Kate McGarry & the Diplomacy of Jazz

May 30, 2012

By Kevin M. Mitchell

Can jazz succeed where diplomacy fails? Kate McGarry believes so. After all, she’s seen it with her own eyes and felt it with her own heart.

“It’s the third time I’ve been on the Rhythm Road tour,” says the jazz vocalist of a special collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. State Department. In 2009, McGarry went to Eastern Europe, and the nations of Romania and Albania, and in 2010 she went as part of another group to Brazil and Chile. “The State Department sees it not only as a cultural exchange, but as a diplomatic tool. They often send American jazz groups to places where negotiations have so far failed.”

When we spoke with her, Kate McGarry, was still winded from a trip to Asia, and busy taking care of the final details of her new album, Girl Talk, released in April on Palmetto Records. Her last, If Less Is More … Nothing Is Everything received a 2008 Grammy nomination. Effortlessly mixing traditional jazz with completely original takes on songs from Bob Dylan and the Cars, working with husband, jazz guitarist Keith Ganz, she continues to build a career without gimmicks, just a love and devotion to the jazz tradition.

And she shares that tradition in workshops and clinics here in the states and in corners of the world with little or no exposure to the music. Most recently she was part of a quartet that included Ganz and keyboardist Gary Versace and drummer Jordon Perlson.

McGarry herself grew up in Hyannis, Mass. with nine siblings in a musical household. At the age of seven she stumbled on a discarded piano sitting by a curb and got some of her brothers to wheel it into the house. She started taking lessons, influenced at first by the folk and Celtic music she heard in the home. But at an early age she discovered Keith Jarret and Bill Evans and her path was charted.

She went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earned a degree in African-American music and jazz. She lived and performed in L.A. before moving to New York in the late 1990s. Her 2007 album The Target was named one of the best albums of that year by DownBeat. She’s performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Birdland, and festivals including the Berlin Jazz Fest, San Sebastian Jazz Fest, and Jazz Baltica. The singer has recorded and toured with jazz greats, including Hank Jones, Fred Hersch, Kurt Elling, and Maria Schneider, and has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, Piano Jazz with Marion McPartland and JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater.

But it was her experience in China that gave her an opportunity to be part of special cross-cultural exchange. There were public concerts, master classes, lecture-demonstrations, workshops, jam sessions and collaborations with local musicians. A bit shy when on any topic other than jazz, easy to laugh, the singer made some time for us recently to talk about her trip, teaching, and the state of jazz vocals today.

“A Powerful Tool”

JAZZed: Tell us about your recent trip to Asia.

KM: The project is called “Rhythm Road” and it’s collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. State Department Bureau of Cultural Affairs. This has been around since 2005, but has roots in the Jazz Ambassadors program, which goes back decades. Dizzy [Gillespie] and [Dave] Brubeck were part of it in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s about sharing jazz with other cultures, bringing American music to places that might not be getting it.

JAZZed: How does it work?

KM: They take 10 bands a year around the world, and not places like Paris. It’s Afghanistan, Iran – the State Department sees it not only as a cultural exchange, but as a diplomatic tool. They often send American jazz groups to places where negotiations have so far failed.

JAZZed: Does it work?

KM: I’ll tell you it’s a really powerful tool. This past trip we were in China for three weeks and Mongolia for one week. In China, we went from the southern part to the very top where it was freezing cold! [laughs] They make ice cities up there!

JAZZed: Where did you perform?

KM: Typically in 1,000 to 1,200 seat auditoriums, mostly at universities. They were completely packed. It was a lot of young people, and they were really interested in American jazz. They were so receptive … after every concert there were Q&A sessions and they would say, “I hear the freedom in that sound – I love that – I want that…”

JAZZed: What were the Chinese Government’s restrictions on you?

KM: I did think, “Oh it’s going to be hard to performing in a communist state,” but it was fine and we were able to do everything we wanted to do.

They did ask for a set list before we went, and I gave them a big one, like 40 songs! [laughs] That way we could have a lot of flexibility. And they let me include a lot, including Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’.”

JAZZed: Favorite moment?

KM: Oh gosh … we would do a new special arrangement that appears on the new album, “We Kiss in the Shadows” from Rogers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. It was inspired by the heartache I felt when that gay teen [18-year-old Tyler Clementi] jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being bullied, committing suicide. It was so sad and I felt it was such a terrible loss. Without changing the lyrics, Keith [Ganz] and I re-worked the song to be in support of marriage equality and LGBT rights.

They let us do it and it was remarkable. China has a fledging, newly formed LBGT community and they would clap loudly at the song, and we would talk about it after.

JAZZed: No repercussions?

KM: No! In fact, we were told by our embassy host that they were sitting next to the President of the University, an older man, and when the clapping was so loud and so supportive, he said, “I really have to get with the times [on this issue] – this is a new era.” So we felt it was really relevant, and important to be sharing it, supporting freedom and acceptance. It was good to be supporting these new communities who are just starting to have the courage to show themselves in China.

JAZZed: And what were the clinics there like?

KM: We did a lot to help them understand more about the foundations of jazz, and getting them up playing. They were excited to do that to do that.

JAZZed: How much experience with jazz did they have?

KM: Very little. What we heard from them was more fusion jazz, like they were back in the 1970s.

JAZZed: Where did you begin?

KM: Usually the best thing in this situation is to begin with the blues, because you can get people making music if they can follow those three chords. We’d get the structure going and then deal with some of the focus on the swing feel, how the three over four rhythm works, how the triplet figures swing. That’s a long road, and you need a lot of time to plant seeds.

One nice thing about all of this is the state department gives you an allowance for educational materials, so we brought things and left them so they could keep working on it. You hope it’s your first visit and you can keep going back.

JAZZed: What material did you leave?

KM: One of my favorites is Dave Berkman’s The Jazz Singer [published by Sher]. It’s a great book with wonderful step-by-step exercises to help a singer be more fluent. Another one is Rhiannon’s CD Flight, a beautiful recording of exercises. She has a beautiful system of singing together in groups, and gets students to listen and open up with the rhythms of music, not necessarily strictly jazz.

JAZZed: So after three weeks in China, you went to Mongolia – what was that like?

KM: [laughs] Cold! Otherwise, it was different because they aren’t communist any more, and have had a little more exposure to jazz. They had more experience with the U.S. culture and hold jazz festivals …

But Rhythm Road is such a great program. It’s doing important work, and we hope to do it again.

“Passion with Action”

JAZZed: Let’s talk about your education.

KM: My high school and college music teachers were the biggest influences on me. They gave me real confidence and the feeling that I could act on the strong intuition I had about music. I was very shy…

JAZZed: Did you study jazz in high school?

KM: Yes. There was Rich Berberian at Barnstable High – he was the new choir teacher and he came in and turned the whole school on its ears. He was so enthusiastic! He made all new groups including a madrigal group and a jazz choir. Suddenly I had a real place to be, and real support. But here’s the thing: He was passionate, but he could back up his passion with action, and provide opportunity for kids like me. I’m also grateful to him.

JAZZed: What was college like? 

KM: I went to University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was in the program founded by Dr. Billy Taylor, Max rRach, and Dr. Fred Tillis. I studied with Dr. Horace Boyer, who was a scholar of gospel but also really understood the jazz vocal tradition. He was definitely the biggest influence on me musically.

JAZZed: What was studying with him like?

KM: His way of teaching was to listen with you, help you analyze how different jazz singers were using their voice. He wasn’t so interested in modes or scales, but listening to our great literature. In particular, it was the live material – Ella at Newport, Sarah at Mr. Kelly’s … all those incredible albums. We’d just sit in a studio and listen to different passages. Then we’d discuss the phrasing, holding out notes and what effect they were having, what notes the artist was choosing. It was an organic way to look at our history of music and I learned more from that than a book with scales or exercises.

JAZZed: Do you think there’s too much of the latter and not enough of the former today?

KM: Today jazz education has become big business. Sometimes I think about that original intent of the music, and see that the connection to the foundation of the music can get lost.

JAZZed: How much interaction with students do you get?

KM: I get to do master classes at the Manhattan School of Music, and I do clinics whenever and wherever I am when performing on the road.

JAZZed: What are the students like?

KM: They are great, but some haven’t really listened to the literature. They are listening to whatever the newest thing is now – just like I was when I was their age. I was listening to the singer/songwriters of the 1970s and that had a big influence on me. In fact I typically reinterpret one or two of those songs on every album I do. And that’s all good.

But it’s about being well versed and educated about jazz. Not just in that “Oh, this song came from that album” way but more about the content on the record.

“Make It Your Own”

JAZZed: Walk us through what your master classes are like.

KM: It’s all different things! [laughs] I had one where I was teaching a unit on congregational singing, because that is the root of jazz vocal in general. The spirituals written back during slavery are still relevant, as is singing with other people. I cover free singing, the sound of congregational singing compared to classical, chest voice singing, full throated singing, a free rhythmic approach, lots of improv, lots of call and response… I like to be able to do this because it’s a lot of the foundation, and it develops that traditional and also the rhythmic sensibility. It allows me to get all that across.

JAZZed: What do you use for that?

KM: We listen to prison songs, the guys working chain gains that [music historian] Alan Lomax recorded. What is in their voice that helps them do this repetitive task 14 hours a day? It’s the strong rhythm that helped them keep up their momentum.

I’ve been known to bring a 10-pound sledgehammer to these workshops – though I have the students hit pillows so nobody breaks anything!

JAZZed: Not breaking anything would be helpful in you getting asked back, I imagine. What’s the advantage of that heavy prop?

KM: By recreating that act, they come to understand in very real terms that heavy “huh” sound made when the hammer comes down. They understand that heaviness of the downbeat, and understand the weight that these singing prisoners were carrying, the strength needed to get the job done. It just all emphasizes the foundation of jazz.

JAZZed: Sounds like the importance of listening – which you learned as a student – carries through to your master classes today.

KM: Yes. A lot of times I like to play examples of singing, and analyze them with people, then have them try it with their own voice in whatever composition they are working on at the time. We look at the embellishments of the great jazz singers that are now part of our tradition.

Every type of music – folk, country, gospel, jazz – all has its own specific embellishments that identifies the music. Those are the things that make a voice sound more like an instrument. It’s important to bring back the understanding of those identifying characteristics.

JAZZed: So what is next for you teaching wise?

KM: I’m excited to be going back to Jazz Camp West this year. It’s really wonderful, just a great situation. I work with a wonderful pianist, Shanna Carlson, who is also a wonderful vocalist, and that’s the best kind of instrumentalist – one who also understands that tradition of jazz singing.

JAZZed: What will those sessions look like?

KM: I’ll go deeper with people. I like the nuts and bolts of jazz singing. To me, the basic qualities are rhythmic and harmonic fluency – that and story telling.

I find that people can build up a “jazz singer personality” in their voice that can sound stylized in a way that cuts them off from their own sound. It’s important to not mistake traditional foundation for a particular sound, because the sound has to be unique to the individual singer. The voice is so unique, and we should understand the tradition, listen deeply, but that should not be confused at all with a specific stylized sound.

JAZZed: Not to put words in your mouth, but is that another way of say don’t be “loungy”?

KM: [laughs] It’s easy to become a caricature. I will be advocating as I always do to make it your own, let your own emotion come through, tell stories that come from your own life. That’s what is interesting [as opposed to], “Oh, she really sounds like Ella.” If you’ve done that, you’ve failed.

Our quest as educators is to help people connect to the foundation, to learn the history and tradition of jazz voice. Part of that is copying for a while. But you want the emerging jazz singer to not copy the sound or let it devolve into some kind of stereotypical jazz character. You want them to get to their own, very real, very personal voice.

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