Growing Up with Jazz
I was lucky to grow up the youngest of seven children in a musical family. My mother's mother, Katherine O'Brian Merrick was a concert pianist who had instilled a love of music in her nine children. My mother passed that on to us. She was a lifelong jazz fan, having grown up during the Big Band era (Billie Holiday sang with the Artie Shaw band at Mom's junior prom in college!). So I grew up listening to recordings of everyone from Duke Ellington to Count Basie to Jimmie Lunceford and Benny Goodman.
We moved to New York City when I was nine. My parents started hanging out regularly at Jimmy Ryan's, the club where trumpeter, Roy Eldridge held court. It was here that I was introduced to the thrill of live jazz. I absolutely loved the music I heard there and the cool vibe of the musicians. It wasn't long before I discovered WRVR, a 24 hour jazz station in New York. The great disc jockies there played a mix of older and contemporary jazz. Here, I got turned onto more modern players like John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard and Randy Weston, just to name a few. I started to collect records (lps) and developed a taste for tenor players and singers.
My first real influence as a singer was the vocal trio, Lambert Hendricks & Ross. I really dug Jon Hendricks' lyrics that he wrote on existing jazz tunes and on the improvised solos of classic recordings. I learned to sing all of those lines, developing a taste for bebop and "vocalese." I started writing my own lyrics in this style as a teenager (some of which I still sing today!). I've written original lyrics to compositions of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson, Wayne Shorter and other great jazz composers, a practice I still undertake today.
I studied at Berklee College of Music in the 1980s and learned a great deal about composition, arranging, and jazz harmony. This knowledge and understanding of the jazz lexicon informs my own singing today. My love for the tenor saxophone gives my singing more of an instrumental quality that other instrumaentalists seem to dig.
Labor of Love
So, after I had fallen in love with this music and the people who made it (I was probably around 12 years old at the time), I was sitting with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan's Nightclub at 154 W.54th St. I remember this address because I would often take a taxi down to meet my parents there! (Gilbert Pincus, "The Doorman of 52nd Street" would meet the taxi, pay the fare, and escort me inside.)
Roy asked me, "So, Kid, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I answered, "I want to be a jazz musician just like you!" He shook his head in sorrow. "Oh man, why do you want to do that?... Look at me. I'm in my 70s. I play this dingy club six nights a week, live in a walk up flat, and go on the road for months at a time. It's not an easy life." I told him that I thought that what he did was the coolest thing, and the people that he did it with were the coolest people. He sighed and said, "Well. If that's the case, I would advise you to study clarinet." I asked why. "Because it's so difficult to learn. Once you can play clarinet, you can play anything... I started on clarinet before I took up the trumpet."