I spent my early 20s in Seattle, a small town by the sea with a vibrant music scene and flourishing restaurant culture. The verdant Pacific Northwest was a gentle, beautiful place to find my footing as a fledgling adult. I adored the Emerald City, yet I high-tailed it out of there at 24. When people ask me, “Why did you leave Seattle?” I always respond by saying, “I got too comfortable there.”
New York City, by contrast, provided near-constant opportunities to leave my comfort zone. I had to tap into an assertiveness that I never knew I had just to ride the subway. Musically, most of all, I found myself thrown headlong into the lions’ den.
See, singers don’t exactly have the best reputations, especially among jazz musicians. Singers are frequently stereotyped as the most difficult and least educated members of the musical community, unable to keep time, read music, or sing in tune. Throw in the fact that jazz is overwhelmingly male-dominated, with the exception of singers, who are overwhelmingly female, and you’ve got another interesting wrinkle. Consider the old joke:
A singer turns to her pianist and says, “I’d like to do ‘Misty,’ please.” The pianist says, “Yeah, sure, no problem. We’ll start in A-flat, then modulate up a step in the bridge. We’ll drop a beat in the third measure of the last A section and put a fermata over every single note in the last four bars, right?” The singer, aghast, says, “But I can’t remember all that!” The pianist deadpans, “Why, baby? That’s what you did last night.”
In my first few years in New York, I did a lot of sitting in. (For non-musicians, “sitting in” means doing an impromptu, unrehearsed performance with musicians that you may or may not know.) The musicians that I met were almost always gracious, but I was terrified just the same. When they’d ask me to sing a second tune, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. The second tune meant I’d moved past being “tolerated” to being “accepted.” Sitting in is a baptism-by-fire, an initiation, a gauntlet of sorts.
Well, in recent years, I’ve done less sitting in and more playing out. As more of my own projects have taken shape, I’ve found myself in the lions’ den a lot less. Until last night, that is.
I was asked to come sit in as an informal audition with a big band I’ve long admired. The venue was familiar, as were a few of the faces on the bandstand, but for the first time in quite a while, I was the “new kid.” It was scary! But it was also a blast.
Autumn is swiftly approaching and I’m feeling the same back-to-school jitters that met me at the bus stop every September as a kid. And no wonder! I have a new address and a new living situation. The cabaret project I hold so dear is venturing into the uncharted territory of new material. I’m not just singing; now I’m also booking a band, teaching some lessons, and writing prose.
Facing these foreign horizons and the opportunity to re-invent myself, I am tempted to retreat into the sanctuary of my comfort zone. But sitting in with the band last night was a powerful reminder that the lions’ den is a lot more interesting.