Brenda Earle Stokes: ‘I was literally a closeted singer!’

Canadian-born, U.S.-based pianist and vocalist Brenda Earle Stokes has been making a name for herself in the New York jazz scene, but she has fallen in love with Australia – and the feeling is mutual. Her crisp, Oscar-Peterson-influenced piano playing and her unique vocal style have been winning the audience’s hearts – and now she’s coming back for a tour, to broaden her fanbase even further.

You have been in Australia before; what is your fondest memory of your previous visits?

This will be my fourth trip to Australia, but my first doing a tour. I love Australia and dream of living here for a year or two. The musicians are amazing and the audiences I’ve encountered have been really great. My fondest memories have been interacting will the wonderful singers I have worked with at USQ in Toowoomba. I have taught there three times in the past five years and have made some lasting friendships.

What are you going to present in this tour?

I will be doing a selection of repertoire off my last two records, Songs for A New Day and Right About Now, plus the bulk of material that I’ll be recording in March. The repertoire I choose is really diverse and I often choose material that people have never heard or have never given a jazz treatment to. I also do a lot of original material, and love keeping thematerial open to let the band shine.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

Straight ahead jazz, inspired by Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell, that has traveled through Brazil and connected with singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. There’s a lot of diversity from song to song.

Would you describe yourself as a pianist who sings, or as a singer who plays the piano?

I started playing piano when I was 4, so I’m technically a pianist first, but I have spent over half of my life singing and working with singers. When I was doing my undergrad, everyone assumed that I was a singer because I’m female, but I desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a pianist. I loved singing, but I hid it from my classmates and would sing in a storage closet – I was literally a closeted singer! A few years later, I sang one song as part of an instrumental set and got such great feedback that I felt ready to share that side of my artistic life. It was really liberating!

How do these aspects of your artistic personality complement/ compete with each other?

It’s hard to say what is influencing what, but I do know that my background in piano has given me a huge leg up as a singer. I already had so much vocabulary, that I just needed to work it out in my voice. My scat singing definitely shows my harmonic know how.

My singing has helped me to create more lyrical stories when I’m playing the piano. Instrumentalists cancertainly get comfortable running changes, and singing has really taught me to slow down and be more aware of melody.

What has your trajectory in music been so far?

I have lived a lot of musical lives, from being a ballet pianist, to doing singalong piano bar on a cruise ship to playing for off-Broadway shows. I have been an early childhood music teacher, have been a classical choral conductor, an Episcopal organist and have taught at colleges. My jazz life has always been the focus of my career, but I have always been curious about other musical roles – and I like to make sure I can earn a living!

What has been the highlight of your journey?

As a jazz artist, I’ve played as a leader internationally and as a side person with a lot of legendary musicians – Dave Liebman, Donny McCaslin and Wycliffe Gordon, to name a few. The work outside of jazz has really enhanced my musicality and has expanded my musical language.

What has been the greatest challenge that you’ve had to face?

My greatest challenge has been fitting it all in. Living in New York City is crazy expensive and it has taken a long time to be able to create a space where I am able to work and earn a solid living. It can be really difficult to balance my work life with my artistic life. Now that I have a kid, I’m also finding it hard to continue a solid artistic output when I’m jugglingmy home life with my work life. I compartmentalize a lot and have learned to lower my expectations!

As a woman in jazz, have you faced any gender-specific challenges?

Too many to mention. I have often been the only woman in the band or even the only woman in the college music department. I have heard a lot of terrible lines over the years, like “you sound like a man,” or “you only got this gig because the club owner thinks you’re cute.” I’ve also been hit on in situations where I just wanted to play music and hang with the cats.It’s infuriating, but I’ve managed to develop a thick skin and a lot of strategies to manage awkward situations. Now that I’m older, I take a lot less crap and am not afraid to stand up for myself and other women in the industry.

What is your take on the industry in the #metoo era?

The #metoo era has been a long time coming. I am an active member of the Women in Jazz Organization based in NYC, which was founded by saxophonist Roxy Coss to create a safe space for women jazz musicians. The stories that we have shared with one another have been heartbreaking and have been rampant. Sexual harassment, intimidating and sexual assault have been something that a huge percent of women jazzmusicians have had to face and I believe that the #metoo movement is taking this behaviour and the perpetrators out into the open. By doing so we are removing a lot of the shame and isolation that victims face and show the world that this behaviour is no longer going to be tolerated.

Who are your heroes?

Oscar Peterson (a fellow Canadian and someone I once had a lesson with!), Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Kurt Elling, Luciana Souza, Kate McGarry, Carmen McRae, Elvis Costello, Gal Costa… I could go on and on. I’m especially inspired these days by my contemporaries who are managing parenthood with the artist life.

What inspires you?

Live music usually does the trick for me. I always bring a notebook with me when I go to a concert and I usually end up with lyrics, fragments of songs or just random ideas. I’m also really inspired by visual art. I take my six year old to all of the amazing museums in NYC (there are like a thousand of them!) and write in my notebook. I’m also a big reader and amalways reading fiction and non fiction to keep me inspired.

How did you get into jazz?

When I was 15, my high school band director played Oscar Peterson’s ‘C Jam Blues’ (from the Night Train record). I had been studying classical music for 11 years and my heart wasn’t super into it, so when I heard Oscar it was like someone turned on the light for me. I knew that jazz was the thing that was missing in my musical life. This is one of the reasons I love teaching, as I love to introduce people to the music that I love that they haven’t been exposed to. You’ll never know if you love something unless you experience it.

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz is one of the defining components of myself. Since age 15 I have been a jazz lover and it is something that is so second nature to me. I can’t imagine my life without it. When I listen to classical records like Sinatra and Basie at the Sands or Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, I can sing every note of every solo and it takes me back to the time in my life when I was first listening to it. I love to improvise and delve into harmony and I love taking pop and music theater songs and arranging them in my own way. It also feels amazing to connect with other musicians and get to experience their take on each song. It’s a deep level of consciousness to connect with other musicians.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

My theme song for 2019 is ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ by Stephen Sondheim (from Anyone Can Whistle).

It’s a song about going for it, taking chances and ignoring the naysayers. I definitely need to do that more!

Brenda Earle Stokes is on tour around Australia