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Jackie Ryan

Jackie Ryan is an international jazz star. She frequently plays both coasts and overseas, where her gig at Ronnie Scott’s in London garnered the critical praise: "One of the finest singers to perform at Ronnie's since Shirley Horn." --The London Evening Standard.

Ryan has shared the stage and recording studio with many greats including Clark Terry, Red Holloway and Buddy DeFranco. Her recordings and performances generate a genuine heat, which rises above the "flavor of the month" excitement that is sometimes associated with vocalists. I caught Jackie Ryan on her home turf of San Francisco for a brief chat.

JazzReview: Thank you for being here. I do have a few stock questions, not out of laziness, but because if I could, I would ask them of all artists I admire. What were your earliest musical years like? Where did you cut your teeth?

Jackie Ryan: I grew up the youngest of four children, north of San Francisco, in a struggling, middle-class neighborhood, to parents who were both singers--although when they began a family, they no longer performed professionally. Actually, I come from a long line of singers on both sides. I guess being from Irish and Mexican parents one might expect that.

My Dad was a classical singer who sang Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikowski, and my mom sang in operettas in Mexico in her youth. All of their siblings sang, as did their parents and grandparents. When I was growing up, my mama would always be singing some sweet Mexican songs around the house. They [my parents] also both sang in the choir and used to bring me up there with them when I was little. I would hear all these great voices all around me, singing Gregorian chants and Latin masses. It would fill me up!

As a child I was always singing. Used to keep my siblings up at night! In my teens, I joined a local dance band [and] started writing and performing. I loved the Rhythm and Blues giants--Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Mavis Staples. Then I heard jazz and that was it for me! I started buying all the jazz records I could. Sarah, Betty, Billie. Then I met this eccentric record collector. His whole basement was stocked full of records. He turned me on to Oscar Peterson, Oscar Brown, Jr., Eddie Jefferson, Charlie Parker, Miles, and Bill Evans. We used to listen for hours on end. Those were great times.

JazzReview: Are there any arts done in mediums, other than music, which inspire or influence your work?

Jackie Ryan: All art inspires me. Life inspires me. The art of life, I guess, the beauty all around that I see nature definitely. One of my favorite places is that of the sculptor, Rodin. The Rodin museum in Paris where Rodin’ mistress, the sculptress Camille Claudel, [whose] work is also displayed. Man! Her work actually moves me even more than his--unbelievable passion in her work. It inspires me just to think of it. It is incredibly moving to view such beauty. Godly! Whenever I go to Paris, I try to get back there because it moves me so, to tears. So I guess all great art inspires me and thus inspires my own art.

I think also that if you have a love of one kind of art, chances are you have a love of many kinds of art. It’s that right side/left side of the brain thing, I suppose. I have painted, sculpted, done pottery, drawing, even have sewn the designs I created for clothing. I love to cook. I love dancing. I love to partake in it all art.

JazzReview: In those early years, had you any of those infamous gigs or experiences, which were so bad, but you now can look back and laugh about?

Jackie Ryan: Oh yeah! There have been some doozies, but some were funny actually. One time when I was a teenager, I came out to bow and did a dramatic curtsey just in fun. I kicked up my shoe and it went flying out into the audience, WAY out there . into the dark! It was hysterical! And, it was a huge place, so the shoe disappeared. I had to perform anyway, with one shoe. It was like a comedy routine, like a Lucille Ball skit! Lord! On the break, someone brought it back. That’s pretty darn funny to remember.

JazzReview: When not recording/performing yourself, do you listen to much music? What do you listen to for inspiration or fun?

Jackie Ryan: I listen to everything from Miles to Benny Carter to Red Garland to Brazilian to African to Capo Verdean to Fado to Tango. The whole gamut!

JazzReview: Do you have any pre or post show rituals that you must do?

Jackie Ryan: No, no real rituals. I’ve been singing since I was four so you know, it’s like anything else. It’s like breathing, but it’s important to me to be centered. So ideally, I try not to have too crazed a day before a gig or an important concert. Of course, that is ideally, not always possible.

Ideally I would want to be a bit quiet, do a bit of soft singing [and] take my time getting ready. In general, I have learned that being healthy and centered is what it is all about for me. That takes a certain amount of upkeep. Your voice depends on your state of well being to a very large degree. If you aren’t healthy, it will show in your sound. It may be truer for singing than for playing an instrument because it is inside of your body, literally, that the sound is produced.

I exercise a lot, eat good clean food, don’t smoke and try to stay balanced. The business isn’t easy and it can get to your head if you let it, so keeping the stress of it away is important--not always possible, but very important. Getting stressed can affect your singing so it’s a very Zen like thing. You just have to stay on top of it and that is the challenge. You want to present the music in the way it should be--to stand in front of people and deliver with confidence. So, it’s your duty to be as together as possible, and that takes general consciousness about your health, both physically and mentally.

JazzReview: What dictates what a set list will be like? Do you have any pieces that you try to do ninety-nine percent of the time? Do you find that your book changes depending on where you are playing as far as city/country? Do different audiences have different expectations as far as your set goes?

Jackie Ryan: Well, I don’t do anything ninety-nine percent of the time, just what the mood dictates, I guess the musicians, too. I have to go by how I feel at that time. If I am feeling good about the music, it doesn’t matter what audience it is. They will pick up on how I feel.

JazzReview: Are there any classics from the Great American Songbook, for instance, that you feel are so associated with a particular singer, you would never perform?

Jackie Ryan: Yeah, certain Billy Holiday tunes for instance they were hers or songs that are so obviously coming from the African-American experience. Although African- American singers were my biggest influence, I am respectful that certain songs should only be sung if you are, like "Gloomy Sunday"[and] "Strange Fruit," although a Jewish man wrote "Strange Fruit." Still, I feel to sing it, one should be black in order to tell it from a personal experience. I respect that. That’s just me. I am sure others would not agree that’s fine. Or Billie’s "Don’t Explain," I love the tune, but she wrote it out of her experience a very personal one. I don’t do the tune or Betty’s song "Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul." I loved hearing her sing that, and it is hers to me.

Singing is very personal. Other tunes that are perhaps standards even if they were written by singers I might do, because they can be told from different experiences. I’m not real absolute here either. I may even change my mind. It’s not really something I have put a lot of thought into. I won’t say what others should do either. And I don’t even have a judgment about it for others. It’s just how I feel for me.

JazzReview: How important is it to your sound to have a "permanent" working band behind you? Do you have a preference as to the size of what is behind you? Does the size of an ensemble change what you would sing and how you would approach singing it?

Jackie Ryan: Well, everyone is always trying to work as much as possible, so having a permanent band is nearly impossible unless you can put everyone on a retainer to only work with you, and I can’t. So I work with lots of different people all the time. There are times when I have gone onstage with strangers, but the music connects us. Jazz is an international language after all.

Definitely, the size of the ensemble changes my approach. Actually, the less people, the freer you are to use the space, but every configuration has its quality. Different instruments bring different palettes of color to use and play off of also. In a big band, you are in a highly structured environment though and must stay within strict boundaries. Hopefully, the arrangements can leave you some room to play within those boundaries.

JazzReview: One of the great aspects of jazz is that it is ever in flux. It seems though, as if it has largely shed this protean aspect. Jazz is now far [more] easily available than ever before via web retailers, but the ability to explore and expand one’s sonic palette is hardly taken advantage of. Has the audience become too rigid in what they define as "jazz," forgetting that many of the now established sub genres (modal, free et al) were once also not considered "jazz" proper?

Jackie Ryan: Well I don’t think there is just one audience. There are still audiences for every kind of jazz, though perhaps they are a little less visible. Free jazz definitely has its followers, though it may not be on a commercial level. Any avant-garde form of any art has always been appealing to a smaller audience. I can dig it all, but many people find it harder to take. But if you are talking about the business side of things, that’s different.

I think the business of jazz can be very one-dimensional, especially for vocalists. Because let’s face it, it’s a business and they want to play it safe and appeal to the broadest audience they can. But to define jazz, and say it is just this one style, it is limiting.

I suppose everyone has their own definition of what jazz means to them. That’s the trouble with putting a definition on art. It locks it in a box. Some people do love labels. For myself, I am always reticent to use labels. Jazz has to be about expansion and incorporating all the artist can bring to it from their life. Any art form has to be about expansion. To me, that is the nature of art. So obviously, jazz being art, people should be able to allow all of its expressions. You can’t listen to the media’s interpretation of what jazz means. That’s where you make the mistake. You have to ignore that stuff and just go with whatever rings your bell!

JazzReview: I know that if one reads biographies of the late 50’s/early 60’s, there were some heavy hitters living in expatriate communities in Europe, doing month long club residencies (Ronnie Scott’s in London, Quai de Chat qui Pesche chat in Paris, Club Montmarte in Copenhagen). During this time, there was a very small group of European musicians who could play with great sympathy among the Americans (Pierre Michelot, Martial Solal et al). Now every major city in Europe has its own hometown heroes. While not a bad thing, has this changed the dynamics for an American musician doing a (club) tour of Europe in regards to availability or pay?

Jackie Ryan: Europe has changed a lot since those days. The European jazz musicians are heavy hitters with a voice of their own. I know this because I have worked with them. They often have the great, beautiful advantage of having their countries financially support the arts programs. Because European countries know the importance of culture, America is sad today in that respect.

The current administration is shutting down all the arts programs. It’s terrible. In Europe, they sponsor young musicians. Holland subsidizes their musicians so that they can come play here. That is so cool. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if America would subsidize our own musicians to play abroad? In many countries they also make sure that children learn the classics at an early age. It is as important as any other subject in school. And this isn’t just for rich kids; it is for all kids so that any child with talent can be given a chance to grow into an important musical voice. They get that classical discipline and later when they bring that to jazz wow! They have so much to say.

I feel that these days the European musicians are formidable unto themselves. It is no longer about trying to just learn the American way of doing things. The Europeans have created their own voice in jazz. There is a fine example of what I was talking about earlier expansion. I don’t know if this has changed the dynamic between us because I do feel that there is still great respect for American jazz players. We are learning from each other now I think. Because The American jazz approach is definitely strong and very rooted in the fundaments--the groove. To me, that’s a very high place that isn’t so easily taught as it is a lifestyle, and that’s very American because it is about our history and the people who brought it here and blended together here. So as I say, we have things to teach each other still.

JazzReview: I am a music snob and have very low tolerance for pop-product music. We are some fifty years later, still discussing Kind of Blue or falling for Lady Day as she laments her heartache, yet American Idol winners get the attention and record company big-budgets to record an album, which will have an artistic expiration date of a season on them. Is this strictly an American phenomenon or a sign of the times?

Jackie Ryan: I agree with you. And it has nothing to do with snobbery. It is about integrity. I dislike the American Idol thing. All that nasty critiquing of the performers has nothing to do with music or soul, or beauty. I am so sad to see young people aspiring to that kind of garbage. Some of those critics on that panel are mean spirited and can kill those sweet young peoples’ love of music.

We seem to have come to a place where we like to see people being humiliated, how awfully sad. But to look on the bright side, there are hundreds of clinics and thousands of teachers doing the right thing in the schools, sometimes out of their own pockets. There are musicians who care about young people and they are doing great things like the IAJE, jazz camps, clinics and the like. No matter what the media would have us all believe, there is still hope!! Plenty. In fact, I have no doubt that real music will survive because it is about truth and truth always wins.

JazzReview: If you were not a singer what would you be doing?

Jackie Ryan: Eek! I don’t know I really don’t. There are many arts I have dabbled in. Maybe I would have done those as a career, but if not an artist, Lord I don’t know. I love archeology, so maybe I would have made that a career. I love history. Maybe I would have taught. I love animals, maybe something in that field, [or] travel, and other cultures. I actually love to cut hair and I’m really good at it! I do it for friends ha! Maybe that!

Maybe I would have gotten married and had kids, but I didn’t. This was what I did. It is my life.

There are many social causes I care about and contribute to: the environment, humane treatment of animals, hunger. Maybe I would have devoted more of my life there. There would be so many choices. I have no idea! It could be that later on in life I will do some of these things also.

JazzReview: If you could go back and tell the artist you were in the beginning one piece of advice about their career, what would it be?

Jackie Ryan: That’s a funny one. I don’t think about that much because you really can’t go back. You did what you did, and you do what you do. Talking about going back like that feels like regret. I have thought, ‘Oh, if only my family could have afforded music or piano lessons for me when I was young’ . blah, blah, blah! I know that’s just all moot. You live your life the best you can and work with the tools you were given. Some people were given a lot early on, but perhaps you were given a more difficult set of circumstances. My Dad worked his "you know what" off just to get food on the table. Music or piano lessons were not at all possible [for me]. Nor was any type of music school. They did the best they could for us. You work with what you have.

I can only say that I developed my sound from a lot of my own experience just in performing. My sound wouldn’t have been the same if I had training per se or had it all given to me. I might have sounded "trained" and I don’t like that sound for what I do, especially for singing. I hate someone sounding too perfect and careful. I find the most interesting people are the ones who have had to struggle a bit. I find they have more character. Like wine if the grapes have to make it through some tough seasons, chances are the wine will taste a lot richer.

Although my road was a little tough at times, I always had a lot of love. Always I have had my beautiful and supportive family a mom who may have passed on too young, but I wouldn’t have traded her for another. She gave me so much love when I was little and I have always had great friends who were real true blue. So, I don’t look back and say "if only" or if I could have done things differently. No, it was and is perfect even if it’s not always easy. I am really grateful for my life. It is such a gift. You just have to see that finally.

JazzReview: Do you have any artistic projects or ambitions you have always wanted to do, but have yet to accomplish?

Jackie Ryan: Someday I want to hook up with someone who I can write with--a musical partner. I imagine a really fine pianist or guitarist. It would be wonderful to do that. That’s one of several fantasies. There are many ideas I have.

JazzReview: What are you currently working on and where can people keep up-to-date on your appearances and projects?

Jackie Ryan: A new CD will be out in a few months-You and The Night and the Music, recorded in LA with Red Holloway, pianist Tamir Hendelman, drummer Jeff Hamilton, bassist Christoph Luty, guitarist Larry Koonse, and a jazz harpist Carol Robbins. I’m proud of it. It is more modern than some of my other CDs. Tamir did about nine out of fourteen of the arrangements and they are pretty fantastic. It has a lot of elements--soul, a tight rhythm section, beautiful guitar work. Then there is a CD coming out early next year with Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Alexander, Jeremy Pelt, Romero Lubambo Ray Drummond and Carl Allen. It has a lot more blues and a bit of Brazilian.

Since you asked where people can get more information, I have a website.

JazzReview: It is always a pleasure catching one of the living masters whenever I can, but there is still something about seeing cats on stage in a small club, not of the staid supper club variety. Who of the up and coming/younger players should we be watching?

Jackie Ryan: Well, you just saw me singing with Eric Alexander. He knocks me out. He is disciplined, professional and so fluent in his musical expression, and he has his own sound. He isn’t another Coltrane sound-alike. [He is] truly one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation, and he is a great person all around. Tamir Hendelman I work with, a young pianist [is] incredible, like a young Oscar Peterson...many great, young players. A bassist in LA, Carlitos Del Puerto, has great energy and ideas. Hot. Amina Figarova from Holland one of the greatest composers and pianists in the world, very original. She and her husband, the wonderful flautist Bart Platteau, astound me. They are both very serious musicians. The musicians she has in her band are all top notch. A trumpet player who works in her sextet, Ernie Hammes, is the best I have ever heard anywhere. It’s that classical background I was speaking of earlier. I feel I have been fortunate to sing with these great players. They will be around for a long time, continuing to expand and thrill their audiences.

JazzReview: Do you have a personal motto or philosophy?

Jackie Ryan: I believe it’s all about love. Everything. It is easy to lose sight of that so that’s the challenge. That may sound too simple, but it isn’t because it affects everything. It is about loving yourself, as well.

I used to be acutely shy. Standing in front of an audience used to be a major challenge and yet I had to do it. It’s taken me years, but now I am not afraid. Now I love singing in front of an audience. The connection is palpable when you all get to feel goose bumps at the same time. You can’t get that in a recording studio. It is about sharing your art and touching people. I don’t fear the audience anymore because I know they are just like me.

I tell students if you fill your heart with love, there is no room left for fear. And with music also this: it’s not about you, it’s about the music. I have been teaching at clinics where some singing students say that a different teacher says to them, "It is about YOU! And don’t forget it!!" I strongly disagree. We as artists are just a vessel and we have to remain open in order to let the energy, that Godly energy, flow through us to others. That’s not religious at all. I just mean that power that is in all of us that we lose touch with. Artists, I believe, were given the responsibility to be messengers for that power. It can heal, but if what we are thinking is our ego, then we have blocked it.

JazzReview: Well, thank you. It has been an honor and a pleasure. See you side stage.

Jackie Ryan: Thanks Max. It was so great to meet you! Keep up the good work spreading the word!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jackie Ryan
  • Subtitle: This Heart of Mine
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