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 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.