Singer and songwriter Juliet Kelly is coming to Birmingham Jazz’s Legends Festival on Sunday 22 May. She will be Celebrating The Divas Of Jazz – singing songs associated with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone with a piano trio. She was in her London home, I was in my Lichfield one and we caught up by email.
Q Did you like jazz as a child? Can you remember when you first heard some jazz? Can you remember what it was about it that appealed to you?
A As a child, I never listened to jazz at all. I grew up in a religious household where all non-religious music was banned! However, I still listened secretly to music in the pop charts. Thinking back, the first time I heard jazz, I didn’t know it was called jazz. The first jazz song I remember hearing was Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me that was used in a perfume TV commercial in the 1980s and became a chart hit. I remember loving the piano solo – I learned it off by heart and would sing along to it. I didn’t know it was jazz, I just knew that I loved the creative expression and joy of the music.
I first discovered what jazz was at an a cappella workshop led by the wonderful Australian vocalist Anita Wardell. I knew that I wanted to be a jazz musician at the very first gig I ever did at a wine bar in Waterloo. I wasn’t nervous and felt so at home. I also couldn’t believe I got paid for doing something that I loved. I was hooked!
Q Does the Great American Songbook still have any relevance to the modern world?
A I think classic songs are loved by many and will always be relevant. The wonderful thing about jazz is that the standards are like a beautiful piece of fabric that each musician gets to make into a unique garment. Some keep it simple, some come up with high fashion concepts that everyone admires but no-one will ever wear. Fashions change but beautiful music and clothes can always be appreciated.
Q What are your favourite Standards?
A That’s too hard! My favourites change all the time. However, I do have a special place in my heart for the songs of Duke Ellington and Michel Legrand.
Q What three songs written since 1970 have most earned their place among the great Standards?
A Another tough question. Three songs that come to mind are Chick Corea’s Spain, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Waters Of March and Jimmy Rowles’s The Peacocks. All favourites of mine.
Q How do you go about writing your own songs? And where do you find inspiration?
A My inspiration for writing songs comes from many different sources. Sometimes the ideas for songs come through dreams, at other times they’ve been inspired by situations in my life or the lives of people I know. My most recent album Spellbound Stories was inspired by some of my favourite novels. In nearly all cases, however, the music comes first and the lyrics are written later. I also like to “binge” write. I take time out, cut myself off from distractions and focus on writing for a couple of weeks at at time. It might not be the easiest way to get it done but it’s always been the way that works for me.
Q What do you look for in the musicians you play with? Who would be in your dream band?
A I look for creativity, versatility and energy. I love to play with people who have varied influences and a passion and enthusiasm for different genres of music. My dream band would have Bill Evans on piano. Actually, one of my favourite albums is the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans album so if I could wave a magic wand, then it would be fun to go into the studio with Bill Evans and record some of my favourite standards.
Q Some singers feel they have suffered prejudice in the jazz world and are not taken as seriously as instrumentalists. Have you ever felt that? Why do you think it happens?
A Perhaps this is true but it is sometimes justified as many singers come to the stage unprepared and with barely any practice on their “instrument”. Sadly, it may even be the majority. But there are many jazz singers, especially these days, that take the music very seriously. I would hope that musicians would have an open mind and not judge us prematurely. I find that the more accomplished the musician, the more likely they are to be non-judgemental. I have had a few instances where musicians have been patronising and dismissive but this usually changes after the first few songs and I’ve even had some of them come up to me at the end of a gig congratulate me with surprise.
Q Who are your favourite musicians? Who has influenced you most?
A I have a long list of favourites and influences. This list includes Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Anita O’Day, Betty Carter, Dianne Reeves, Shirley Horn, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae and Cassandra Wilson. One of my greatest influences is Nina Simone. I love the fact that she didn’t tie herself down to style or genre and created her own unique sound.