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Interview With Jazz Singer Kate McGarry

Reflections on Singing Jazz in New York, Upon Leaving New York

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Interview With Jazz Singer Kate McGarry
© Matteo Trisolini
Jazz Vocalist Kate McGarry and her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, are leaving New York after calling the city that never sleeps home for over ten years. McGarry had a blossoming music career before she moved to New York, but it wasn’t until recently that the stars seemed to have come together for her:

Recent Highlights:

  • 2005 Released critically acclaimed album, Mercy Streets
  • 2005 Toured with Kurt Elling and Fred Hersch in Hersch’s Leaves of Grass
  • 2006 Performed with Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra
  • 2007 Began performing with vocal jazz super group MOSS
  • 2007 Released critically acclaimed album, Target
  • 2008 Grammy Nomination for her album If Less is More… Nothing is Everything

In the midst of moving to more serene surroundings, McGarry was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few of my lingering questions.

  • Charlie Christenson: Who is your favorite jazz musician?

    Kate McGarry: Hmmm… It’s a little like asking what my favorite color is…or my favorite animal, or my favorite flower…I’m going to pass on this one because they are all just pouring through my mind and I’d never be able to write them all down. Ok – Louis Armstrong – I did it. I picked one. He really is one of my favorites.

  • CC: What vocalists, jazz or otherwise, influenced you growing up?

    KM: The Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, James Taylor, The Clancy Brothers, Ricki Lee Jones, Betty Carter, The Alan Lomax Prison Recordings, Edwin Hawkin’s recording of “Oh Happy Day,” Carmen McRae, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, my mom and dad, my sisters and brothers.

  • CC: What makes someone a "jazz" singer?

    KM: A natural inclination for swing, an affinity for improvising, curiosity about harmonic structure and the ability to hear and sing changes, love of the past that drives you to listen to thousands of recordings – or one recording thousands of times, things like that. Oh, and let’s not overlook the ability to suspend reality for years at a time while you are trying to understand how to make a living at this job.

  • CC: In your opinion, what is the single most difficult challenge jazz musicians face today?

    KM: SEE ABOVE ANSWER. This is a little like the first question you asked. There are so many, its actually feels ridiculous to go into them. And who cares anyway? Anyone who finds they simply must sing jazz music can’t be that interested in practical things like challenges. There is a desire to express in a unique and creative way that is unquenchable. The never-ending supply of challenges simply helps the person hone in further and further on that desire. Like the Lions at the Gates of Knowledge, the completely impractical nature of being a jazz singer serves to discourage all but the most sincere (or stubborn, or deluded, or wealthy...hmmm, perhaps I’d better abandon this line of reasoning).

  • CC: Do you have any advice for young musicians?

    KM: In Real Estate the key words are “Location, Location, Location.” In music for me it’s been “Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate.” Unless of course you don’t feel drawn to that, in which case the words are “Instinct, Instinct, Instinct.” Follow what is naturally interesting to you. Keep mining that curiosity and let it draw you deeper inside to find out what your perspective is and how your being wants to express it. Allow that to dictate what skills you need to develop to be able to express the way you want to. Otherwise you may be working like crazy trying to develop skills that aren’t actually useful for you.

  • CC: What are your thoughts on vocal improvisation?

    KM: My mind is a complete blank on this topic.

  • CC: What are the qualities that you look for in your band?

    KM: Love of space, passion, high degree of skill and a deep relationship with their instrument, respect and interest in what the rest of the group is playing, good listeners, interactive, …enjoying each other off the bandstand as well.

  • CC: When people describe your vocal style, they often sight folk influences. How do you think this has affected your career?

    KM: Early on I was gently advised to “pick a genre, already, will ya?” I was constitutionally unable to follow this advice. Try as I might, I could neither ignore my love of the singer songwriters of the 70’s, or the classic jazz singers such as Louis (Armstrong), Billie (Holiday), Ella (Fitzgerald), Sarah (Vaughan), Carmen (McRae), or Betty (Carter) or my love of Celtic or Brazilian music. The result is whatever career I seem to have at this time. Most recently I have been becoming more interested in more ‘classic’ jazz singing and may be looking further into this end of things in the next few years.

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