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I came out of the womb singing and playing the piano. My father was a yarn salesman and my mother was a housewife. Much to their wonderment, I could play almost anything I heard on the radio. I still can’t explain it but if I hear a tune for the first time, I can jump right in and start playing it.
Growing up, I loved jazz. The big band era was over but I got into Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. I skipped over the popular stuff like “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” and “Tennessee Waltz”. Even then, I knew those were stupid songs.
When I was 18, I came to New York to work as a freelance singer and piano player. Every bar then had a piano and a player-singer. I played at the Beverly Hotel but also in some really awful dives. It was a brief, wonderful period, from about 1959-1964, just before rock’n’roll took over, and a legendary time for singers and songwriters.
I worked with Burt Bacharach and Sammy Davis Jr and in 1962 recorded “It Might As Well Rain Until September” with Carole King when I was eight months pregnant. She was pregnant too!
In 1959 I released my first album, Born To Be Blue. But there was no second album. In 1964 The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and everything changed. Popular music was transformed. Singers who would have had big careers didn’t. I moved into advertising, composing jingles for companies such as Pepsi.
Kids today don’t know what a melody is. Or pitch. All they hear is rap and stuff that’s simplistic, diatonic, with nothing adventurous and beautiful in it. Songs have become dumber. And with pitch-correction in recording studios, you can take anyone off the street and make a record. Kids’ eardrums are dumbed-down.
In the 1990s, I started The Kindred Spirits Children’s Jazz Choirs, to teach kids classics from the Great American Songbook, such as Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Berlin’s “Blue Skies”. I work with my husband Bob Kindred, who’s a jazz saxophonist.
We serve mainly inner-city kids with no experience of music in their schools. Almost all are African-American and Latino, and the latter often come from homes where little English is spoken. The only exception is the jazz choirs I do in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the kids are a mix of middle-class and low-income. But the more privileged kids don’t know any of the Great American Songbook songs either!
We’ve found a way to get children singing. Our programme offers them 10 sessions with a piano player and singer, with a concert at the end. Most of these kids have never heard music like this but they love it. Sometimes they can’t hear the melody at first. I’ll tell them, “I want you to listen. Here’s the rhythm,” and I’ll snap my fingers. “Now here’s the melody. I want you to hear it in your head. Then I want you to sing it back to me.” In 10 minutes they’ll have the whole thing, 100 kids together singing “Blue Skies” right smack on pitch. It’s nothing more than an instant of recognition.
We thought it would just be fun for them. But it also turned out to be a tremendous help with their reading skills. Children who had trouble with “See Spot Run” were reading the words to “Accentuate the Positive”. They feel so good after they’ve sung: I had one terribly shy kid who ended up wanting to take a solo. Music gets into your bloodstream, so you’re actually uplifted.
If I could get the money, I’d start Kindred Spirits in every city. Jazz is American history. It’s beautiful, intelligent, harmonically adventurous. And what a difference it makes.
I just turned 79 and I’m still performing. I have a show coming up in May at Stage 72 in New York. I teach so much that I’m probably singing better than I ever have. And with no pitch-correction.
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