Ann was recently interviewed in depth for the November Jazz Column in Rhythm, Art and Groove by Bill Christy.
Ann Hampton Callaway is a jazz vocalist with some pretty impressive credentials. She composes, arranges, plays piano and does the occasional Broadway performance in addition to singing. She also conducts master classes and clinics.
Some of her songs have generated platinum status in sales, and she has toured extensively throughout the world. Her latest release on Telarc, "Blues in the Night," contains jazz, popular standards of earlier times and blues. After listening to her new CD, I had the good fortune to interview her . . .
RAG: One of the first things I noticed was the dexterity you have in your voice. You have a really true command of the vocal technique.
Callaway: Well you know, I've been singing for quite a while, and I love how many ways the voice can express emotion, so I've really spent a lot of time exploring that and sharing it and using it in ways to paint different pictures. Just like an artist will take different colors and different approaches to the paint, I take that sort of artistic approach to the sound of the voice as an instrument. It's not just singing a bunch of words, there are a lot of colors and textures and I love to use the full palette when it comes up. I also was classically trained. I had a lot of technique and I'm the daughter of a voice teacher, so I'm aware of the power and the choices that you have as a singer and I really try to be sensitive to making tasteful and honest choices when I put over a song.
RAG: You can hear it in the way you approach your singing. You even imitate musical instruments I noticed.
Callaway: I do. It's a lot of fun. I've always enjoyed playing with the voice and not just singing.
RAG: You're a mezzo-soprano aren't you?
Callaway: Yeah, you know I probably started as more of a lyric soprano when I was a teenager, and when I moved to NYC I decided I didn't like singing so high, so I brought all my songs down to a more conversational level where the notes are closer to where the heart is. You know, like the cello, which is the instrument that's close to the human heart. I try to sing in that range. And my singing has evolved by putting my vocal energy in that direction. My voice has changed over the years to be a little smokier and more lush in the lower notes. When I first started out it was not that way, and so it's interesting how the voice evolves.
I wanted to be an opera singer between the ages of 14 and 16, and I'm so glad I didn't make that choice, because of the pressure of the mentality "If your voice isn't perfect at all times you don't have a career- that's it!" It's an unforgiving profession as opposed to jazz and the music that I knew.
RAG: Is that what made you shy away from it? (opera)
Callaway: That wasn't the main reason. My mom gave me season tickets to the Lyric Opera in Chicago. I loved the music and the emotiveness that so many of the great composers had put into the arias, but the audiences seemed unmoved by the music, more like a bunch of rich people showing off their furs and jewels. (We laugh) I thought "I don't want to spend my entire life dedicated to this music alone, not getting to sing all the other music I love, for these people. They don't deserve all that hard work, so I'm going to stick with the other music that I love which has a lot more freedom." And every now and then I put a little soprano riff in there just for fun in my shows. I know there are other singers who were classically trained like Sarah Vaughan, Cleo Laine and Morgana King. You can tell they got to know their voices through that training, and I'm glad that I had that experience, but I'm really grateful I didn't go into the opera world. I would not have been happy.
RAG: So what made you gravitate towards jazz, blues and the popular standards of earlier times then?
Callaway: Well my dad had a tremendous passion. When I was a little girl, he was always playing the great records of Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday. For some reason I just always loved this music. I remember hearing Ella scat and how she had a very girlish, joyful quality about her music. I thought "she sounds like my friend." My dad would sing scat around house. But he wasn't the real singer in the family, my mother was. She has a gorgeous voice and plays piano like nobody's business.
But I'm the only daughter of the two of us who really responded to jazz. For some reason, I've always felt a kinship with the sophistication, the harmonies, the playfulness and the spontaneity of jazz. I love swing, I love the introspection of some of the great jazz artists, and so I think eventually it became apparent that that's where I wanted to focus my attention. George Shearing was very kind to me. He said, "You know, you sing many kinds of music, but I think the real part of who you are is jazz. Why don't you put more attention into that part of your music?"
And so in the last few recordings I have really focused my energy more working with phenomenal musicians. I've learned so much from working with them, and so I think that that has helped me evolve as a singer in terms of who is Ann Hampton Callaway.
RAG: What's interesting, too, is you've done Broadway.
Callaway: Well, I may have done Broadway, but I did my music on Broadway, I sang the blues on Broadway, I sang great swing songs on Broadway, I was bringing my love of jazz to the Broadway stage. I actually got to write a moment in the show with my co-star Everett Bradley. It was a "blind date" that we set to scat. And we scatted meeting, ordering drinks, having a fight, getting over it, flirtation. We put all of that into scat singing and the audience could follow the plot of what was happening, while we were scatting. It was really exciting to know that I was bringing the music that I love to the Broadway stage that really hadn't had some of those kinds of moments ever. And that's what made doing eight shows a week on Broadway so much fun, because there was still a certain amount of freedom to improvise and so it wasn't like I was doing "The King and I," it was very, very different.
RAG: And the writing and arranging that you do too, you're very versatile. And how you approach your love of music comes out.
Callaway: I think I'm a pure creative spirit. I'm always just creative. It's so much fun for me and I can't resist trying to express myself in all the ways that there are. I think a lot of the musicians that I work with and admire are the same way. It's not like you do just one thing, your spirit just wants to discover things in many forms. Writing, singing, arranging, it's all a part of the same essential instinct.
RAG: Where did you learn to compose and arrange?
Callaway: Mostly what I learned, since my composition studies were sketchy, has been from very attentive listening- listening within and listening to the people I admire. For lyric writing I learned so much from all the reading I did. And it helped that my father was a writer. It was always a natural instinct to make up songs, and to try to express myself through lyric writing and music writing.
I remember as a teenager when I was very frustrated that I wasn't a better piano student, I would throw my Beethoven aside and make up fake Beethoven. I'd start composing at the piano, and making these brooding sounds. I just always gravitated towards wanting to create new things. Being a very emotional child in particular, I think that music was one of the most powerful outlets for all the things I was experiencing. I needed it, growing up in a household that had a certain amount of unhappiness, even though there was a lot of joy as well.
So music was the thing that saved me in many instances, and in creating it I could share my point of view. I could express who I was in a way that nothing else allowed me to do.
Music is spiritual; it vibrates on a part of people's awareness on a higher frequency than I think other art forms do. And it's always been a mystical process to sing and to create songs. It feels sort of divinely inspired.
RAG: What do you prefer, composing or arranging?
Callaway: Composing, but I think that arranging is composing as well. You hear something a certain way and you want to put out what you hear.
RAG: Or do you prefer singing?
Callaway: Singing is probably the most natural thing in the world for me. I was born singing. I never thought of it as a special talent because I loved it so much. I think sometimes we take for granted what comes naturally to us. If it's not hard work we don't value it as much. My sister, who is such a phenomenal singer, would say as a child "If all else fails, I can always fall back on singing." As a kid she thought that she would do something else with her life. For me, singing would probably be the number one most natural thing to do, and then composing and writing lyrics, and then arranging.
RAG: Is there a drive in your writing or singing to preserve and renew the "Great American Songbook?" Or is it just a personal preference?
Callaway: I like great songs and I don't really care what genre they come from, but I find that I gravitate most towards the quote unquote Great American Popular Standards. They're such beautifully crafted songs. You know, when you go and walk into a building and everything is so beautifully crafted, the staircase, the woodwork, the angles, the symmetry? You know you're in something that's going to last a long time, that was made with great care and love. That's how I feel about these songs. You know it's a great song when you sing it a thousand times and every time it feels like the first time. That's the quality I look for in a song. It could be something that was written by a rock composer, or any kind of composer.
But for some reason during this part of American history, songwriting went through a Golden Age. Maybe it was because of the war going on and people didn't know how they had to live. I think sometimes the best creation takes place when there's uncertainty in the world. And there was certainly a lot of certainty in the world during the Great Wars, the World Wars. So, I sometimes think about that, how impermanence inspired people to write great songs. I don't think of these songs as nostalgia, but I do think of them in the same way that people think of Puccini who love opera. I think of this as America's classic music. It will last a long time because it's timeless music. It's universal emotion expressed with great care and wit and beauty. These songs seem to get better the more you sing them. You learn from these songs. You enter moments of life, the great moments of your life- the moment you fell in love, the moment you realized you screwed up a great relationship. You sing these songs and get back in touch with those powerful moments that changed your life. And it helps you to be a better person to relive those moments and open your heart up to them. They're not just songs about things; they're songs where you experience those things. And they take you right to the heart of the experience.
And so that's the standard I try to set for myself as a songwriter, which is a very high bar to hold. I hope that as I continue to express myself as a songwriter that I'll become stronger and stronger in that.
RAG: You've done everything related to music including giving master classes and clinics. You're covering full circle here, everything that anybody with any artistic inklings, or anything in their body that makes one an artist, you've got it covered.
Callaway: I think it all comes from my insatiable curiosity. I want to experience my full self by the time I've lived my life. I want to learn as much as possible. I want to take as many chances as possible. So that voracious curiosity has led me to say yes to a number of interesting invitations and instincts. And it has taken me across the thresholds of many different creative adventures. I'm glad that I'm a person who greets uncertainty by doing things with a sense of adventure because that's how I've discovered more about who I am and more about the music and more about people.
The first time I gave a master class I thought, "You know, I've learned a lot in my life as an artist but can I put it into words? Can I help other people with what I've learned?" I had no idea that working with singers would be so inspirational and so powerful and that I would have the instincts to say just a few words to unlock things in people that were waiting to be unlocked. That was a leap of faith that I took. Every leap of faith that I've taken has been so rewarded with so many beautiful lessons and joyful discoveries. I'm glad that I'm this curious and I hope I will be the rest of my life.
RAG: You dropped out of college didn't you?
Callaway: Yes, I served two years at the University of Illinois and broke free.
RAG: Then do you consider all those early cabaret gigs your formal education for what you're doing now?
Callaway: Oh yes. I'm so grateful. In fact I said in a master class, "I hope you guys can find as many weird situations to sing in, just to sing." I got to work six nights a week, and in some cases six hours a night. If that doesn't teach you a lot about performance and music, what does? I had to learn a huge repertoire. I had to learn how to draw people in. There I was, singing in loud piano bars while the blender's going off, the prostitute's hitting on a customer, people are doing lines of cocaine in the back and people are hitting on me. With all that stuff going on, how do you draw people into a song? How do you connect them and bring them together so that they're really into the music? Having those years of performing in situations like that has made moments like walking out on stage at Tanglewood with Dr. John, singing for thousands of people, feel like a piece of cake. Over time, I've acquired the ability to draw people in, the ability to put so much focus on a song that people can't resist listening to it.
Then, when you walk into a situation that's a real listening experience, when people have paid to hear you, then it's just like, "Oh, you mean I just get to sing the song, I don't have to do unbelievable tricks to draw people in?" It was a great training ground for me. When you work in music, you meet so many great musicians, and I've learned so much from all the great people I've worked with and met across the way. I love to travel to different cities and meet the songwriters and singers who are working in those towns and compare notes and hang out and jam. You just get inspiration everywhere you go.
RAG: If you had your choice between all the touring you do and everything else you do, would you quit the road (touring) and just record? Or do you find the road essential to what you're doing as a musician?
Callaway: I think performance is essential to what I'm doing. I would never want to stop doing live performance. I'd love to travel a little less, though. After 9/11, what was challenging about travel has gotten twice as challenging. It's a leap of courage to get on an airplane every time I have to go somewhere and sing. In that sense, it would be nice to reach people through recording more, and I really want to do a lot more recording. I have so many CD ideas that I want to explore. Doing "Blues in the Night" (her latest release) was a great experience, and I could record five more albums this year, and feel like I was just beginning. But I always want to tour in a sense of singing for people. There's nothing that can replace live performance, and the magic between a performer and the audience. There's something so electrifying and so personal about it. It's just an amazing experience that I will never get enough of.
RAG: How do you see the future of jazz as it struggles to regain its popularity?
Callaway: I think there are a lot of new artists coming up who love this music. For instance, a few years ago I met a girl in Boston named Grace Kelly who's fourteen now. She is so in love with this music and is now recording her third CD. It was exciting introducing her to all the great artists at Tanglewood, and watching them welcome her into the family. I think this is great music and as long as there are true talents, and not just talents but also personalities, we're going to be okay.
Wynton Marsalis has the ability to engage people who don't necessarily understand jazz. So many people don't know how to listen to jazz with the appreciation and awareness that a musician brings to the music. But when you have an artist like Wynton who has a talent and charisma and the ability to educate, people can start to develop a relationship with this music regardless of the fact that it's more sophisticated than the music they hear on television and on Top 40 radio. The artists who are able to make an emotional connection with an audience have the best chance of showing how undeniably alluring this music is.
Jazz is America's great and original music. It's not going to die. It will be appreciated at different levels from time to time. But the fact that people could raise the millions of dollars to build Jazz at Lincoln Center, the fact that a show like "Legends of Jazz" is on television; these are just a few of the signs of the genuine enthusiasm out there and real respect for the music. It's just a matter of time before another wave will happen. In the meantime, though the wave isn't at its full crest yet, everybody's working hard to be the best musician they can be. If enough of us work hard enough and make enough of a noise, what choice will there be with this undeniably powerful music, but to fall in love with it?
RAG: What about women in jazz? There are many out there right now, that are probably giving you plenty of competition, or don't you see it that way?
Callaway: I don't like to see it as competition, because that to me is a scarcity mentality. I think that there's enough audience to go around, and actually the greater that my fellow singers and musicians are, the better the music itself stands in the world. When somebody who I might think may be less talented, sells a million records, or hundreds of thousands of records, when I'm not selling that many, what I always say to myself is, "Think about the people who are falling in love with this music." Those sales mean that people are listening to the music that I care about and maybe people will want to explore other people in the same genre. So I don't ever look at the success of other people as a threat.
I sometimes feel frustrated that I don't sell more records. I step on stage in front of thousands of people with symphony orchestras, and every single time I watch many people ask themselves, "Who is this woman? Why should we care?" And by the end of it, they're giving me two or three standing ovations. And I just think to myself, "America is falling in love with my music a thousand or a hundred people at a time." There is a very slow trajectory of recognition for what I do. But it's such a great experience, that however it happens, that's my story. Who knows what the next chapter will be?
To me, the stronger each of us can be and the more people we can reach the better. The world deserves great music. In these scary times, the world needs the power and beauty and soul of great songs more than ever. What I wish for anyone who's an artist out there is to give their best and put their heart into it so the world will be a little better off.
RAG: That's a great way it wrap it up. You just succinctly summarized everything. I appreciate your time.
Callaway: My pleasure. It was great to talk with you.