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During their formative years, neither Lauren Henderson nor Camille Thurman anticipated that singing would be anything but an avocational activity. Both shifted course.
On her self-released, bilingual eighth album, Musa (Brontosaurus), Henderson presents a program comprising six of her own songs and five covers of various provenance, with an eye toward expressing her Afro-Latinx heritage. She spins her stories with accompaniment from an ensemble of high-profile, generational-peer jazz folk (pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Eric Wheeler, drummer Joe Dyson), and with guests Marquis Hill on trumpet and flamenco guitarist Paco Soto. If comparisons to antecedent jazz singers must be made, think of the simmering minimalist locutions of Shirley Horn and Carmen McRae, or the deliberate narratives of Nancy Wilson
Thurman’s employment in the saxophone and woodwinds section of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is all that need be said about her formidable instrumentalism. She has also sung with JALCO, taking on the complex, challenging three-woman choral component of the libretto of Wynton Marsalis’ sardonic epic, The Ever Fonky Lowdown, and fulfilling the band singer function on an Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert. She doubles as saxophonist and singer on each of her three albums, most recently Waiting for the Sunrise (Chesky). Here, she reveals herself as a polymath student of jazz legacy with a warm, capacious tenor saxophone sound that refracts the vocabularies of, among others, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson and John Coltrane in personal, idiosyncratic ways. As a vocalist, she projects her own perspective on the essences of Ella, Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, her stated idols.
Both are children of educators — Thurman’s parents taught in the New York City public school system; Henderson’s father taught history while in his 20s — who introduced their daughters to music and jazz history at home.
Raised in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, Thurman recalls having a “breaking things apart and putting them back together” mindset since she was a toddler playing with Legos. That served her well as an aspiring flutist-saxophonist in middle school band class (her teacher, Peter Archer, inspired the main character of the animated film Soul), and she was highly proficient by the time she matriculated at SUNY-Binghamton as a dual major in geology and music. Singing had been a quotidian activity since her mother, who led a church choir, had Camille memorize the songs as a toddler. “I sang as a tool to help get to the center of the music and would scat when I transcribed solos,” she says. But she took her voice for granted until she was 20, when a professor told her she had a gift and urged her to nurture it.
Henderson grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, where, in high school, she studied piano, played field hockey and sang choir. Self-described as “shy,” she eschewed solo singing until senior year, when she auditioned for a production of Grease and was cast as Sandy. She sang at Wheaton College and received an internship at MTV Tres, which then presented a Latinx format. After graduating, she moved to New York and took a job at MTV Tres that involved production and artist relations. At a certain point, she earned an MBA from Brown, learning skills that she applies to self-managing her career. Henderson’s “earliest New York musician friends” were pianists Fortner and Alex Brown, and, as she held a day job working with Latinx artists, she started singing with them “on the side.” As both careers progressed, she says, “eventually I had to make a choice; it was an easy choice to pick music.”
Camille, talk about your transition from singing as an avocation to a seriously focused interest.
Camille Thurman (CT): At college, I didn’t tell anyone I sang for a long time, because I had such respect for the skill of the singers I knew, and I hadn’t committed to studying voice like I studied my instruments. Also, as a teenage musician, people would always assume I was the vocalist, even though I was carrying my instrument, and some men would say, “You should sing more, and put down the horn.” So I got this notion maybe I should be quiet and just play.
In college, I met [bassist] Mimi Jones and [tenor saxophonist] Antoine Roney, and they each had a serious conversation with me. They told me that some of the greatest musicians in the world were both vocalists and instrumentalists — Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Aretha Franklin, and Sarah Vaughan, who played second piano for Earl Hines. I realized that this is who I am; it’s about making a conscious effort to take the mantle, study both gifts and try to perfect them.
Lauren, when you started singing seriously, who were your models? Were you very analytical in listening to different singers? Was it a more intuitive process?
Lauren Henderson (LH): It’s a combination of all the above. I never imagined that I would be able to be a professional vocalist. I didn’t think I was good enough. Even to this day — it depends on my mood — I tend not to be always singing everywhere. My career has gone hand in hand with finding more out about my identity, what that means to me and to people around me, what that means in society and the world, and what my message is, or what I can share through music.
When I got to New York over a decade ago, somebody told me to listen to a lot of Shirley Horn, who I fell in love with. That timing was important, because people would tell me, “You need to belt, to sing louder, do this or that on stage.” I realized that’s not me. I had to really think about what resonates with me and find my own path as the one unique thing that I can offer. I didn’t go to a conservatory. I didn’t have those important four years of shared experiences with the people I work with. I had to push myself to get immersed into the scene, meet new people and try to make important connections where I could.
Camille, JALCO has tasked you with singing songs associated with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald in idiomatic contexts. Talk about accessing individuality in those circumstances.
CT: I never really thought of it that way. I was just fortunate to be inside the music with a lot of great musicians, taking on the role of channeling the lineage of the great tenor players or the great vocalists. That gave me an opportunity to test drive and see what I could do with my instruments while understanding, learning and playing this music’s history. I knew that these are the standards and voices and instrumentalists that people recognize and love and respect. But I also understood that Ella and Sarah had a space where they were able to explore and develop the instruments that we know them for today. As a case in point, Ella, the incredible scat singer, developed her skills on the road with Dizzy Gillespie, learning about bebop.
Learning to use my voice as an instrument, adding that element of expression, so widened my world. I realized that I could use the dynamics of instrumental playing with my voice. I watched people like Betty Carter, and realized her voice wasn’t necessarily always at the forefront, but she also interacted within the band, using that as a vehicle to tell a story through the arrangement.
Are different personalities coming out when you’re singing vis-à-vis playing the horn?
CT: The same transparency is involved in being a player or singing on a bandstand. The difference is that as singers we work with words. We’re telling a story. As a saxophonist, you’re playing maybe 75 percent of the time with the rhythm section — it gives you a chance to have dialogue. As a vocalist, you have only so much time to say what you have to say; you have to really focus on how you express the words, on your timing, on your interaction with the band. Ella, Sarah and Betty had no limits. They could make any situation work and create an experience that you’d probably never have expected to happen just from singing — beyond words, with notes and lines that interact with the band.
One thing that strikes me is that you seem to address the lyrics of older standards without irony.
LH: Representation is something that I think about all the time. A lot of the songs are very old, the lyrics are antiquated, and I find some things are gendered, or silo different groups, or are exclusive — and I want to be inclusive. As I get older, I feel more responsibility to make sure that the music I’m releasing represents my identity and personal beliefs in a way that forces people to listen and think about it. I always love to quote Nina Simone: It’s our responsibility to reflect the time. So I tend to be very specific about what songs I pick. If I feel I cannot present the song and do that well, then I probably will not pick that standard. Sometimes, if the message resonates with me, I’ve made subtle adjustments to the lyrics. I don’t always do things that are in your face, which is probably my general approach to music and interpretation in general. Obviously, on my originals, the words are mine.
CT: This music is so transparent — if you haven’t really been dealing with yourself and trying to understand the song, chances are it will be revealed when you try to sing it. So for me, it’s always been wise to find material that I relate to. Then I can see myself in it, which allows me to express the song the way that I choose to and dig a little deeper. I love playing with the words. I love playing with the phrasing of the melody over time. I love playing with the subtle nuances — maybe tapering the notes, or changing a few notes to fit different colors of chords that I prefer to hear when I resolve a melody. Having that foundation frees me up so much more, not only to be able to sing a nice melody, but also to tell a story and interact with my band while telling it, and to connect instantly with the audience — now it’s an experience and not necessarily just a nice song. Most of the singers who I love did that. Betty could just talk to you, and the way she talked was a song. Sarah’s voice was so rich, she didn’t have to say much — from one note, just in the emotion of her voice, you can tell whether she’d sing the song from a playful girl perspective, or that of a woman who has been scorned, or a woman who is just happy about life. Finding ways to tap into those things is what I’m striving for whenever I sing.
You’re both very comfortable living in swing.
LH: I love to swing. The more you delve into different genres, you’ll discover that swing pops up wherever you go. I love that about this time period. We’re all cousins. And it’s beautiful when we can find that connection. I think it’s very important in all music to find the pocket — what will make someone bounce, if that’s what you’re going for, or what will lull you, put you in a trance. I love dancing, as well. Flamenco dance has been a big passion of mine for a long time, which is why I incorporate it and regularly try to fuse it with jazz.
CT: The swing and the blues was always in the entire lineage of American popular music — rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, rock and roll, soul music, hip-hop. It’s the unifying thread; it might look different, but it sounds the same. It all goes back to Africa, that overlapping of the 3 and the 4, that in-between world of rhythm with that little something extra that makes it feel so good. That’s what makes the music relatable. It’s part of Black culture. It’s how we communicate. It’s how we speak with each other. It’s how we move. As a musician, you can’t deny it.
When I was younger, my mom played “Jazz Thing,” by Gang Starr, which ran at the end of [the Spike Lee film] Mo Better Blues. In the beginning, it had all these snippets of these swinging bands, and I remember at 4 or 5 being amazed by how seamlessly it went from the swing to the spoken word — that this music from a span of 60-70-plus years was locked into the same rhythmic groove, the same flow, the same feel. Ray Charles is a perfect example. When you listen to Ray, yes, you hear gospel; yes, you hear R&B; yes, you hear blues; yes, you hear soul — but you also hear that swing. Even if he’s singing country music. It’s how he’s phrasing it.
Talk about your respective experiences with the pandemic.
CT: For me, it felt like a year of endless mourning. Mourning in terms of losing friends and family to COVID, mentors and musicians you respect and admire who’ve been pillars in the community — and not being able to say goodbye. But then also your career. Because as an artist, it takes so much work and dedication and time, not just playing, but organizing the tours, booking the band, reaching a point where you think you’re making some progress, getting the music out there. Being the manager, the booker, the arranger, the composer, the grant-writer, this and that — and then overnight it’s all swept away. There’s no, “Oh, we’ll reschedule.” No, that’s it. Nobody knows when it’s going to happen again.
There was a period of deep loss, I guess you could say, because there’s nothing you could do. You’re losing your loved ones, but then you also feel like you lost a piece of yourself, not being able to make music with people, which is so much part of who we are. And you didn’t really realize that until you sat and thought, “Oh, man, I haven’t played with people in three months. I’m about to lose my mind. I need to play with somebody.” It’s literally like being in isolation, musically not being able to breathe.
LH: Full transparency: My partner is an ER physician. In the beginning of the pandemic, he lost colleagues, and we were preparing for the worst. I didn’t know if I would be a widow in a few months. So going from that to this period is one layer. Also, I’m an only child, and although my parents are doing well, they’re older and I lost a year with them. I stayed away because I wanted them to be safe; with my partner in COVID all day, I didn’t want to pass that over.
And then, of course, all of the movements that have happened, like Black Lives Matter — what that means to me as an artist, how it’s influenced my musical identity and the type of music I’m releasing. Also, I’m an Afro-Latinx artist. Back in Panama, all through Latin America and here in this country, a lot of Afro-Latinx people are not represented in mainstream culture, or people forget this part of history. So it’s my responsibility to share this part of my culture and educate that, yes, there are Black Americans all throughout the world and we’re all facing struggles. It’s important to share these struggles and celebrate our differences and diversity within Black music and the huge umbrella that it is.
I’m getting ready to tour in Europe in August, and almost having social anxiety about seeing people! I’ve been staying away from people, and now suddenly it’s like rehearsal and go-go-go with shows, and something that was a livestream is now open to the public. I’m struggling with that transition. I feel it’s inevitable that I’ve changed; I’m not the same person I was before the pandemic. So owning that, accepting that, working through that and being empowered by that is what I’m focusing on right now.
What does the word “jazz” mean to you circa 2021?
CT: It’s expression. It’s freedom. It’s openness. It’s endless possibility. It’s raw. It’s honest. It’s transparent. It’s everything.
LH: It’s also everything to me. It’s a space for artistic exploration. Its origins are Black American music. It’s happiness. It’s honesty. It’s discovery. My favorite part of jazz is working with all the great musicians of our generation, seeing new things each time you’re on the bandstand with other artists, being allowed to interpret things differently, and having a space to grow and evolve and express yourself.
Has the aesthetic or spirit or act of playing jazz taken on special resonance since the 2016 presidential election?
CT: I think it really resonated in 2020. During the last year, we had to directly face a lot of things that maybe we’ve been too preoccupied to zoom in on and deal with. If you think about it, jazz is in your face. It’s really honest. You go see a concert, there’s no escaping the emotion; no escaping that state where everything stops and you just enter the spirit of the moment. All these other things are happening around you, but once the music gets real, there’s nothing you can do but deal with it. I think this last year reminded us, as artists, of that power we have in everything we do. The moment is the essence of everything. If there’s something powerful, or moving, or touching, something that’s wrong that we have to be able to unearth, that might be ugly or feels uncomfortable, that might make you feel a range of emotions — we’re always dealing with that honesty. For me as an artist, this music has reaffirmed living in your honesty and your truth.
LH: That’s beautiful. I couldn’t reiterate that in a better way. - Ted Panken