Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Timeless Jazz
Only a few years into her career, the singer has absorbed the music’s history and made it her own.
Fred KaplanMay 22, 2017 Issue
Wynton Marsalis said, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.”Photograph by Richard Burbridge for The New Yorker
On a Thursday evening a few months ago, a long line snaked along Seventh Avenue, outside the Village Vanguard, a cramped basement night club in Greenwich Village that jazz fans regard as a temple. The eight-thirty set was sold out, as were the ten-thirty set and nearly all the other shows that week. The people descending the club’s narrow steps had come to hear a twenty-seven-year-old singer named Cécile McLorin Salvant. In its sixty years as a jazz club, the Vanguard has headlined few women and fewer singers of either gender. But Salvant, virtually unknown two years earlier, had built an avid following, winning a Grammy and several awards from critics, who praised her singing as “singularly arresting” and “artistry of the highest class.”
She and her trio—a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all men in their early thirties—emerged from the dressing lounge and took their places on a lit-up stage: the men in sharp suits, Salvant wearing a gold-colored Issey Miyake dress, enormous pink-framed glasses, and a wide, easy smile. She nodded to the crowd and took a few glances at the walls, which were crammed with photographs of jazz icons who had played there: Sonny Rollins cradling a tenor saxophone, Dexter Gordon gazing through a cloud of cigarette smoke, Charlie Haden plucking a bass with back-bent intensity. This was the first time Salvant had been booked at the club—for jazz musicians, a sign that they’d made it and a test of whether they’d go much farther. She seemed very happy to be there.
The set opened with Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and it was clear right away that the hype was justified. She sang with perfect intonation, elastic rhythm, an operatic range from thick lows to silky highs. She had emotional range, too, inhabiting different personas in the course of a song, sometimes even a phrase—delivering the lyrics in a faithful spirit while also commenting on them, mining them for unexpected drama and wit. Throughout the set, she ventured from the standard repertoire into off-the-beaten-path stuff like Bessie Smith’s “Sam Jones Blues,” a funny, rowdy rebuke to a misbehaving husband, and “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” a song from “Street Scene,” an obscure opera by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes. She unfolded Weill’s tune, over ten minutes, as the saga of an entire life: a child’s promise of bright days ahead, a love that blossoms and fades, babies who wrap “a ring around a rosy” and then move away. When she sang, “It looks like something awful happens / in the kitchens / where women wash their dishes,” her plaintive phrasing transformed a description of domestic obligation into genuine tragedy. A hush washed over the room.
Wynton Marsalis, who has twice hired Salvant to tour with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, told me, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” Salvant might not have reached this peak just yet, he said. But, he added, “could Michael Jordan do all he would do in his third year? No, but you could tell what he was going to do. Cécile’s the same way.”
It was only because of a series of flukes that she became a jazz singer at all. Cécile Sophie McLorin Salvant was born in Miami on August 28, 1989. She began piano lessons at four and joined a local choir at eight, all the while taking in the music that her mother played on the stereo—classical, jazz, pop, folk, Latin, Senegalese. At ten, she saw Charlotte Church, a pop-culture phenomenon just a few years older, singing opera on a TV show. “This girl was making people cry with her singing,” Salvant recalled, sitting in her apartment, a walkup on a block of brownstones in Harlem. “I was attracted by how she could tap into emotions like that. I said, ‘I want to do that, too.’ ”
She grew up in a French-speaking household: her father, a doctor, is Haitian, and her mother, who heads an elementary school, is French. At eighteen, Cécile decided that she wanted to live in France, so she enrolled at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, in Aix-en-Provence, and at a nearby prep school that offered courses in political science and law. Her mother, who came along to help her get settled, saw a listing for a class in jazz singing and suggested that Cécile sign up.
“I said, ‘O.K., whatever,’ ” Cécile told me. “I was passive—super passive.” At an audition for the class, she sang “Misty,” which she knew from a Sarah Vaughan album that her mother often played. After she finished, the teacher, who’d been accompanying on piano, asked her to improvise. She didn’t know what that meant, nor did she care. “I didn’t want to get into his class anyway,” she recalled. “I had poli-sci, law, classical voice—I didn’t have time.”
But the teacher, a jazz musician named Jean-François Bonnel, was astonished by her singing. “Cécile was something else,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “She already had everything—the right time, the sense of rhythm, the right intonation, an incredible Sarah Vaughan type of voice”—a pure bel canto, with exceptional range and precision. Two days later, Bonnel ran into her on the street and told her that he’d come ring her doorbell until she signed up for his class. “I always obeyed my parents and my teachers,” Salvant recalled, with a laugh. She enrolled, and found that she liked it. “There were all these cool people with dreads and cigarettes,” she said. “It was very different from the classical-music program, with these precious girls, or the poli-sci school, which was full of rich kids from Saint-Tropez, very arrogant, politically on the right. I had nothing to say to those people. So I figured the jazz department would be like a good hobby—a place to make friends, like going to a community-theatre class.”
Soon, Bonnel formed a band for Salvant—he played piano, other students played bass and guitar—and, within three months, booked their first gig, at a local music hall. He also began putting Salvant through a crash course in jazz history. “He gave me recordings, twenty CDs at a time, which I played again and again,” she said. He started her with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday—all of their albums, not just the ones her mother had played. Then came the early blues singers. “I listened to Bessie Smith’s complete recordings non-stop, all day,” she said. “I hated them at first, but eventually fell in love with her world. These songs were amazing. She sang about sex and food and savages and the Devil and Hell and really exciting things you don’t hear on ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.’ I thought, This is great! All these great stories! I’d heard torch songs by Dinah Washington about ‘I’ll wait for you forever.’ But here’s Bessie Smith singing, ‘You come around after you been gone a year? Goodbye! ’ It was empowering.” She went on to albums by later singers who fused jazz standards with earthy blues, especially Abbey Lincoln, who brought political consciousness and dissonant note-bending to the saloon-song tradition. “After coming from Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln felt harsh and a little depressing, too edgy and cold,” Salvant said. “I slowly began to love that edge, and went through a period when I didn’t like Sarah Vaughan because she didn’t have that edge.”
“O.K., everyone, a few important safety announcements.”
Toward the end of that year, Bonnel and Salvant were driving back from a jazz festival in Ascona, Switzerland. On the road, “just for fun,” he remembers, she did impressions of the great jazz singers—Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Carmen McRae. “It was incredible,” he told me. She mimicked not only the sound of their voices but also their phrasings, rhythms, breaths. Bonnel’s next task was to prod her into finding her own way with this material. In class, he told her to focus on the piano, molding the songs’ harmonies into her fingers and improvising new melodies on top of them.
At this point, she wasn’t intent on becoming a jazz singer. She had kept studying classical voice, and performed a few Baroque recitals in small churches. “The reason I turned to jazz was the gigs were coming in,” she said matter-of-factly. “If more gigs had come in with Baroque, I’d have tried to do both.” She recorded an album, called “Cécile,” with Bonnel’s band, and by 2010 she was singing throughout Europe. She figured that she’d give her jazz career three years to take off. She was twenty, young enough that, if things didn’t work out, she could go back to school and try something else—maybe history or literature or law.
One afternoon, Salvant and I went out for lunch around the corner from her apartment, at a small, brick-walled place called Il Caffe Latte, on Malcolm X Boulevard. Salvant, stirring an iced coffee, seemed unaccustomed to being out in the middle of the day. When she’s not on the road, she maintains a scholarly routine. “I’ll listen for an hour to a record of someone soloing, and I’ll sing along, improvising,” she said. “I’ve been listening to Benny Golson, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins. When you listen to a solo a lot, it’s like you’re trying to get in a person’s brain. ‘Why did Coltrane do this instead of that?’ ”
Onstage, Salvant projects confidence and subtle theatricality; offstage, she’s warm, smart, and funny, but also reserved and nervous, her voice more nasal than smoky. As she tells it, she is not a natural performer. “The first year I sang before audiences, I closed my eyes the whole time,” she said. “After a while, I gave myself a challenge: try to look at people for a nanosecond, catch their eyes—see if I melt.” As Salvant’s mother watched her career develop, she was eager to see her succeed but didn’t want to push her toward a life as a professional musician. “I never thought she would go where she is now,” Léna McLorin Salvant, a tall, assertive woman who speaks with a pronounced French accent, says. “She’s an intellectual. I thought she would go into academics.”
Still, while Salvant was in school, her mother became interested in the Thelonious Monk competition, which is held annually—the closest thing that the commercially modest jazz industry has to “American Idol.” Each year highlights a different instrument, and in 2010 it would be a singing competition. Léna insisted that Cécile record an audition disk. “Cécile is very malleable, she’s very open, and I take advantage of that,” Léna told me. “I told her the contest would be a good experience.”
Cécile sent in a disk just before the deadline, and she was chosen as one of twelve semifinalists, out of two hundred and thirty-seven applicants. In October, she was flown to Washington, D.C., for the first phase of the contest, before a live audience, at the National Museum of the American Indian. She was twenty-one and completely unknown in her own country.
As she faced the crowd, she seemed tentative. Ben Ratliff wrote in the Times that she “looked like an English teacher wearing a sensible black dress with magenta ballet flats” and “stared inquisitively at the house: really stared, as in ‘it’s not polite to stare.’ ” Her mother, who was in the audience, heard people laughing. “They were saying, ‘Who’s she?’ and ‘She’s not glamorous,’ ” she recalled. “I thought, Oh, no, why did I put her through this?”
Salvant launched into “Bernie’s Tune,” a cool-bop anthem by Gerry Mulligan, followed by “Monk’s Mood,” a knotty melody by Thelonious Monk, and “Take It Right Back,” a raucous Bessie Smith blues. “She had people eating out of her hand—it was ridiculous,” Al Pryor, the A. & R. chief at Mack Avenue Records, who was also in the house, recalled. “I knew that I had to sign her up.” Rodney Whitaker, the bassist hired for the rhythm section that accompanied the contestants, knew she was going to win even during the pre-show rehearsal. “I’d never met anyone that young who’d figured out how to channel the whole history of jazz singing and who had her own thing, too,” he later told me. She and two other women made it into the finals. The next day, after a second round of competition, at the Kennedy Center, Salvant was declared the winner.
Afterward, she flew back to France to finish her law courses, but she quickly realized that New York was where a jazz singer needed to be. Pryor offered her a contract. So did Ed Arrendell, a prominent talent manager. In early 2012, she moved to Manhattan, on her own for the first time. “My concern was: How can I deal with the solitude of a creative life style?” she told me. “I’d been used to being a good student—get good grades, follow whatever structure I’m in. Now it was the idea of letting all that go, working from home—what a nightmare!”
Unnerved, she did what she was accustomed to doing: she enrolled in classes on composition and music theory at the New School, in Greenwich Village. But Arrendell was eager to jump-start her career. He sent her some names of pianists she might enjoy singing with. She particularly liked a YouTube video of a pianist named Aaron Diehl playing Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag”—precise, soulful, and joyous all at once. “It was exciting to see somebody play Fats Waller with a fresh take yet very much in the spirit of the music,” she said. “I’d been trying to do this for years—take something old and make it yours but still authentic—and here was someone who’d figured it out.” She called him, and they met. “He was very versatile, very serious, and didn’t seem to be an asshole,” she recalled. “Those were the boxes I checked off.”
Their first gig was at the Kennedy Center. More gigs followed, with Salvant fronting Diehl’s trio (including Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums), and the musicians coalesced into a working band, on the road three weeks out of every month. She also recorded an album, called “WomanChild,” for Mack Avenue, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. (Her next album, “For One to Love,” won the award.) Meanwhile, she flunked her composition course at the New School because she had an out-of-town gig on exam day. She dropped out, no longer needing the academic structure.
Before a recent tour in France, Salvant stopped by Aaron Diehl’s apartment one afternoon to rehearse some songs. The two live in the same building, Salvant on the top floor and Diehl on the parlor and ground floors. “It’s like the pros of having a roommate without the cons,” she said.
video: Cécile McLorin Salvant sings “Wives and Lovers”
Salvant wanted to try out a new discovery, a song from the nineteen-twenties called “Dites-Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me I’m Pretty”), by a cabaret singer named Yvette Guilbert. She played a YouTube clip of it on her phone, and sang along in a quiet, crystalline voice. They spent half an hour exploring ways to make it sound like jazz. Diehl picked out the chords, then tinkered with them, thickening the harmony; he added a pop-tune bass line, then discarded it in favor of a vamp that opened some space between choruses. Diehl is Juilliard-trained, academic in demeanor, attuned to the logical structure of a song. But he deferred to Salvant, partly because she’s the band’s leader and partly because, he told me, “she has much better ears than I do.”
Once they’d worked out a plausible arrangement, he asked her, “Will you be changing the phrasing of the melody?”
“I’ll do that however this ends up,” she replied. “But I want this to progress from shy and coy to desperate and a little intense and angry.” She’d read that the song was one of Sigmund Freud’s favorites, and her idea was to reclaim a frothy ditty as an enraged critique. They agreed to work on it more at their next rehearsal.
The singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was a judge at the 2010 Monk competition, told me, “I had never seen someone as young as Cécile invest in a lyric and tell a story in the manner that she did.” This impulse to dramatize a song, treating it less as a monologue than as a play, sets Salvant apart from other jazz singers, even from many of the great ones. “To me, performance is acting as a character on the stage,” Salvant said. “Trying to get inside a world for other people and getting them to join in—that’s thrilling.” As her early stagefright waned, she began to conceive of a song as a conversation between her and the audience. “I’m not just singing words that are strung together,” she said. “They’re a story. So who am I telling the story to? Not to the band. They’re into making it sound good. I needed to acknowledge there are people in front of me. They’re not my enemy. I’m sharing something with them.”
Salvant looks back on the week at the Village Vanguard—some of which was recorded for an album that will be released later this year—as a breakthrough. She dislikes listening to herself, and cringes at excess acrobatics: “It’s like I’m saying, ‘Listen! Please! Like this! I really worked hard on this!’ I don’t want that desperation in my voice. I want to be natural and free and adventurous.” In the weeks leading up to the Vanguard dates, she talked with the band about this habit and came up with a way to break it. “I said we should play like we’re old—people who have lived and now we’re natural,” she recalled. “I want to act sixty years old. Desperation is a young person’s thing. If I’m old, I’m not thinking, What can I be? I’m getting too old for that shit.”
Al Pryor, of Mack Avenue, told me that when he heard Salvant at the Monk competition he wondered how she had acquired such broad knowledge of the music. He said, “She seemed to be an old soul in a young woman.” Pryor was onto something. Salvant told me that, when she was a kid in Miami, her friends nicknamed her Grandma. “I walked slow,” she said. “I was interested in old things—old books, old music.” When she went through a death-obsessed phase, as many teen-agers do, she consoled herself by reading Guy de Maupassant. Aaron Diehl, who is four years Salvant’s senior, told me, “I look at her as an older sister.”
I asked Salvant if, like many musicians, she’d thought of covering contemporary pop songs. She winced. “It’s fine,” she allowed. “There are some new songs that I really like, but I never think, Maybe I’ll sing this song. I don’t care whether what I do is modern or of our time. I want to sing songs that have this timeless quality. I’m interested in history—how things differ, how they’re still the same. I love it when a song is a hundred years old but still connects.”
But, she said, “I’m finding it hard to find these songs. Maybe I need to figure out something new. Sometimes I’d like to be more outrageous—like write a musical play, or do a one-woman show, or design outlandish costumes and wear them, or somehow combine my visual art with my music.” (She sketches and paints on the road, and illustrated the cover of “For One to Love.”) “I have a notebook full of drawings and ideas. I call it ‘My Book of Imaginary Projects.’ If I tried them, I feel they’d be a catastrophe. But maybe I should try one.”
In a phone conversation after the Presidential election, Salvant said, “The current political landscape is making me feel I want to be messier, sing more political songs, write more political songs.” She’d recently given a lecture at the Chautauqua Institute, in upstate New York, on the history of race and women in popular culture. In it, she dwelled on the nineteenth-century phenomenon of black entertainers performing in blackface, which many have found demeaning but which she sees as a form of rebellion—African-Americans reclaiming their own stories. She talked about parallels to songs of the nineteen-thirties, like Josephine Baker’s “Si J’Étais Blanche” (“If I Were White”), and songs from the sixties, like Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers,” which warns women to be sexy for their men so that they don’t run off with someone else.
“A friend once asked me why I didn’t sing more feminist songs,” Salvant recalled. “I said it’s hard to find feminist jazz songs. But I thought about it, and I wondered if there were sexist songs that I could make fun of. I went online, looked up the ten most sexist songs in American pop history. ‘Wives and Lovers’ was the best. And Aaron happened to love that song. Rhythmically it’s great, and the words sound wonderful.”
She sang both songs at the Vanguard the night I saw her. She treated the Baker as a haunting dirge, lingering on the words “I’d like to be white / How happy I would be.” She turned the Bacharach into a subversive anthem of assertiveness, purring its opening lines with a mix of come-hither bounce and menace: “Hey, little girl / comb your hair / fix your makeup / Soon he will open the door.” In the silence after the song ended, I could hear sighs all around me, the collective release of an uncomfortable tension.
The lyrics of “Wives and Lovers” are “ridiculous,” Salvant told me later. “But they’re also things I really do. I’m not completely over the idea of needing to be presentable and looking my best. It’s advice that I’ll almost take, then say no. The songs that I sing and kind of make fun of—they have some kind of power over me. By making fun of them, I weaken that power.”
Later, while Salvant and Diehl were on tour in France, she wrote to me in an e-mail that they had been performing “Dites-Moi Que Je Suis Belle,” the Freud favorite turned feminist howl. The audiences seemed to get the irony, reacting with a “curious, nervous mood,” like the one that “Wives and Lovers” inspires in American audiences. But Salvant and Diehl wanted to work on it more. “I just want it to be leaner and more incisive,” she wrote. “Not sure if it has to even be funny. Also, wanting to do some digging for other songs like that, asking, ‘Am I pretty?’ I wonder if they are as rare as I think.” ♦