To honor legendary jazz vocalist and pianist Maggie Scott for 30 years of mentoring and instruction at the college, Berklee brought back some of Maggie’s most accomplished students for a concert in her honor. Robin McKelle, Lalah Hathaway, Esperanza Spalding, Antonia Bennett, and Nadia Washington all took time from their busy schedules to share the stage with Maggie once again, as all of them have appeared in Maggie’s yearly “Jazz Vocal Night,” a tradition Maggie Scott began in 1980.
In addition to Maggie’s tribute concert, Berklee students were also treated to a special panel discussion with Maggie Scott and all the visiting alumnae where the artists spoke about everything from promotion, rejection, and articulating musical ideas to television wardrobe and everything in between.
One of the most frequent pieces of advice from the panel was for students to appreciate their time at Berklee. Although several of the women expressed how valuable their time was at Berklee, and how students should savor their experience here as well, Lalah Hathaway probably explained the advantages and opportunities of Berklee best, saying “Do as much as you can while you’re here. Because this little vacuum that you live in does not exist in the real world. Like… if I decided I want to shed – “I’m gonna call a marimba player, and I need a bass player who plays only fusion, I want a flute player” – it’s impossible to do in the real world. So take advantage of all of this… It’s just fertile ground to ground to grow your mind”
The panel also offered perspective and encouragement for students feeling the pressure of performing at Berklee and the fear of rejection that they themselves once felt. Robin confessed that she too was terrified of performing in front of the student body.
“This fear of being judged, I felt it severely while I was here. When [I] walked on the stage, I was like “oh my gosh, I’ve got to sing, like, every single, like, amazing riff that I know because everyone’s going to be listening… It has to be the most amazing notes and I have to sing every one of them in this one song right now.”
Robin explained how finding a small group of collaborators that made her feel comfortable helped break her fear of being judged and helped her develop as an artist.
Lalah Hathaway offered her own advice on the issue of rejection, by suggesting students change their perspective.
“Have in your mind the idea that no one can judge or reject you. If they don’t understand or like what you’re doing, it’s not really about you. It’s about their experience. They’re not walking away from what you’re doing, they’re walking toward whatever it is that they like, which has nothing to do with you. So, your ideas and who you are as a creative being can’t be judged or rejected. I know it’s a big concept, but try to embrace the fact that whatever you are, whatever is in you, nobody can judge it or say no to you about it even though you feel like people are saying no to you…Their experience has nothing to do with you and your expression.”
The panel got a chuckle when asked how they’re able to articulate their musical and artistic ideas, saying that they still weren’t able to fully convey what they wanted, as it’s always a work in progress. Lalah Hathaway shared an anecdote about learning that even music’s greatest luminaries struggle to articulate their ideas too. “I had the same question [for] Herbie Hancock. I said, ‘You know, the thing is… I get so frustrated… ’cause I can’t get [my ideas] from my head to my hands or to my voice, [or] to my instrument. It’s so frustrating.’ He said ‘Well join the club.’ And I was, like, ‘Ooooh… Herbie Hancock. All right.’ ”
But the biggest laugh of the clinic was in response to the question “what is the biggest lesson the music industry has taught you,” Lalah Hathaway quickly answered “not to wear white on TV” to resounding laughter from the panel and audience. But offering a more serious answer, Esperanza encouraged students to follow their own artistic compass.
“As powerful as the capitalistic music business machine might seem, the drivers don’t really know what’s going to work either. We’re all in the dark about what’s going to be the next thing that people want to hear and consume, really. I mean, there are focus groups that companies do sometimes to see how audiences react to certain songs. So then, based on [the results], they’ll put it on the radio, and the exact opposite happens once it gets to the radio. You know? And the reason I’m saying that is because when you’re young and you go out and you see these adults… wielding money and power, you feel like ‘Okay, they must be right.’…Ultimately, if what you’re doing is true, your guess is as good as theirs. So you might as well do what you really really really believe in doing. And then if it works then it’s their idea and everyone’s happy.”
Among the more singer-specific questions asked during the clinic, the question of how to choose musicians to work with drew many responses from the panel. Speaking in broad terms, Lalah said “they have to be good and funny.” Robin added “respect” to the list, saying “[in] my experience, first of all as a female, and second of all as a singer, there is this concept that we don’t know what’s happening….[I need musicians] to respect [that] when I turn around and say ‘this is what I’m looking for,’ they don’t roll their eyes and say ‘Well, she doesn’t know what she wants anyways ’cause she doesn’t know.’ Because I do know, and I did the work to know.”
Readers of Berklee-Blogs may remember John Mayer’s words of wisdom on promotion, and the opinion’s from the panel seemed to echo his same sentiments. First, Antonia suggested a balanced perspective to promotion, saying, “I think the music always has to come first because you have to have the product before you put something out. But with that being said, the more organized you can get, the more internet savvy you can get, the more you – I mean, I personally hate doing this – but the more you twitter and Facebook and… the more you can keep people involved in that kind of way, the better, I think.” But Lalah Hathaway was firm in her discretion against promotion when students could better serve their time at Berklee concentrating on music, saying, “the thing is, I don’t know how early you should be worried about branding. First of all, you probably don’t even have a brand yet. You have to develop your brand, and then you win people over… one person at a time.”
Understandably, developing a brand, and the overall issue of maturing as an artist, came up frequently during the clinic. And among the many philosophical suggestions the women on the panel offered, Esperanza reminded the students not to put the cart before the horse.
“To a certain degree it doesn’t matter who you think you are or what you think you are because you’re surrounded by people who are masters of their craft that you came here to learn [from]. You have the rest of your life to hone in on un-packaging your being. While you’re here, all you have to do is do it. … And I listen to [your question] just thinking what would [Berklee Professor] Thera say. All that you said was true, but he’d be, like, ‘Forget that – do your homework!’ He’s like ‘You don’t have to know who you are yet. All you have to do is do what I say because if you don’t you won’t know it.’ And that sounds sort of lame. I’m sorry to put a kink in [the other panelists’] words because all of that is totally true. But if you don’t have the tools that you need to interface with other human beings who have taste and can tell what’s good or not good, if you don’t have the tools to interface, it doesn’t matter how in tune with yourself you are – nobody’s going to understand what you’re doing. … So, all you really need to do is just do your homework and do it all the way and apply everything that you can. And I promise, through that process, when you have enough of the tools, when you have enough vocabulary, then you can write poetry about your life. But if you can’t speak English, you can’t write a poem.
And going one step further, Maggie Scott reminded students that artistry comes from maturity, which comes from experience, which simply comes from age.
“You know they say you’re not really a good singer until you reach 30. Why? Why? Why? Because you are more mature, [and] you can interpret the lyrics the way they’re supposed to be interpreted. You know, I once asked the class, what is the meaning of Lush Life. And they looked at me and said, ‘Well, isn’t that like green grass, and beautiful trees, you know, it’s lush.”… True [story]! So, I had to explain to them [that] the word ‘lush’ meant being an alcoholic, being a drunk. I said, ‘Have you ever read the lyrics to Lush Life? If you sing the song, do you know what you’re singing about? The last line of that song, “I’m going to sit at the bar stool and rot with the rest of ‘em,” what does that say?’ Now when you’re 18, and you want to sing Lush Life? Give me a break!”
All the women shared wisdom that can only come from experience at their craft, and the women certainly proved why they’ve become experts in their field during the concert that evening.
Antonia Bennet was the first vocalist to perform, demonstrating her own unique brand of uplifting nostalgia that can stand on its own without comparisons to her father, Tony Bennett.
Although a recent graduate, Nadia Washington more than held her own among so many accomplished performers. Nadia’s powerhouse vocals tempered with the perfect amount of control and artistry demonstrated why Nadia was asked to join tribute concert and how gifted Maggie has been as an instructor to this day.
Robin probably performed the most stunning ballad of the night with just Alain Mallet on piano for an incredibly complex yet lush arrangement of “Cry Me A River.” The arrangement was a true duet between long solo breaks of piano and deep, evocative vocals. For Robin’s second song, she brought back the entire band for a swinging standard, demonstrating her versatility and unique style.
Possible no one sang with more power and presence than Lalah Hathaway. With her unique blend of soul and jazz, Lalah stirred the audience so much that one man in the back interrupted the final phrase of Lalah’s ballad because he could not contain his joy and exuberance for her performance.
But the biggest star was recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding. Like the other performers, Esperanza did not disappoint to bring the goods and show why she has caused such a stir in the industry. For her first song, Esperanza was less about smooth vocals like the other performers and more about precision, as if playing her voice with the same spunk and energy she uses to yield her bass.
For her second piece, Esperanza performed a special duet with Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, creating a fantastically fresh, rhythmic, and yet intimate performance.
Finally, the woman of the hour, Maggie Scott came out to thank the other performers for honoring her with their talents before performing a jazz standard herself joined by the other vocalists. Seeing several generations of musicians on stage all with the common goal of story-telling and uplifting and investing in others was a special highlight of Berklee’s concert series, and one I’m not soon to forget.