Sorry, Parents of All Those Little Prodigies Out There, Jazz Is Not for Amateurs

Clair Dickson

Don’t you think that a 14-year-old singing “My man don’t love me, treats me awful mean” is kind of screwy?

Dear Dad,

That is,...

Dear Dad of the 14-Year-Old Jazz Singer Whose First Album Just Got Sent to Me by a Promoter,

First, I’m not going to mention your daughter’s name too prominently because this really isn’t about her. She seems like a perfectly lovely young teen-aged girl, and I have no doubt that she really really loves Ella Fitzgerald. But this love of Ella Fitzgerald is not a good enough reason for you to hire professional, if local, jazz musicians and have her cut an album that gets sent to jazz critics. This, in fact, is a bad idea.

I, too, really really loved Ella Fitzgerald when I was 13, a short but feisty boy in the Jersey suburbs who was falling in love with jazz and, yes, memorized many of Ella’s scat solos in the den while listening to LPs on the hi-fi. In fact, if you would like come over to my house next week and listen to me (now, alas, 50 and bald, but still short and wildly enthusiastic about music and about Ella Fitzgerald) recreate these scat solos, then I will grill you some burgers for your trouble. “I got the St. Louis Blues! Bweeeee... boo-bee dill-ya bop-a sweee-powwwww!”

Yes, Dad, I know that she won a Downbeat Magazine Student Jazz Award for Junior High School jazz vocals. Congratulations to her. Someday... in the future... she may be a pro-level singer who we’d all like to check out. But, like the senior high school jazz vocal award winner has not yet sent me a CD, so... maybe this one is on the premature side.

And, yes, Dad, I know that a very young singer from Canada with a hyper-love for Ella Fitzgerald launched her career in the last couple of years. Nikki Yanofsky is big business now—she sang the Canadian national anthem at the 2010 Winter Olympics and has been riding this Young Girl Loves Ella! shtick right into a career and, just maybe, to the bank. But, sir, watching Yanofsky get promoted like a music professional when she was barely a teenager was creepy. And, with a music like jazz, is little-kid virtuosity really something to be celebrated?

Am I saying that it’s okay for Rebecca Black’s parents to pay for her to record a stooopid pop song like “Friday” and maybe pay for college on her slice of fame, but the same shouldn’t go for jazz? Am I giving the thumbs up to Justin Haircut Bieber YouTube fame ‘n’ fortune for dopey songs like “Baby, Baby” but not for “How High the Moon” or “Lullaby of Birdland”?

I guess I am. It’s not that I think that jazz is a higher art form and needs protection from amateurs. But bubblegum pop is the very thing of being a young teen—it's the coin of the realm. The Jackson Five, the Osmonds, Menudo, the new American Idol. But don’t you think that a 14-year-old singing “My man don’t love me, treats me awful mean” is kind of screwy? “Baby, baby” might actually be the right lyric for a girl who probably hasn’t yet experienced even a tiny percent of Billie Holiday’s life experience (at least let’s hope she hasn’t). The apprenticeship—in life as well as music—that’s necessary to make even a minor claim on a Cole Porter song ought to last longer than the time it took to fill a kid’s iPod with a whole mess of scat singing.

It’s not that your daughter Claire isn’t talented, sir. She is... for a kid. But the best thing you could do for her now is to fill her iPod with some Gretchen Parlato and some Cassandra Wilson, some Feist and some Fiona Apple and some Ricki Lee Jones. Encourage her to listen to Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley, to Bessie Smith and Patti Smith. Then get her music lessons and show up at her school concerts. Downbeat Schmownbeat. Downbeat doesn’t know shit about parenting.

And there’s this. I lead a high school jazz ensemble featuring at least three singers who are better and more original than your daughter. That’s presumptuous, I know. (Downbeat has never heard of these girls. Alas.) They’re better because when they sing “My Romance” or “Midnight Sun” they don’t use Ella’s unique melodic embellishments every single time. Sometimes they put some Darlene Love or some Blossom Dearie into the tune. Sometimes they sing Smokey Robinson songs and put some Ella into it. That is, they’re actually playing around the laboratory of making music and cooking up potentially new stuff. They don’t read Downbeat, of course.

Not that Claire reads it. I figure that you do. You are listed as the producer on her recording. You play bass clarinet on the first track. You are, in fact, a pro musician. So, the whole thing feels like it’s more your thing than hers.

The obvious comparison is between your daughter and little Nikki Yanofsky, the Canadian. Listening to little Yanofsky as an apprentice, being a Robo-Ella, was weird, but you could hear the relish in it. And then Yanofsky’s first real recording steered off toward some pop songs that you could believe came from her slowly maturing (because that’s how all maturing goes) heart. In Claire’s record, the abominably titled Scattin’ Doll, I can hear your hand at your daughter’s back, pushing too hard.

I’m telling you, man, even if it’s just a fun vanity project, then there’s not enough fun in it. She sounds stiff and tight—her timbre is clenched and shaky like she isn’t really having any fun. Why should she be having fun? She’s singing “Love me or leave me or let me be lonely” like there’s a gun to her head. It’s not good, man. Her time is super-shaky. When she sings “There’ll be no one unless that someone is yooo-oooo-ooo-ooooooo”, ack, the intonation, the weird phrasing. It’s not working. (In the promotional materials sent to me with the disc, it says that the astonishing jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton was “beside herself” because of your daughter’s “avant garde stylings”. Which, I would humbly submit, was a very nice way of saying something else entirely.)

But again, my point is not harp on a kid’s shortcomings as a singer. She is amazing for her age. But listening to this tune is like watching an army recruit go through basic training. Not. Fun.

But what do I know? Maybe jazz is her passion and not yours. Maybe she begged you to get her a pro rhythm section, to hold her last two birthday parties in little jazz clubs, then to make her a studio album of songs written when her own grandparents were still in short pants.

But somebody went to the bother of looking me up, a mean ol’ jazz critic, and sent this disc to my house.

Anyway, it’s cool. Listening to your daughter’s album didn’t ruin my day or anything. Feel free to send another disc along when she is old enough rebel a little or to synthesize more than one influence or to just break out and find her own sound. That’s what jazz ought to be about. No matter what Tierney Sutton may have said, right now your daughter is an excited girl who is discovering the music and mimicking her heroes. That’s great.

But jazz isn’t like classical music, where a certain amount of pure technical mastery and virtuosic skill can hike you a decent way up the ladder. Jazz singers and jazz players labor to find their own sound, fighting to discover identity and to find how they can make their music fresh every time they play. It’s not a question of being avant garde or wholly original but a question of adding to the tradition by being yourself.

That is a tall order for a 14-year-old. Even yours, Dad. Jazz isn’t going to give way to any instant pop star or overnight fad. Maybe that’s why it isn’t the order of the day for most 2011 kids. Maybe it takes too much study and simmer to really play it well. It ain’t for amateurs. Maybe that’s why Glee is a more fun way for kids to hear standard tunes or why Broadway shows these days are more likely to mine classic rock acts than build on the complexities of Sondheim.

But I’m an optimist, Dad. I think this music will always be around. And certainly it will be around long enough for you to let your girl grow up more before she records again, before you try to push her into the spotlight. The spotlight’s too hot. And in the corners of her record, when she’s not trying so hard, she seems cool.

Let her be that.


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