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Flora Purim

One way to address the question of women's roles in jazz would be to talk about those with the highest profiles, women who have made records. These women are generally vocalist, such as Ella Fitzgerald or Billy Holiday whose contributions to jazz are widely acknowledged.

One of these women known for her distinctive style and immediately recognizable musical approach is Flora Purim. Blending Brazilian roots with her impressive jazz and classical skills, Flora Purim's astonishing voice has woven itself into the fabric of three decades of music, becoming one of its brightest luminaries.

For those who know jazz and Latin music, Flora needs little introduction. Like all music genres, Latin jazz is diverse in style and content from the avant-garde and smooth to the more percussive caliente sounds.

Flora Purim's voice is as seductive and playful as ever on her new release Speak No Evil. She gives us a look at her beauty, faith and love, in this incredible and informative interview, telling us wonderful stories of her association with some of jazz's most legendary artists. She is truly one of jazz's leading ladies; the Queen of Brazilian Jazz.

JazzReview: Let's begin with your recent honor with Brazil's 2002 Ordem do Rio Branco for Lifetime Achievement.

Flora Purim: It was awesome. I wish it wasn't a Lifetime Achievement Award. I feel I have a lot of things to do in this lifetime. But it was a great acknowledgement because it came from my country. I'm not very well known in my country by the public. The musicians and the crowd into jazz know me better.

The award was a surprise to me. When I went to collect it, the tears began to flow in front of 2,000 people that attended the ceremony. Then the theater was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, where the award winning films nominated for the Oscars are announced. The ceremony was held on Sept. 7th, which is the day we celebrate the independence of Brazil.. It was altogether a very special night.

JazzReview: I must reiterate that you not only have walked with the giants of jazz; but you are also a giant of jazz. Speaking of giants you have been crowned "The Queen of Brazilian Jazz." That is truly an honor.

Flora Purim: When I arrived in America at the end of 1967, my only purpose was to observe (for a couple of months) my idols, which were mostly instrumentalists. I wanted to play jazz, not sing it.

The first person I met on the second day of my arrival was Thelonious Monk. I went to the Harlem and was attempting to get into a club called Club Baron, and the doorman was giving me a hard time. I had never seen Thelonious Monk personally; he was standing behind the doorman and saw what was going on. I could barely speak English; my English was broken and I had an accent. Thelonious scolded the doorman and extended his hand to me. His hands were big and he was tall. He said to me, "Come on in. Don't be afraid. I want you to sit with my friend."

I gave him my hand and he walked me through the club and took me all the way in and sat me at the table with a white hair lady who people were calling "Baroness Nika." She was the same lady who apparently took care of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. At the time I also did not know who she was. As a matter of fact, I didn't know how Thelonious Monk looked like. It was not until the show started and I saw him sitting at the piano and playing, that I realized what had happened to me.

In that club as I walked in, I saw Wayne Shorter at the bar, Art Blake and Carmen McRae. Oh, Miles Davis came in grand style with a beautiful lady on his arm! Every single jazz musician I idolized was at that club that night. It was the hangout of the musicians in the late 60's and 70's. I was in awe. Richard Davis and Chick Corea were there. I didn't know Chick Corea then. He was not well known, but later as I started working with him, I knew I had met him somewhere and then I realized that it was at the Club Baron. It was an incredible experience. Can you imagine me? I was only 22 years old, from Brazil, just trying to learn more about Jazz musicians, their styles and what made them choose that venue of music to express themselves. It was the greatest moment of my life.

JazzReview: That was an awesome introduction to jazz.

Flora Purim: Indeed it was. After the show, we went to Walter Booker's house where all the musicians that played in every other jazz club in the city converged to hang out and play music all night long, and jammed with each other until the early hours of the morning. So at that time to me, that was what jazz was all about!

JazzReview: What a wonderful experience. I'm sure you have many stories to tell.

Flora Purim: Yes, there are so many of them that I sometimes forget. One story I can't forget is about the time I met Horace Silver. He stayed at my house by chance. Sergio Mendes invited him [Silver] to come to Brazil to stay at his house in Niterói, which is a city across the Guanabara Bay. I used to live in Rio de Janeiro and at that time, I was living with a well-known drummer named Dom Um Romão who ended up playing with the group Weather Report by the end of the 70's. Sergio had asked if we could have Horace at our house, because he wanted to see more of Rio de Janeiro and we had an apartment in the middle of Copacabana, near all the clubs.

One early morning I heard the piano being played and when I came downstairs, I saw Horace Silver striking some chords and melodies. I didn't want to startle him so I sat on the stairs where he couldn't see me. He was beginning to write a song that became "Song for My Father." That composition became one of Horace's classics. Later on I asked him: why did you called it "Song for his father"? Then he told me his father was Portuguese and that he had migrated to America and that they used to live in Connecticut. He also told me that his father's real last name was Prata, which means silver in Portuguese.

JazzReview: Your new CD "Speak No Evil" is an excellent album with the classics by Cole Porter, "I've Got You Under My Skin," "You Go to My Head" and my favorite Gershwin, "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Flora Purim: Do you really like it?

JazzReview: Yes, it's always been one of my favorites.

Flora Purim: I didn't think I could cut it properly but I said, maybe if I don't worry about how it was originally written for the play and just do it my way, it would come across exactly the way it should. It is very difficult to find standards that not too many people have covered. Everybody covers every one of these classic songs ten times. Each one of them is better than the other.

JazzReview: How did you select the musicians for "Speak No Evil?"

Flora Purim: It was not difficult. I met Christian Jacob through one of my producers, Dominic Camardella, who insisted that I should give him a chance to play in one of my songs, because he (Dom) was sure that I was going to fall in love with him. So at Dom's request I invited Christian Jacob who brought along with him the acoustic bass player named Trey Henry. Together with Airto Moreira and Gary Meek, they have helped me to produce my first record for Narada, which is called Perpetual Emotion. And my friend Dom was absolutely right. From the first song, which was "Search for Peace", by McCoy Tyner, to the last song, which was "Crystal Silence", by Chick Corea, I felt in love all over again with acoustic music.

When I was singing with Dizzy, he used to say, "Jazz will be the classical music of the future." I used to laugh, but now I know what he meant. It's very rare to find good acoustic upright bass players.

JazzReview: How did you determine which singles would be on the album?

Flora Purim: I don't determine the singles. I believe the record company sends a bunch of CDs out to people that they trust in the business, and wait for their response to determine which songs will become singles.

JazzReview: I know that music is in your genes. I understand your parents were very talented musically. I'm sure it had an impact on your musical career.

Flora Purim: Yes, both of my parents were classical musicians. My mother was 15 years younger than my father. And my father was born in Russia. My mother was born in Brazil. My father didn't want to hear anything in the house, but classical music. At the age of four I began studying classical piano and at the age of twelve I moved to acoustic guitar. My mother, who was a pianist, loved Oscar Peterson and Errol Gardner. She would bring home those 78 vinyl rpm's and when my father was at work, she would play them. That was how I got exposed to jazz music. Basically listening to Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. But also a lot of piano players, such Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Errol Gardner, those were my mother's favorites.

JazzReview: That's how you were introduced to jazz and classical music?

Flora Purim: Yes. It was like that.

JazzReview: Who would you say were your greatest creative influences?

Flora Purim: Well, I've heard a lot of people, but I think I would say a Brazilian musician named Hermeto Pascoal was one of my biggest influences. Through the years he mastered the keyboards. He use to play the organ Hammond B3, flute, saxophone, percussion and guitar. He is one of the most complete musicians that I ever met. Not too long after we came to the United States, Airto Moreira introduced him to Miles Davis, who recorded three of Hermeto's compositions on his album "Live Evil."

On the early 70's, Chick Corea asked me to listen to some songs after a gig with Miles. None of his songs had lyrics. He had sent his music to Ella, Carmen, Sarah and Nancy, and they all sent it back saying the music was nice, but they couldn't take a risk to change their style from Bebop to that style of music called Fusion. So one day he asked me if I could come to his place and try to sing his new compositions. Then I took a chance and I went. Chick is a very talented and creative musician. At the time he also needed a drummer, so because Airto was playing with Miles, he asked Airto if he could do the rehearsals until he found a drummer to play with the new group he was forming. That was how the group "Return To Forever" was formed.

JazzReview: Can you tell us about your experience with bandleader Gil Evans?

Flora Purim: I met Gil Evans and joined the Gil Evans Band. He insisted that I played the percussion and I created some crazy sounds while the band was playing, Gil fell in love with the music we play, and whenever I did a gig on my own or with Airto, he would show up. I believe that between Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Ron Carter, we found our best friends in America.

The other legend that was an incredible part of my life was Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy is still a part of my life. If you ever come to my house, there are pictures of him all over my walls. In the three years I spent singing with the United Nations Orchestra, he taught me so much about American music that I got involved with a new way of singing jazz music. I learned from Dizzy the difference from traditional mainstream jazz and bebop. I read somewhere that Dizzy Gillespie was one of the greatest influences for Miles Davis as well. He created bebop at a time when swing and Dixieland were prevailing.

Besides being a very funny man who made hundreds of jokes, he would sit in the back of the bus with me for several hours telling life stories about his family and things that happened to him. And then he'd teach me how to play in 4/4, the time signature used in American music, as apposed to 2/4, the time signature used in Brazilian music. I carry 2/4 in my blood and maybe that's why I am different than some singers when I improvise. Dizzy thought this was strange at the beginning, but he realized this was my cultural background. He took the time to sit with me and show me with his hands where one was, so if I ever wanted to go into another level of jazz positions I could go into it. I loved him not just for that, but I loved him also because he gave me a lot of insight and spirituality, he even gave me his praying book.

He used to carry his praying book all the time. His praying book had his name printed in gold. One day, when we were on the airplane going to Australia, he said to me, "I want you to have this." Then I said to him, "If you give me your praying book how are you going to pray?" He told me he knew every prayer in the book by memory. I didn't believe it. So he challenged me to open the book on any page and ask him to tell me the prayer of the page. So I opened the book and he asked me what prayer was that, and I said the Traveler's Prayer. He asked me which number it was, and then I told him it was the number 3, and he recited the entire prayer. I quizzed him on another prayer and again he blew me away. He knew every single prayer of that book.

So I asked him what was his religion and he told me he had been a Bahai for thirty years. I asked him what was the philosophy of Bahai religion and he said among other things, is the oneness of mankind, universal peace upheld by a world government, equality between men and women, mandatory education for all children of the world and a spiritual solution to the economic power. I was impressed.

JazzReview: What else can we expect from Flora Purim?

Flora Purim: I try to reinvent myself as often as I can, meaning right now I am going on a tour for eights weeks. And my change has to do with what I understand as my mission, which is to spread love and hope, and tell everybody what I know through the music without preaching, and that is if each one of us do our part, meaning that our part is to help each other, and when someone is in need, to extend a helping hand. And if we can lift people with rhythm and sound, we will do it. And not to be afraid to ask for help if we need it and never ever forget to be in touch with each other.

So now you can expect me to be in the forefront, trying to become a pillar of hope and doing as much as I can to lift as many people as possible, including myself.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Flora Purim
  • Subtitle: Queen of Brazilian Jazz
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