Entertainment » Music

Suede :: not your typical jazz singer

by John Amodeo
Monday Apr 19, 2010

When it comes to female jazz singers, there is a long history of judging a book by its cover, which often presents a challenge for female jazz singers who happen to be gay. For one particular Boston area jazz singer, the sultry but stalwart Suede, this is an especially touchy point.

"The mainstream jazz community has always had a definite idea what their female vocalists should look and sound like, like the girl in the blue satin dress singing "The Man Who Got Away." If Ella [Fitzgerald], Carmen [McRae], or Bessie [Smith] were trying to start out now, I wonder if we would have missed them because they didn’t fit that image," laments Suede. "When I’ve walked into a largely mainstream audience, I come out on stage, this formidable woman, not looking like Diana Krall. I know people go ’Eek, this isn’t what I expected; am I going to like this?’" contemplates Suede. "But when I show them who I am, I take them on a ride, and they have a great time, and its fun, but it’s also powerful and political."

Goal is to entertain

For Suede, who has been an out jazz singer for over 30 years, simply showing up is a political statement whether she intends it or not, much like the act of a gay or lesbian couple holding hands while walking down the street. But Suede is no flag-waving activist on stage. Her main goal is to entertain, and entertain she does. For the past 20 years, she has been a regular entertainer on Olivia Cruises, traipsing with them to such exotic locations as Venice and Greece. She’s also been performing in Jazz Festivals and nightclubs from Maine to Mexico and everywhere in between, including annual gigs at Scullers Jazz Club, one of which has been recorded Live on DVD. She has four solo recordings, the latest of which, Dangerous Mood is her most ambitious and accomplished outing to date. Her future looks even rosier, with an upcoming gig at Manhattan’s Birdland, and a West Coast Tour starting in San Diego, going up the Coast through San Francisco to play the renowned Rrazz Room, then on through Portland and Seattle. "Wherever they will have me, as long as the lighting is half decent. OK, even if it’s not!" quips Suede.

And people have taken notice. Provincetown Magazine declares, "Whether your love is blues, jazz, or pop, you’re not likely to have a chance to hear your favorites performed with more skill or sheer beauty than Suede delivers. Suede’s voice is a magnificent thing... with its purity of tone and huge range, [it] thrills the audience as it swoops and stretches, purrs and belts, scats and growls...It would be hard not to find something to love at Suede’s performance. " And The New York Post simply states, "Voices like hers come along maybe once in a generation!"

On Thursday, April 22, Suede returns to Scullers Jazz Club, joined by the stunningly talented pianist Fred Boyle, and the remarkable bassist Chris Rathbun, both ubiquitous on the local jazz scene, and for good reason.

If Suede doesn’t fit the mold of your typical jazz singer, it is more for her eclectic repertoire than for being gay. Her recordings and shows not only include jazz, blues, and swing, but also rock and roll, popular standards, showtunes, and country. Her early influences have been incredibly varied from the Dukes of Dixieland, Billie Holiday Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong to James Taylor, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Rolling Stones. "I loved Bailey’s sense of humor," reminisces Suede, " and it was Louis Armstrong that brought me to the trumpet," which Suede often plays during her shows, much to the surprised delight of newcomers in her audiences.

These artists had a formative and lasting influence on the way Suede performs today. "Those people were so creative and innovative in terms of phrasing, timing, dynamic changes. They didn’t just deliver the information or sing the words. They brought it alive, with texturing, such as the way Louis Armstrong or Ella would stretch the melody," Suede begins. " But some jazz artists take that too far. They lose the meaning of the song. It may touch my brain, but not my heart. I will always choose the route that touches the heart."

Story continues on following page.

Watch Suede talk about her new CD ’Dangerous Mood’:

Compared to Bette and Ella

Another aspect of her performances is her high entertainment quotient, which is why she is compared as often to Bette Midler as she is to Ella Fitzgerald. "I look for being an entertainer, regardless of one’s skills as a musician," she asserts. Being an entertainer means specific things to Suede. "Engaging my audience. Eye contact. Touching every person in the room. Walking through the room, making sure I’ve gotten to every single person there," lists Suede. "It’s about connecting, it’s always been about connecting for me, and music is the tool to make that happen."

Suede also remarks on the impact some recent musical discoveries have made on her work, such as jazz pianist, Hiromi, and urban folk-jazz guitar/vocalist KJ Denhart and even the enduring power of Tony Bennett. "Music is music, whether the medium is voice, guitar, piano, trumpet," declares Suede. "I’m always drawn to artists who are really authentic, really present and honest in their work."

To Suede, authenticity is the bottom line. "Authenticity works, period. If you are inauthentic, the audience reads that, and you don’t engage them," explained Suede. "But if you are authentic, the audience will connect. It’s like ’YES, you got me!’" She continues, "We respond to what’s real. When you see someone who is honest and in his/her element, we want some of that."

Some of Suede’s best performances have been at open mics in places like the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown, where she is unrehearsed and extemporaneous. She tries to maintain that spontaneity in her regular gigs as well, and also her recordings. Dangerous Mood, has some cuts, like the suggestive "You Can Keep Your Hat On," or the demonstrative "I Like to Lead When I Dance," where her playful personality penetrates the material.

Dangerous Mood marked a turning point in my career," remarks Suede. "It’s been incredibly transforming on every level, including personal." Dealing with intensely private issues at the time, she withdrew into a shell just as the CD was released. But she eventually found renewed empowerment from her own recording. "It was my choice of the song ’Defying Gravity,’ that I was thinking of when I leapt back into the void," recalls Suede. "Now I’m jumping back into the industry and going for it, and inviting everyone I know to join in."

At Scullers next week, Suede will perform songs from Dangerous Mood, as well as material from her earlier CD’s, and from her DVD, Live At Scullers, which has been picked up by 55 PBS Stations to play during their fundraising drives ("I took that as a big complement," blushes Suede). She will also debut some new material, some of which may be part of her next projects. About her band, she gushes, "We have great fun. It’s always important to me to choose musicians as much for their personality as their musicianship."

When she takes stock, Suede realizes that being out for her entire career has not only helped her develop her own sense of authenticity and appeal, but that it has brought challenges that she believes have fed her as an artist. She knows that even as long as she’s been out, others, who’s coming out has had higher visibility (think Ellen, Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge), made it easier for her to be out to her mainstream audiences. "I’m thrilled to be performing in an era when that small-mindedness has started to break away," she admits.

But through all that, she knows where she’s been. "I’ve been grateful to the LGBT community for helping me live out my childhood dream, and the LGBT community has given me the stage and the room to do that. The mainstream community has finally found me, and more and more I’m doing that too, but the LGBT community has given me this life," concludes Suede, but in her typically mischievous way, she adds, "Nobody makes a better audience for a big diva than gay men, so I want you all there."

Suede will perform on Thursday, 4/22/10, 8pm at Scullers Jazz Club at the Doubletree Guest Suites-Boston, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02134. Tickets: $25. For reservations, call 617.562.4111, or visit www.scullersjazz.com.

Watch Suede sing ’Neverland’:

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.


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