By: Elisa Lomazzo and Lisa Occhino
In December, Berklee honored jazz vocal professor Maggie Scott with a tribute concert at the Berklee Performance Center. Since 1980, Maggie Scott has hosted Jazz Vocal Night, an annual student recital where she handles all aspects of the event, from auditioning the performers to accompanying them on piano. The series provides a platform for jazz vocalists to showcase what they’ve learned, and for the audience to gain a better understanding of jazz. Many of Maggie’s former students who appeared in the show have gone on to distinctive careers. Five of them returned to Berklee to pay tribute to their mentor at “Celebrating Maggie Scott: 30 Years of Jazz Vocal Night”: Antonia Bennett, Lalah Hathaway, Robin McKelle, Esperanza Spalding, and Nadia Washington. These five accomplished women also sat down to answer students’ questions during a clinic earlier in the day. In case you missed it, Groove Editor Lisa Occhino and I had the chance to interview some of the performers to recap on their experiences at Berklee and beyond.
Q&A with Lalah Hathaway, by Lisa Occhino
Tell me a little bit about what your time at Berklee was like. Is it similar to how the school is now, or has it changed a lot since then? A lot has changed in terms of what people have access to. I had a great time at Berklee. When you’re in college, you really kind of walk into the person that you are. I really enjoyed my time there.
How did Maggie Scott impact you as a vocalist? Maggie Scott had a huge impact on me in terms of my art. She is an educator of music, and she encouraged me to be who I am.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you first got to Berklee? There are about 800,000 things that I wish I knew – I wish I knew everything! I mean, there’s a lot about your life that you don’t understand when you’re 20. Musically, I really wish I had practiced piano more. Piano is something that, when I was growing up, everyone played… I really wish that I had never stopped taking lessons.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your musical career so far? I think I’m still overcoming it. It’s really about how to get your music to as many people as possible, and sometimes the playing field is not level. In this country, pop is everything. My audience is a little smaller. Soul musicians don’t get the same opportunities as pop musicians… but you just gotta keep moving and stay on the road.
At the clinic, you talked a lot about how important it is to discover who you are as an artist. For you personally, what were some of the moments in your life that helped you find yourself?
I had a lot of them at school. A lot of them had to do with reconnecting with other artists on their path, and having those discussions either musically or literally. A lot of them had to do with the creation of my record and how I wanted to present myself to the world… It’s an evolution, and I’m still discovering it, which is really beautiful.
Do you have any advice for Berklee students?
My advice for Berklee students is to really take the time while you’re there to explore who you are musically, and really have fun with it! Have fun creating music, and being creative, because that’s what you love to do.
Lalah’s remix contest: www.facebook.com/LalahHathaway?sk=app_117265865029001
Q&A with Nadia Washington, by Lisa Occhino
Tell me a little bit about what your time at Berklee was like.
It was wonderful! There was so much information. It was a very enriching experience for me. I met people from all over the world, learned all kinds of genres of music, and learned a lot of music theory. I did a lot of exploring.
How did Maggie Scott help you as a vocalist?
I worked with Maggie Scott almost every semester on the Vocal Jazz Series. She was honest, straightforward, and told you if you had your stuff together or not, but she was always encouraging. She never played around. She didn’t babysit, and I appreciated that.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you first got to Berklee?
My experience was really fulfilling, but I wish I had put myself out there more. I finally figured out that I needed to not be in my room, and go out and meet people.
What advice would you give to Berklee students who are aspiring performers?
Take classes that aren’t necessarily in your field. If you’re a vocalist, I would say take percussion classes and more advanced theory classes. Make sure you explore everything Berklee has to offer while you’re there, and network – you never know who you’re gonna meet. This is the next generation of musicians and entrepreneurs, so take advantage of everything.
At the clinic, you were talking about how you just graduated recently and you’re sort of in this transitional phase. Is that scary or exciting for you?
It’s a little bit of both. When I was graduating, it was scary. But now that I’m actually in it, it’s kind of exciting. I see this as just another level of education for me.
Where do you ideally see yourself in five years? I see myself as an internationally traveling musician, performing my original music, and also being an educator. In this transitional period, I’ve discovered that education and giving back are really important to me.
Q&A with Robin McKelle, by Elisa Lomazzo
You have a really distinct sound. How did you develop your instrument?
I studied a lot of technique at first from a classical approach, so what I found helped me in a way was listening a lot and kind of emulating other singers, whether it was Ella Fitzgerald or Gladys Knight or Donny Hathaway. And I found that usually I was drawn a lot toward the bigger sounding voices because I have a large voice myself, so I really could relate and it was something for me to kind of copy and then forget all about it and then have my own style eventually.
How did you get into jazz?
It started when I was in high school. I was playing piano in the jazz band at school. Then I got a scholarship to go to college for singing opera … and then I realized I did not want to sing opera, that it didn’t really move as much as it did when I was singing on the weekends like the Aretha Franklin stuff with the band behind me. … I had a friend who went to a jazz school at University of Miami and he told me about it so I checked it out and I auditioned and I got in and I ended up going there. So I kind of stumbled onto it in a way.
What was the most valuable part of your Berklee experience?
The networking is definitely a part of it. A friend of mine who I met at Berklee ended up owning a record label … and eventually he put my album out and got me the really great press and I ended up selling like 17,000 copies of an album I wasn’t even gong to release. But that connection through Berklee is where my career started, because I never would have put that album out. It’s a small world but everyone ends up knowing each other so it’s good to stay on good terms with everyone, because they might be the owner of Sony Music some day.
You mentioned the “other part of life” that starts after school. How important do you think it is to be a working musician while still in school?
I can only speak from my experience and I did both while I was in school. I would encourage you and other students to start if you haven’t started already because it could make the transition process a little smoother. If you want to be a performer the more opportunities to perform the better, because you get all that experience, not only in school but creating your own opportunities for yourself, like getting your own band together. Paying your dues is what we would say.
At the clinic, you spoke about being a woman musician. To recap, what are some challenges you have faced and what advice do you have for our female students?
That’s been one of my journeys … I’ve definitely been in situations when I’ve felt I needed to prove myself on a higher level because I am a woman and I am a singer. To me that’s something that’s very important to me: knowing musically what’s going on with my band … what I want. I’ve worked very hard to be the musician that I am, and I have realized that it’s really paid off because the musicians that I get to work with respect me. And I really do think that we as women have to work a little harder. It’s our job to get rid of that stereotype that’s there.