Jazz in the 21st century has proven to be a conundrum. The popularity of rap and auto-tuned djing has meant the more traditional forms have faded into oblivion when facing off with the Taylor Swifts and Kanye West of the worlds.
Even last year's beloved La La Land, was criticized for its portrayal of the music that defined the 1920's. Damien Chapelle's film, as lauded as it was, showcased jazz through the lens of a white man trying to save a genre of music historically intertwined with black culture.
So if La La Land is the best depiction of jazz this generation could come up with - does this bode well for the future of the genre? Or is this just another treasure "millennials have ruined?"
Cécile McLorin Salvant would have you believe otherwise.
Her meteoric rise to fame signals that not only is the form not dying - but that there's a new wave of followers coming to support and adore the genre (and her incredibly evocative vocals).
Growing up in Miami, Salvant was musical instantly, beginning the piano at age four. With familial encouragement, she sprouted an interest in this near century-old form, and by the time she was 24 she received her first Grammy nomination for WomanChild.
She may have lost out that year to Gregory Porter, but it was to be hers in 2016. Her winning album For One To Love took home the "Best Jazz Vocal Award" after receiving acclaim from critics throughout the world. "She treats love not just as a many-splendored thing," remarks critic James Reed in a review of the album, "but also as a source of consternation and a time of reflection." It was then perhaps a perfect time to be at the forefront of the industry, for, whatever the implication, people were talking jazz again with the upcoming release of Chapelle's picture.
Now, Salvant is a household name in modern jazz, selling out some of the most esteemed venues in the world, including New York's Village Vanguard, and Le Trianon in Paris, she also took to the famed Hollywood Bowl stage as the opening act for Bryan Ferry this past September. Below, we talk with Salvant about her incredible career, cementing herself with the genre's greats and her opinions on the current state of jazz.
1. How did you get into jazz?
I first heard and loved jazz thanks to my mother. I wanted to sing classical music though. When I moved to France after high school, I met a jazz teacher at the music school I wanted to go to, and he encouraged me to pursue it.
2. Who are your biggest inspirations?
Louise Bourgeois, Colette, Nathalie du Pasquier, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Marisol, Barbara, Mercedes Sosa, Bessie Smith, Patricia Lockwood, Anne Sexton, James Blake.
Cecile Mclorin Salvant
3. In an age of auto-tuning, how does jazz remain relevant?
I am not interested in the idea of relevance. I think concern with contemporary relevance can be a pitfall in any kind of creative endeavor. It's like caring if something is trendy. (Unless you consider the word "relevance" as a connection between ideas.)
I am interested in the idea of presence. I want to communicate across time, through time, play with time, rather than thinking of it in such a way as "that was then and this is now."
4. Lala Land made such a big impact and had a lot of people talking about jazz - why in your opinion did it resonate so much?
La la Land is unfortunately another example of people talking about jazz, and the lifestyle of jazz, without any actual jazz within it. It is in line with a certain obsession with 'branding' and visuals that blocks us from actual experiences. On the one hand it's lovely to hear someone talking about jazz in a movie, but if jazz is only an idea and something someone can talk about, rather than an actual experience of music, it is quite unfortunate.
5. You create all your own album artwork - have you always been so creative/multi-talented
I feel in a lot of ways like I never lost that sort of shameless searching a child has. I enjoy drawing without a real purpose, and testing things out. I also love making my albums a very personal experience, inside and out.
6. You started playing the piano aged 4 - how does it influence your vocals?
I still play the piano a little bit. I'm not sure how it influences my singing, but it definitely helps with songwriting!
7. When did you first realize you wanted to become a jazz singer?
I don't think there was a big realization moment. I was just singing, doing concerts, and it sort of kept going naturally from there.
8. How hard has it been to get your name out there, create a fan base?
I haven't put an enormous amount of effort in getting my name out there. The effort has been in the content of the music, in my singing, in understanding the history of the music. In that way I have been lucky, because I didn't focus energies outward. I tried to make sure I was developing as a musician without sacrificing time on things I didn't understand like popularity, branding, and my name. I feel so grateful for that because I know that is not the case for everyone.
9. You only wear Issey Miyake on stage - is there a particular reason for this?
I love how the dresses look and move, how light they are, how there's really only one size, and that you can travel with them sort of rolled up in a suitcase without worrying about ironing them.
10. How did the Grammy Award change your life and career?
I'm not sure! Getting the Grammy was a beautiful moment shared with my family and my band. We got this mainstream validation for a record that had not been influenced by the penchants of the music industry. This is to say, we made exactly the album we really wanted to, without any compromises to placate a label, or to attempt to become more popular. For this I am grateful, and feel encouraged to keep developing the content of my music. To not focus on my "brand" or lack thereof. I can continue being 'anti-brand' and 'pro-content'!
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.