The Singer, June/July 2008
"You do what? ... you don't look like a jazz singer to me. How wonderful!"
I was at a rather literary, rather Islington, chokingly arty dinner-party attacking my artichoke starter. The woman to my right was implausibly thin, late fifties, pinched features – a barrister with aromatherapy evening-class leanings. Too late for mischief. She said she loved that Michael Bublé. I knew only one other person, and as these oceanically self-regarding "do's" are my habitual "dont's", the question "And what do YOU do?" has always be the cream-on-my-cake fear.
The stock reply for strangers on trains, overly insistent florists, friends of friends and pinched barristers is an absurdly ironic "oh, I'm an internationally revered jazz singer". When abject mischief seems to be my only paddle in these situations, I will sometimes… inveterately… lie. Plumber, IT-manager, taxi driver – anything to save explaining why I "don't look like a jazz singer".
My love of performing in all settings: jazz clubs, concert halls, churches, recording studios, tents, coupled with my passion for singing stories, improvising and generally having a rare old night with my beloved band is simply not enough. I need to look a certain way. Apparently
So, do I absorb the chemical dependency of Chet Baker, channel the desperation of Billie Holiday, continue with the arrogance of a Sinatra in pale grey silk, the grumpiness of a fedora-hatted Van Morrisson, the detached shirt'n'tie of Nat Cole – or now the funky punky disregard of Jamie Cullum?
Dawn Upshaw, that wondrous American soprano, was recently lunched by an adoring interviewer in her home town – where I imagine where she tries to lead as normal a life as possible. He was aghast at her resemblance to a mum waiting for her kids at the school gates. What was expected of her? Full taffeta recital gear and half her bodyweight in costume jewellery… at Starbucks? Not our Dawn. She is normal. And preposterously talented. Aside from her appearing in character, she could wear a Wal-Mart carrier for all I care.
David Newton, a superb and in-demand jazz pianist (Stacey Kent, Carol Kidd, Claire Martin) has exploded the cool of UK jazz with his naughty old website of "alternative professions", a nifty and affective sideswipe at what British jazz musicians should be doing, based purely on their appearances. Cleo Laine is 'Tutenkhaman's Mother'. Jazz singer Tina May an air hostess. I am quite simply… Bin man. The horrible truth right there in print.
Okay folks. Smart suits and funky fifties silk ties aside, what the hell should a 45-year-old Welsh jazz singer dress like? I remember doing a TV show here, years ago in a rather sharp, well cut two- piece, designed by one of the Soho big boys. Rough silk. Silver. Sleek. Jazz. I looked like a Nissan car dealer.
My job is mostly a constant joy. I mustn't (and rarely) complain. I sing all over the world with Zip, Pep and Elan (no, they aren't my backing group… just a state of perma-energy), to… well, whosoever will have me. Big bad big bands in Germany, sexy supper clubs in New York, pouty Parisian jazz clubs, Italian concert halls, Hanoi opera house, Ronnie Scott's, the Southbank, the Barbican and the occasional late-night Soho lock-in. But I don't have a single thing to wear.
My sister suggested an undercover trip to the Oxford Circus branch of Topman. "TopMAN?" Shouldn't that be "TopBOY"? As I gamely fingered the pale grey and pink stripey sweaters and retro seventies tapered jackets, a tiny inner voice was pleading "You are a stocky forty-five year old man. Move away from the skinny-rib crop-tops." I spied a nice scarf. £8.99. Grey wool. It fitted. I bought it. I fled.
I am currently part of a project led by the extraordinary South African composer, Abdullah Ibrahim. Five jazz singers and his New York trio. A dream of a gig AND I get to sing his best song "The Wedding". We gave it at the Essen Philharmonie before Christmas. No mention of the performance attire at the London rehearsals so - CONCERT WITH INTERNATIONAL SUPER HERO equals my very smart black evening coat with jeans (artfully ripped of course). Come the pre-show gathering in the dressing room in Germany, it became painfully clear that the jeans thing was uniquely mine. Four other singers, same age as me were slickly dark-suited and white-shirted. They looked like they meant business. I looked like a gay funeral director.
The night after the Islington dinner party I was on the road again. Standing on stage, listening to a sinewy solo from David Preston, my preposterously talented guitarist, I imagined for the first time what the audience was SEEING. The shaved head, the post punk t-shirt, the smartish dark blue silk jacket (bought in New York), the faded jeans (Tescos, Ashford), the black Chelsea Boots.
Not bad I thought. Cool disregard meets a reluctant soupçon de decent footwear chic. I smugly slipped my left hand into my jacket pocket and leant persuasively towards the microphone. You know, Van Morrison-style. One half of an egg sandwich greeted my fubsy fingers. Not very fresh. Not very pleasant. Not very jazz.
So onward I boldly march into the freelance future sunset of my performing career, flinging my small pull-along Samsonite onto luggage racks, delighted that my adorable and all suffering manager Charlotte has asked for a half-bottle of Smirnoff to be put in the dressing-room (only heavily subsidised affairs or humane promoters will satisfy this rather flimsy, part-time rock 'n' roll request), green grapes and extra fluffy towels – because, well, it's a gig in Gateshead. Confident that the crumpled creases in my two jackets for the weekend will drop out, in a steamy hotel bathroom, pre-show and post-shower. Happy that the rolled up white linen shirt will, under the scorch of an Ibis iron, emerge as crisp, white, and starched as an Islington dinner party.