Babushka. Inside one nests another and another and nests another and another and another, ever smaller until the tiny figure at the center. A set of intricately carved, delicately painted wooden dolls nicknamed for grandmother centuries ago in Russia; a toy that today might be called matrjoska or "little mommies" because each doll is the mother of the one inside it. In Asia, these figures are given exquisitely detailed faces, while Egyptian sarcophaguses -- little mummies? -- could be viewed as life-size versions of this childhood delight. There are variations of them in nearly every culture around the globe. Folk art of the world.
Imagine popular music as a set of these nesting dolls. Standing proudly in some curiosity shop tucked away in South Austin, there's a big, glitzy Elvis babushka. Wrapping around the bowling-pin-sized outer doll is a picture of the Fat Elvis in his white cape; inside each successive Elvis is a thinner and prettier version of the King until you reach the hip-shakin' wildboy figurine at the center. Next to Elvis, there's a another doll with a caricature of some mop-top -- Paul McCartney, or maybe Joey Ramone. Over by the window, a third one looks like it might be Louis Armstrong. Imagine the contents of that one.
The oldest -- and priciest -- seems to be the doll in the back room, over by the 78s. Judging from the tiny, black crazing of its smooth and shiny petrified surface, it's old. A luminescent woman with a faraway look in her eye, flower in her hair, and dreamy smile stands at a microphone in an evening gown: Billie Holiday. Inside, the next two "little mamas" look to be Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan but who are the remaining ones? Dinah Washington? Betty Carter? Carmen McRae? Nina Simone? Abbey Lincoln? The Michael Jackson doll in the airport gift shop was easy -- it shucked down to Mariah Carey. But the Ladies of Jazz? They're hard. After all, they're a minority within a minority genre of music -- jazz -- and as such, they're represented by a tiny cask deep inside the bowels of popular music's hierarchically layered dollworks.
"Not only am I a minority within a minority," bursts the spirited Willie Nicholson at that metaphor, "female vocalists don't have the opportunities that musicians have. If our mouths were made of brass, or our teeth were made of piano keys, we would have more of an opportunity to get better exposure than we do now."
And what if your voices hummed at radio frequencies?
"We're a musical minority because jazz doesn't receive the kind of widespread airplay that rock & roll and country do," replies Beth Ullman to the same question, posed as a similar metaphor with boxes. "People don't hear it that much. They're not exposed to it so they don't develop a real taste for it. I think a lot of people primarily come to jazz through being educated in music in high school, then later on in band. I don't think I would have gotten into it if it hadn't been for my dad loving Louis Armstrong and one of my boyfriends being a jazz bassist."
Ullman bounces a bit on the couch in the living room of her Round Rock home. She's excited. As our interview progresses over the next hour, she'll bounce, fidget, and flop with increased animation. She can hardly contain herself. This couldn't have anything to do with the fact that she and husband Rich Harney finished their second album early this morning, could it? Nah. It's only the follow-up to their 1994 debut CD, Aren't We the Lucky Ones, which Ullman says saw airplay on over 80 stations around the country. Who cares if Warner Bros. is sniffing around? Six other local jazz singers, that's who.
You see, like Nicholson, who moved to Texarkana in February after eight years in Austin, Ullman is one of the Ladies of Austin Jazz. Her face would look handsome painted on lightly stained wood, her fair, sandy hair blending in with the grain. In fact, though you might not recognize Ullman, or painted-wood renditions of Nicholson, Pam Hart, Tina Marsh, Mady Kaye, Donna Menthol, and Hope Morgan, all seven women would cut fine figures inside a Ladies of Austin Jazz babushka. Which isn't to say there aren't many other talented divas in town. Rather it's that these seven local singers, who not only defined their own group ("Who else are you interviewing?" each of them asked), but also define the form. And just what exactly defines a jazz singer? Good question.
To many, female jazz singers are typified by that picture of Billie Holiday on the babushka: dreamy smile, gardenia in her hair, elegant evening gown. A Satin Doll. It's an image that casts a shadow over all others in the field, and over the genre as a whole. Yet, it takes Ullman only a moment to move beyond the cliché, to capture the essence of what it takes to do this as a career: "First thing you do is forget about yourself. You forget about your ego. You forget about whether or not you're good. Forget about how you want to do it right or wrong. You forget about yourself. You transcend yourself."
And then you sing....
"Jazz was always the `grown-up' kind of music -- or what I considered the sophisticated lyric kind of music that grabbed me," says Hart. "But it wasn't until I moved to Austin in '82 [that I started singing it]. I was curious about what Billie Holiday sounded like, because I, like most young people, think of Billie Holiday as Diana Ross doing Lady Sings the Blues -- and I knew that album inside out. But I wanted to know who this Billie Holiday really was, so I used the Austin public library, checked out tons and tons of her stuff, and I liked it -- surprisingly, because you either hate her or love her because of the style. At least a lot of young people I know just don't like it. But I like it, and I like jazz in general -- singing -- because it's a real challenging style of singing. It sounds easy, but what makes it difficult is even though everybody's singing the same standards, the same songs, the challenge is to sing your song your way."
For Hart, singing "grown-up" music (a phrase echoed by Nicholson) was born out of growing up as the youngest of six in a Los Angeles home run by a "wannabe" jazz singer -- her mother. Besides a constant stream of Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mathis, Hart's mother also enjoyed rounding up the children and putting on "little things around the house where we kinda sang." Later, Hart would "kinda sing" in high school, performing mostly the Seventies soul and R&B music of the day, though, even then, she found herself gravitating to the "soft stuff," like Barbra Streisand and Roberta Flack (a name cited by nearly everyone interviewed). It wasn't until arriving in Austin in 1982 however, that Hart, fresh out of college and a first-time bride, began taking a greater interest in jazz. Within a year, she landed her first real gig: playing Billie Holiday in The Cotton Club Comes to Austin revue at the University of Texas.
Her first gig as "Pam Hart" followed shortly thereafter at a benefit at Caswell House, and it didn't take long before the singer was doing "freebies at UT" as well as "real" gigs elsewhere. In this fashion -- with night school also bidding for her time -- Hart used up the remainder of the decade, and in 1991, upon the completion of her MBA at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, she decided that "singing was something I would rather be doing." Not that she could afford to give up her job with the city. Not quite. She could, however, afford a demo -- and to start working on getting higher-profile gigs. Enter her second husband, Kevin ("the first one was the jealous type"), and the "Women in Jazz" concerts series.
Morphing Pam's brainchild, the "Black Women in Jazz" concert series, started in '89 when she was a board-member of the Black Arts Alliance, the Harts (under the auspices of Hartbeat Productions) put on their first version of the new, improved, showcase in 1993 at Antone's. It was a modest success, one that would be repeated over the next three years until spring of 1996 found the yearly show turned into a semi-annual gala event at the Live Oak Theatre, complete with live simulcast on the Austin Music Network, which still gets many requests from viewers and just as many airings from the station.
"That was part of our audience development strategy -- to have it taped," says Hart. "Our audiences are getting bigger, and we're figuring out the formula to make it work. Last year, we found we made a profit, and each year our audience gets bigger, based on the reputation of our concert. It's a good one."
Indeed it is. And hoping to be just as good is Hartbeat Productions' first CD -- Pam's debut -- which the singer hopes to have out sometime this year. Of course that's what she hoped last year also, but an infant daughter, Shelby, a job, and a marriage tend to make full-time musicianship a defining dream rather than practical reality. Still, it's the dream: to be a full-time jazz singer.
"To be a jazz singer is to sing and have somebody believe in what you're singing -- and to be accepted as a musician, not just a singer," says Hart. "Jazz is intelligent music, because not only do you have to know the melody, but you have to know where it fits, and how to hold a note -- to make the word say what you want it to say, and have a song feel the way you want it to feel. It's not like just singing a Top-40 song. If you get intelligent about the music, you can sing it in so many different ways that you can sing the same song, and have it be a different song each time.
"And that's what I like about it too; I like the lyrics -- the grown-up lyrics, as I call them. I like how much space there is in the music to do what you want to do."
If Pam Hart is the outer shell on the Ladies of Austin Jazz babushka, then Tina Marsh might well be the heart of it -- the figure in the center of the doll. Having begun her singing career in the Seventies as a country/folk/rock singer -- "the Willie Nelson/Jackson Browne trip" -- Marsh was having trouble picturing this as a career. That's when she discovered Anthony Braxton. And Sam Rivers. And late-period Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden -- free jazz. Jazz that didn't adhere to standard forms of the genre. Jazz with nothing but space in which musicians could play whatever came to them in the moment. To many jazz enthusiasts this was chaos, but to Marsh it made sense instantly.
"Almost as soon I heard it, I said, well!" recalls Marsh. "Because the other stuff, for me, was easy to sing, and it's still fun to sing, and because it communicates with human beings, it's great. But I was having trouble thinking, `Well, is this what I'm gonna do for my whole life?' There's nothing wrong with that, but it was like, `Wow, I don't know.' It just didn't seem like that had enough meat, and when I heard this other music, what happened was, I got -- [not quite] an epiphany -- but a deep view into the limitless possibilities for exploration [through this music], for study, for communication, for continuing. That's what happened. Once I heard it, I definitely, definitely had the thought, `oh, this is worth spending a lifetime to try and get in the middle of it."
That Marsh experienced this revelation at an Anthony Braxton show at the Armadillo World Headquarters; founded a collective of jazz musicians dedicated to the exploration of space -- er, music -- through the avant-garde big band, Creative Opportunity Orchestra in 1980; and even married one of her cohorts, trombonist Randy Zimmerman, is, by now, Austin legend. So, too, is the total mastery of her instrument, her voice. One of the most distinctive singers anywhere, Marsh's scat singing can be as hot as an Ephraim Owens trumpet solo or as cool as one of Tony Campise's sax ballads.
"That's what it was designed to do, to sound like that kind of improvising," explains Marsh. "Like with Ornette's material or something that's more spaced-out, more straight-ahead scatting doesn't really fit. My interest has been, ever since I was in New York, to come from an instrumental approach, because sometimes [singing] `shu-bop shu-wop' doesn't fit, although in the last several years, I think I've developed a deeper understanding of lyrics and standard song forms."
When asked what it is that separates a jazz singer from singers in other genres -- be it scat singing, or this concept of space -- Marsh pauses a moment, thinking.
"It's difficult to really nail down," she answers finally. "When you listen to people like Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Torme, and Johnny Hartman, and Frank Sinatra, there's something -- that indescribable thing that they have in common -- that's personal, but it relates to the feeling that the rhythm section has, and the space. The space in the song and the feel. I think there's more of a feeling for the space between the notes and phrases than in other kinds of music...
"One of the things I like best when I'm singing well is that I feel the spaces come alive. And when I'm listening to other singers, that's something that I'm listening for. It's an indescribable thing. What makes Frank Sinatra different from Sting? It's something very vast, but it's kind of hard to use words and describe."
Not so hard to describe, however, is something that most female vocalists encounter sooner or later -- no matter what sort of music they're singing.
"The thing that's difficult about being a singer," says Marsh, "is that for the most part you're not encouraged -- unless you have extraordinary parents or circumstances -- to develop as a musician. It's not so much the public's perception as it is the cats -- the players -- who have that `chick singer' kind of mentality -- that whole thing; `How many chick singers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One, because the whole world revolves around her.' It's that that I didn't want to participate in. For me, it was an imperative that I drive myself hard to develop my musicianship."
Unlike Marsh, who teaches a variety of "culture and performance-related" classes in local elementary schools, Kaye's day job her is also her vocation, no less important than singing jazz. She proudly leads me back to her music room, which she and her husband Paul recently added to their home. As we both take in the small art space, she estimates her current student body at around 50 people and runs down a partial list of local musicians who've taken voice and music theory lessons from her over the years: Ian Moore, Kelly Willis, members of Seed, Prescott Curlywolf, Bad Mutha Goose, and Cotton Mather ("I think Alejandro Escovedo was a student of mine about a million years ago").
"I remember I cornered Mel Torme at a concert in Dallas years ago," says Kaye in her smooth, precise diction. "I waited an hour and a half backstage, and said `gimme a voice lesson, I adore you. I worship the ground you walk on, please.' And he said, `you can't learn anything from a teacher, you just have to listen to other people sing.' And I don't agree with that, necessarily. I am a teacher. That's a very large part of what I do with my time, and I learned a great deal from all of my teachers. Yeah, you have to listen, but it helps to be instructed how to listen, and to know what you're listening for."
Which is something Kaye was never lacking, someone to tell her how listen. Whether it was the whole town of Poughkeepsie, New York, which was under the spell of locals like Pete Seeger and the Weavers when Kaye was growing up there, or her classical music teachers at the Kodaly Musical Institute in Massachusetts where she did her graduate work, the jazz singer always had a guide. In 1974, when the country circuit she'd been mining on the East Coast began looking less authentic than Texas, revered Austin-American Statesman critic Townsend Miller introduced her to most of the clubs in her new home town. And in 1978, when she stumbled upon a little piano bar/jazz refuge at 15th and Lavaca called Casablanca, she got an education in standards and western swing that would last her a lifetime.
Not that it did much good when she moved to New York a year later. "I studied with a jazz teacher while I was there," remembers Kaye, "and her comment was, `Oh, you classically trained musicians, you all think alike. Your idea of vocal improvisation is that you embellish the melodic line, which is going constantly in your head as you're singing the song. Wrong. You listen to the harmonic structure, and you derive your information from the harmonic structure rather than from the horizontal melodic line. It's a whole different come-from.'"
Kaye's teacher drove her point home by making cassettes for the class on which a song's harmonic structure was on one side of the tape, and its vocal on the other. Only after the class had done several different vocal renditions to go along with the chord changes on side A, could they listen to the vocal melody on side B. This was not a lesson Kaye soon forgot, largely because it led to a second discovery.
"I started making up words to the songs I sang. My goals were: 1) the words should pertain to the original content matter of the composer; 2) they should rhyme when possible; 3) they should be clever and intelligent; and 4) if I could pull it off, I would seek the kind of internal rhyme that Cole Porter and [Richard] Rodgers and [Lorenz] Hart really excelled at. And I would try to make my improv different every time. Not just scat singing, but interesting words."
With a new "signature style" in her bag, as well as a New York Times write-up at her back ("it validated one of my reasons for going there"), Kaye returned to Austin in 1982, with raw hunger to sing jazz, which she did for good money at the Hyatt for seven years. And if not all the Ladies of Austin Jazz agree on a singer's best route to finding her own unique style -- perhaps even a signature sytle -- it isn't because they underestimate its importance, and it certainly isn't because they aren't trying.
Donna Menthol (née Mittenthal), the fourth jazz singer who supports herself in part by teaching (Ullman is the third) and who, like Kaye, gives voice lessons out of her home, believes a singer must also be part actor to get inside the words of songs that have been sung time and time again.
"Absolutely," she says with Bette Midler-like brashness. "I give workshops that speak of that and demonstrate that. The voice, being the human instrument, is so essential for communication. You're not up there for yourself. You're given a particular voice that does songs in the world for a reason. And you have to deliver it. Somebody who delivers a piece of mail to your door and runs away, you only get a little bit of an impact there. But someone who you meet at your door, and exchanges this piece of mail, and waits for you to open it, and gets the reaction and the response, there's a lot more there. That's what singing is. You don't just get up there -- it's not a private experience."
Menthol, much like Kaye, considers herself a "versatile singer," listing her "eight categories of music" -- jazz, fusion, funk, soul, gospel, Latin, Yiddish, and pop ("I even do a little country, 'cause one must here) -- and says she's grateful to her local booking agency, Sophisticated Signs, for keeping her in weddings, conventions, lookalikes (Midler, natch), and other "very lovely and cushy gigs" from California to Miami.
Unsurprisingly then, it's Menthol and Kaye who are the most diversified divas of the group, and the similarities don't end there. Not only do both singers share the same state of the union as their birth place, Menthol and Kaye also consider the Casablanca club their Austin birthplace. Kaye developed her chops there, and Menthol actually moved to Austin in 1975 after playing there one night with James Polk ("He had a problem saying my name, so he just started calling me Donna Menthol"). This was one year after Kaye had received the Townsend Miller tour. Together they have seniority over the other Ladies of Austin Jazz. They even agree on developing a singing style, though it turns out to be the same method as in any other form of music; emulate your elders -- well, sometimes. Okay, never. Well....
"Absolutely," says Menthol. "In yesteryear, the approach may have been -- if I needed to learn a piece -- to listen to someone singing it. Which is a trap. When we learn, we're like children; we all emulate those before us. So, you pick up the licks, and it's hard to lose them. For me, I'd much rather listen to a horn playing the melody, and then go from there, rather than listen to the singer. Or be the singer. I think it's almost better if just go from self."
At first Tina Marsh concurs:
"When you're starting as a singer, it's really important to practice sounding like other singers: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter...."
Then she sees the trap she, the "good mimic," has fallen into many times. "Especially with someone like Nancy Wilson, who I think is brilliant," explains Marsh. "We have similar range, very similar timbre, and similar ideas of dramatic coloring of a song. So, for me, when I hear Nancy Wilson do a song, and I really like it, it's hard not for me to sound like her [when I sing it]."
Ultimately, it's Ullman who finds the middle ground. As a tenure-track Commercial Voice Instructor at McLennan Community College in Waco, Ullman may, like Pam Hart, yearn for the day she and Harney can make a living off of his/their originals ("he got hundreds of 'em, and they're all good"), but in the meantime she'll lay some heavy music philosophy on you. It's easy seeing why Ullman says she and her students enjoy a good rapport; she's quick, engaging, and friendly. Good combo for a teacher. Thus it's no surprise that for her, emulation and imitation inhabit the same space, sometimes one inside the other.
"I think singers learn to sing by imitating others," she says. "I had my Joni Mitchell period -- she's probably my favorite singer of all time. I'm a Joni Mitchell fanatic. That's all I played my first year of college. And I tried to sing like her. And I can sound close to her, a lot. I think by that route is how you find who you are. I don't think there are any singers in contemporary music who haven't done that -- we've all done that. We've all sung along with the radio, found out we could sing, and just gone for it. I think that's how it happens. It's imitation."
Because living in Harlem then was like living in one giant apartment building with lots of neighbors, Morgan spent many afternoons in her childhood and early adolescence with a trio of older cousins who were married to/involved with a drummer, a bass player, and a piano player. Jazz musicians. It was but one of many ways the music was absorbed within her. "Because of the fact that I grew up singing, I always wanted to be a singer -- and everything else, too," says Morgan in her soft, sonorous voice. "I always listened to music, sang, played music, played piano, played guitar, played violin, played flute, and sang, and so music was always part of my life."
But it wasn't just by osmosis that Morgan became a jazz singer, she studied it, as well. And as an Afro-American Studies major, with a concentration in performance art and economics at Smith College, Morgan found herself in close proximity to all the Ivy League schools in the area; schools with classes in jazz -- classes that often had guest lecturers who happened also to be jazz legends, and classes with reading lists that Morgan devoured. It was around this time Morgan made a crucial discovery. "I was playing classical music and digging McCoy Tyner, and wishing I could play that, but I didn't feel the way to get there on the piano. I did feel a way to get there with my voice."
Though she would stay in school -- a path that would eventually lead her to Austin in 1977 to work on her doctorate in economics (and later to nearly two decades as a computer systems analyst) -- musically speaking, things started snowballing from there. "To me, I attached historical significance to the whole idea of doing jazz to make the historical statement," says Morgan. "This is an art form. This is real. This is legitimate. It is evidence of the diaspora. I think probably in college is where those ideas of being a jazz vocalist got more solid....
"For me, singing jazz is very fulfilling. I respect the tradition. I believe it is very stolid. It has a lot of significance to me, because I'm a black woman, and it is part of my black history. It is a black art form. People need to keep remembering that and acknowledging that, and people forget that a lot. It's like a part of me, a piece of me. So it's just very important for me to be playing it continually, and do it correctly, and understand where it's coming from; do it legitimately."
Does this mean a white, middle-class woman is barking up the wrong career? "It's not a color thing at all, it's a feeling thing," replies Morgan. No, it is a color thing, says Willie Nicholson. "Let me give a perfect example. The song that was written for Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit." Pam's delivery of that or Nina Simone's delivery of that, you know where they're coming from, because it was an experience of our people. I can't see a Tina Marsh or a Beth Ullman or Donna Menthol singing that song and really meaning it or knowing what the true meaning behind it is."
Funny, that's exactly the song Marsh cites when admitting there may be some songs a woman of her race and economic means might not be able to inhabit. "The impetus of the music, the genesis of the music is from a different cultural experience. And the fact that it grew out of a people being stolen and abused and enslaved, that's significant. What exactly can it mean to you as a middle-class, white woman? I don't know. I know that feeling has broken my heart on many, many, many occasions. But I didn't live it."
Nicholson nods her head at this. "I agree with her," she affirms. "Tina has her own style. Hers is a unique style, but it's not like a Hope, Pam, or a Willie."
"Ahh, ya don't hafta to be black," says Donna Menthol, waving it off. "I understand exactly what Tina's saying," she says, "and I respect it, but for me, and my experience, very rarely have I come up against that barrier. There, there have been no boundaries for me."
Hmm. No consensus. What about Austin sucks, New York's great, y'know, for jazz.
"What's New York going to do for me?" asks Morgan.
What's Austin gonna do for you?
"What's the difference?"
There's a real scene there.
"You know this for a fact, that it exists?"
I do not.
"I don't know what the difference is gonna be. You're gonna do what you're gonna do, period. There's probably more venues for jazz in New York. I go up to New York a lot. My family's up there, so I go up there, two to three times a year. And I have friends up there that are doing music, and it seems like the same thing. I mean, I'm talking to people up there all the time. And I just feel like what I want to work on is getting product that I can take to New York, and it doesn't matter where I do it. This is an easier place to live."
Consensus. To a "T." Besides the topic of ballads ("like making love in front of an audience, says Ullman), the Ladies of Austin Jazz also give a unanimous thumbs up for Austin. Sure, a few more clubs, a little better payouts, who couldn't use that? But at what price? Perhaps at the price that Nicholson, the only vocalist who considers singing jazz a hobby, cherishes most. "There's a camaraderie among the female vocalists, and it's one that I respect. I'm not jealous of any one vocalist. In fact, I'm out there rooting: The more gigs you can get -- girl, go for it. You go, girl!"