Barbara Sfraga at IAJE
BS: It’s all there. It really is. “Stardust” is actually the very first song I have any recollection of. My mother used to play it on piano. I was at her knee while she way playing. I mean I was like two, or three. That piece really stuck with me.
AAJ: Is that how you got started?
BS: Yes. My mom. My mom was a pianist. We had a big, old upright. I started on that when I was four. Then they got me some lessons, but the teacher sent me home because I wasn’t learning to read, I was just playing by ear mostly, unfortunately. So those lessons ended and I continued to do things on my own. Picking out melodies and some chords, just teaching myself. Then they gave me formal lessons when they bought an organ when I was about ten or so. Then, when a church organist’s job came up, my mom said, ‘Why don’t you go out for that’ I think I was in eighth grade. So I did, and I did that until I graduated high school. Simultaneously, I got into the rock band thing. I ventured a little into rock singing, but I wasn’t really singing very much back then. Somehow I was singing classical back then, and I went to school for singing. I knew I wanted to be either an art major or a music major.
AAJ: So you were trying to make a lot of money?
BS: Yes! Exactly. And Jazz no less.
AAJ: It sounds like parental support played a large role.
BS: Yes, they were very supportive. To this day they’re very supportive. Worried, but supportive.
AAJ: Aren’t they always worried? They always find something.
BS: True. But they’ve always been there. My very earliest memories are of my mom teaching me the great standards. The American song book. “Stardust” was always such a beautiful song to me. And she always played the verse, so I learned it. I’ve had that verse in my head since I was three. So I sang it all through my life, but I never sang it live until a few years ago. I just said, ‘I should do this.’ I never imagined it would turn into a kind of reggae-ish thing, though.
AAJ: It really shows how even a tune that’s been played so many times can still be reworked, how you can find new facets in the music just by changing your perspective, adjusting your approach.
We should talk a little about that. I mean, here we are at IAJE, we should talk a little about jazz education.
BS: Yes, we certainly should.
AAJ: You’re pushing jazz in a different direction, bringing in new instrumentation, approaching pop songs, experimenting with a more minimalist style. Where do you think jazz singing is going?
BS: I think that is where it’s going. People like Cassandra [Wilson], Patricia Barber, Ian Shaw, Mark Murphy. This is the kind of thing that Dizzy and Louis Armstrong were talking about way back when. They were doing this. In their time they were pushing the music forward. But there are those folks who want to keep the music where it was, the so called ‘jazz police’.
AAJ: I was just listening to a panel on the jazz police. It seems the more we talk about the jazz police, and where jazz is going, or ask if jazz is dead, and or how we can preserve it, we’re already taking the wrong approach. We’re always looking back instead of focusing on what’s next.
BS: That’s right. My feeling is—-like I told you. Church organist to rock keyboardist, then school for classical voice—-I found jazz late, in the eighties. That was when I was in my twenties. That’s when I really started paying attention. I loved it. I was singing nothing but jazz—straight ahead jazz—-for a long time.
AAJ: What about jazz...
BS: Got me? One of the first people I ever heard was Mark Murphy and I stopped and thought, ‘What is that?’ Mark Murphy, Judy Roberts. I heard unconventional jazz singers from the beginning. Along with Anita O’Day and Ella and Billy, who I loved. There’s just a feeling you get from hearing jazz singers who really wear their hearts on their sleeves. Good jazz singing—like Mark’s—-Mark can move me to tears. Not many can do that today. I can tell you the ones that do. Rene Marie, her delivery is such that you can be really moved. That kind of singing really gets me.
AAJ: More of a personal honesty...
BS: A total honesty. And believability.
AAJ: I’m wondering what it is that holds jazz back from the mass market.