Ingrid James: “the Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival hopes to celebrate the diversity of the jazz vocal art form”

Ingrid james1It’s no secret that we love Ingrid James, here in The honey-voiced singer has been a kind of matron saint for the Brisbane vocal scene, curating the monthly Jazz Singers’ Jam Night at the Brisbane Jazz Club, which in its turn, spawned the Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival. A couple of days before the opening concert, its proud director shares the backstory. How did the Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival (BVJF) come to be? 

Ingrid James: It grew out of a symbiotic relationship between a regular monthly event I have produced and hosted for the past 15 years called the Jazz Singers’ Jam Night (JSJN), and the Brisbane Jazz Club (BJC). Twelve singers grace the stage to sing a couple of songs each with a band rotation each month. The spark was always there but the timing had to be right. Essentially the BJC approached me about running this festival and it was serendipitous, as I had been thinking about it for quite some time. It’s BVJF and BJC’s intention and philosophy to further develop opportunities for the art of jazz singing in Brisbane, so that all jazz singers can feel supported and encouraged to excel in their own hometown, as well as gain much needed practical experience in presenting a high level “concert’ performance. We hope to bridge the gap between vocalists and instrumentalists demonstrating that the voice is equal to any other instrument in the jazz world. Audience participation over the years has proven that there is much love and support in the community for this art form.

AJN:  What was your first priority, as you put the program together?

IJ: Firstly, this festival has one venue – the Brisbane Jazz Club (BJC), which has been established for over 40 years in an outstanding location in Brisbane. Other venues have come and gone over the years, but through a strong community spirit, commitment and leadership, the BJC has gone from strength to strength. For my part, I wanted the program to feature a lot of local singers and to be inclusive of all ages. The festival features three generations of jazz vocalists. The other priority was to have a strong educational and mentoring component with two workshops this year – one by the Idea of North and the other, a jazz vocal masterclass presented by Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (Queensland Chapter). This will grow over the years and I hope to have some international and interstate artists and pedagogues perform and present workshops to keep ideas and inspiration flowing into the local scene. We have tw interstate acts and one regional act this year, but next year we have plans to introduce some international artists.

AJN: What was the biggest challenge that you had to face?

IJ: I worked for years in television behind the scenes so I’m comfortable with producing, but I guess marketing an event is always challenging. Social media and the way people discover and access information has changed a lot. Ideally, you need a big budget behind you. But there is a lot of expertise and certainly enthusiasm in our team of BJC volunteers and we have worked together in creative ways to get the information out there without a big budget. Fortunately, the JSJN now has a strong profile after 15 years in Brisbane’s music scene and has provided a platform to help build the festival.

BVJF 2016 POSTERAJN: What is your main aspiration for the festival?

IJ: It’s our intention to make this yearly event a flagship for Queensland Vocal Jazz by providing significant career opportunities, job creation and promotion of jazz artists. We want to celebrate the diversity of the jazz vocal art form which encompasses everything from original works to original reinterpretations of jazz standards – mainstream and contemporary as well as jazz vocal improvisation. We want to encourage singers (particularly women) to become bandleaders not just entertaining props. Those who dedicate their lives around the world to jazz as an art form and fully embrace the concept of what it means to be a jazz musician (vocalists and instrumentalists alike) are there because they have discovered jazz has the power to “develop imaginative thinking, creativity, curiosity, a positive self-image, and a respect for others’ cultural heritage”.
Australia is a multicultural society and jazz is a unique art form that can mould and reflect the society in which it belongs whilst respecting its roots.

AJN:. In what way is the festival a continuation of the Jazz Singers’ Jam Night?

IJ: Since 2001, thousands of singers and hundreds of musicians have met for the first time on the JSJN stage. Audiences have developed over that time and proven that the jazz voice is alive and well appreciated. It’s always been and continues to be a supportive and safe space for all to share, learn, develop, observe and network. It always astounds me that the program of singers is booked out months in advance. Likewise, audiences are telling us they want more as most of the jam nights are booked out. There is a real need for singers of all levels to come, learn and watch others as well as share the stage with other singers and instrumentalists, from 10-year-olds who are discovering jazz for the first time, through to university students, pros, pro-amateurs and those who have taken time off and come back to it and feel a little rusty. Along with teachers who teach the art form through universities, schools and privately, the JSJN has become somewhat of a hub at the Brisbane Jazz Club for vocal jazz. It just seemed natural to extend this pathway for singers to another level and also take the plunge into a specialised festival.

AJN: What has been the highlight of the JSJN series so far?

IJ: Seeing emerging jazz singers blossom into wonderful artists. One singer, about 10 years ago, was so petrified of singing with a live band for the first time, that she froze (literally) and the band had to solo over about seven choruses before she finally came back in. She couldn’t even look at the musicians to get visual cues. She went away and worked really hard, came back one year later and received a standing ovation. We’ve also seen some outstanding artists like Dami Im, Pete Churchill (UK), Peter Cupples, etc., appear at JSJN and leave us all with truly memorable moments, as have musicians like Nick Mancini (US), Bill Watrous (US), Marco Panascia (US) and Libor Smoldas (Prague).

AJN: What has been your most cherished memory of it?

IJ: When the chemistry is just magic on the night. Sometimes someone will set the tone for the night and put their heart and soul into their songs. It’s had a domino effect.
The volunteers at the Brisbane Jazz Club who work so hard and show their appreciation for the nights. They can’t contain their enthusiasm at times! It’s infectious.
Also, I get to hear so many singers and instrumentalists accompanying those singers. I’ve learned so much from that kind of continual observation! What a privilege!

AJN: What do you envision its future to be?

IJ: The Brisbane Jazz Club has funded a Double CD to be released at the Jazz Singers Jam Night’s 15th Anniversary on the 4th of August as part of the opening of the Brisbane Vocal Jazz Festival. It features 25 singers recorded “live” at jam nights over a year. BJC has been visionary in recognising the importance of archiving this event. I’m sure that there will be more recordings in the future and that the JSJN will continue to thrive.

AJN: How would you describe the vocal jazz community in Brisbane?

IJ: The vocal jazz community in Brisbane is unique. We always welcome newcomers into the fold. It’s very social and supportive and definitely not cliquey. I’m proud to be part of this community. Apart from creating a unique hub through the JSJN, I always felt very strongly about the mentoring aspect of what an ongoing event like this could have on the vocal jazz community. Whenever visiting artists were in town from interstate or overseas particularly, it was always too hard to get the information out there to singers to let them know about a special workshop. Now, we have a strong vocal database from which to draw when that situation arises to make it worthwhile for the visiting artist. It’s a win-win situation. The local jazz community gets to learn so much from new ideas and we can facilitate that process without too much drama! I think that there is a strong drive amongst singers in Brisbane to do the very best they can and there is certainly much support around amongst pedagogues as well.

AJN: What would your advice be to someone aspiring to start a career in jazz song?

IJ: Firstly don’t make your target to win awards! Find depth and meaning in what you do and make choices that feed the artist in you as well as look after your instrument. There are no shortcuts. It can take a long time to get the winning combination of musicianship together with a good sound. Get out there and sing “live” as much as you can. Learn from everyone. Listen to everything. Learn the melody first, then learn the changes! Listen to instrumentalists. Be open to change. Don’t lose heart and keep chipping away at it. Always take risks!

AJN: How has your personal journey into jazz singing been so far?

IJ: It’s been very circuitous. It took me a long time to feel i could call myself a jazz singer and I still feel I have so much to learn and so little time these days! I have been fortunate to have been able to work with some wonderful musicians and singers who have mentored me formally and informally in my journey over the years. Also I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in collaborative recording projects with locals as well as internationals and this has taught me a great deal about music from a global perspective.

AJN: What has been the biggest gain?

IJ: Every gig I do is a gain. I’m thankful each time I am able to sing. I embrace everything, from simple duos to big band work to working with orchestras. Now that I am doing my Masters of Music Studies at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, I question everything I do again, which I know can only lead to reaching for more goalposts. I guess my biggest gain is that I still want to learn. I’m open to learning.

AJN: What did you have to denounce?

IJ: At one point i definitely had to give up singing lots of other genres of music which made me more of a generalist… But I’m thankful for the joy and fun all that music gave me at different times in my life. I used to try to be a ‘Jill of all genres’, but realised that, in order to sing jazz well, I had to focus on that properly. However, I do love reinventing old pop/folk songs and standards now. That can be a very creative process. So never say never.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

IJ: “Blue Confluence”, which is about respecting those who have come before us in jazz and what we have learnt from them.