LIVING THE BLUES AND ALL THAT JAZZ
SWEET BABY J’AI TALKS ABOUT MUSIC, FAMILY, AND WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE A LIVING DOING WHAT YOU LOVE TO DO.
by Gail Christian
Photograph by Craig Johnson
“SOME CRITICS CALL ME A JAZZ SINGER AND OTHERS CALL ME A BLUES SINGER, BUT I THINK OF MYSELF AS A SOUL SINGER BECAUSE WITH EVERY SONG I SING I AM BARING MY SOUL 100%!”
-Sweet Baby J’ai
This year Sweet Baby J’ai highlights her genre-defying work at Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival – Dinah Weekend, which both embraces and expands jazz and tradition. She’s been a creative force on the music scene for over 25 years and it’s been an eventful period. Full of surprises and a seemingly inexhaustible energy, J’ai commands the stage like few others. She brings that energy and a wealth of creative experience to the role of musical director for the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival. Sitting at her piano on a cool Sunday morning, J’ai took time to share some of her stories and field questions about music, family and her plans for Dinah.
GC: Where did you get your name, Sweet Baby J’ai?
SBJ: I get asked that question quite often. Most people think Sweet Baby J’ai is my stage name or the name of the band. It was actually my nickname growing up. According to my father I was the sweetest child ever born [Laughter], but like most nicknames they stay home when you go off to college. After all, you can’t pretend to be grown when people are calling you Sweet Baby! It was just about the time I started working professionally as a singer that my mother died suddenly. I was devastated. I was in my mid twenties and I was lost without her. When I came out of my grief-stricken funk I decided to reclaim my name because it reminded me of my mom. Now, whenever I hear it I smile and think of family.
GC: When did you know you were going to be a singer?
SBJ: I wanted to work in music as long as I can remember. I started out wanting to be a guitar player in a neighborhood band. I traded in my beautiful little red bass for a 12- string guitar. It was my first attempt at playing guitar and I couldn’t figure out how to play the 12 strings so that dashed my hopes of being the lead guitarist in the band. I was trying to fight the stereotype of the “girl singer”. I was on a mission to find an instrument to play. I thought it would be much hipper to be the cool guitarist chick. In those days I could play a little violin; I had studied it for a year in third grade [Laugher], but my chops were rusty and that didn’t cut it with the band. I couldn’t play the drums, couldn’t play that damn 12 string and had given away my bass! The only spot left open was the one at the mic. I took it. I played around at music for a while until my ex convinced me that I should really start to think seriously about singing as a career and get some professional training. I didn’t appreciate that I was going to be “a real
singer” until I got paid for my first gig and I realized I could make a living doing what I loved to do. Then it was on!
GC: Were you one of those kids whose parents had them sing for the dinner guests?
SBJ: How did you know? [Both laugh] My “Our Gang” group of neighborhood kids put on plays for our parents. I would write musicals and assign the kids their parts. I think I wrote my first song when I was five or six years old, “My Man Left Me To Be Free”. My mother was none to happy about it either. I would sing every one of the television commercials, drum on the dinner plates, and make up songs about everything my brothers did, which often got them in trouble. The more I think about it I was actually one of those kids whose parents had to bribe them to keep from singing.
GC: What do you do when you’re not singing?
SBJ: It depends on what time of day it is. [Laughter] I wear so many different hats and every so often I tap the top of my head to figure out which one I’m wearing on that particular day. I’m a producer, arranger, composer, writer, educator, actress and facilitator. We have a company called the Educational Theatre Institute; we produce and direct plays and workshops. I’m a hard working woman. At this very moment I am in the process of producing a major jazz festival, a children’s play and writing music for a new cd and my upcoming Caribbean concert, all while trying to keep my partner engaged because she hasn’t seen much of me this year. [Enormous sigh] There are a lot of sacrifices I had to make in order to keep doing what I love to do. It’s not easy trying to juggle family, career and finances. I am completely blessed that my partner can travel with me because I couldn’t do any of this without her support. I have a beautiful family that I love to spend time with, and when I can’t be at home with them sometimes they come to me. My son and daughter (his wife) will occasionally bring the kids to my shows. They both are learning the piano and baby girl is a natural born percussionist; she started banging on dinner plates when she was only 8 months old!
GC: What is the best and worst musical experience you’ve ever had?
SBJ: Actually, I have one situation that answers both questions simultaneously. I think it was John Keats who said, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” Well, several years ago I was offered a last minute gig for a week in Mammoth Lake between Christmas and New Year’s. I had to do a pick up band, which meant that I had to hire a group I had never worked with before. Normally, that would not be a problem, but because these guys were not direct recommendations (I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew some other guy that recommended them), it wasn’t a good idea. The drummer was cool, but the bass player was completely zoned out of his mind on drugs, I don’t even think he knew where he was.
The piano player was an angry Baltic guy who didn’t read music, he didn’t know any standards and he didn’t play the blues. He said he was studying avant-garde jazz: jazz with no form, no chord progression and no rhythmic meter. [Laughter] Usually I love a challenge and will always work my way through it, but baby…all I could think of was, “Help me, I have a week of this!” On the third night, lo and behold, in walked one of my best musical experiences the great cool daddy, Joe Sample. He was so outraged that he took it upon himself to fire the band on the spot and just he and I played together. I had a hip, slick and wicked rest of the week. It was definitely a memorable musical experience in both ways.
GC: You’ve shared the stage with some other great luminaries such as, Melissa Etheridge, Etta James, Jill Scott, Tom Waits, Koko Taylor, Patrice Rushen, Sheila E., Stanley Turrentine and the late Nel Carter and Eddie Harris. Does anyone stand out in particular?
SBJ: I learned something of value from each one of them. I could literally go on for hours talking about the fascinating and extremely talented people I’ve worked with, but off the top of head some of the fun stuff I remember is challenging Melissa Etheridge to a washboard/guitar duel at a party. I did a spoons duet with Herbie Hancock at the Playboy Mansion, shared a cabin in the woods with Nel Carter at a Women’s Festival because both of us refused to sleep in the tents they provided for talent. We kept each other up all night. I could hear her screaming in the other room at every shadow and creature…same as me. His soaring saxophone solo inspired me, so I jumped up on stage and traded spoons/sax fours with John Handy [Trading fours is a jazz term which means that two soloists ‘trade’ four bars each].
GC: When you play music at home who do you listen to?
SBJ: It depends on my mood. Of course I love Billy [Holiday] Ella [Fitzgerald] Sarah [Vaughan] Nina [Simone] and Frank [Sinatra]; all the old greats, but I also listen to Herbie Hancock, Dixie Chicks, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, Rascal Flatts and Amy Winehouse. Despite growing up listening to 70’s Masters, Sly and The Family Stone and The Funkadelics, I came to appreciate Indian music and listened to Ravi Shankar. I’m an avid music lover with very diverse taste. All of the artists on my playlist have elements that draw me to their music. There are some singers and musicians that I’m constantly learning from. I incorporate many different styles into what I do and I am always re- inventing myself. That’s the beauty of jazz – its juxtaposition of the expected with the unexpected. I refuse to be put into a box. I play washboard and spoons in a traditional jazz setting. On any given occasion you may find me in a pair of cowboy boots playing Jazz-Zydeco or in a gown fronting an orchestra…it’s all good, it’s all jazz and it’s all me.
GC: Frank Sinatra said Billy Holiday was his greatest musical influence. Who was yours?
SBJ: That would be my Uncle “V” [Vernon Gower]. He was a bassist with many well- known artists such as Billie Holliday, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, T. Bone Walker and others. He was known for his trademark smile, as “Smilin’ Vernon”. Whenever I went out on the road he insisted on giving me little money to “hold me over”, even though I told him I didn’t need it. But he wanted me to have it because he remembered what it was like when he was a traveling musician. It was very sweet. I visited him and my aunt Ted regularly and we would sit and talk about the glory days of Central Avenue. They had some wild stories to tell.
GC: When did you come out as a lesbian?
SBJ: I officially came out on my first Olivia cruise. I felt comfortable enough on stage to yell out “Hey everybody, my name is Sweet Baby J’ai and I am a big ol’ Lesbo! I actually cried at hearing me shout it from the stage. People in the audience started laughing and then crying, we laughed and cried together. I don’t actually recall singing that much, but it is one of the most memorable performances for me.
GC: Have you had second thoughts about that decision? It probably cost you a lot of money.
SBJ: Music has always been a labor of love for me. It’s a lot of hard work. You have to be focused and dedicated. You don’t go into jazz thinking about commercial success. This is not the music of triple platinum record sales; my sales are in the thousands not the millions. It’s not about money. I love what I do and feel privileged to be able to do it. That said, I would be fooling myself if I didn’t admit that I paid a price for coming out, but I have no second thoughts. How much is your sanity and dignity worth?
Living in a dark closet surrounded by a bunch of cash doesn’t sound that appealing. It’s all relative, I have a good life; I make a good living and do what I love to do. It doesn’t get too much better than that. Yes, I could do a lot of things and help a lot of people if I had more money, but my decision to be who I am is worth it’s weight in gold.
GC: How excited are you about the PS Women’s Jazz Festival?
SBJ: Are you kidding? First and foremost I’m a jazz singer, having a jazz festival at Dinah makes my heart soar. This is something that is missing from the Dinah landscape; a respite from the all night raves, and pool parties for the twenty-something crowd. Don’t get me wrong; those parties help make Dinah Week one of the premier destinations for Lesbians all over the world. And when I was in my twenties, I loved it; went to some great parties and made some great memories. The Dinah divas have it going on, they know how to put a party weekend together. But for all the women who just don’t do that scene anymore, the Festival is a cure for the blues; a celebration of women by women – sophisticated and fun! You can see a dinner show, a movie, have jazz by the poolside and blues and brew too. I’m very excited and thrilled.
GC: How did you get involved with the festival?
SBJ: I thought it would be a brilliant idea to bring a jazz festival to Dinah. I’ve been talking about it for a long while and finally convinced promoters, Lucy and Gail that there is a demographic being ignored during Dinah. No one is addressing the needs of women feeling left out of the scene and golfers who are too tired from being on the green all day to dance all night (although we do have after party dances that go into the wee hours for night owls like me). This is a huge undertaking and not one that you jump into with blinders on. Lucy and Gail have produced musical events for women in the desert and around the country for over ten years and I have produced shows for nearly twenty years. Combine that experience together with a great team of supporters and you have the makings for a great festival. I’m also responsible for bringing in national and local talent and I promise to deliver one of the best world-class lineups in women’s jazz today!
GC: What’s the point of a women’s jazz festival?
SBJ: The Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival celebrates the musical history and contribution that women have played in jazz. The Festival venues and concerts so maybe we didn’t get the memo or read that article! Jazz may never again be the popular force that it has been in the past, but it’s still swinging hard. There is beautiful music being created, you just have to know where to find it.
GC: Women seem to be moving to the forefront in jazz with bassist Esperanza Spalding winning a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011 and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington winning Best Jazz Vocal Album for her Mosaic Project. Is this a true reflection of what’s happening with women jazz musicians today?
SBJ: Alicia Keys said it best, “Girls on Fire!” If you are asking if women musicians are inspired by those wins the answer is a resounding yes! Yes! In choosing bassist- singer Esperanza Spalding as best new artist, the Grammys highlighted the tremendous versatility of jazz. Jazz has the ability to affect pop listeners and hard-core jazz enthusiasts, alike. That’s what Terri Lyn’s Mosaic Project brought to the table, a collaboration of women and styles. It’s right up my alley; it’s what I love to do. Women doing what they love to do and being recognized by their peers for their efforts inspire us all.
GC: Terri Lyne Carrington and Patrice Rushen are your Saturday night headliners at the Festival. As the festival musical director how did you decide on Terri Lyne and the group?
SBJ: The moment we decided to do the festival, I called my friends, Patrice and Terri Lyne and without hesitation they said, “What can I do to make this happen?” Terri Lyne is a bad-ass diva, she’s been the drummer for Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau and many more. She won the Grammy for an all female collaboration of jazz heavy-hitters; she was the obvious choice. Multi-Grammy nominated artist, Patrice Rushen is considered one of the world’s top jazz pianists and one of the most respected musicians in the country. She has worked with Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones…the list goes on. Put those two together with the fantastic line up, including Suede, Tia Fuller and Carmen Lundy and oops, there it is! Sistas helpin’ Sistas…can I get an Amen?!
GC: On the Opening Night of the festival you are doing something called “West Coast Cool.” How cool is that?
SBJ: Extremely cool! For the opening night dinner gala the Dinah All-Star Band will be performing an evening of “West Coast Cool,” contemporary compositions and arrangements by West Coast musicians. I like to mix things up and I put together some of the best players on this side of the country. This crazy-cool explosion of music highlights jazz funk, new wave and modern jazz, and features me, pianist Karen Hammack, violinist Lesa Terry, saxophonist Carol Chaikin, bassist Nedra Wheeler, drummer Suzanne Morrissette and “LA” on congas.
GC: Last November there was an article in The Atlantic entitled The End of Jazz that said “Jazz is a relic.” What about that?
SBJ: [Big laughter] The Mayans said that the world was ending on December 21, 2012. Well, I’m still here! [Laughter] And I still work all over the world at jazz festivals,
GC: There are a lot of things to do during Dinah Weekend. What would you say to women, who have lots of choices, to get them to consider the jazz festival?
SBJ: Music washes away your worries from everyday life and gives flight to imagination! If you are looking for an alternative to the mad rush of Dinah, the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival is for you. This jazz crawl will offer attendees an opportunity to visit several venues, ranging from concert halls, bars and restaurant to galleries, museums and hotels with the Cultural District of Downtown Palm Springs. All that and a bag of chips!
Sweet Baby J’ai is a woman who clearly loves what she does. For more information visit www.sweetbabyjai.com.
Interview by Gail Christian, former NBC News Correspondent and partner in L&G Events.