While singers are dependent on the physics of sound, it is a less definable ingredient that transcends the sterile grasp of science that most vocalists concern themselves with. It is the ingredient that stirs a yearning in the heart, or causes a smile of understanding. It can move you to tears or dope you into dancing like a fool. It is the ingredient that lurks deep, deep down in the secret chambers of the heart. A good singer will find that place within us and bring it out, from one soul to another.
It is that ingredient—let’s call it soul for lack of a better word—that really divides music into just two categories: good and bad. And yet, it is the job of critics and record stores to divide it, scientifically, into groups and categories, so we can attempt to describe the indescribable and hang words on the wordless.
In what began as a hunt for local jazz singers, New Orleans revealed once again that its music will not be pigeonholed into anything more specific than “soul.” And while New Orleans has many singers that do sing jazz (some more than others), none sing only jazz. The jazz they do sing is so varied in style and delivery that, again, categorization becomes meaningless.
The name that pops up most often when discussing jazz singers in these parts is Germaine Bazzle. Gracious and dignified, Bazzle sparkles when she sings. With a pure-toned contralto voice, she milks the melody and explores the harmony while performing the old standards of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Jerome Kern. She explores the possibilities of the tones that resonate in her head, and plays with rhythms while scatting and improvising with the melody.
She knows the oft taken-for-granted art of working with a microphone. She understands what is going on inside the music, having played bass in a Platters-style band for six years. Not surprisingly, she was named Best Female Vocalist at this year’s Big Easy Entertainment Awards.
Bazzle never set out to be a musician. But her voice has carried her from the West Indies and Europe to New York’s Carnegie Hall with Moses Hogan’s New World Ensemble.
In 1989, Bazzle recorded one side of “New” New Orleans Music Vocalists, Volume 1 on Rounder Records with Lady B.J. Crosby featured on the flip side. In 1984, she performed with the New Orleans Philharmonic in a salute to Duke Ellington, and she has been a regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since 1971.
Besides the spirituals performed with the New World Ensemble, Bazzle also sings in the St. Louis Cathedral Concert Choir, but still can’t shake the “jazz singer” label.
“Some people see me in the Cathedral Choir and think of me as a jazz singer who does classical music,” she says. “People can place me wherever they are comfortable. I sing because I enjoy singing.”
Bazzle says she learns something with each new experience and performance and applies what she learns to the classroom, having taught music to the girls of Xavier Preparatory School for 20 years. “I discover a lot through teaching because I have to find ways to explain these things I know to my students.”
The children of New Orleans also have Wanda Rouzan to thank for sharing her talents in the Talented in the Arts program for grade schools. The program is designed for “at risk” children, to find their strengths and build on that. She tells of one 13-year-old boy who couldn’t read, but wanted to sing. “He sang a spiritual for me and blew me away!”
The boy has since been encouraged to learn how to read because he wants to be able to read the words below the notes on written music. Rouzan began working in education as a speech pathologist, which has helped her singing through voice control and clarity.
Rouzan’s band, A Taste of New Orleans, covers a broad range of music, from straight-ahead and traditional New Orleans jazz to ’40s standards, ’50s R&B to ’60s doo-wop, show tunes to cabaret. She recently portrayed Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” to rave reviews, and its stay was extended several times.
Rouzan’s grandmother, Abigail Tellebon, sang at the Palace Theatre during the Vaudeville days. Rouzan began singing with her sisters professionally at the age of 14, backing up the likes of Ernie K-Doe and Oliver Morgan. During the Vietnam War, the Rouzan Sisters had the number one album in New Orleans for one month with Men of War.
She took a sabbatical for ten years to pursue a career in education until starting again in 1979 in the musical “One Mo’ Time,” and later performed in the follow-up “And Further Mo’” off Broadway at the Village Gate in New York. In the early ’80s, she joined David Lastie’ s band in one of the original house bands at Storyville.
Rouzan has a large following in her native 7th Ward, and continues to play there regularly for the old folks at the Autocrat Social Club, which she says is one of the first social halls for blacks in New Orleans.
“It’s important to me to keep it in the neighborhood, because that’s where the music came from. I’m going to do my damnedest to keep up the tradition.”
This summer, Rouzan will return to Ascona, Switzerland, for the New Orleans Music Festival.
Juanita Brooks is one of very few local singers to make it without a “day gig.” Since she makes her living on the road, she is not afraid to ruffle a few feathers in the local music business.
“It’s a sheltered world here. We have a lot of good music here but the world won’t know you and you won’t know it. When I left, I was embarrassed how much I didn’t know about the business. I know more now, through outside sources. Those who know it here are sittin’ on it, because they’re ego trippin’. There’s a lot of talk about improving the industry, but they figure ‘why change?’ They capitalize on what it is now, on the small people who don’t know better, who deserve more.”
Brooks is a Gospel singer first, but again covers the gamut of jazz and R&B. “All these labels really confuse the hell out of me.” She has worked with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton and Tommy Flanagan.
Brooks is pleased with her success, but remains philosophical. In Mackinaw Island, she had an audience that included Lou Rawls and Rosemary Clooney.
“They listened to my concert and had a good time. What else do I need to do? I had the chance to stand next to that fantasy. The next morning I looked at myself in the mirror, I said, ‘You’re still the same person.’ I get up, eat grits and eggs. I get funky and my car breaks down.”
“A lot of people here said I wouldn’t do nothing. But if I don’t make it, it’s because of God, not because of a man. God can do anything. He can make man get out of my way. I’ve seen that.”
Barbara Ann Shorts is another singer without a day gig, and she also comes from a Gospel background. “I got such a high from listening to my mother and the other ladies sing in church, I said to myself, ‘I want to sound like that.’”
After 12 years with the Gospel Soul Children, Shorts left to play Big Bertha Williams in “One Mo’ Time,” where she first learned to love the music of Bessie Smith. “She was described as a belter, and I consider myself a belter. I don’t need a mic to sing.”
Shorts’ voice is powerful and deep, with a heavy vibrato as she jumps on the blues, traditional New Orleans jazz, standards and pop, always ending her shows with a spiritual, such as “Down by the Riverside.” “No matter what kind of song it is, I’m going to approach it in the same way. It has to do with what’s in my heart, from what’s inside of me. If I sing blues, maybe you have experienced what I’m singing about.”
In 1987, Shorts recorded a traditional jazz album with a band in Oslo, Norway, called A Stone for Bessie Smith, which was released in Europe. “That’s my baby,” she said. “I’m proud of it.”
She has also performed as a soloist for Symphony in Black with the New Orleans Symphony and with the New Orleans and Cincinnati Ballet Company. She was recently filmed for the Pelican Pictures New Orleans Music series with the Gospel Soul Children. In June, she will return to play a 10-day jazz festival in Makai, Australia, where she is in high demand.
“It seems everything has happened to me for a reason. When I was a kid, I never understood why my mother bought me, out of eight children, a piano. It’s all been for something. If you do what you want to do, once you believe in you, that’s when you’ll go places.”
Betty Shirley is a newcomer to New Orleans. She took a chance and came here from New York a year ago, because “there’s a thousand people in New York who do what I do. There’s just a handful here.”
But then again, her whole life has been spent taking chances and overcoming the odds. She had a difficult childhood, spending much of it in and out of institutions. She spent her early young adulthood on the streets, a drug addict, in and out of jails. Yet here she is today, a warm and personable woman whose sensitivity is not hardened by her experiences. “I made the pain part of my repertoire. ”
Shirley was first encouraged to sing by a nun at the Catholic school she attended. “She wanted me to sing her little songs. I would sing the blues and she would send me home.”
Her friends in the girls homes always wanted her to sing to them at night. “They would do things for me, iron my clothes, comb my hair, clean my room. All my life, all my friends ever ask me to do is sing for them.”
So Shirley decided to make something of her talent, and followed singers like Big Maybelle and Etta James around New York. Impressed with the sophistication of jazz, Shirley wanted to prove herself as an artist, and still pursues the visual arts, working mostly with sand paintings. She later became a part of the Brooklyn jazz scene.
Shirley taught art to underprivileged street kids. “I wanted to see if I still had any love left in me. I wanted to rectify what my life had been. Children are the key to the universe, and the creativity of abused children is great, because they’re looking for an escape.”
After a year working with the Joel Simpson Group, Shirley’s performance is a testimony to her beauty inside.
Leah Chase returned to New Orleans last year after 14 years in Los Angeles to help her parents manage Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Her father had a very popular orchestra years ago, and now runs the 51-year old business.
Chase had a gig at the Sheraton Hotel before she left. “I was doing Melissa Manchester music. I remember seeing Mike Pellera, Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton. They were hip. My mom dressed me like the Chiffons. I didn’t feel hip. Now I’m working with them. I feel like Julie Andrews working with Miles Davis.”
While attending Loyola University, Chase was in a band called Market. “We did Chicago songs, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon,’ dance music. Steve Masakowski played bass in that group. The guys all wore blue polyester leisure suits. We thought we were cool. You couldn’t touch us with a ten foot pole.”
In Los Angeles, Chase worked at Simply Blues on Sunset & Vine. She has a smooth legato style. “I like to sing ballads. What do you call that. It isn’t pop any more, so you sort of push it into jazz. Once you ‘wop doo bop’ they have to put you somewhere.”
She has pursued more jazz standards of late. With Catholic parents, Chase says some subjects are still taboo. At one performance, she performed a Bessie Smith song called “Kitchen Man.” “Some of the lyrics are double entendre, all innuendo. My mother took a napkin and put it over her head!”
Chase is very open and personable and has a knack for warming up the crowd.
“I have a love-hate relationship with music. It’s such a personal thing. What you put through it is your personal expression and you’re laying your soul bare for people to decide if they like it or not.”
Sharon Martin struggled with her talent and her confidence before deciding she really wanted to sing. While rehearsing with a group of musicians she did not feel worthy of, “my stomach knotted up, I got a big bulge in my neck, my eyes clouded up with tears. I walked to the corner, tears coming down my eyes, and called my girlfriend. I said ‘I can’t do this.’ She said, ‘Is this something you want to do? You’ve gotta make your mind up, either you’re going to do this or you’re not going to do this.’ So I went back and did it.
“I had to constantly keep telling myself if there were hurdles I didn’t think I could get over, it was my own mind telling me, ‘You’re feeling inferior.’ So I made my mind up I was going to do it.”
Shortly thereafter, Martin joined guitarist Carl LeBlanc’s group. After three years, she’s still growing and learning. LeBlanc proves the importance of a good accompanist to a singer’s sound, and he and Martin complement each other well, working often as a duo with LeBlanc filling a role usually reserved for a pianist.
“I consider myself a singer, not necessarily jazz. My idol is Germaine Bazzle because she delivers. You feel it when she delivers.”
Many other younger singers are starting to cut their teeth on the club circuit. Jaimelah Mikal has begun a regular stint at Club Second Line. Chanell Gautreaux is a mainstream talent to watch. Veterans Tammy Lynn and Lady B.J. will be returning to New Orleans in the near future. June Gardner came in third at the Hennessey Jazz Contest in July. But those are other stories…