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Cécile McLorin Salvant is feeling lucky – and grateful.
Like the vast majority of singers and musicians, the 31-year-old, multiple Grammy-winning singer lost just about all her gigs in 2020 as the pandemic shuttered concert halls, clubs, and curtailed international travel. But - and it’s a big but – last fall, she also won, in quick succession, the Doris Duke Artist Award (September) and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowship (October).
The Duke grant totals $275,000, the MacArthur a cool $625,000; the money is largely unrestricted. So, for Salvant, 2020 was not that bad.
“When they first called, I thought they were telemarketers,” she told me recently by phone from Miami, speaking about the MacArthur grant. “I declined four calls from a number I didn’t have on my phone. Then I got a text from them saying, ‘Please call us back, we want to talk to you about the nomination process for the MacArthur.’ I thought they wanted a quote about some amazing musician… So, I called them back and asked, ‘Who do you need me to talk about?’ They said, ‘Are you in a private place?’ Then they told me. It was crazy. It would have been crazy anyway, but it was really crazy because it came a month after I got the Doris Duke award. I thought that it was a joke, you know? I was like, ‘Who is this?’ And they said, ‘It’s us.’”
She had no inkling she was being considered for the MacArthur.
“At this stage of my career, it was so far from my mind that I would ever receive anything like this or be validated in this way… as a thinker, artist, creative person. I assume that people think of me a straightahead jazz singer who sings standards, and that’s as far as it goes - not that that’s not far… but I assume people think of me as a traditionalist not really doing anything much… It was shocking. I told them, ‘You made a mistake, but I’ll take it!’”
She’s being characteristically modest. Salvant is not just a superb singer; she’s as much of an actress and performance artist as she is a vocalist. When she performs, she’s a historian, cultural anthropologist, and museum curator, exhibiting treasures - such as the vaudevillian Bert Williams’ signature song “Nobody,” or Bacharach and David’s “Wives and Lovers” - presenting them as cultural artifacts, celebrating the music and lyrics while considering, sometimes passionately, sometimes coolly, their implications for American society, race relations and sexual politics.
In 2020, Salvant began working with Nonesuch Records, for whom she’s now recording a new album that will, like her previous albums on Mack Avenue, include covers and original songs. The album will feature her longtime collaborators, the pianists Aaron Diehl and Sullivan Fortner, with a supporting cast that includes saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, percussionist Keito Ogawa, guitarists James Chirillo and Marvin Sewell, bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Kyle Poole.
She considers the awards an encouragement to do work that “scares” her, like her latest project, Ogresse, a musical fable about a female protagonist who falls in love but ultimately devours her beloved. Musically, it draws from folk, baroque, jazz, and country. Prior to the pandemic, she performed the song cycle to critical acclaim with a 13-piece orchestra arranged by Darcy James Argue. Now she’s working on turning it into an animated film, a project that makes full use of Salvant’s other talents as a visual artist.
What scares her, she said, is “the work that’s the closest to who I am, what I look like, and what I think… I feel that I’m able to express it the easiest when I’m drawing and doing embroidery and visual art… this is my visual vocabulary; this is how I think.
“There's something really exhilarating about doing something that's terrifying, and thinking, like, I’m gonna die. Like, everyone’s disdain for this, their rejection of me, their hate for this project is going to kill me! And then, you do it, and you’re like, ‘Oh! [laughs]. No one was harmed in the making of this film! It’s fine.’”
The grant money by itself is not nearly enough to make the film, but it will help, she said. “I can’t finance it all by myself. But now I can start raising money and pay myself for my work.
“If we make this film, it will be the first animated feature film ever made by a black woman,” she emphasized. In the history of animation, she said, “there’s been something missing - seeing a black female body move in an animated way.” She also considers the project a tribute to American music “in all its forms, and, despite my reticence to be political, it addresses issues of race, gender, fetishism, and the environment.
“Humbly, I feel I need to make this movie. I’ve never felt so compelled to make something. That’s why it’s the first animated movie to be made by a black woman - because it is so challenging.”
Salvant remembered thinking, prior to the announcement of the fellowships, “I wish we could get a little bit of a grant, so that we could start development on this movie. We were saying, how are we ever going to get funding? And then suddenly losing all my work and then getting these prestigious grants and that sort of recognition! It was wild, wild - amazing! I feel so grateful.”