Houston singer and bandleader Jacqui Sutton premieres her new project "Un-Cross Talk: Jazz and Blues Slip n' Slide Together Houston Style" at MATCH, March 16 and 17. "Un-Cross Talk" is described as "a semi-theatrical, multi-media immersive musical experience that seeks to make urban and rural America talk 'with' one another, instead of 'across' from each other; hence the title 'Un-Cross Talk.'" Sutton is one of the 37 musicians I interview in my book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women in Jazz. Here is the introduction to and an excerpt from that conversation.
|Jacqui Sutton (Photo by Richard Tomcala)|
When it comes to realizing one’s musical potential, a musician must cut his or her own path. The journey is never straightforward and certainly doesn’t unfold within the prescribed timeline of a four-year degree program. Interestingly, across all artistic disciplines, coming into one’s own is commonly described as “finding your own voice.”
The beginning of singer Jacqui Sutton’s musical journey can be traced back to the 1960s when she, along with her siblings and mother (“newly single, and pregnant with her sixth child”), relocated from Orlando, Florida, to Rochester, New York. At the end of the final decade of what author Isabel Wilkerson calls “America’s great migration,”65 over six million black citizens had relocated from the South to northern and western states. The 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education ruled “school districts must immediately terminate dual school systems based on race and operate only unitary school systems.”
Integration also found its way into popular music, in bands like Sly and the Family Stone, or the influence of the Beatles’ track “Eleanor Rigby” on Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” from his conceptual masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life. And like the Fab Four from Liverpool, Sutton explains that during this time, “I found myself drawn to experiences that were the opposite of my own.”67 You can hear what she’s talking about on her first album, Billie and Dolly, a tribute to two of her favorite singers and biggest influences, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. Her second album, Notes From the Frontier: A Musical Journey (That word again!), expands her repertoire to include Appalachian songs, classical composition, and jazz standards in inventive musical settings Sutton
describes as “a stylistic mash-up of jazz, bluegrass, and orchestral/chamber music.” Sutton’s singing is similarly multifaceted and sits comfortably in an ensemble that forgoes traditional jazz instrumentation to include banjo, cello, and hand percussion.
In addition to being just fun to listen to, Sutton’s conceptual approach to music making is part of a continuum of jazz as once described by the great Jelly Roll Morton as a music that uses ideas drawn from operas, symphonies, and overtures. Add Appalachian ballads, country music, and rural blues to that list and you get an idea of what Sutton and her band, the Frontier Jazz Orchestra, are able to pull off on record and in live performance. Finding one’s voice can mean finding the threads that tie together seemingly disparate influences in a way that transcends modern-day pastiche and resonates with a similarly diverse cross-section of listeners.
Here’s a quote from you I got from your biography. I’m taking it out of context. “In many ways, I feel grateful that I’ve discovered my voice now rather than when I was in my 20s. All those years languishing in oblivion forced me to respond to music in a more mature way.” Can you talk to me a little more about discovering your voice now as opposed to when you were in your 20s or right out of high school?
While I was going through it, I was incredibly frustrated. I didn’t think I would ever be a singer or put something together like the Frontier Jazz Orchestra. With the exception of studying flute as a kid—I had a very short career on the flute in elementary school—I didn’t study music. I didn’t study in high school, I didn’t study in college. I didn’t really start to study until I was like 23 or 24.
I have a low speaking voice. I auditioned for this vocal jazz ensemble called Jazz Mouth and I got in; I don’t know how! I still to this day don’t know how Molly Holm cast me in that jazz ensemble. But she said, “Okay, now you gotta study!” So I did, but I kept getting miscast as an alto, because of my speaking voice and because I didn’t know any better. I was always trying to sing as an alto, and doing that gave me a lot of bad habits. So after about 10 years of studying, I moved to New York in my mid-30s and found a voice teacher who said, “You are a soprano. Now we don’t know what kind of soprano. Yet. But you’re a soprano.” [laughs] So I had to retrain.
While I was singing, I was also an actor. I did classical theater, I did Shakespeare, and I did a lot of musical theater and experimental theater. Once I discovered acting, I said, “You know, acting is so much more rewarding and I’m frustrated with singing.” So I dropped singing and did acting for many years. It wasn’t until I moved to New York in the mid to late 90s that I took up voice again. And that was when I discovered I was a soprano.
After I moved here to Houston, I met my voice teacher, Cynthia Clayton. Cynthia sings with the Houston Grand Opera and she teaches as well. She’s a professor of vocal performance at the University of Houston. She got my voice to open up more. It wasn’t until I started studying with Cynthia that I enjoyed singing. Before then it was all terror. Something drove me to do it, but it was always terrifying, so I never had any confidence.
While studying with Cynthia, I released my first CD, Billie and Dolly.
So finding a teacher who understood your voice and how you should sing, did that coincide with you beginning to explore repertoire that includes both Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton? And did singing that material help you with the process of finding your voice?
That’s a good question. I think it was all kind of happening at the same time. I had been listening to jazz and bluegrass since I was in my early 20s. Both of the sounds had always been in my head. I think a lot of frustration I felt was because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into either. Each style seemed to have a specific vocal approach that I was not sure how to handle. So I didn’t really pursue it.
I will tell you that the songs I selected for Billie and Dolly were all songs I always liked personally. From Dolly Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” to “A Sleepin’ Bee.” “A Sleepin’ Bee” is a song that my teacher in New York tortured me with! I loved it so much but I didn’t have the chops to sing it. And when I finally got the chops to sing it, I said, “I want to do this song!” And it actually fit! It fit as a Frontier Jazz song. So my repertoire includes songs that I’ve been singing forever but had just been technically trying to master. Others are songs that I just emotionally connected with.
Is there a bridge, some commonalities between jazz and bluegrass that you use in your singing?
Absolutely. It is so integral to who I am. I mean, Frontier Jazz is saying “you all think you’re so different, but you have a voice together.”
First of all, they’re both uniquely American art forms. There is precedent for the two forms making out! [laughs] Making out musically! They’ve been on parallel tracks in my head for so long that I did not ever want to separate them. But I can tell you that people get very confused when I say I’m blending jazz and bluegrass together. One reviewer said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s curious on paper, but it makes total sense once you hear it.” And I think that’s what’s been part of the trajectory is getting people to understand that these two musical forms have a lot in common.
Jacqui Sutton and the Frontier Jazz Orchestra present "Un-Cross Talk" March 16-17 at MATCH, 3400 Main Street. 713-521-4533. matchouston.org