Interviewed by Shannon West
A few years ago, I got to see Patti Austin's For Ella tribute at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Telling anecdotal stories about Ella and adding her own personality to the songs that she sang, she brought Ella Fitzgerald to life. She pulled back the curtain of Ella’s icon status, leading us to see her as a talent of great magnitude who was also a human being with the usual assortment of quirks and flaws that we all have. Now she has chosen a selection of songs from George Gershwin, illuminated then, shown how relevant they still are, and in the process, made an album that is just flat out fun to listen to. Her love for this material is obvious. It comes out in every note she sings.
When I heard the between-song monologues on her live CD, I had a feeling she would be fabulous to talk to. She's smart, insightful, animated, funny, and an independent thinker, and we had quite a conversation! She grew up surrounded by some of the most influential musicians of her era, and the one right before it. She's been through some stuff and come out stronger, and she's not afraid to speak her mind about the things that are important to her. She is extremely active in music education, and as part of the Avant Gershwin tour, she will be conducting master classes with music students of all ages and offering the public a chance to see the process unfold as a tie-in with Borders book stores. She shared some insights on Gershwin, the composer, and the creation of Avant Gershwin, the album, that will make listening to it an even more fascinating and enjoyable experience. There was no way I was going to edit out a single thought that she shared. So what I would suggest is that you put the CD on or access the streaming audio on the Avant Gershwin website, settle in, and get to know Patti Austin and the music that moves her. Just remember this: Patti Austin can sing!!!
SmoothViews (SV): You've done Gershwin tunes on other recordings. How did the idea of doing a whole CD come about?
Patti Austin (PA) Well, the same way I decided to do Ella for the last. You'll notice there's a running theme here, and it is WDR Big Band. I've been working with them over the years. I go back every two or three years to participate in their American Music Festival, in which they do a week of American pop music. Essentially it's a jazz series since most of the jazz from the era that they are performing from came from musical theatre. Most of the hits back then were songs that were in Broadway shows or musical films, and that was kind of the source for the material. They honor the body of work of an artist, composer, or musician, but they usually leave it up to me, or whoever they have guesting, to choose which one. The first time I went there, I performed my own music. The next time they asked me to pick an American jazz female vocalist – that was Ella Fitzgerald – and this time it was about a composer. I decided to go with Gershwin because I love so much of the material. There were a few directions I could have started in, but we are going to be doing more of these concept albums with WDR, so I figured we'd start the composer alphabet with Gershwin, the way we started the "girl singer" alphabet with Ella. That does not mean that I don't love Cole Porter and all the other magnificent composers. Hopefully, I will ultimately get to them, because we are going to do a series of essentially songbook type albums, which is exactly what Ella and a lot of other artists from her time did for many years.
SV: Tell me about WDR Big Band, because they sound like an amazing group of musicians.
PA: They're incredible. For a few years Quincy Jones, my beloved Godfather, ran the music for Montreaux Jazz Festival, and whenever he did he always made sure WDR was there. They are mostly from Europe with a guitar player from Japan and a bass player from the states. Other than that, they are mostly German. They are brilliant musicians who play all kinds of music all year long. They’re government sponsored, as are most of the great Symphonies in Europe. If you're listening in Washington, D.C., perhaps you'll hear this [clears throat in a hint-hint kind of way that this interviewer affirms!] - that the rest of the world is supporting the arts in schools and keeping the music alive. Ironically they are keeping our music alive better than we are and honoring jazz like we honor classical music. As far as Europeans, the Asians, and the Africans are concerned, jazz is the only true classical American music form, and it is revered and honored. If you do Cole Porter or Gershwin or Oscar Hammerstein over there it's like you're performing Bach or Mozart in the U.S. WDR is all about that. They have their own recording facility, their own symphony hall, and their own broadcast facility. Everything is in-house and government run and absolutely brilliant.
SV: Every solo on this album is just perfect and unbelievable.
PA: Scary, isn't it! There's one woman in this band. As a matter of fact, in "Swannee" there's an exchange between me and a saxophone player who happens to be a woman. The marvelous Brazilian acoustic guitar solo in "Who Cares" was played by a Japanese guy. These musicians are so immersed in this music. These are a bunch of Germans who know how to swing! (laughs)
SV: I read somewhere a comment you made about the difference in the composition of the audiences over there and here. That when you perform in Europe you see all age groups, all walks of life, not so much of that demographically specific thing that seems to surround music on this side of the ocean.
PA: Absolutely. Every demographic imaginable. All of Europe is tremendously integrated now; perhaps from all those years of colonization. Everybody that they've colonized has come to the mainland, so you'll have a racially diverse audience as well. You'll have many Middle Easterners, Asians, Africans, from seven to ninety sitting in the audience, and the really incredible thing is that they all know the music. I don't mean they just know a song here and there. They know the music. They are a very educated audience.
SV: You've seen both sides. Why do you think we don't have that here? Is it because we compartmentalize music so much by age and lifestyle and such?
PA: There's that, and we've got a few issues going on at the same time. Probably the primary problem is that we have very little music education in our schools anymore, and I guess the music that has been made by the last couple of generations is very reflective of that. In essence you have two generations of music illiterates floating around who for the most part don't know anything about music before Michael Jackson, and if they do they go back as far as Stevie Wonder - which makes me laugh, because if you were to talk to Stevie about what his roots are, they cover so much territory and go back all the way to Beethoven. Now you have a couple of generations who don't have that knowledge. Even though music is universal in its appeal, it also requires some cultivation to really, really deeply appreciate it. That goes for any of the arts. You can stand and look at a painting and say you like it on a subjective level, but to deeply appreciate it, it helps to know something about art and what was going on in the culture at the time it was being created - how that culture influenced the artists and the way the artists created their work. All of these things weigh into being able to really appreciate the music that you hear, the painting you see, or the theatre piece that you attend. When that is eliminated, you downgrade the level of the audience automatically. Unfortunately, in our country, when we get ready to start cutting budgets in schools, the first thing they cut is music, and the next thing they cut is PE. Those are the two things that have been found to make your brain function at a much higher level.
SW: I was lucky because my mom was really into music during that era. She got to see most of the singers and big bands, and she played piano, so I grew up with Gershwin and Ellington songbooks sitting on the piano. I was into the Top 40 stuff, but I also got to hear the great singers and the songs that would become standards. Having Ella and Peggy Lee in your record collection next to your Motown and Rolling Stones doesn’t make you very popular at slumber parties, and that goes back to this thing we do here, where if you are a certain age you're supposed to like this narrow little range of music.
PA: That also comes from living in a country that is obsessed with advertising. I worked in the ad business for 15 years, and that has really started to control what gets played on the radio. What gets played gets played on a certain station on a certain time so you can reach a certain demographic. The music that's getting played isn't getting played based on the feelings of the program director or the disc jockey. It's based on the amount of sales they can get for the group of products that people who like a given song or set of songs might buy.
SV: Most adults have no idea how to find music they would like, because they have just been too busy to explore, or don't know how much quality adult-oriented music is out there. So if you are an average person who didn't happen to catch the NPR feature or stumble upon a review and go online to check it out, how do you find out about this music that will blow you away when you hear it, whether you're 21 or 91?
PA: Hopefully, that new invention called the internet will help you access it. That's one of the things that is scary for many people, but to me, it is a very positive way to reach a broader audience. This CD isn't going to get played in any large way on the radio, but you can access it on the internet. You can find it on Amazon.com, and we are going to be out there doing live concerts and just using all avenues to access the existing audience - the adult audience - and hopefully reaching young people with this stuff. The good news is that the young people that I've gotten any feedback from have all gotten it, and that's a great thing. And they get it no matter what kind of music they usually listen to. I played it for a van full of teenagers who listen to nothing but hip-hop, and they freaked out. They absolutely adored it. They might not understand, it but they loved it.
SV: That's the first step. Hopefully the opportunity to understand it will come out of that.
SV: When you have such an exceptional performance, there's no way not to be grabbed by that. It’s different, and it’s timeless.
PA: To me, the most fantastic element of all is the arrangements that Michael Abene did. I don't know what he did. He did what I asked him to, but I've sat with other arrangers and talked about specific parts of the arrangements, the instrumentation, the tempo, and usually they get it. There was some whole other kind of energy happening when we worked on this. And it's funny, because if you took the entire time we worked on this and squeezed it together, it was only about two weeks. It took me about a day to sift through the Gershwin songbook and figure out what I wanted to go for, which is like going to the treasure trove of planet earth and seeing how you can break that down. But there were songs that kind of jumped in my face. Through the whole process I kept having this word pound me in the head - "Cinematic, cinematic, cinematic!" So everything I went for, material-wise, was stuff that I had a cinematic reference to, either from a musical, movie or live theatre, which is totally my roots. The first thing I did as a child performer was a show called "Lost in the Stars." The first music I loved was from musical theatre, and that was all wrapped around jazz because my dad was a jazz musician, and his influence was very profoundly there.
SV: The thing I've noticed seeing you perform is you draw everybody in. The quality and the artistry don’t preclude the entertainment factor.
PA: I grew up in a houseful of people who did that.
SV: Other people have too but they don't do what you do!
PA: My dad started out as a musician, but by the time I was 11, both of them had become psychotherapists. That's like a whole other movie (laughs). So this was my background, and I wanted to infuse all of that into this particular project. I knew I could do that with this music, so first day, we pick out the material. Then about two or three weeks pass,, and I got the list to Michael so he could have a general idea of what we were talking about. He asked me how I envisioned doing this stuff. Then we got together for two days in a row spent about four hours each day, and started going through the material. I knew I wanted to do at least one medley. Everybody was questioning doing a medley on a record, but this was actually a live broadcast over WDR radio, which goes all over Germany. The focus for me is that I'm trying to put a live performance together. I'm trying to pace it, make it theatrical, and make it cinematic. I want people who are sitting at home listening to it to be able to close their eyes and create these marvelous visuals for themselves based on the fact that this music comes to life. The arrangements had to make that happen. I knew that was going to be such a powerful element to elevating this music for the listening audience, as well as the live audience, because I was going to be performing live for an audience of about 2,000 people.
SV: That was a lucky 2,000 people.
PA: I was the lucky one to have such an incredible audience. We sat down and did the first bit of work on everything without the two medleys. We would pick out a song and start talking about how we wanted to do it. I was giving him visual, cinematic concepts along with ideas about how the music should sound. Michael is their resident American arranger and composer, so he knows everyone in that band. He knows their abilities. He can write for them in his sleep (laughs). When I walked into the studio about a month later, it was the first time I got to hear Michael’s interpretations of what we had discussed. It’s a long way from those two days in a little room with an out-of-tune upright piano to the time we walked into the studio and the music is performed. It was like a playground for us. We were in complete and total ecstasy. It was tremendous fun. For me probably the most magical moment was the day I walked into rehearsal. I'm standing there hearing the arrangements for the first time, and just thinking "Omigod!" then I have to figure out how I'm going to wrap my vocals around all this amazing stuff that he's written.
SV: In the process of this you shifted the context of several of these songs.
PA: That was very important for me to do. I wanted to challenge myself, Michael, and all of us to rework some of this material and to reestablish it. I guess the first thing everyone jumps on is "Swanee.” That was one of the first tunes I wanted to do specifically, because I always loved the tune, and I always heard it a whole other way than it was being done. I totally understood the stigma attached to the song. It became a huge hit for Al Jolson, who did it in blackface, then Judy Garland did it, and the only reason she didn't do it in blackface was because, by then, it was not allowed anymore. But it was still done in that framework of a minstrel show. I did know one thing about the song - there's nothing I love more than a showstopper song, and that is one. The problem with it now is the connotation that has been given to it by its origins. The source of its success was a little seedy, especially for black folks. I really wanted to reinvent that particular wheel because, although personally I'm not from the south, I see that there is a deep-seated connection for black people to the south. Although a lot of that history is very horrible and very painful, it's also a place that, in spite of the horror, nurtured an entire race of people, and is the cradle for black folks of our American civilization. So I wanted that song to be resurrected as a contemporary anthem for people who love the south. The quickest way to do that was to get the "mammy" out of the lyric and to change the groove so it had a more contemporary feeling, but one that would still leave it in the world of jazz. I think Michael and I found the balance for that. My goofiest, silliest, happiest moment was playing "Swanee" for a room full of very sophisticated Black people. It was like that marvelous scene in "The Producers" when the audience first sees "Springtime for Hitler." They're all looking at me like "are you outta your mind!" So the song started, and they're all looking at each other. Then it broke into the groove, and I saw the little toes tapping, and the heads start bobbing, and then it got to the line about "my mammy," and I said "my mama," and it was like the whole room let out a deep breath. They just loved it.
SV: I think I would have approached it with some apprehension if I hadn't listened to the podcast first or known you could shift the script on any song you wanted to sing and make it your own if you decided to.
PA: I love doing that kind of stuff. I love taking something where everyone has this preconceived idea of how it goes or is supposed to go and changing it around.
SV: Another song that has a more covert than overt message is “Strike Up The Band.”
PA: “Strike Up The Band” was written as a protest song. The song is very tongue in cheek. It’s from a play that was about the masters of war, people making money off of war. The song is sung to rally everyone so this industrialist can make money off the war. When they are talking about “There’s work to be done, there’s a war to be won,” they are saying, “I’m making you excited about fighting and killing so I can build tanks and make a profit of them while you send your son overseas to get killed in a war.”
SV: So what we have is a song that was written by and for a different generation in a different time that is applicable to where we’re sitting now.
PA: Hello…! Yeah, so much of what Ira wrote lyrically had that kind of attitude to it. “Slap That Bass” has my all time favorite line in the history of songs – “Dictators would be better off if they zoom-zoom.” And what does zoom-zoom mean to you (laughs)? In those days they wouldn’t say, “You’d be better off if you got laid,” which is in essence what the song is saying. When I went to sing the lyric I purposefully sang “dic-tators would be better off if they zoom-zoom…” It’s all there. It’s in the music. It’s all there! When I got ready to do these tunes, I did a lot of research on where they came from and what they meant within the body of the shows that they were from. I wanted to know the original intent of these pieces and whether or not I wanted to approach them from that point of view or put a more contemporary twist on it. But the joke was there’s no such thing as a contemporary twist,, because I don’t know if you’ve watched “Rome” on HBO but the one thing you’ll learn from seeing it is that the only thing that changes is the drag - just the fashion. We’re doing all the same stuff.
SV: On the “Porgy and Bess” medley you decided to sing the guy songs.
PA: To me the guy songs have the meaty lyrics and the meaty stories. The woman songs have the needy songs, the (whiny voice) “don’t hurt me, my man’s gone” stuff.
SV: Another place we haven’t changed.
PA: Yeah, right… Same thing but different clothes. I wanted to do the guy stuff because it’s very powerful and wonderful. I love the idea of a woman singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which is a tremendous lyric. And also, “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’” is kind of the way I live my life. I’m so much more interested in the content of people’s characters than the size of their wallets, and much more interested in having really simple comforts in my life and, most importantly, great relationships and exciting, intelligent, stimulating people who set an example for me of where I hope to get at some point in time.
SV: You’ve recorded a lot of standards over the years but your high profile identity was as a contemporary jazz and R&B vocalist. I think a lot of people were really surprised when The Real Me came out, and when you started doing more standards oriented live shows. You grew up surrounded by this music, but how did you shift toward this track, recording it, performing it, and doing these projects with WDR?
PA: I credit a lot of it to Rosemary Clooney. She used to do a benefit in Los Angeles that was called “Singers for Songwriters,” which we are right now in the process of resurrecting in her name. She would bring in all of the old guard to perform songs from five different composers, two posthumous and three living, and the three living would be in the audience. It was the night before the Oscars every year, and everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Sinatra would be there.. I was one of the first contemporary artists that Rosemary invited to participate, and I did it for seven years. I was doing standard music kind of at home for myself at that point, and she really encouraged me to do more of it. One of the things that really got me in that marketplace was doing that benefit for her. One year they honored Jule Styne, and after the show he came up to me and told me I was the only contemporary singer he had heard who knew how to do this, and that I must continue it. He was already in his eighties, and there were a lot of performances to honor him. I got on that circuit and started singing that music and being accepted in that marketplace. All the while Rosemary kept stoking me. The last time I saw her face to face was in the hallway at Avery Fisher Hall at Lena Horne’s birthday celebration. I’ll never forget this: she backed me into the doorway, took her index finger, and poked me in my heart, and she said, “Youmust continue to sing the great American songbook. You are the heir apparent, and you have to do this.” I said there were other contemporary singers who could do this too, and she said, “This is on you. You have to sing this, and I’ll be very disappointed if you’re not doing this exclusively ten years from now. This is what’s going to last forever, and I want you to sing it, teach it, and make sure it stays alive. It’s on you, kid!” I was like…”OK…”
SV: Was that around the time that you did The Real Me?
PA: She had a lot to do with me wanting to do that. Actually this was before my “anointing.” I was trying in my small way to do this material, but to put it in a place that was going to be acceptable to the audience that doesn’t normally listen to it. This music is so magnificent that you can bend it, stretch it, and make it more modern and more appealing to the contemporary listener’s ear even if they don’t know where it came from. If you’re hearing “Lazy Afternoon” for the first time, I wanted to put it in a more contemporary environment so you might listen to it more readily. That was the whole idea of that project, which really got me more into that whole world of working with symphonies and doing PBS specials and creating a much broader audience. It got to a point where it was very funny because I still had tremendous recognition for “Baby Come To Me,” and then came out with this marvelous song with James Ingram, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing,” which to me may be the last great classic contemporary song. I don’t know how many songs of that caliber have been written since, but I was working with James a while ago, and we couldn’t think of what other recently written songs fit that category. That was a great standard song.
SV: That’s an interesting point. The two CDs that I have been living with recently are yours and the one Randy Crawford and Joe Sample did. Both of them are all about quality songs and quality songwriting.
PA: Or as we like to call it, grown-up music!
SV: Exactly! But by grown-up music we don’t mean safe, comfortable, and nostalgic. We mean this level of songwriting, vocals that put the song across emotionally instead of with a lot of gimmicks and technological voice processing. Have we lost this? Where is the songwriting now?
PA: The songwriting is in rough shape. The singing is pretty good. I keep saying this to people, and I don’t think they like it when I say it (laughs), but we have a lot of young, wonderful singers and young wonderful technicians. But it’s very difficult to interpret this music in its purest form if you weren’t there. Just like it’s difficult for me to sing like Mary J. The music she’s doing is from her loins, from her time and from whatever this culture is giving her now. When I’m singing a standard, I’m singing it based on being immersed in what that world was when that music was being invented: standing next to Dinah Washington and watching her create how she is going to sing it, or standing next to Lena Horne and watching her develop a piece of music. There’s no way that somebody who has just heard it is going to be able to do anything but imitate it. I’m not saying they can’t do a lovely imitation, but it’s still not going to have the soul that someone who was there will bring to it. Which is why this multitude of young singers can sing all the standards they want to. They can tear ‘em up. But if Tony Bennett hits the stage they need to sit back and watch, ‘cause that’s his world.
SV: That could even apply to people our age, if they didn’t grow up immersed in the scene you did, because the music you are talking about was more tied to our parents’ generation and the generation that came right before us. Some of us grew up hearing it because our parents or older cousins and siblings were into it but our age group was more likely to be listening to Motown and the Beatles. I found out later a lot of other people I grew up with were listening to this “parent music” on the sly but not telling their peer group. I think one reason we are drawn to them, and the reason even these really young singers are, is the expressiveness and literacy of the lyrics. These songs tell stories and they are so visual.
PA: I always say that every generation gets the music it deserves.
SV: Uh-oh! That’s not good.
PA: It’s not. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the music a reflection of the culture, or is the culture a reflection of the music. I think the music is a reflection of the culture. If you look at what was going on in the world and in this country at the time that Gershwin was writing “Porgy and Bess” and “Swanee” and all these tunes, the music was the underscoring for what was going on – war, the Depression, racism, lynching – and the music is totally reflective of that. You have an intelligent audience. On a scale of 1-10 they started out at 12, but it’s gone down and down through the decades because the focus has gone away, particularly in music education. When I went to school, when you hit Jr. High, there was this room called the band room, and you were taken in there, and you learned an instrument. You were going to have an hour of band every day and it sounded like hell (laughs), but you were going to have the discipline of practicing, you would have your lesson once a week, and that went through high school. You sang in the chorus or played in the band or did both.
SV: I sang in all the choruses and ensembles and cowered under the glare of a strict piano teacher who thought I was wasting time with my Laura Nyro songbook.They handed my sister a violin in 7th grade and the family spent a lot of time with cotton in our ears for those first few months but she got an appreciation for a wider scope of music.
PA: And as wonderful as music is it gets better if you cultivate that. Teach people the total magnitude. It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it if you don’t know a flat from a sharp or the names of chords, but if you do know the difference it elevates your sense of taste and what you want to hear. When we were growing up we could turn on the radio and hear Louis Armstrong singing “What A Wonderful World,” then right after that, you’d hear Jimi Hendrix playing “Purple Haze” and Marvin Gaye singing “What’s Goin’ On” or Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
SV: There was such diversity without having to search all over the place for it. Now you hear a set of reconfigurations of the same song, because it has to sound familiar already to get played in the first place.
PA: Exactly. When I say this to people they get really huffy, but think about what I’m saying. I’m not saying these people aren’t good - some of them are great. But you expect me to get excited about Joss Stone when I heard Janis Joplin. I love Alanis Morissette, but I grew up on Joni Mitchell!
SV: I grew up thinking I was Joni Mitchell!
PA: OK..me too. That’s a whole other story (laughs). So when you have that sense of genius around you, your taste gets very elevated.
SV: And when you get hyped on the next brilliant songwriter, and the lyrics are “my love for you is as true as the sky is blue,” you just kind of roll your eyes. Then they go who do you think you are?
PA: And you go, “I think I know some stuff that you don’t understand, and if you understood it, you’d do the work you need to do to become better at your craft.” I just met Mary J., and I went to her and told her I was so proud of her because she is continuing to grow. She understands that she needs to continue to grow. It’s magnificent.
SV: It is because she is in a position where she could just do the same thing over and over and still have hits and make money.
PA: She has become more and more sophisticated, but she’s never lost her heart. She comes from sincerity, and that’s about three-quarters of the battle. But the technique wasn’t there, and she knew it wasn’t there, so she went about the task of improving her technique. She’s getting those skills. She’s only gonna get better. It’s really exciting. Then there are some singers who have the pipes and the vocal skills, but I just don’t believe them. I believe every note they hit and every run they do, but I still don’t know what they are singing about. People think they have to sing a run every note. That has happened because the music isn’t there. When there’s not much going on in the melody, the singer is required to create interest in the melody by doing a lot of tricks with their voice. What happens with contemporary singers is, when they are thrown back into the world of a Gershwin or Cole Porter, they don’t know how to leave the melody alone. Those songs were written the way they were written because, nine times out of ten, they were from a Broadway show, and it was a song that was telling a story within the context of that show. You’re doing a whole different kind of singing when you sing that material because you’re trying to tell a story. If you are used to having to take material that doesn’t have much substance and try to give it substance with your voice, then you approach this rich tapestry of material and start trying to gild this lily. So if they are given this material, they don’t know what to do with it so they start doing runs. But they don’t know any better, and why don’t they? It comes back to there being no music education!
SV: You grew up surrounded by some of the biggest names in the music business. You started performing when you were young and stayed in show business. Did these grown folk who had been around and knew the ropes give you a lot of advice.
PA: When I was a kid I loved to talk to grownups and hear what they were saying. I thought that was the most interesting stuff. And someone was always saying, “C'mere kid, sit on my lap I want to tell you something.” I think I spent most of my childhood sitting in somebody's lap while they gave me advice. I'llnever forget I was doing a TV show with a singer named Patrice Munsel, I think I was about seven at the time. Patrice called me over and she said, “This is going to mean absolutely nothing to you now, but I want you to always remember these words. I’m going to tell you how to cope with show business. This is how show business goes. I'm going to use your name in this sentence. Just think about it. Who’s Patti Austin? Get me Patti Austin! Get me a young Patti Austin. Who’s Patti Austin? “I never forgot it, but it meant absolutely nothing to me at that moment. Now of course it means everything to me. If you come up in this business, and you know that from day one, then there are no surprises. You prepare yourself for that final part of the circle. The “Who’s Patti Austin?” What happens to people along the way is, they hit door number two, and they get carried away with that, and don’t understand how ephemeral that is. Then if they don’t sell the 20 million records they sold the last time, their life is devastated because that’s what they’ve based their life on.
SV: But with you, we have Patti Austin, the young jazz singer, on those CTI albums, then Patti Austin “Baby Come To Me” and now Patti Austin doing these definitive takes on Ella and Gershwin.
PA: That’s because I know that the other end of the story is inevitable, so I plan on going out in a blaze of glory.
SV: Well hopefully not real soon!
PA: Not real soon, but my idea of a blaze of glory is that, when I can’t sing anymore, I’ll be showing somebody hopefully less than half my age how to accomplish that. After my “Rosemary Clooney anointing,” I have a mission that transcends my just singing this music. I want to hand this music down. I want there to be the young Patti Austin and the young Ella Fitzgerald. But more important, because I, too, am an imitator, by the way - while I’m talking about everybody imitating. I am not an innovator. I’m an imitator - a damn good one, but not an innovator. Not like Ella. Those are the bones upon which I stand. I do want to keep that genre alive. I want to keep that technique of performing alive. I want to hand that down so the next generation gets to see that, because it’s too magnificent to disappear. There’s too much talent out there not to nurture it to the point that we keep this alive and constantly reinvent this form. Anything that’s really, really good is undeniable, and it just goes on and on. Why? Because it works. So my mission in life is to find the young Patti Austin so when it’s “Who’s Patti Austin” again, and I’m sitting in some rocking chair telling tales about the old days, I will know that there are singers behind me who can run up and take that spot and nail it.
SV: How do we find them and how do we nurture them?
PA: You do what I do, which is you teach. I teach Master Classes at Berklee. I have an honorary Doctorate from them. I do stuff for Music Cares and NARAS and Music in the Schools. I just did a whole thing with NARAS during Grammy week where I worked with these wonderful young singers and musicians – a big band who played “Stairway To Paradise” and did a wonderful vocal arrangement of “Baby Come To Me.” I can’t even describe the level of fun working with these kids. They’re amazing.
SV: Was this college age or younger?
PA: I work with elementary school and up, all the way through college. As part of the promotion for this Gershwin project, we’re going to be doing a tour at Borders bookstores where I’m going to teach master classes in the stores and talk about Gershwin, performing this music, and what someone described as ‘interpretive singing,” a term I love because that’s what it is. We’re going to go into each town a couple of days ahead of time. I’m going to teach master classes in the schools at all grade levels. Then we are going to take the students who are the standouts in those classes and bring them to Borders and teach the class, and it will be open to the public so everyone can come and watch. When I go to teach one of these classes, the first thing I ask the students is what they are looking for in this business. How many of them want to be stars. Usually most people in the room raise their hands. I say this isn’t why you make music. You make music because you have to. You get into this business because you have to. Not because you want to, or because you want fame. That doesn’t last long enough to be in this business for. You to do this because when you roll out of bed in the morning you’ve gotta sing. Otherwise you’re taking up space for somebody who is really going to have that kind of dedication.
SV: And you’re going to hit so many walls you better love it!
PA: This is not for sissies, man! (laughs)
SV: Look at your career. There has never been a doubt that you can sing, and that you are committed to your craft. But look how many ups and downs you’ve been through, how many record companies you’ve been with, the whole process of being an artist in a commercial and pop culture driven industry.
PA: I have to do this because it makes me live. It makes me breathe. It’s the thing that brings me the most joy. That’s why I’m here. When it stops bringing me joy, that’s when I walk. When I hit 50 I looked at my manager and I said, “We don’t do anything unless it’s fun from now on.” So now it’s time for fun and to make great music and expose all the people to it that I can, bring it back to all the people who are starving for it again, and introduce it to all the little munchkins who don’t know what the heck it is, but they hear it, and they go, ‘I like it!”
SV: You said earlier that you are going to do more albums like this. Have you got anything specific in mind for the next one.
PA: We’re going to do bunches more of these. As long as I can do them and everybody wants to hear them. I’m thinking probably the next one is probably going to be Ellington. It’s been a long time since I heard anybody interpret or reinterpret his work. Here's the thing, though, about doing these songs. I don’t think I could bring to this material ten years ago what I bring to it now. So much of being able to really interpret these lyrics and tell these stories so it reaches into people’s hearts, and they are able to access it, and feel how they connect to these lyrics, has to do with the fact that I’m 56, and I’ve got some experience. Life is experiential, and if you can’t bring that to the material then it can only take it so far. So just a caution to young singers everywhere: Don’t try to sing “God Bless The Child” until you’re at least 45. I remember singing it when I was 23, and oh lord! Don’t sing “Lush Life” until you’ve had one. That’s all I have to say.
Patti has recorded a series of excellent short podcasts that tell the stories behind the songs and her interpretations of them. You can access them and hear the album in it's entirety at www.avantgershwin.com
Due to time constraints, we did not get to talk about her long-time friendship with Luther Vandross and her involvement in the Power To End Stroke campaign. For more information please visit the Power To End Stroke Website.