A futurist with a heart for history

She grew up to the sounds of Count Basie, Ray Charles and Motown Records, studied journalism and worked as a high school teacher for a living. But her musical talent and devotion to the field eventually brought her to the forefront among contemporary jazz singers. Vanessa Rubin earned her reputation singing jazz standards, material by Sting and Stevie Wonder, and collaborating with jazz greats such as Lionel Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Jean «Toots» Thielemans and Herbie Hancock. Rubin is set to perform a series of shows in Greece, beginning with one performance this Thursday at the Mylos Club, followed by a week at the Half Note Jazz Club in Athens, from Friday through November 23. Kathimerini interviewed Rubin ahead of her visit. How important was jazz for a family of African-Americans when you were growing up in Cleveland? My father, a World War II veteran from Louisiana, adored jazz, big bands, especially Count Basie, the exquisite saxophonist Gene Ammons and Ray Charles. My mother, who hailed from Trinidad, taught us the calypso dance and how to respect foreign cultures. I’m the seventh of eight children and my mother made sure we received the necessary level of education. At some point she bought a piano and we started lessons. My older siblings would listen to Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, singers like Dakota Staton, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross. The younger ones in the family loved the sound of Motown, soul and rhythm and blues. Growing up I learned to increasingly respect pure jazz, and at some point I got hooked on swing. When I decided to get professionally involved with music, there was no doubt that jazz would be the style. What does it mean for a professional jazz musician to sing songs from the renowned Great American Songbook? By singing old standards, we’re paying homage to our tradition. Once upon a time, these songs were the pop style of the era. And they’ve proven that they’re of a quality that hasn’t withered over time, especially if one considers the various interpretations by jazz artists. Standards represent jazz tradition. They continue to inspire and embellish the personal development of singers and instrumentalists. You’re not just a singer, but also a composer and lyricist. Yes, there’s always the need to add something to material that already exists. That’s how music evolves. That’s how we manage to keep this form of art contemporary and fresh. That’s how we leave our mark on things with the hope that it will encourage others to do likewise. Besides being a professional musician, you’re also a professional teacher. Although music has always been a part of my life, when I began my [musical] studies I didn’t intended to become a singer. When I decided to become one I already had a degree, lived alone and had to support myself. I worked as an English literature teacher in New York. I liked working with youngsters, especially ones with problems. I showed them a more positive side of life through music. You’re associated with traditional jazz. For some, pure jazz begins with the bebop and cool styles. Swing, boogie and the big bands were overlooked as being commercial, in contrast with smaller artistic ensembles led by acts such as Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane. You’ve got to remember how jazz began, how it developed and who contributed to this. I don’t like talking political or sociological theories. I’m more interested in whether a listener has a special listening experience. The most important thing of all is to be able to listen to music without prejudice. It may sound idealistic, but, if you think about it, that’s how everything began. Musicians of that era weren’t great intellectuals. They simply enjoyed what they did. Personally, I love big bands, and the very first big orchestra I worked with when I moved to New York was Lionel Hampton’s. That was both an honor and blessing for me. Many renowned singers passed through «Hamp’s» orchestra, like Betty Carter and Jimmy Scott. At the time, I felt that I was on the right track. Which other singers would you say influenced you? I’m grateful to all the artists and teachers that shaped my life in music. All these people form my musical base. They helped me prepare and be able to understand the greatness of music. Sarah Vaughan was the first and biggest influence. Thanks to her, I became a jazz singer. That’s also true of Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, and, later on, more bluesy singers such as Etta Jones, Joe Williams and Dinah Washington. One led me to the other. And there are so many more to discover. One review wrote that you turned Gershwin’s classic «But Not For Me» into a «women’s manifesto for the 21st century»… Look, I feel like I am a woman of today, and, at the same time, I like to tell a story with a song. Subsequently, the way I interpret a song can reflect the behavior and values of my era. I feel like a woman of today, but deep down, I’m not very different to the women of the 20th century. «But Not For Me» has its own significance because it’s told by a woman of two ages, one younger and the other a wiser, older one. They’re different in many ways but share the same values. I’m very proud of my racial heritage and feel that I’m paying respect to my ancestors who persevered in difficult times. But the world has shrunk, so I feel that I have a responsibility that’s characterized by something more universal. That’s how one overcomes ethnic and racial limits. I never want to forget where I’ve come from, but I also look ahead.

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