May 23, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

Interview with Roberta Donnay: Both the demons and the angels inside of us … Video

Jazz interview with a bad musician, as if singer Roberta Donnay. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Roberta Donnay: – I grew up in and around Washington, DC. I was so fortunate my folks had records like “Rhapsody In Blue” by George Gershwin, and Frank Sinatra. I listened to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on the radio. I started singing with the radio and had about 200 songs memorized by a very young age.

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?

RD: – Jazz was already there, and it was my primary interest as a young child. It wasn’t introduced to me like by someone on the outside, like a teacher. It was on the radio and it was in my home, and I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

I was a songwriter primarily, and this was my focus in my 20s and 30s. I sang to make money, I was shocked that people wanted to pay me for singing. I personally didn’t want to listen to my own voice. And since I didn’t sound anything (tone-wise) to my heroes in jazz (Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella etc), I didn’t really focus so much on singing as I did on making a living as a songwriter.

After I came to San Francisco, I decided to study singing, and had several great teachers, including Jane Sharp, Faith Winthrop, and Maye Cavallaro.  I never thought much of myself as a singer until Orrin Keepnews literally kicked me in the pants, and declared, “Godammit, you’re a jazz singer!” which definitely woke me up and made me take it seriously.  Also, singing with Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks for over 10 years helped me to really develop my ear because his arrangements were so intricate and musically challenging.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

RD: – It took me about 10 years to develop any kind of “sound” and another 14 years to develop a style of my own, meaning that what I heard in my head I could actually sing in my own voice! This is something I still work on constantly.  It’s mostly an internal process. I’d say that practicing occurs even when asleep. Many a morning I’ll wake up with a song I’d just learned and it’s spinning around and around in my head, and then I find when I open my mouth, I can actually sing the darn thing.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

RD: – I have practiced mostly the art of repeating what I listen to over and over; there’s no fancy name for this that I know of. My rhythm was influenced by listening to bass players, horn players, and of course drummers and percussionists. I studied Latin jazz rhythms in my early 20’s when I went off on a 2 year binge of just studying and singing Brazilian jazz. I started to play hand percussion so I could jam with the bands I was playing with.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

RD: – I’ve sung almost every genre of music imaginable, but I’ve always had an affinity for blues-based and swing music, which is why I love early jazz from the 1920s and 30s so much.


JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

RD: – I’ve been listening to and studying early jazz so I’m sorry to say I have little or no idea of any current records out there.  But I do listen to and really enjoy Gregory Porter, Cecil McLorin, and Diana Krall.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

RD: – For me, my own intellect has done nothing much but gotten in my own way, and told me to stop, to stay away, go back and hide. The word “soul” however, and words like spirit, deepening, searching, stretching, generosity, challenge, suffering and love are all part of the discovery of soul within oneself which can lead to becoming a great artist … hopefully.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

RD: – I have over 20 years of stories which would make any wannabe singer just cringe and run the other way. And I have stories of intense love, just filled with the ecstasy of being a listener on stage and in front of great musicians.

It’s really tough to pick just one, but how about this one: While working with Orrin Keepnews on the “What’s Your Story” CD, I chose to record two songs by Bob Dorough, one of my favorite songwriters of all time: “Devil May Care” and “Small Day Tomorrow”. After the record released, Orrin told me Bob said he loved my version of “Small Day” – that it was his favorite version and he played it in his car every day. I could hardly believe this, but was of course, thrilled.  Several years later I was touring with Dan Hicks and a producer came backstage to ask me if I’d like to record some songs with Bob. Of course I said yes, not realizing it was actually Bob who had specifically requested me for a project of duets he was recording.

So later that year I flew to the east coast and hung out at Bob’s house for a couple days getting ready for our recording. We spent just one day in the studio and recorded five songs live with him on piano and then overdubbed some vocals. The plan was to add drums and a bass later. Bob was so sweet and encouraging, and made me feel totally comfortable throughout the entire process.  That session is one of my most cherished musical memories.

Unfortunately, the producer suddenly disappeared a few months later, and the recording is still sitting there somewhere in NY unpublished, which is really too bad. Bob had written new songs that he wanted to release, so I believe this was a very important recording for him.

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?

RD: – Number one, first and foremost, for any artist or musician, is to find out who they are and what motivates them to play and to be up there on a stage. Is it ego? Is it love? Is it the jumping off of cliffs? You need to know why you need to do what you do.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

RD: – That’s a very good question. I’ll let you know when I find out 🙂

I’m not sure jazz is a business or much of a business these days.  I think of running my band as a business, but more importantly, I think of it as “the show”, it’s always about the show.  Making records is just another way of getting to do the show.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

RD: – Definitely, my time with Orrin Keepnews, studying records with him, and listening to his stories about jazz history and working with legendary musicians, had a deep and lasting effect on me as an artist. Also, my time on the road (over 10 years) singing with Dan Hicks influenced me greatly in so many ways, as an artist, a performer, and as someone who wants to entertain audiences.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

RD: – Just listen to the music. It just takes a listening session in school or at home or with friends to discover this music. I don’t think we need to drag any young people into it; I think most young people come to this music organically anyway, just like I did.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

RD: – Understanding my own spirit is what drives me to become a better artist and human being. It’s how we express love and our own appreciation for life that creates the beautiful blank canvas on which we can paint any picture we choose. I’m so fortunate I have found others to join me on this journey. I think it’s very lonely to create by oneself, although I spent many years as a solitary songwriter, too. I think studying some form of spirituality and digging deep inside to see both the demons and the angels inside of us helps us create this understanding. Unless one is willing to go there, one cannot find the truth of one’s own being, so to speak. Being as close as you can to your “center” or “source energy” or “higher life condition” or “god”, there’s many words for this. And if you’re doing the work, you understand what I mean.  But the one thing I have learned from this path is, you can never go back. Once you have the information, on the spiritual path of life, one can never turn around and become unconscious. This is the love that we all share for humanity and life that exists on planet earth and beyond. There is no separation between these things and between humans.  If you’re seeing separation then I’d say you don’t understand it yet.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

RD: – I have only joyful expectations of the future. Whatever is in my imagination, mostly travelling to other places and singing, and making new records and new collaborations and continuing to grow as an artist; these are my goals.

My fears and anxieties are just the normal ones that all humans have. I don’t comprehend the idea of hate or division, and I don’t understand racism in any form.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

RD: – Oh so many things I would change!  First, I’d change the national anthem to a very happy song like maybe “What A Wonderful World” or “Happy” instead of themes which focus on bombing others and winning thru’ war.

I’d fully fund and change all radio formats in our country to those which equally play other kinds of music.  So we’d no longer just have a rock ‘n roll station which plays the latest top 10 hits. We’d have more of a European radio where they play a classical piece, a jazz piece, a blues, more jazz, and then contemporary whatever; it’s all art.  I think this would open the ears and hearts of the people and give us more tolerance as a people.

I’d fully fund all PBS stations to include documentaries on the great history of jazz, (more than we already have), and then fund every iconic jazz musician to tell their story in whatever form they choose.

Then I’d fully fund all public schools to include real music education and real history lessons, to educate people about slavery and the influence of those who have been kept down the most who must rise up and declare their own respect in this world.

I’d fully fund every student who wanted to study art and music to their heart’s content. Because I believe that music and art lead to happiness and peace.  This would surely move us towards a nation of peace rather than one of hate and violence.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

RD: – More jazz, more history, more digging.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

RD: – Yes.  It’s all folk music. Louis Armstrong said “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

RD: – I love listening to Ella. Just listening to her records and the musicianship and the freedom and the knowledge that’s in there; it’s just awe-inspiring.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

RD: – As tough a life as it was, I think I’d wanna travel back in time to New Orleans to the very birth of jazz with Louis Armstrong. I’d just wanna be a buddy with another instrument and go thru’ the day with my ears open and watch and listen and learn.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …

RD: – What motivates you to write this column?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers, share opinions about our questions.

RD: – Thank you so much for all you do, RD.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Фото Roberta Donnay.

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