America's Great Original Jazz Artist
By Tina Valin
Being invited into Carmen Lundy's music studio was like entering a boutique art museum. I found myself surrounded by a curated collection of global instruments, Carmen's beautiful inspiring artwork lining the walls, and a color palette that would ignite anyone's imagination. We spoke for over three hours sipping tea and coffee and I felt like only a mere five minutes had passed by. We covered a great deal of territory that I hope sheds light on a remarkable and ever expanding career.
Carmen, what were your musical influences growing up in Miami?
I can remember that the way my family had the most fun together was when music was playing. I think for me as a kid, that was a way of getting to know family life and kind of who the fun people were, and the fun people were pretty much everybody. I remember spending my time after kindergarten at my grandparents’ house, and I know for a fact that every home I've ever been in then or lived in had a piano in it. My grandmother had a piano in the living room, and my grandfather played guitar. My mother sang. Everybody sang. I have an aunt who still plays the piano now at the same church as when I was a little girl.
So the piano has been a really core instrument for me in my upbringing. I played that little piano coming in from kindergarten and just [remember] banging away on it. Then, spending so many hours with people who were very dedicated to church life. And now, as an adult, I realize that the church and all, that was part of a community. It was a way that a community kind of came together. My grandparents owned the family market in the little town I grew up in, and my grandfather built the church at the other end of that same street that the market was on. Everything, that whole communal thing and the way the music was part of that, gave me a sense of belonging. It gave me a feeling of importance.
My mother sang in a gospel group called The Apostolic Singers. The Apostolic Singers were born out of this Apostolic faith, which is kind of a Pentecostal fundamental Christian religion. I think that’s what made going to church fun for me, that there was going to be some awesome music within that two-hour period. I watched my mother and the group rehearse at my house: “You sing this note.” “No, you got that.” “Now put it together.” Ahhh, you know, the chord.
Listening to that and how they would just pull these things out of the air, it seemed like they knew exactly what to do. For me, as a little girl, it was like, “Gee, I want to do that. I want to sing with them, and if I stay at the rehearsals, I’ll know their part. So I can do her part or your part.” The feeling was the thing that was so powerful. I think that was the most impactful thing, was the emotion behind what they sang and the energy that they put into something. That carries me to this day. I think I come to the stage with that same kind of need for a certain kind of energy to be in the music, yeah.
Now, when did you realize that you could actually sing, that you had a good voice? Did your family acknowledge it? Were you like the star child because you have this exceptional gift of a beautiful voice?
I think this idea of wanting to sing with my mother’s group was the goal. There was a younger group. They called us The Junior Apostolic Singers, the junior choir, and in this choir I picked the tenor part, which was one of the harmony parts, because it was more challenging. And I think the harmonizing was how I came to develop the confidence to say, “I want to lead that song.” Everybody was noticing that I had a good ear because I could find those harmonies, but the whole idea of singing as a soloist was a very scary thing for me, very scary. At the same time, I was my mother’s daughter. [Laugh] So when you’re the daughter, you know how that is. Whitney Houston’s mother is Cissy Houston, so Whitney’s going to sing well because Cissy did. So I think there was an expectation that I was already going to do something like that, but I was very scared and needed a little pat on the back. I needed a little reinforcement, but I didn’t really think I had a nice voice.
My thing was I loved music, and I thought I was going to play the piano. I really did. When the piano lessons began and I realized that I was cheating, I was learning the piano lesson from the teacher when she played it, then I would just hear what she did and copy her. I wasn’t connecting to the notes on the page, and eventually I realized that in order to do that well, I was going to have to spend a whole lot more time on the piano than I was singing songs. I kind of struck a balance, and then I didn’t, and I would lean more by ear, and I started to pick tunes up from the radio, my favorite songs, and I would just learn them like that. So my little thing was still coming from that visceral place and just connecting to the sound, the music, but the whole idea of having a beautiful voice, a pretty voice, nah, forget it. That was never really in my scope. I just love to make the sound of music and the whole idea of singing well was not something I really connected with.
When did you finally realize that you really had this gift? At what age?
I think I was probably getting closer to my teen years, maybe 15 or 14. By this time, I knew I was going to do music. I had made that decision, I think, in eighth grade or something like that. I joined the chorus in school, and because of my vocal range, I was an alto. In this chorus, they had talent shows at the end of every school year. You know, there’s a talent show, so the singer, I was at the end of the alto line and the singer at the end of the soprano line, our voices were always together, and that was our blend. I could hear her and she could hear me. We knew where we were in the song. She asked me one day if I would play piano for her for the talent show. “Sure, I’ll play piano for you.” [Laugh] So we did something and we ended up doing a duet. Whatever the song was we picked, I’m singing and playing, and I’m singing the harmony and she’s singing the melody, and that’s where it began. I think I grew into a certain confidence by singing with another person. That’s really what happened to me.
Well, that’s very interesting how it evolved for you. And then what happened when you were approaching graduation?
I met a guy in my junior year who came in to accompany the choir when we had these really hard pieces, and he became our accompanist. By doing his little ditties here and there, I recognized something very special about the way his chords sounded that I was not accustomed to. This guy introduced me to jazz, and it was through the way he played the piano that I heard things that I’d never really associated with the classical music or with the pop music that I was doing. I just never heard those luscious, rich, beautiful sounding chords.
You were first introduced to jazz by this kid, it didn’t come from your home or extended family? It really came from this one young guy?
This one little Jewish kid from North Miami Beach named David Roitstein.
That’s very cool that he turned you onto it.
Yeah, so now I’m playing piano for this duo, Steph and Tret, we called ourselves. We actually made a little record with an A side and a B side. The A side was called “The Price of Silence.” The B side was called “Boy, I’m the Girl for You,” and we actually went to Criteria, which is a major studio. Aretha Franklin recorded there many times. James Brown recorded there many times. Bona fide professional studio, that’s where we made our first record. We were doing this little thing, and we were kind of getting known around school for having this cute little duo. David came along and began to play piano for me, and it freed me. Now I don’t have to sit and do this kind of thing. I’m just absolutely free. When he began to accompany me is when I began to notice that there was something in that for me, that recognition, that liberty to just kind of go and not have to hold down the chorus and he made me sound really great. So that’s the end of high school.
Then we put a little group together, David and I, and it was his idea. We had, I think it was maybe four or five singers. He played the piano. We used to go into all the hospitals and do little concerts for the people there and that kind of thing and that gave us something to do in the summer. So now, here we go. “What are you doing for college?” “What school are you going to?" “What college are you going to?” What college?! Who’s thinking about college, right? My parents never even said, “OK, so we’re looking at this college and we’re looking at this college.” That never happened to me like it does with a lot of very fortunate people. My high school choir director asked me one day, “Carmen, what are your plans for college?” And I thought, “I don’t know.” [Laugh] It turns out that she took it upon herself to make sure I got placed in a school somewhere. And the next thing I know, I don’t know how, but I ended up at the University of Miami. I think I applied to the University of Miami and I was accepted in the music program there. I never auditioned.
I still didn’t have a clue about jazz vocals, jazz singers, not a clue. It was really through David. He got the role of the pianist in the youth jazz band at the University of Miami, and they needed a singer. They needed a singer for two songs, and those two songs were God Bless the Child, the Blood, Sweat, and Tears version, one of the first jazz songs I ever sang; and a song called Just Be Yourselves by a group called Dreams, which was a group that was started by the Brecker Brothers. I was singing these songs with the youth jazz band. This is all so cool to me.
When I entered my freshman year of college, I entered as an opera major because if you wanted to be a singer, you had two choices: education as a major or applied performance as a major, and I chose applied performance because I didn’t have to take math. [Laughter] David’s upstairs in the jazz program. So it turns out that we ended up at the same school without even planning it or talking about it, arranging it. There we were. It’s pretty fascinating, actually, that that happened, when you think about it.
What about that exposure to opera? You didn’t have exposure to jazz. Where did the opera come from?
That choral music, singing Stravinsky, singing the Berlioz, the Bach Magnificat, singing all of these great choral works was where, and then there’s the solo. There’s always a solo in those great works, where the soprano gets this and the mezzo gets that. So this is my entry into this whole genre of music. It wasn’t that daunting for me when I entered the program. I just never believed that I was ever going to excel as a singular voice in classical music.
When did the jazz thing happen for you?
There was an elective called Jazz Vocal 101 and I decided, “Oh, I have room for that. Let me just take that. That sounds like fun.”
So I go in there and now all the musicians are saying, “Hey Carmen, I've got this song. I was wondering if you could sing this song for me.” “Sure!” So I take the song that I’m learning from upstairs and I do it in the Jazz Vocal 101. I was just singing these other people’s songs and it was fun. The harmony’s more like Manhattan Transfer. So I’m still doing all this harmony though and it’s fabulous, but something interesting happened. I noticed that when I did the Italian art songs, that’s what most beginning opera students work with to develop their repertoire. And I noticed that I had to sing that note that was on that page, exactly that note, every time I sang that song … I’m coming from an opera–opera is like, I got that part from classical high school, but I’m a gospel kid, you know? I’m a kid [whose] parents did the blues and James Brown and stuff. So to have to be on the exact note every time was very constricting for me. I just felt no, I couldn’t make music that way. I felt like I was kind of boxed in.
This whole idea of the jazz came in and it was great. I felt liberated immediately when I could just express myself in that song without any restrictions, and that was the coolest thing of all to me. From there, I started to get a little reputation around the campus for being the singer that if you wanted to try your song out, ask Carmen, she’ll do it. Then I would go upstairs with David after the classes were over and listen to what he was doing and listen to how they were kind of doing stuff. This is when I started hearing solos, some saxophone, the guitar, and all that. At some point, I think it was toward the end of that freshman year, my private voice teacher had an idea, a suggestion, for me, that perhaps I could change my major to jazz, but they would have to see. “There’s no curriculum for the singer up there.”
The guys upstairs already knew that I was doing this anyway. So the following year, I was allowed to move into the jazz department as a vocalist without any particular design for the singer, and now I find myself in arranging classes, composition, improvisation. “OK, Carmen, your turn.” “What?!” And that’s really what happened, “OK, it’s your turn.” It was really kind of like being thrown into the fire - that way was so cool and now I have a little bit more information. David has introduced me to his albums of Miles Davis, albums of Herbie Hancock, albums of Cannonball Adderly. So now I had a little bit more information, still not having heard any jazz singer.
Not even a clue.
Never went to a jazz club?
No, never went to a jazz club. The first time I heard of a jazz singer was when Diana Ross did the role of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues and I went to the movies by myself to see it. That was the first time I’d heard anything about it, anything at all. So now David’s jazz piano teacher enters the picture. He understands that there’s this singer in the jazz department. He gets a brilliant idea to create a class. He created a class just for the solo pop singer, jazz singer, and this was where I learned of all the greats, from Ella Fitzgerald to Sarah Vaughan to Billie Holiday and I learned about the value of the lyric, Carmen McRae versus Barbra Streisand versus Dinah Washington.
This is where I began to study the stylistic approach to all the great music, and that’s how it happened for me. It’s one of these things that I still wonder about it. This kid, David, saved my life really because I was kind of leaning toward Dionne Warwick. Roberta Flack came along and when Roberta came along, it was like, “Oh, so I don’t have to have this big giant voice like Aretha Franklin to make a career.” Roberta has the easy way. She kind of plays for herself. The songs are pretty. There’s quality there. So this is really what happened to me and how the whole jazz thing happened.
It’s almost by happenstance that your college education actually educated you from soup to nuts on what became your jazz career. It doesn’t often unfold that way. People in college experiment with a lot of things and it’s only later on that they really get the knowledge, but you really got the knowledge right there and then in college. What’s fascinating to me is that not only did that happen but, at some point, you had to put more than just the music together because you became a songwriter too, a composer, and that’s a big step from being able to do other people’s work and interpret it – to doing your own original material. Let’s talk about that, when that form of creativity evolved for you.
As a result of this lifelong friendship that started in high school with David, we put a band together and started to play all the clubs in Miami. We’re going around and playing six nights a week for one year in the same club, and I did that for the entire time I was in college. I’m now going to school all day, learning songs from my classmates, also doing all the pop songs, cover tunes, from Chaka Khan to Stevie Wonder. You name it, we were doing it. That’s the transition into my own songs. I was introduced to Joni Mitchell around this time, who was one of the preeminent and most prolific songwriters of our era.
I’m learning about Joni Mitchell and I’m learning that Pat Metheny upstairs - he’s writing songs. Bruce Hornsby is upstairs. Bruce was my piano player for a while. Bruce is learning these songs. Jaco’s in town. Jaco’s playing his tunes. Bobby Watson comes from Kansas City, sax player. He’s doing his songs. His wife is a writer, Pam Baskin. She’s writing, and everybody’s playing their own songs, and I’m thinking, “I want to do that, too. How do I do that?” So now I start to put it together, that’s what the arranging course is for, that’s what the composition course is for. I enter my junior year and I have no choice, I've got to take this composition course. So the guy comes in, Ronnie Miller, first day, he goes to the board and he writes down three chords, a B-flat Lydian, a D minor, and an E-flat [sustained], OK? He just writes down three chords. He says, “Everybody, take these three chords, and come back tomorrow with a composition.”
Challenging, to say the least.
“Whoa, OK, what’s Lydian? Can somebody tell me what Lydian is?” [Laugh] So it was really like that for me, but when I brought that song back and they actually played what I had written, oh, my God, your idea comes off the page and other people are interpreting it? That was it! That was like a leap forward. That was a quantum leap forward! That’s how that whole composition thing began for me.
Was it a true epiphany of saying, “I now know I want to write music. I want to get into the chair of being a composer as well as a stylist?”
Yeah … but it took me years to develop enough confidence to actually bring all these ideas to the musicians to play them for the audience. It took years. I was much more comfortable learning the music of Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and on and on and on. So I have this measure now. Anything I write has to be as good as all the stuff I’m singing. Otherwise, it sucks. Excuse me, but it’s nothing. So I’m learning all of this music and singing this music six nights a week, year in, year out, year round. Then Stevie Wonder does Music of my Mind. Stevie Wonder then does Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life.
So here comes the free spirit that was inside me just waiting to burst open. Stevie Wonder was singing about what life was like for people like me in 1970-something. I wanted to sing about what life was like for me. I couldn’t sing a lot of those charming songs from the theatre, from the Broadway stage, those things were not really for my generation.
Much more of life being fantasy based?
Yeah, we kind of cut to the chase [reality]. Our whole sexual [and social] revolution was happening. I was a child of that time, and the songs that have those lyrics were the ones I wanted to sing. And I felt now I have to get serious about this as a career. I mean, what am I going to do with this? School’s out!
Was anybody else in your life influencing and supporting you? Helping to point you in the right direction?
Well, I met a wonderful man, Bill Morgenstern, who was an art dealer. All the Black Broadway shows were coming into Coconut Grove Playhouse. My last two and a half to three years I was singing in Coconut Grove, just around the corner from the Playhouse. All the Broadway children would come to my gig after their show was over, and it was sort of like the hang and I was the singer at the hang. Bill had an album collection that is still the most incredible I've ever seen. So I used to hang out at his house and just play records, play records, play records. When the singers and the dancers and the hoofers would come to Miami, he invited them to his house for the parties.
Now I’m listening to all this jazz, and we’re at these parties, and all these New York children are just turning it out, turning Miami out, and I made friends with a lot of these artists. I’m hearing about New York for the first time. My family never talked about New York. What did I know about New York? Greenwich Village, old coffeehouses? I heard a little about that, but still clueless, just in my Miami sheltered little girl singing my heart out every night [place]. They start talking about New York. Everybody’s graduating. Bruce is leaving. Metheny’s leaving. Bobby Watson, we were in a group together for a long time, he and his wife move to New York.
Then I started hearing things like, “Oh, well, Bobby lives down the street from Bruce and Bruce lives down the street from … ” I’m getting this vision of Manhattan, and 72nd Street is very close to 84th Street. I’m hearing this and I’m thinking, “OK, if they’re going, these are my friends. I’ll be cool.” Phyllis Hyman was in Miami at this time, and Hiram Bullock was her guitarist. Hiram Bullock was famous from David Letterman’s show. He was the guitarist on that show for many years. So he’s playing for Phyllis, they’re all moving to New York. What am I going to do? I’m moving to New York, too!
How did your family feel about it?
I think, at this point, I had moved away from the home I grew up in. I was already in my own apartment. The last year I was in the University of Miami, we went to the Middle East, North Africa, the Montreux Jazz Festival, so I was already starting to do things professionally, and it kind of made sense. It was like a natural progression. I think my mother was really missing me. I’m the oldest of seven kids; one less person in the house, there’s more room for everybody. [Laughter] My brother was going to school at the University of Miami also, so now there’s five kids in the house, and I think it was having a brother in music who was also doing his thing professionally–we had each other to kind of reinforce this idea of moving away from Miami.
Your mom was supportive of you and your dreams?
She was the reason why I was able to pursue this career, because my father, on the other hand, we can talk about that later. But if not for her, I don’t know that I would’ve ever had this fearlessness, you know?
So it really came from her. You’ve mentioned two of your pals who were also very influential. Were there any other people at that time, a professor who perhaps mentored you?
Yes, there were two, Ann Duncan in my high-school years and then Dr. Robert Brewster. There was a handsome black man that came into the University of Miami voice department, and he became a chairperson for the department, and he was American, but he had just come from Germany. He had been in Germany for 20 years or something making a career, and he had now returned to the United States, and I think he did because his mother was failing, was ill, in another state. He came to Miami, to this reputable university, and when that guy showed up on campus, I said “I want to study with that guy. I want to study with him.”
I made a change, which was kind of unexpected, with my original voice teacher. I don’t think she was happy about it, but I was evolving and I went with it. So Dr. Robert Brewster took wherever I was in my development and really shaped my understanding of the whole physical reality of making a life of singing and what happens to you, what happens to you physically, what happens to you musically, making that connection. As a woman, I think it was helpful to me to have the opposite sex in my development at that time. He was a great teacher, and I learned a great deal from him about the instrument.
And taking care of it, healthwise?
He says, “You know, Carmen, you can’t smoke. It will definitely shorten the life of your voice,” just kind of matter of fact.
Very wise words.
[Laugh] I didn’t smoke until many years into my performance life. I don’t get that whole thing, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing when I went into the theatre and started traveling in Broadway companies, and really needing friends. And I guess my friends turned out to be the 20 packs.
Right, the loyal fun loving cigs. [Laugh]
He moved to New York about five years after I was there, and I resumed studying with him.
When you’re in the city, what was the reaction that you had? Was it, “Oh my God. I don’t have a job,”? Unless you had a job.
I put the word out that I wanted to move to New York. One night on my gig in Miami, someone approached me and said, “I have an apartment in New York. I can sublet it to you for so and so.” I planned on it for a year. I saved enough money to move to New York and move right into an apartment. So I got there, and the apartment that I moved into had a piano in it. Remember I told you that every home I've ever been in had a piano? The universe would have it so, that the one apartment that was made available to me was complete with piano. So I’m now in New York.
The year prior, George Butler, who was the head of the jazz department at Columbia Records came to the University of Miami because the University of Miami Big Band was all the rage. We had just played the Montreux Jazz Festival the year before, so it was like record deal time for the University of Miami. I meet George Butler. I said, “I’m moving to New York” and he says, “Oh really? Get in touch with me.” You know how people say, “Well, here’s my card”? What I did was, I went into the recording studio with my band, and I recorded four songs as a demo tape for Columbia Records.
The big time!
Moved [temporarily] to New York with my demo tape, and I checked it out. I was smart … went into the Village Vanguard, and I had my Big Band charts from the Montreux Jazz Festival .
Was that the first club you went to in New York?
Yes, and I asked Thad Jones and Mel Lewis if I could sit in with and sing with them!
Wow, you had cojones.
I had cojones, baby! I walk in and they say, “Look at her. She wants to sit in. OK, why not? Come on–sit in,” and I did. On May 28, 1978, [with their acceptance] I moved to New York with everything. Now my friend Bill, [who] I mentioned to you, has a brother that owns a jazz club called Jazz Mania. Jazz Mania was on 143rd Street and Park Avenue South. From the time I landed, I would go to that club every Friday and Saturday–or was it Saturday and Sunday? I don’t remember– and I would sit in with whoever was booked. I have the newspaper ads and the billings of “Carmen Lundy sings with Jaki Byard and Walter Bishop, Jr. and Don Pullen.” I have all those things still. I was singing every weekend in my first year in New York. I sang every weekend with some of the most important jazz figures in the history of the music at that time. I was so determined.
And this you got from your mother, this determination?
My mom is my example, really how I live my life now. She had a love of life. She loved people. People loved her. She was smart. She could sew. She could cook. She was a milliner. She had a regular job. She was a social worker for many years, and she sang her behind off with four or five other great women. And I’ll tell you that story. I took them into the studio for the first time in their lives in the late ’90s. I realized they’d never made a record, so I wanted to do that for them. My mom made all of our clothes. I never even shopped for school clothes until I was like 16 because she made everything I wore. She taught me to sew. I used to sew everything in New York. I sewed my winter coats, I sewed my underwear, I sewed my pajamas. I made the clothes I sang in.
I just did all of that because it was cheaper, for one thing. It was exhausting, but I did that, and it was because she gave me a sewing machine for Christmas one year when I was in New York. I stuffed it in the closet, and then thought maybe I should show her how much I appreciate her, and I became a mad woman for clothing. She did all of these things, and she made them look effortless, you know? My parents divorced [when I was 16 or 17]. Being the oldest child, seeing this family in that kind of a crisis was very difficult for me. That also shaped me, I think. I’m the woman I am today because of some of the hard memories of that as a child and the way it affected my family so adversely.
I’m sure you used a lot of that in your music?
My mom said to me, “If I hadn’t divorced your dad, you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing.” My father’s never heard me sing professionally. He’s alive, and he is a very deeply, deeply religious man, and does not approve of my choice, that I've made this professional choice. So she said–and now I understand what she meant all these years later, a fully realized woman–when she said, “You couldn’t have done this if I had stayed.” So it’s not my fault really, but she was realizing something about how we were developing as kids, and that it wasn’t going to happen.
She was very strong to do that, especially with so many children and financially, I’m sure it was difficult for her?
She was a very hardworking woman, and I think it caught up with her later in life. That’s probably why she’s not with us now, because she gave so much of herself, and always kind of like forgot about herself sometimes.
Maya Angelou would say when she walked into a room, she brought her entire family. So now I’m in New York, I’m going to the stage and I’m calling tunes. Now that I have this college education, and I know my music, and I know how to say A minor and I know how to say the key of E flat-
And you’ve finally been in a real live jazz club! [Laughter]
I have wonderful stories of meeting Carmen McRae, wonderful stories of meeting and coming to know Betty Carter, great stories of coming to know Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, playing the role of Billie Holiday. This is all what I was doing and I’m in New York. I’m not singing any original music, OK? I’m going in there and singing, “How about let’s do [sings] I hear music, mighty fine music, the murmur of a morning breeze up there.” OK, that’s me, and I’m in it, and I’m really knee-deep in it and having a wonderful time, making a name for myself, getting gigs. Do you know from the time I moved to New York in ’78 to the time I left in ’91, I sang for a living. I sang in that hardcore city, and that’s how I made my bread and butter. That’s how I fed myself.
Not any easy feat for sure. How did you leap from the club scene into the theatre scene?
There was a magazine called Backstage. There was a magazine called Show Business. Someone said, “Go get those magazines from the stand. Look in the back pages, and you’ll see there’s auditions for so-and-so and so-and-so.”
Did you ever act before, in college or high school?
I took a drama course just because, but I never–
You weren’t starring in the high school or college musicals?
No, nothing like that. I was taking dance classes, I was taking acting classes. Whatever to develop as an artist, I did. If someone said, “Can you read these parts, please? I have an audition.” “Sure.” So that’s what I did and around the time of the release of my first record, I met a man who became my manager for a while. And he came from the theatre side of the industry, and he started sending me on auditions. At this point, I also was taking classes at HB Studios. I was studying with Gene Frankel, you know, the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street, Broadway. So I did that for a while.
It sort of made sense that I should go to these auditions. I didn’t really want to. It was just to become more comfortable as a performer. In between the song, what are you saying to the audience when the song is over? What do you do? How are you with yourself? How do you work through that clumsy feeling? I’m in New York, the whole level of criticism, everything is just so much more magnified. So I went to this audition kicking and screaming, but I did it. I thought, “How bad could this be?” It’s Duke Ellington’s Broadway show, Sophisticated Ladies. So I went in there, and I got the part. There was a play called They Were All Gardenias. It was a story about Billie Holiday, not Billie Holiday’s life story, but about Billie Holiday as a professional artist coming back to the studio after the war ended, when there was no vinyl being pressed at all. This was a chance to get back in the studio with all her old cronies.
Because by this time, the discography and the challenge of embodying the spirit of Billie Holiday without singing like her, her voice went through so many changes throughout her career, so I had to make a choice about how to sound, not only how to convey this magnificent human being, but how to sing her songs in a way that you could believe but not pretend to sound like that. All of that was great. It was just great.
Did you feel you wanted to stick with being on the stage now? Were you torn about returning to jazz?
It [theatre] helped me, but I really wanted to be center stage with the rhythm section. The whole Broadway stage experience is great for any performer. You understand cues. You understand blocking. You understand light, and you understand that the show goes on. 8:00, there’s a curtain and your feet could hurt and you could have a toothache and you could have all kinds of issues but at show time, it is show time, and it is your time to bring it and that discipline … I really have a lot of respect for the Broadway stage actor. That discipline in itself can develop the career in ways that nothing else can.
Was your manager pissed off at you that you wanted to return to jazz?
Tina, you got it right. I wanted to sing jazz! That’s what I wanted to do. That was it! My journey was really about singing the jazz.
That’s great that you were able to find exactly the perfect creative space for yourself. Let us now segue into when you started actually writing your own material. When did that light pop on in your head, that, “Now is the time,” and feeling comfortable enough to do that, and how it came about?
I started writing my own material seriously the very first year I moved into New York and that great apartment with the wonderful Shoninger piano, and I was in there cranking it out every day, and that’s what I do to this day. When I’m not on the road, I’m in the woodshed. What I did was I would write these tunes, and then I would take them to the band: “Check this tune out.” And I think the very first song of mine that was recorded, very first song of mine, is called Never Going to Let You Go, and it was on my brother’s record.
Curtis is 11 months younger than me, and I remember I was taking piano lessons. One of my mother’s side jobs was cleaning house for people on the other side of town. This lady that she worked for was a classical pianist, and I got my piano lessons from her. Her son was a drummer, so Curtis got his lessons from him. Curtis and I were always in the house listening to some new record, and one Christmas my brother got a bass guitar under the tree. I think he wanted a go-kart or something, but he got a bass guitar. I started fooling around with his guitar, so I was doing this kind of thing. [Plays guitar]
My brother took it seriously. He said, “That’s my guitar. I’m playing it. Give me my guitar!” [Laughs] Curtis began to take it very seriously, playing that guitar, and he, interestingly–he’s younger than me, right–but he was the one that became a professional player first. At 14, he had started a band. The band was a child’s version of James Brown’s music. My brother was doing gigs at 14 all over Miami, playing a gigantic electric bass. He was kind of alongside Jaco. Their careers paralleled in an interesting way because Jaco was from Fort Lauderdale. So now Curtis is out there doing his thing, and I’m thinking, “Well, I want to do that, too.” I think I was 16 when I got my first paying gig. Curtis enters the University of Miami the year after I enter. He is still playing the electric bass. He, like myself, went into the classic idiom and, as required, has to play the contra bass, the bass violin.
While my brother is taking bass violin lessons, that same year, Bobby Watson comes to the University of Miami for his Master’s Degree. He’s playing alto saxophone. His wife is an incredible pianist in her own right, and we’re all friends. We put a band together. Now you’ve got me, Bobby, Curtis, Diego Ibora, Caesar Eally, Peter Harris, and we’re just playing the Miami scene. Curtis is establishing a wonderful relationship with the great Bobby Watson, and this is where he took the upright bass seriously. He put that electric bass down, and c’est la vie. My brother and I played many gigs together in Miami. He had his own thing for a while. I had my own thing for a while. We came together. We put our bands together. We started a few groups like that, but we worked all of the time. We all worked all the time. That’s what we did, we went to school during the day and we gigged until 1 in the morning. Ask me how, I don’t know. We pulled it off.
Curtis got a great gig in New York with Betty Carter a year or so into being there and was with Betty for years, maybe five or six years. As a result, I would go to hear Betty all the time because I was on the guest list with my brother, and that’s how I came to know her. Curtis somehow found his way into a recording situation, and asked me to come in and do something on the record. That was my first and only recording with the great Hank Jones, who was on that record, and other great people on his record Just Be Yourself. That’s where my first song is.
This is fascinating, absolutely fascinating how you and Curtis shared such a tight musical bond. We’re still in an era where rock was reigning supreme, pop was surging, punk was happening, but you were doing something completely different–maybe nobody else was doing–and, as a woman doing it, that was extremely rare and truly extraordinary. So how did all that happen? What was the reaction from the established jazz world to your original material?
The reaction was completely 100% supportive. I never ran into any kind of issues before recording, before making my first record. All the junk happened after I made my first record, which was interesting to me, because I was just young enough to represent the next generation of jazz vocalists, because I could still go and hear Sarah Vaughan and hear Carmen McRae on any given night of the week in New York City. I was just young enough that I couldn’t get their kind of gigs. I wasn’t going to get those gigs because, after all, why would you get Carmen Lundy when you could have Sarah Vaughan, you know? I started to think about this, well, how am I going to make a career if all of these artists are still the choices? I mean, these are the choice acts, so where do I fit in? Where’s my sound? Every time I do a song, they’re going to say, “Oh, that reminds me of the version Ella Fitzgerald did. Can you do that song that Ella did, and can you scat the way Ella scats?”
I’d get on the train and go to Connecticut, go to D.C., all the way the heck out … for a gig, I’d do that. But I could show up on that gig, write a list of songs down, call them in my key, and we could play them because they weren’t originals, right? There’s no music. There’s no, “How does this go?” There’s no versions, nothing. I made a career that way, but the minute I started doing my own songs, the minute I released Good Morning Kiss, now here’s what’s interesting. There’s eight songs on Good Morning Kiss, my first album. Good Morning Kiss, I made two demos. In–let me get it right–1984, I made my first demo with a trio in this guy’s living room, and I still have the tape, still have everything, OK? I got a job singing background vocals for a singer from some gig. Turns out, the person that was funding her gig became a friend of mine, and he wrote me a check for my next demo.
My next demo, I go to the famous Rudy Van Gelder Studios to make my demo for Columbia Records. This is my second chance now. I was turned down once when I first got there, so I get my act together, and I redo and rethink, write some stuff, get some money together, and I go to Rudy Van Gelder Studios because I’m making my record for Columbia, because I’m going to get a recording contract with Columbia Records because they said bring it back, and that’s what I’m going to do. So I take my finished demo, eight songs, to Columbia Records and they say, “Oh, Ms. Lundy, we’re going to do our thing with you. This is lovely what you’ve done, but we want to do our thing with you. So, let me introduce you to this producer.” I’m not going to mention their names, but they’re very famous producers. “We want them to do your next record.” Everything was great!
So long story short, that never happened, and I don’t have to get into the details of why it never happened, but it was very disappointing, came out of left field, didn’t understand it. To this day, don’t understand it, but I still have this eight-song demo. My manager at the time called up an A&R guy at a record label called Blackhawk. Blackhawk Records was in northern California, Palo Alto. We released my first demo for Columbia Records on Blackhawk, and the album is called Good Morning Kiss. Good Morning Kiss came into the Billboard charts at, believe it or not, No. 23. Then shot to No. 8. This is the same year, if I got it right, that Whitney Houston released her first record, OK? So I’m on the Billboard charts, No. 23 to No. 8, bang. Then I go from No. 8 to No. 5 over a span of two or three weeks. Now I go from No. 5 to No. 3. No. 1 was Round Midnight –
Wow! Were you having a heart attack as this was going on?
Hang on. So now it’s No. 3. The No. 2 record at that time was the other side of Round Midnight. No. 3 is Good Morning Kiss, and it stayed there for 23 weeks, and I still have all the Billboard pages. I’d go every week, get the Billboard page, pow, pow, like this. Do you know that I could not get a job in New York City after that record came out? No one would hire me! I could not get a job! Because I could not get a job, my manager at the time signed me onto Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies Broadway show. So now I’m in Europe. I’m on a bus and truck tour all through Europe, and they’re selling my records. They’re selling my records at the Sophisticated Ladies Broadway show. My record is out in the lobby: Good Morning Kiss.
Why do you you feel you were having that sort of reaction after releasing your incredibly successful first album with doors slamming in your face? Was it because you had the nerve to believe enough in yourself? Columbia turned you down, boom, you rebounded quickly, you got another label. The record knocked the socks off of Billboard and they thought, “Wow, that’s just a little too much,” maybe? That’s my interpretation. Perhaps good ol’ jealousy and envy. What do you think?
I don’t know. I think that it was because I didn’t do enough standards. That’s what I think it was.
Right, because you were doing all of your own original compositions?
The majority of the songs on that record were mine.
And that was so rare. How did you finally get back into performing in jazz clubs again?
Well, it was interesting how it took going into the theatre and going on the road all over Europe to solidify that, “Wait a second. I've got a record that’s shot up the charts. What am I doing over here doing this?” I need to regroup and harness what I've established and get myself back on the [jazz] stage, get back into doing what I do. I said, “I’m out of here.” They said, “You’ll never work in the theatre again.” I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m really scared now. That’s really going to keep me here?” No. I needed to find a way to get back [to jazz], and that’s what I did. I returned to New York after the four months of Sophisticated Ladies. And I might’ve had a gig here or a gig there because I was still kind of one of those go-to singers where if a really wonderful jazz instrumentalist wanted a vocalist for something, I enjoyed having those kinds of gigs.
It was quite an honor to always be asked to join some fine accomplished jazz musician to do something. That was great. Around 1989, I think I was emotionally spent. I was having a lot of personal stuff, and the crack epidemic hit New York so hard. The whole scene was changing, The whole night-club scene. I remember doing gigs where they reinstated some Cabaret Law where now you couldn’t even go onstage with a drummer anymore. The gigs you had, you’re used to having a band, and now you can only have a pianist, things like that. Now I’m trying to get other record deals because the thing with Blackhawk was a one-shot licensing deal. I still own those masters, by the way, to Good Morning Kiss, and I still own the publishing to all of my songs. So now I’m trying to get another record deal. I want to record. I go to Blue Note, I go to RCA, I go to Verve. They all turn me down: everybody, everybody, and then some. 1991 comes. I get an offer from another independent label called Arabesque. I got an offer to make a record, and around this time, I took on new management, some of the best people that had ever handled my career for me. Around that time, some friends of mine, some of my old hoofers that I met in my Miami days, the Broadway stage people, they have now moved to Los Angeles to branch out their careers and go from the stage into film. My friends say, “Oh, you’ve got to come out to L.A.” I’m thinking, “What’s L.A.?” It’s like me all over again, “What’s New York?” Now it’s, “What’s L.A.?” I had no idea that Los Angeles is what it is. I just didn’t know. “Why don’t you come out and visit? Come hang with us.”
I come to Los Angeles and stay with a friend, and coincidentally, my agents at the time were opening a theatrical office out here. “Come and see us.” So I visit them, and they send me out on an audition for a television pilot. Some of my friends that invited me out, they’re going out for this same part. [Laugh] “I’m on vacation, and you’re sending me to an audition? Fine, I’ll go. I’ll go.” I grab one of my songs. I think I did the song from Good Morning Kiss, “Perfect Stranger,” one of my collaborations. It was a CBS pilot, and the pilot was called Shangri-La Plaza. I told my agents I don’t want this part: “You’re making me do this.” [In audition] I sang one of my own songs. They won’t know it, and this way I’m sure not to [get the role].” They called me back. Then they called me back again. Then I booked the pilot.
I like how being negative worked out for you.[Laughter]
The character I played was Geneva, and she’s based on Aretha Franklin. Her name was Aretha. The script said Aretha, and I went to them and said, “Under one condition: You’ve got to change the name. I will not be Aretha on any television show. You will not have me trying to live up to that.” So they changed the character’s name to Geneva. [Laugh] Now I’m playing this sassy little singer, who’s got attitude, and I’m working in a donut shop, and I hate my job. I want to sing, sing, sing. And here I am acting in this situation comedy pilot in L.A.
Someone would sell their soul to get a great acting job that quickly. [Laughter]
[After the pilot] I was kind of getting tired of that crack scene in New York. It was very dark and not good, not good energy.
Did it totally infiltrate the jazz world as well and really harm the musicians?
A lot of my friends come to mind as I’m speaking to you, I can see them, who succumbed to that time and that abuse and that horror. I got out. I mean, I was never into that. Some of them survived. But that time was terrible. It killed a certain kind of spirit, a joy in the music.
And then in a funny way, when everybody got clean and started to behave themselves, it killed a lot of things too. It was a paradoxical dichotomy of all the wrong things at the wrong time happening to the music. So I got out. My first performance gig was in Santa Monica at a little club where they didn’t even have a microphone for me, it was a place called The Red Sea. Leonard Feather came to review me. Leonard Feather is one of the most famous jazz critics of all time. He’s there with his wife. I get a great review. My first review singing in L.A. is a great love letter of a review.
But of course - because everything that you do finds a way of turning into gold ...
Well, they didn’t pay me! They wouldn’t pay me!
Are you kidding me?
No! My agent says, “Call the cops!” Now the cops show up at my gig, they see me, and grab me to arrest me!
Because I’m Black and I must be a problem. The first Black person they see when they walk in the club, I must be the problem. “No, she’s the singer and they wouldn’t pay her.” So because the cops are there … suddenly the money appears like magic.
Oh my – what a horrible ordeal!
Meanwhile, I’m here [in L.A.], but just kind of checking it out. This is my welcome. I get a great review and [was] almost arrested on the same night at same gig! My dressing room for this place was a little apartment down the street, and the guy who didn’t pay me had disappeared. All of my belongings are in the apartment, my passport and everything. That’s a movie! I go back to New York, regroup again, return to Long Beach, and that’s where I began to paint. My cute little apartment with a backyard that was the Atlantic Ocean, and I got my first easel from Canal Street.
And you had never painted before in your life?
Never painted before in my life. When I was on the European tour with Sophisticated Ladies, I bought some paper for watercolors and I had a little can–you know those little can things that would open up and had watercolors in them?
So when I had nothing to do in-between 30 days straight of one-nighters, I would just sketch just to kind of stay sane. I come home from that tour, and I really felt like I needed to find my sanity after that. Can you imagine, all those shows in a row in foreign countries before you have a day off?
Unbelievable. I’d be wasted after one.
I bought a $20 starter kit. It had four tubes of paint and one little 8x10 piece of cardboard thing and bang, that’s how I started. That’s when that happened.
Do you feel that when you’re a creative person - that the gifts come and show themselves if you allow them to?
I think the manifestation is definitely through the need to create or maybe even connected to survival, your own survival, your emotional stability.
Was it the painting that centered you? What kept you on track to remain being a jazz artist? Any secrets that you can share?
I love my family, and I love music. It was love. It was actually the love and a certain kind of self–a certain level of self-respect or a certain dignity.
I think I have a purpose. I think all this happened to me for a reason, and there’s a certain responsibility handed to you when a gift is revealed, something that you really didn’t create yourself, but somehow you discover that you’ve been handed some opportunity to really express or to really help other people. So there’s a sense of, I think I valued life and I think I had a dream. I had a dream.
And you didn’t give up on that dream easily?
No, no, I didn’t. It never even occurred to me. It was always like, OK, there’s a way out of this. There’s that door slammed, but there’s another way out of here, and I’m going to find that way out of here. It was just that kind of sense of determination, and a love of what I do.
Tell me about the connections that you were building with your fellow musicians?
The musicians I had come to know–all the musicians who took me in as a sister, as a partner, as a family member–I just remember nothing but a lot of love coming from most of the musicians I met in my journey. Those musicians were the sustaining force for me. They made me feel like there was something special about what I was doing, and I didn’t want to let them down. If I let them down, then I’d let myself down. It was sort of like that. But the musicians and that camaraderie, that spirit, that I cannot do what I do if that energy isn’t around me. I just can’t even do it, and I think that’s so much of why I hung in there.
Were there any other reasons that projected you into being a fine artist?
The art was because I started to lose members of my family. That’s what it was.
Please expand on that.
When I saw how changed my family had become when my grandmother died–first my grandfather–but when my grandmother died, my family was never the same. The matriarch was gone, … my grandmother [was] also a November birth, she’s also left-handed, she’s the oldest daughter, she had 11 kids. My mother is her oldest; my mother had seven. When my grandmother died, my whole family dynamic changed. I wanted to remember my childhood when it was sweet, when it was beautiful, when it was so great to just feel all of that energy from a bunch of people running around having a great time, and the respect in the community. All of that was lost, all of it.
And no one in your family said, “I’m stepping up to the plate?”
My mother tried.
It’s hard to replace someone that amazing.
It was irreplaceable. For me, when I started to paint, it was like an old photograph. My aunt gave me a photograph of my grandmother in the little market, in the family market, and I can remember so many times going in that market and my grandmother would give me a cookie or candy bar or an ice cream sandwich or something, and I would just be the happiest little kid. And I wanted to remember that. It was a way to hold on and kind of freeze it, freeze that moment. I think some of my earliest paintings are of my grandfather’s sisters, my grandmother, my mother, the family portrait. The one that mattered the most was of my mother with cancer, and one day my stepfather was coming in the house, and he clipped a bird of paradise that was blossoming in the front lawn and brought it in for her and put it in the vase of flowers that someone else had given to her. Little things like that meant so much to me. So I painted gladiolas with the bird of paradise in it, and I sold that one. I wish I hadn’t sold that painting, but I sold it because I needed the money.
Your family must have been in awe that you were able to do this. Any other artists who had this talent in your family?
I’m waiting to see.
Nobody has said, “I want to try that painting thing that Carmen has been doing?”
I hope so. I really really do. For me, I think of the artwork definitely as a way to maintain my sanity because it’s quiet, you see, and there’s no applause. I don’t have to rehearse with the band. It’s finished. It doesn’t matter what you think or how you criticize it because it’s already done. I’m not going to go paint over it. It is what it is, and I can work through something, and I can hear the music, and I can come away from the music and go back to the music with fresher ears. And the fact that it’s a quiet way to create, and now the colors are the chords, and the lyrics are the lines.
I understand. Now, let me ask you a tough question. You have developed into a great artist in terms of a visual artist. You already are a great artist in terms of your vocalization, your jazz artistry, your writing ability. How do you choose now, am I going to continue on doing jazz? Am I going to balance it with my art? Or am I going to now give myself time to spend more time with art? How do you figure this out on a day-to-day basis?
I have been very, very consumed with the creative process in the writing of the music. I can actually come here, and bring something, and leave something here on this planet that didn’t exist before me, not something that pre-exists for decades, for centuries. I've been in this space where I've allowed the music to lead me. And if I feel like painting, if there’s something I really want to do, I take the time out, scratch it out. I’ll find the time, but I feel very drawn and very pulled into the space we’re sitting in [Carmen’s art-filled music studio]. I've spent at least six to eight hours a day in this space working on what I hope will be an offering and an expression of my experience that will speak to other people and this is where I am now.
I’m just letting myself be with this musical process, this creative process that I’m in. And maybe when I’m free, when I release it, I can go back to the canvas with a little bit more clarity in exactly what I want to execute. But I am so absorbed in this creative process now of getting these songs out. But my statement really is, you know, just because I’m a jazz singer doesn’t mean I have to be, “Shooby shooby shooby shooby doo, isn’t this cute? I can do now what the horn player does. Be ba doo ba dee ba doo.”
The most uninteresting thing about the jazz singer is saying, “Look, I can do this. I can improvise this, too.” I get words. I get to create, and whatever I’m improvising can be a song in and of itself. I don’t feel I have to hide behind these little gestures that define the genre, and why do you want to stick me in the 1950s? It’s going to be 2020 soon, and you want to stick me in 1954 singing, “It’s delightful. It’s de-lovely,” and it’s not happening for me. That’s a great song, that’s a great composer, but what about now? What about the world we live in now? This world is so much more complex than it was in 1950.
What can be done to embrace Jazz in America today?
Wow, I wish I knew the answer to that question. Oh, wow. I think that there’s a confusion about what jazz is big time. I mean, I think the average person thinks that jazz is when you hear music and there’s no words, or when you hear a lot of notes that are beyond what seem like they’re part of a major or minor scale. I think people think it’s an elitist, complex art form that does not cater to the pop culture or the general listener. I don’t know. I also think jazz is old-fashioned, like “once upon a time” kind of music.
We confuse jazz as Dixieland, as something like Louis Armstrong would do. If it sounds like Louis Armstrong, then it’s jazz and if it doesn’t, then it’s that other kind of jazz that’s avant garde and I can’t listen to that. I remember somebody saying to me, “Oh, I hate jazz. Doo de doo de doo de doo.” I’m thinking, “Well, you know, that’s what I do for a living. You must hate me. If you hate jazz, then I don’t want to know you,” you know? It’s a very funny thing to have people off the cuff say things like that.
Well, again, it comes from ignorance of not having the education, the exposure.
Exposure, there is none. We don’t get it on our television commercials–rarely. We don’t get it in our underscore in our movies, and … even if you hear jazz in the movies, it’s a period piece from another time. So you don’t really associate it with the now of our lives. I think that with hip-hop entering the culture, cultural music, pop culture, which is where I think jazz had a perfect opportunity to kind of fit, the hip-hop artists don’t really relate to the jazz music.
So they’re not embracing it, either?
Black culture doesn’t really embrace it the same way as it once did, and then you have another part of it which is like my father, where it’s religiously speaking, “This is not something I can condone because it’s not of and from a certain way of life that I’m most comfortable with.” I don’t know. It’s a very complex question. I wish I had the answer, but that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m kind of writing songs that say, “Hey, this is what’s happening right now to me and what’s happening to you right now. This is the world we live in now.” And I kind of want my songs to be about my lifetime, and not the lifetime before me.
I think you excel at this and you’re a great storyteller and this is why you’re such a great painter too because even in your songs, it’s filled with imagery. You can experience your song as if it was a movie or a play or a book that you’re imagining and fantasizing about. You have that ability. I think globally, maybe we both hope that other countries are embracing jazz in a whole other way than America is, which is so crazy that we’re not able to do this here. Why don’t you share your experience about performing in South Africa, performing in a couple of other countries and what a different experience that is for you?
I have sung to the Greeks, to the Turks, to the Israelis, to the Africans. [Laugh] My little voice has seen and been in places that you cannot imagine, and it’s because of jazz that I have seen the world.
They have sought you out. They want you because you’re an American, female jazz artist?
And I’m singing my own songs to these people. Whoa. So it is global. I mean, it’s just phenomenal. I think that jazz is what most non-Americans associate with what American life is, which is so incredible to me, because it represents liberty, it represents a freedom of expression. A freedom of expression? I can stand here, and sing freely about anything and convey it in a way with the same things you understand, form, right, melody. And this is something else that’s fascinating to me: Most places I've performed outside the United States, I know that the culture loves and understands a melody, that I can’t fool this audience. This audience knows, I mean, you’re a part of the whole history of music, period, you know, in written form, the whole essence of everything that is becoming institutionally recognized as music. These are the cultures that understand.
Because they’re older cultures?
Older cultures, and much more evolved. They know when you’re faking it, or you’re blowing it, or you can’t hang. You can’t fool them. I know when I go in front of an audience, even if they don’t know the words, they don’t know the language I’m singing. I've gone in countries where I've seen young children sing to me, and play for me, and sing in English perfectly, and can’t even have a conversation with them, OK?
Music truly is, as clichéd as this saying sounds: Music is the universal language?
And it just brings people together.
And why we can’t in this country, the birth of this art form that we call jazz that the rest of the world identifies as the essence of all things American, why in our country we can’t embrace it the same way, I don’t understand it. And at the same time, it’s not necessary for me to understand it. I’m doing it. My job is to just keep doing it, and hopefully the understanding, my little contribution to the music will bring more people into the fold. But I can tell you this: More often than not, it’s a beautiful sound. It rarely has distortion in it–rarely. Not to say that distortion isn’t a beautiful sound; I’m just saying the sound of the instrument itself is not going to be distorted by some electronic process. You have that essence, essential aspect, of what makes jazz a beautiful sound.
It usually is not a gratuitous form of art. So the player, the musician, the artist, is usually going to be from a very sincere, honest place and is not going to try and entertain more so than convey true musical skill and ability.
You’re not having aerialists on bungee cords to deter you during a performance? [Laughter]
Or 14 dancers behind me kicking and screaming to kind of entertain you while I do my short little thing.
Jazz, in my experience, is a very intimate experience and maybe people have to feel more comfortable about being intimate with art, not so involved with multitasking that they have to be distracted and just get into the moment. Allow yourself to feel the music. Let it evoke your own emotions and don’t be afraid of it.
I think you summed up jazz perfectly in terms of being a definition of jazz, is that it really is this freedom and we take that freedom for granted today and the freedom of spirit. The beauty of jazz is that you have different musicians onstage and, at times, yes, people are doing their particular solos and their interpretations, but it’s still a beautiful unity. I just hope more people give it a chance.
Give it a chance, yes. There’s not enough radio stations that play this format, and that’s part of the problem, too.
How do you begin a song? How do you begin creating music?
Oh, several different ways. Listening is a very important thing to do in one’s life. Listening is the best way, I think, to grow, to learn, and to find out some of the mysteries of life. I listen to the things that people say, and a lot of inner truth comes from what I hear. Observation is huge. Then there’s the exercise. There’s the skill, the actual working at the craft. Working at the craft involves increasing and developing your understanding of the language of music, the combinations of things and what they can create. I can pick up this guitar and just kind of sit here while I’m talking to you, and I can start doing something like this and play one note. And if I do this long enough, my finger might hit something else accidentally, and now I hear something [plays guitar and sings.]
I’m thinking, “Oh, wait a minute. Is that the beginning of a song, or the end of a song, or the middle of it?” But I kind of like that. I started recording things, and writing every little thing down that people say, and I keep a little notepad. The process is just a constant, a constant, constant conscious effort to be in touch with yourself and in touch with the world around you, and or just a certain something that triggers a memory or absolute silence. Sometimes it’s silence, and that’s where the real creativity comes from. The process, all of these things I mentioned to you mean nothing if I don’t sit myself down and work at it.
How does the writing come to you?
It’s a feeling. I get a feeling. The other night, we went to the theater. I love going to the theater. I love experiencing other things that don’t have to do with my particular genre because I get ideas from that too. Just seeing how another person goes about their craft is inspirational to me. I’m moved by the way people interact, the human condition.
Carmen playing in her studio during the interview.
What’s your advice to somebody who’s just starting out, and is thinking along these lines that they would like a career as a jazz artist?
Well, if you make up your mind, if you decide this is what you want to do, then just do it! Follow through, and pursue that dream. Every time you sit down and commit yourself to improving your craft, you create the opportunity. As long as you work at that craft sincerely and are dedicated to the fulfillment of your goal, however small or big that is, you create the opportunity for someone else to appreciate what you do. And just remember that that equation in and of itself is enough of an incentive and encouragement to follow your dream, and to really work at realizing your dream, and that the opportunities are there for the taking. The one that’s for you is for you, not for the other person.
You can’t compare, “How come so-and-so got so-and-so is getting this and I didn’t get that?” You can’t worry about that. Do not be concerned with that. Just know that your opportunities are yours and no one can take those from you. You own that, and you create them by trusting in yourself, trusting that your dream is what will lead you there.
Yes, there are times where you’ll kind of realize, “This isn’t fun anymore for me,” and I've heard people say, “You know, all of you musicians in this room are not going to be famous musicians,” and then the person that said that said, “But you know what, we need agents. We need managers. We need people who know what we do and appreciate what we do, who don’t necessarily want to do it anymore, but we can trust you.” So yes, if you decide along the way that, “I don’t want to be this jazz musician anymore. I don’t feel that I really have enough to offer,” then that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Maybe it’s just that that one aspect of it, you just turn into something else.
What can we look forward to Carmen Lundy doing in the future?
Well, I would hope that you’ll see me more on the concert stage. That’s really what I’d like to do. I’d like to find a way to be intimate with the music that I do in a concert setting. That brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment.
I look forward to catching more of your awe-inspiring concerts soon. And thank you for such an honest and informative in-depth interview. This was truly a special experience for me. I only wish I could sing even one note in tune.
For those of you who would like to find out more about Carmen’s upcoming concert dates and how to purchase her music please click here to visit her website.
Photo Credit: Tana Lopez - Carmen performing at the Blue Note in New York City
Photo Credit: Bob Barry - Carmen performing with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Oei - Carmen performing in concert at Yoshi's in Oakland and Carmen by the beach rocks
Photo Credit: Robert Wade - Carmen performing at the Monterey Jazz Festival
Photo Credit: Hal Fairchild - Carmen performing with Ryan Cross at the Pasadena Jazz Institute