interested in politics and human rights issues, and I still believe in the power of love and the potential of people to be good and kind. But, man, it feels really hard right now! Some of the music and poetry I write addresses issues directly, so at least I have an outlet, though it doesn’t change what’s going on.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
AW: – In the musical world, working musicians would be able to make a decent income, and New York would be a place where artists could still afford to live. In my personal musical world I’d have a good manager and more gigs! I love, love, love performing; there’s nothing like live music, it’s thrilling, but self-management can be depleting, and I could really use help. Okay, that’s three things I’d change!
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
AW: – It might not sound like a frontier, but I have a lot of music to record, so getting back into the studio, and finding the trust that it will all hang together as a personal statement, is a priority.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, folk music?
AW: – There’s a lot of blending of genres these days. It’s wide open.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
AW: – I use Sennheiser microphones.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
AW: – May I have two trips in the time machine? Please?
We have a saying, “If only I’d known then what I know now,” and so I’d like to go back to an earlier time in my life and make just a few small adjustments based on things I’ve learned along the way. Not a lot, just a few things. And I want to go into the future about 30 years to find out how the current political situation in the United States plays out, and how it will be talked about.
JBN.S: – So far, I ask, please your question to me …
AW: – What is your story/history with jazz?
JBN.S: – From 2003, I first heard real jazz: Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Jerry Bergonzi, Kenny Garrett, and other greats. But before that, when I was a child, I used to listen to George Benson, Al Jerreau, etc. Professionally I engaged in jazz since 2006, as a critic.