Jazz interview with jazz singer and songwriter Julie Christensen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Julie Christensen: – I grew up in a fairly small town in Iowa. My mother played the organ at church, and my dad would let us stay up late to listen to jazz records. Two of my brothers played music—one guitar and one drums, and they later had a band together for 9 years. We all sang. I took classical voice lessons from a couple local ladies, and played the lead in the high school musical. I don’t remember NOT singing.
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?
JC: – I listened to Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, and those Ray Charles “country” records my folks had, and really loved those male singers. I liked jitterbug dancing, too, to Glenn Miller. I saw that “Lady Sings The Blues” movie with Diana Ross, and told my friend Jolene, “I don’t care how hard it is, that’s what I want to do.” Later, when I’d already left college and done country-rock and western swing music, and then pop music with a traveling Vegas-style show band, I moved to Austin, Texas. The pianist from Asleep At The Wheel, who was my housemate for awhile, helped me put together a jazz book of charts. He showed me how to do the math to transpose songs to my key, and to make chord charts for the rhythm section. I got in a band with Alex Coke, who now lives in Holland; he had great patience with me while I learned to scat sing over the changes to more challenging bebop tunes. I had a great vocal teacher in Austin who was- and is – the eclectic local radio DJ John Aielli.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JC: – In my early days, after doing country and rock, I copied Ella Fitzgerald and Bonnie Raitt and especially the early Aretha Franklin on Columbia (which was jazzier and bluesier—before Jerry Wexler developed the gospel and soul side of her in those Muscle Shoals sessions for Atlantic.) I remember that one very late night, to make a longer story short, a gentleman heard me sing “How High The Moon” pretty much exactly like Ella. He complimented me, but then said, “You know that Linda Ronstadt girl, when you drop the needle on the record, in about 2 bars you know it’s her. That’s what it should be like when people hear you.” He told a story about having to fill in for Charlie Christian in a film where they put black makeup on his hands… I said, “wait, are you Barney Kessel?” He was. He had played down the street at The Paramount earlier. So then I started gathering up my own sound, sort of jazz with a folky or southern blues accent. I started finding songs that would support that. And later began writing more.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JC: – I learned “Twisted,” like a lot of singers, then stretched out to Eddie Jefferson’s “Billie’s Bounce,” another blues vocalese. Later, I learned Joni Mitchell’s “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” ditto. I realized that I might want to seek out a solo over which I could write a vocalese of my own, so I noticed that in Oliver Nelson’s minor blues “Stolen Moments,” his own solo had a lot of patterns in it that could be rhymed. So I wrote one to that, and used the Mark Murphy lyric for the verses. I did that for years and years live before I recorded it for my 2006 Something Familiar album.
I think things like that are good for your chops. I still play around with Manhattan Transfer’s “Birdland,” but I haven’t nailed it. A band I was in used to do a medley of those Basie vocaleses by Lambert Hendricks and Ross: “Little Pony,” “Avenue C,” those songs…
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JC: – I play guitar now, more than piano, and write on it. It’s always tuned to DADGAD, from the bottom up. You get a lot of nice 4ths, 6ths, 9ths. When you play with someone who’s in standard tuning (on guitar,) it’s downright “orchestral!” I do like the pentatonic of blues, but I try to think outside of that, even when I’m in the blues, so as not to get stale.
JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album: <A Sad Clown>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. Next year your fans like we can wait for a new album?
JC: – I love that it is acoustic and spare, and keeps it simple. We recorded and mixed it quickly, though some of the songs were around for a year or more. There is an edginess to it, but a playfulness, too. “A Sad Clown” comes out March 16. It’s at the factory now!
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you this 2017 year?
JC: – I’m afraid I haven’t listened to much jazz this year, but my friend Kate McGarry has a new record coming out soon, and I’ve heard a bit of it and like it a lot; it’s a trio album with her husband Keith Ganz on guitar and Gary Versace on keyboards. I always dig anything Bill Frisell, John Scofield, or Brad Mehldau put out, so if they’ve put anything out this year, I’m sure it was good. I did see Bill live in 2017…
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JC: – I just will always remember warming up in the dressing room a floor below Sonny Rollins on the Michelob Presents “Sunday Night” TV show we shared with him when I was singing with Leonard Cohen. Sonny would be riffing, and I would kind of answer, and we would go back and forth. He never knew it was me, and nothing was ever said. But earlier that day, he’d asked me if I thought that Leonard liked what he was doing on “Who By Fire.” The great ones are always humble.
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?
JC: – Here’s a line from my song, “A Sad Clown:” “Do what you love, ‘cause you only get paid in lessons.” Music’s going to be hard; but then everything is. Remember that you’ll need to expend some of your creativity every day promoting yourself. That’s just a fact of life now. Nobody will do it for you. Compartmentalize, then get back to the joy of making music with others who take joy in it.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
JC: – Maybe in the context of academia, and theaters, for licensing for film and composition, and as a basis for knowing how to handle all other musics well, and to teach. But I’ve never felt that I could hang out in jazz exclusively and make my living. God bless those who have been able to make that commitment, and make it work.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
JC: – In jazz, my Austin collaborations led me to the Leonard Cohen gig. And for that I am forever grateful. Plus, musically, all the other Austin jazz collaborations formed me into a capable singer. I worked my ass off during those formative years.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JC: – Check out folks like Mehldau, McGarry, The Bad Plus, etc., who are taking more modern tunes and giving them a jazz spin. “Standards” were just pop tunes of the day done in the jazz milieu.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JC: – Thirty years ago, I made the decision to stop using drugs and alcohol and get into recovery. Something higher, something mysterious that I can’t explain, has helped me do that, a day at a time. Music is part of that, and it’s mixed up in the spiritual realm with love and nature, and the oneness of all beings. I’m lucky to be alive. Music helps me to be of service to my fellow humans, I hope.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JC: – Better not get me started on that one. I marched with a lot of women last Saturday. I need to stay in the moment, though!
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JC: – That listeners would pay for music again, and honor the creators, rather than stream it. Even for a small amount. I mean, you PAY for the pizza before you eat it.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JC: – My punk rock band Divine Horsemen will be reuniting for a tour this fall!
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JC: – Yes. It’s all music. And the best jazz is not COLD and clinical. It’s got spirit, like Coltrane’s.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JC: – My songwriter friends here in East Nashville.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
JC: – My Larrivee parlor guitar, a stratocaster (with a blocked tremolo) that my brother made me, a 5E3 Dumble-mod amp he also made me, and a $25 Epiphone Les Paul Jr. I found at a garage sale. I have an Acrosonic (Baldwin) spinet piano in my office that I write on, too, and I’m practicing some “Boogie Woogie Hanon” and looking at some Dr. John transcriptions that my friend Jeff Turmes from Mavis Staples’ band turned me on to.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JC: – I’d really like to have been around Memphis during the early sixties before MLK was shot, when there was a melting-pot of music, when black and white musicians played together… when Al Green and Ann Peebles were first coming up, when the Jordanaires were on lots of sessions, when Sun Records was hopping.
JBN.S: – So far, I ask, please your question to me …
JC: – How did you get so interested in jazz, and how did you find out about me?
JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers. Let’s try of course, but for free, please, without references.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan