Gretchen Parlato — Song of the Soul
Jazzit Magazine, Nov/Dec 2007
Interview by Marta Raviglia

When did you first discover jazz and what is it that you like of it?

I was born into an artistic family, specifically musical family, so I heard jazz ever since I can remember! Music and art was a part of everyday life for me, and I started to have an interest in singing jazz at 15 years old. It seemed like a style where I could find my voice. Jazz has such a history and tradition, but it is also truly about finding your own sound and interpretation. I liked that there were rules to learn, but that after you learn them, it was ok to break them!

What are your main influences in music? Are there musicians and singers that allowed you to develop your own style?

I am influenced by so many singers of different genres, but if I had to just discuss jazz singers, I’d say my main influences are Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Bobby McFerrin, João Gilberto, Chet Baker… Definitely Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter… My list could go on and on!

What about Brazilian music? How did you discover it and why do you like it so much?

I fell in love with Brazilian music when I was about 15 years old. I was digging though my mother’s record collection and found the classic album “Getz/Gilberto” Stan Getz, João Gilberto, Jobim. I loved everything about that sound. One of my best friends was Brazilian, Nicolau Vergueiro and he played me so much music. His father is a great pianist, Guilherme Vergueiro, so they had an incredible music collection. It started with the classic Bossa Nova sound, and developed from there. It is so beautiful to me, and even at 15 years old, I was moved. A beautiful combination of rhythm, harmony, melody and lyrics…with very specific and advanced harmony, but performed in such a simple and emotional way that speaks to every listener.

You come from an artistic family. How much this has affected your choices?

I have always been surrounded by artists, everyone in my immediate and extended family is involved in the arts. This has made me feel very comfortable around other artistically minded people. I also went to LA County High School for the Arts, so I was enveloped in all genres of artistic people. Now even in life, most, if not all of my friends are artists.

You earned a BA in ethnomusicology. Why did you choose to study this subject and how did it contribute to your musical growth?

When I was in high school, the ethnomusicology department came to do a clinic in the music department. The Gamelan Ensemble performed and called students out from the audience to come join them. I was one of these students who was able to perform with them, and it was that moment that I realized I could study music from all over the world in UCLA’s ethnomusicology. I knew that it would help me to develop my own sound, and I was thrilled to be exposed to other styles of music. The Jazz studies department was also developed during my last 2 years at UCLA, so I was able to combine my major and earn a BA in ethnomusicology/jazz studies. Here I studied and performed with Kenny Burrell, Billy Higgins, Kobla Ledzekpo, Gerald Wilson, Barbara Morrison.

You said Tierney Sutton taught you to be an honest interpreter and improviser. How much did her teachings help you to find your own voice?

I began my private voice study with Tierney when I was 17 years old. Back then I was like a sponge, I had open eyes and ears to all around me, and soaked up everything I heard! A very impressionable time, and a precious time for an artist, because we haven’t been tainted with the “real world” troubles yet! We think we can do anything and everything, and have nothing in our way! I bonded with Tierney Sutton immediately when I heard her sing, because our voices were in such a similar range, and she was singing in a style that I admired. She is all about intonation, tone quality, rhythm, phrasing, and in a style that is completely her own, relaxed, pure and honest. I adore her! We are close not only in our musical relationship, but in our personal relationship as well. She has become a big sister to me.

You said you want to serve the music as a singer. In what ways is this possible?

I learned this phrase from Tierney Sutton, actually. She believes in this, and I do as well. To me, it’s as if the music is this higher power above all and bigger than all of us. It’s about being a true artist and serving the beauty of the music, not your ego.

How do you choose a song? What does it have to suggest?

Every song I choose to sing has to speak to me in some way. Then it’s my job to speak through the song. I choose songs that relate to my life in some way. It’s a beautiful thing to sing through your vulnerability in a song. Then it's just about honesty and purity of the music.

I read that when you auditioned for the Thelonious Monk Institute you said you wanted to bridge the gap between instrumentalists and singers. How can you do that? And do you think you succeeded?

I feel that singers learn from instrumentalists and instrumentalists learn from singers and that we are all making music, and there shouldn’t be such a huge gap between how each of us work together. Realizing that singers can use their voice like an instrument, and in turn, an instrumentalist can learn about playing a melody by listening to how a singer sings lyrics. It’s a matter of respecting each other and educating ourselves so that we are speaking the same musical language. This is what I believe and I can just hope that its opened someone’s ears and maybe inspired them in some way. So, yes I hope I have succeeded…

Can you tell me something of your experience at the Thelonious Monk Institute where you had not only the chance to get in touch with jazz legends such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, but you also met creative young musicians that still play with you?

The Thelonious Monk Institute is an amazing opportunity. Its impact is so much heavier than we realize when we are students in it. It gives musicians the opportunity to study and perform with living legends, and tour around a bit, allowing them to just focus on music for 2 years. Because its so intense, it ends up being about personal growth, emotional, spiritual. It has played a huge part in who I have become, learning about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, what I want and what I don’t want. It forces you to look within and figure out who you are. I met Lionel Loueke in the Monk Institute when we were both students, and we developed a very special bond, as well as the other members of the band. I think of them like brothers, we are a family.

You won the Thelonious Monk Competition in 2004. In what ways do you think your musical life has changed since then?

Winning the competition is definitely a prestigious accomplishment. I went into that thinking that I was simply going to “do my thing.” I knew where I had come from, I knew I had just as good a chance as any other singer, I knew I had something to say with my art. It's wonderful to have been a part of that, because winning was more than just about "me". I feel like I represented many other singers who have the same approach and style. We sing simply, it's purely about music, it's not a big show. We aren’t extravagant performers. It’s intimate and honest. The judges saw that in me and I am grateful that they did. It’s almost as if winning the competition validated my style and approach and sound to those who perhaps didn’t really understand it before. It simply just made people listen a little harder.

There is a magical connection between you and your musicians. What are the characteristics of your ideal musicians? Have you found them? And in what ways has playing with musicians who challenge you been important for you?

I feel lucky to have found those musicians who can create magic! Everyone I sing with has that ability. It’s going back to the idea of serving the music. I find players who are beyond their ego. They understand simplicity and beauty in space. They can play amazing things and in just the right amount at just the right moment. They know that what they do is precious. And above all, they LISTEN...

You said that if you hadn't been a singer, you would have been a teacher. Do you currently teach and what are, in your opinion, the rewards teaching can give you as a musician and as a person?

I do teach voice lessons often. I love teaching. I learned from the yoga sutras that we are all eternal students. I truly believe this, I learn everyday from others around me, we can think of every single person in our lives as being a teacher, every event teaching us a lesson. Teaching has helped me to communicate what I believe in and it's always inspiring to hear other singers.

You said, more than once, that you feel very lucky to be an artist. Could you explain why?

I feel very lucky to be an artist because life is art; art is life. I feel lucky to be able to sing for my life! Art makes us feel alive, it inspires us, it moves us, touches us… I feel fortunate to be creating something that will affect someone else’s life. It’s the greatest compliment when someone tells me after a show, “you made me cry” or “I played your music during a hard time, and it made me feel better”. That is a beautiful and wondrous thing! I feel lucky that I can spend my life doing what I love to do, and that it is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us. I'm lucky that I do something that makes me feel like I am doing my part to help other people.

We live in a world in which, unfortunately, art is not one of the main issues of life. In your opinion, what should be the role of an artist in the contemporary society?

It’s funny, because I forget that art isn’t one of the main issues of life! Since I have been surrounded in art since my very first breath, I don’t know any different. But yes, I am aware that it doesn’t play the same role for other people. Maybe our role as artists should be to think bigger, beyond the art, and think of how it can have a positive effect on society. The beauty is that if your heart is in the right place, this "positive effect" happens without even trying…

What are your future plans?

I have plans to record another album very soon. I have some touring coming up, besides that I play around New York City all the time. My future plan is to continue travelling down this path and enjoy the journey!