Virginia Schenck, known by the stage name, “VA,” is an accomplished international vocalist and jazz performer, utilizing both straightahead, spoken word and free improvisation. With a background in music therapy, Schenck is an inspired artist who can connect with an audience in a variety of ways: she can soothe her audience with a beautiful ballad, invigorate them with a re-imagined standard and challenge them with a powerful blast of free improvisation. Yet all of these aspects exist within one singular and unique voice. Her new album Battle Cry is a testament to her boundless creativity and ability to speak to our present moment.
Schenck spoke to JAZZIZ after the release of her new album to discuss its origins, her roots in music therapy and her jazz idols. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
JAZZIZ: Where did the idea for Battle Cry come about?
Virginia Schenck: Battle Cry has been growing for quite some time. Because, let’s face it, this thrust for civil and human rights is certainly not new, and certainly not going away. So Battle Cry really just grew out of this way to think about how we can always be bettering America.I can’t help but think that this is such a jazz moment for the country. There’s never been a better time for the improvising and community to work together and bring our voices together. That’s why my original goal for Battle Cry was to take it to civil and human rights museums and really to help spread the word there and raise money and awareness for them. The lockdowns put a pause on all that, but these issues aren’t going away, so I look forward to the day when I can pick that back up.
How have you, as an artist, been looking at our present moment? Between the gigs drying up, the festivals being cancels and the tours being put on hold, it’s been a tough stretch for musicians.
I basically just have my ear to the ground listening for what’s coming next. What are our next steps, you know? So I do love watching my brothers and sisters in the field with all their different takes on our present moment. I’m just fascinated to watch the creativity that comes out in different ways. It’s really fantastic to hear the new ways to negotiate the challenges of this time.
After all, jazz was born from the question: “How do we make something out of nothing, and out of extreme duress?” We’re living in that moment right now.
What are your roots in music?
I’m from Central Florida, and I grew up in the church life. But by age seven, I remember saying, “I want to be a jazz vocalist. Where can I study jazz?” My dear parents had no clue where to send me, so I just did all the traditional Western classical training and piano, mostly. I did church choir, school choir, ensemble theater – all those sorts of forms. My dad’s dad was a composer, and my dad was a really great singer. So both of my parents had great record collections. Ithad everything from Mahalia Jackson to Billie holiday to Sarah Vaughan, The Ink spots, Glenn Miller. But also opera and musicals and gospel and Peter, Paul and Mary. I had older siblings, and they were listening to The Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash, stuff with good harmony.
I understand you also studied music therapy. How as that field of study influenced the way you approach making music?
That’s right, I was actually a music therapy major at Florida State. And if anything, it really helps me focus on the purpose of what I’m doing. I’m always trying to bring a message or really think about what I’m doing. I’m not just ripping through standards. That’s just not my bent. There’s nothing wrong with it; I love jazz standards. But even if I’m doing them, I’m asking myself, “For what reason?”
And it also made me really think about who I call to the stage as side musicians, because it really matters down to my toes. Who’s on stage with me and where are they coming from? What kind of human are they? What kind of spirit do they bring? What kind of vibe do they bring? There’s a lot more than just skill level to take into account when it comes to side musicians.
I want to talk about a few of your musical influences, one of which is Bobby McFerrin. I understand you actually studied with him.
Well, it really knocked my socks off. I have a daughter who’s also a musician and a music therapist. And so during the family years, I was not performing as much. I was teaching and doing music therapy. And I really got turned on by his CircleSongs projects. These are where he’ll be working with groups and creating in-the-moment motifs, producing spontaneous choral creations in the moment. And I went to study that with him and just got turned on my ear. All I wanted to do was study more. It sent me back to my jazz theory chops and made we want to get serious. And that’s really when I went back and started performing and recording more. Bobby was actually just in Atlanta about two years ago and I got to bring an ensemble and perform with his group. That was super, super fun.
And how about Abbey Lincoln, because I know you recorded a tribute album to her?
Well, oddly enough, I’ve never met Abbey or seen her live. But a friend of mine turned me on. Once I heard the Wholly Earth CD, and that really hit me. It’s really the apex of her career, and it spoke to me musically and lyrically and spiritually, right when I needed it. We were like kindred spirits. And even though I didn’t get to meet her, I loved studying her.
She and my mother had parallel lives chronologically, but not culturally. And I found that fascinating, and I found it fascinating to learn from Abbey as if she were another mother and yet totally different. Like a jazz mother, like as a spiritual mother. My mother and I were very, very close, but she would not have given me the gifts that Abbey Lincoln would give me. And those gifts just keep on giving.
Abbey Lincoln was no stranger to social activism. What do you see as the role of the jazz artist right now?
The jazz artist’s purpose is to help people to open hearts and minds. And to tell it slant, if you will. Because when it comes to the news, we get bombarded. And for some artists, that will continue to be the way they express themselves – directly. But for me, it’s to tell it just a little bit slant, so that we can see it, see it, hear it, smell it, feel it from a little off-kilter. It’s giving the message in a different way to move hearts and minds.