Veronica Swift – Interview on The Jazz Cruise 2020

© Hans-Bernd Kittlaus 2020
Benny Green + Veronica Swift by © Hans-Bernd Kittlaus 2020

Within a few years, Veronica Swift, born in 1994, has been recognized as a new star among american female jazz singers. She grew up with jazz being the daughter of deceased jazz pianist Hod O’Brien and singer Stephanie Nakasian. She has repeatedly performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with Michael Feinstein as well as pianists Benny Green and Emmet Cohen. The latter two play also on her latest CD „Confessions“ (Mack Avenue) which was released in August 2019. Veronica has been invited to the Jazz Cruise every year since 2018. During the Jazz Cruise 2020, in the middle of the Caribbean, she talked to JP’s Hans-Bernd Kittlaus.

HBK: That was a great concert last night, Veronica. I really enjoyed that. I did not know that Bryan Carter was on the ship.

VS: Yeah. He has been playing with Steve Tyrell. Kyle Poole and Bryan are my favorite drummers. And Aaron Kimmel too. He is also on the ship. So it’s fun.

HBK: I got your latest CD last year. And I must say I love it. It is such a beautiful recording.

VS: Thank you.

HBK: It should have been nominated for a Grammy.

VS: A lot of times first records are not nominated. Maybe the next one. We’ll see. Who knows? I do not pay attention to that stuff anyway.

HBK: Well, it helps to get more attention.

VS: Lots of great artists never got nominated. Also legendary artists never.

HBK: Thank you for taking the time for this talk.

VS: No problem, no problem.

HBK: I saw you here on the ship two years ago. That was already amazing. But this year is so much better.

VS: That is what hopefully happens with artists. You grow and keep learning.

HBK: I know musicians don’t like that – but as a writer I always have to categorize things – that’s what our languages are about. So how would you categorize your music?

VS: Story-telling. I am often categorized as a standards singer because of my repertoire. I also do a lot of theater songs that are not in the standard songbook. On the record that I recorded a couple of weeks ago, there are actually a couple of things that belong to the rock repertoire. We are making them sound as if they belonged to the 40ies and 50ies songbook repertoire. The link is always the narrative, the story. That is key with me. I think that’s how you can connect me to all the other artists on the ship, that’s what we are all doing.

HBK: I like the way you tell these stories. You have these dramatic arrangements.

VS: Yeah. Some people come up to me and say ‚Can’t you do a complete record in just one vibe?‘. I can understand why some people want that. But I could never do that. I need dramatic change, and an arc. When you watch a movie, there is the plot development, there is an apex. An album needs that too. And a show needs that.

HBK: Do you do a lot of the arrangements yourself? Or with Emmet?

VS: Yeah. The arrangements all start with my set of ideas. Of course the musicians contribute to the development. For example, the arrangement to „I’m hip“.

HBK: That‘s a great one. I remember Dave Frishberg doing it.

VS: I worked with Emmet on that. We like to bring it back to the old era. Because it was so hip. A lot of things came from that. So, of course, we all put in our owns tastes.

HBK: Last night some of your arrangements were really very elaborated. Very nice.

VS: Thank you.

HBK: From my view, some of your music is really straight ahead jazz.

VS: Definitely, straight ahead.

HBK: Some of it fits nicely into the New York cabaret scene.

VS: That’s the theatre that I like. I do not consider myself a cabaret singer. But I can fit nicely with a number of those singers. Like Marilyn Maye and I have done stuff together, and Nicolas King and I have done stuff together, Clint Holmes. We all are not so easy to categorize. Even Sarah Vaughan did not want to be called a jazz singer. It is so nice of you to say that musicians don’t like to be categorized. Yeah, you are exactly right.

HBK: As a writer you don’t have any other choice.

VS: So let’s stay with storyteller.

HBK: Nancy Wilson liked to call herself a song stylist.

VS: Song stylist … there you go … exactly.

HBK: You grew up inside the music. That is very special.

VS: Yeah, unique. Most musicians when they grew up were exposed to music because their parents would play the records. And mine did too. But I had a little extra something when I was on the road with my parents. That was unique. Even though I was not really tuned in, I was listening. I did not get into jazz for my own self until much later. But I was …. When I was about 5, 6 or 7 I was in those jazz clubs with Mom and Dad.

HBK: For me this is really fascinating. Because in my environment there was nobody who listened to jazz at all.

VS: Today, I listen more to opera than to jazz actually. Opera and rock.

HBK: How about cabaret singers. When I got to New York I spent a lot of money on seeing Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle. That was so expensive.

VS: It still is. When I go there, it is usually because a friend is playing, and they get me in for free.

HBK: That could also be a nice venue for you to perform.

VS: Yeah. I have not been able to get hired there yet. That room could work for me.

HBK: Can you say a little bit about your idols, your role models? Beyond your parents, with regard to singers.

VS: In the beginning I was exposed to Ella, Billie, Sarah, the names everyone knows. But then when I got into this music for myself, the voices that really got my attention were Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington.

HBK: Anita O’Day, I can still hear her in your voice.

VS: And then June Christy, Mildred Bailey, Ethel Waters, Connie Boswell.

HBK: That is really early.

VS: I found them because I tried to figure out who Ella had been listening to, and Billie. And of course my mom would lead the way. Oh if you like this singer you may also like this one. And the great bebop singers. You know I am a bebopper too. Not just Jon Hendricks, there is lots of other singers. Eddie Jefferson, Annie Ross, there were not many females. So I started thinking I wanted to be one of the names that people think about when they think about bebop singers.

HBK: Betty Carter and Anita O’Day have always been among my favorites.

VS: I was fascinated by the scatters.

HBK: Given the way you grew up you still went to a music school.

VS: Sure, I wouldn’t want to go to an architecture school.

HBK: So with all the experience that you already had, what was it that the music school could give you in addition?

VS: I mean in music school there wasn’t much focus on performing or the actual instrument. It was more a place to tap into other skills. Refining the skills that I did not really have before. Arranging. To understand sound engineering. Composition. Music business. Just other skills that are good to have. The real skill that you get at the university is time management. Learning how to organize your time. I used to be a bad procrastinator. These life skills that people miss out on when they don’t go to university. And learning to work with other people. The hang is important, and you get that. That is also where I met Shelly Berg. I got a full ride scholarship for that school. Because that would have been very expensive.

HBK: Did you know Emmet from New York, or did you meet him in Miami?

VS: He was graduating the year before I came into Miami. But I met him at Miami when I was auditioning. I went to hear him, because I had heard that he was the school favorite. I knew that he was going to New York where I had spent a lot of time since I was a kid. So I continued to hang out with him whenever I got to New York. Our relationship grew during my time at college even though he wasn’t there.

HBK: Your band with Emmet and Kyle is very tight. That is beautiful.

VS: Yeah. We have been together for a while. I started working with Emmet three years ago, 2017, when we started working at Birdland every Saturday. He could not always be there, but whenever he could he played. We had not toured before, but then we went on the road. His trio was Russell and Kyle, or sometimes Evan Sherman or Bryan Carter, on bass sometimes Yasushi (Nakamura). Every time I played with them it just felt right. He has the same tastes in music that I do, and his understanding of dramaticism.

HBK: I also love it when you sing with Benny (Green).

VS: That is the roots right there. Beboppers. That’s when I get to be a kid again with Benny.

HBK: How did you convince Benny to play with you?

VS: I didn’t really have to convince him.

HBK: Since his Betty Carter days, he always rejected singers.

VS: That’s because most singers aren’t in the language, steeped in the language. Of course, Benny would not work with singers who are not steeped in bebop language. He and I come from the same kind of stock. So I did not have to do much convincing. He would tell you the same thing. I bought a train ticket to go up to Boston to listen to him. I asked him if we could play a few tunes together and hang out a little bit. He knew my father, of course. We played „September in the rain“, „Darn that dream“, „Dat dere“. We were on the quarter notes the same, playing off each other. Since then we have been looking forward to playing music together. Like brother and sister. My long lost brother.

HBK: Benny is a great guy. First time I saw him was with Betty Carter in Germany in 1987. I talked to him about that. He looked like 12.

VS: Now he looks like he is 15.

HBK: He is amazing in how he accompanies you.

VS: Great accompanist. We have some gigs coming up together in March. In California.

HBK: Will he also play on your new CD?

VS: I am saving Benny. The first CD had both Emmet and Benny, because I was touring a lot with both of them frequently. So I wanted to reflect that on the CD. Whereas now, I have been touring a lot more with Emmet, because the music I have been playing has a lot more of that early 20’s stuff. That is what I needed to focus on, I needed to hone in on that style right now and explore that part of where I am. Down the road there will be a record that I am going to devote to my father’s music. That will be all bebop, and of course Benny will be on that one. So yes, there will be more with Benny down the road. For now, I have to explore and tap into what I am doing with Emmet for a while. The next project will be more 20’s stuff. Nobody is playing much the 20’s style. So I need a stride player.

HBK: That sounds like Catherine Russell’s style.

VS: Yeah. You know we are all influenced by many things. I prefer to keep it like when each record is devoted to one style. This next record will be more of the eclectic and the modern. This is my rock’n’role side. We’ll have a guitar on it. It will not be a rock album, but a jazz album. It is straight ahead jazz, but this record will be a homage to a different part of who I am.

HBK: Looking forward to these records. When will they come out.

VS: Emmet’s will be hopefully in September. Mine will be out at the same time.

HBK: Yeah, he told me about that. He is quite happy about the recording.

VS: Yeah. I got to hear a little bit. It is gonna be awesome.

HBK: You already talked about your plans for the next records. Do you have a longer term vision where you want to go as an artist?

VS: Absolutely. And I appreciate you saying as an artist, and not just as a jazz singer. Because you see a lot of my friends in this business struggle with the same problem. We explore other mediums of art. With my jazz records I have already figured it out. This one’s coming out. The next one is going to be a musical I have written. It is set in the 1920’s. So I can show people: look, I can write as well. I compose as well, I write stories. And that is why I like to be seen as a story-teller. I can use other mediums to tell stories. For example my musical. I have also written a rock opera.

HBK: A rock opera?

VS: Yes, I have a rock band. And I like to tap into that as well. I am actually this year starting a film. I have written a screen play. I hope we’ll be finished in a couple of years with the film.

HBK: About what?

VS: It is about the Stockholm syndrome.

HBK: A dramatic movie?

VS: Yeah. Well you know me. I am a very dramatic person.

< laughing >

VS: So over the next ten years I would like to explore all these different worlds and find a way to connect the bridge between all of them. There are many people who are known that they do many things. They wear many hats. They are very good at all these things. That is what I would like to see for myself.

HBK: You have something in common with Cecile (McLorin Salvent) in that regard.

VS: Yeah. She is a painter, also a composer. We get along.

HBK: She has been touring in Germany already.

VS: She has a good fan base in Europe. I guess she lived in France.

HBK: Yeah. That was easier for her.

VS: Nice, very nice. Actually I saw her in Paris randomly. I was just in Paris. She was there, and we walked down the same street. We had dinner with her and Sullivan (Fortner). It was really fun. Where else? Of course this happens in Paris.

HBK: That happened to me last October. I met Sullivan when he was playing there in a club.

VS: In Paris?

HBK: Yeah, in Paris.

VS: Duc des Lombards or Sunset?

HBK: Sunset. He played with Peter Bernstein. The next night we went to the New Morning to see the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Kamasi Washington was in the audience.

VS: Yeah, I would say there is New York, and then Paris where you have the global jazz scene.

HBK: I saw that you were scheduled to play with Fred Nardin in Paris?

VS: Yeah. We played at Duc des Lombards a couple of months ago. This was my first gig there. I had been in Paris a lot to hang out. It is like New York. You got to be on the scene. Go to jam sessions. I am an unknown jazz singer in a lot of places. Since I had not played Paris yet, I felt I had to put in the time. And I finally got to play Duc. I hope to go back. I know I am going to play with Fred and the same trio in Portugal and some more gigs.

HBK: Fred is a great guy.

VS: Oh yeah. I love him. And a lovely person.

HBK: Did you hear his own piano trio?

VS: Yeah, of course. That is how I met him. I saw him play, and I knew I wanted to play with him.

HBK: That is a great trio with Leon Parker and Or Bareket. When I think about your arrangements, I guess it is kind of difficult to do them with a band that is new.

VS: Well, unless you hire guys who are good readers. And luckily there is a lot of people, in particular in the age group 20’s and 30’s. That’s the people who really went to music schools, so they have to be readers as well as killing musicians, many styles. The musicians that are really great are the ones who do play many styles authentically. And who can read music well. And of course you have maybe a day of rehearsal. And luckily now, I have the record to show people. So these are the arrangements. Learn that ahead of time. Hopefully < laughing >

HBK: < laughing > Otherwise it can be a disaster.

VS: I never had a problem. The charts are intricate, but they are actually not really hard to play. You just have to pay attention. Sometimes Emmet and I get into something creative that is not on the chart. Now it is different because we don’t need charts anymore. We have played so much. In the beginning we often came up with some cool stuff that we had to put into the charts. So over the years the charts have developed into something different. That is how it should be.

HBK: You have a pretty nice community of musicians around you. That is beautiful. It also gives you a lot of room to experiment.

VS: Community is everything. When you are on the road all the time, you have to have that community. Otherwise you tend to feel lost.

HBK: We would love to have you in Germany.

VS: It would be an honour for me.

HBK: It is a good market for jazz actually. Ella was very popular in Germany. Betty Carter was.

VS: Live in Berlin.

HBK: Oh yeah. Bobby McFerrin was. Now he is not touring that much anymore. But when he was touring, he was very popular.

VS: I can understand why he doesn’t want to tour much anymore. When I get older I am sure I’ll feel the same way.

HBK: When I look at your schedule you have been touring quite a lot over the last couple of years.

VS: About 250 days of the year.

HBK: That is a lot. How can you combine that with any private life?

VS: I don’t. A lot of people have this misconception that I live in New York. I am a New York musician. I am based in New York, but I do not live there. When I am not on the road I go to my home where I was born and raised in Virginia. I am from the country. So in these very short periods of time when I do have time I go back to Virginia and just do nothing. It is a good reset.

HBK: I told you I have been a big fan of jazz singing ever since I started listening to jazz. And I have read a lot of biographies and autobiographies. The sad thing is there has hardly been any jazz singer who managed to have a stable happy private life over longer periods of time.

VS: That is because the job doesn’t … to be successful in anything … like being a film director … anything that requires a lot of onsite or on location … to be succcessful in a medium like that you have to put in those hours. That is why Bobby McFerrin is not touring much anymore. He has done it all. He reached a point where he is like well, I do not need to do it anymore. The name speaks for itself. It is fuel for the soul. We get paid to travel essentially. Moments where I am on stage … that is not where the work is … that is not work …

HBK: Is that a frightening thought for you … is it a concern how you can combine your career with some sort of private life?

VS: Well, when I was growing up I was not traveling quite as much, but I was on the road frequently. So now it is kind of an extension of my childhood. If I have too much time alone, too much time for private life, I go crazy. I do wish I had more time to work on my diverse artistic interests. I am actually going to shoot my film in two weeks in March. I am supposed to be off for those two weeks. But if I were really off for two weeks I’ld go crazy. If I have one day off with nothing to do I’ll go crazy. That is my personality. I think you have to have this kind of personality to do this.

HBK: Yeah, you have to dedicate yourself to it. When I look at this group of musicians around you race does not seem to play a role. On the other hand, when I look at the broader US jazz scene musicians like Nicholas Payton seem to have an issue with race.

VS: I do not have an opinion on that. It is similar with women. I get a lot of questions about the status of women in jazz. I am just here for the music. I am not a philantropist, I do not speak on social things. I am just a musician. I am trying to find my way into this universe, and make music with the people I like to make music with. I do not look at sex, or race, or age. That is all I have to say.

HBK: So is there anything else you would like me to include?

VS: I think we have touched on everything. Very great questions.

HBK: Thank you.

VS: I like that you know the music. So you do not ask any typical questions. I actually had to think. This has been enjoyable.

HBK: I did not want to bore you.

VS: There are so many interviews that I do that are just the same questions. Over and over. And I’ll just be cleaning the house while I answer the questions. Rehearsed answers. This was a great interview. It was fun.

HBK: That sounds good. I’ll be happy to help. Thank you very much for the interview, Veronica.

VS: It has been a pleasure. And getting to know you a bit.

HBK: I’ll be back on the cruise next year. You too?

VS: I do not know. I have a problem with ships. Maybe we can have a different arrangement. I perform at each port. I cannot be at sea. I get sick. I cannot perform well when the boat is moving.

HBK: You have been performing very well.

VS: I appreciate. Yesterday I had to leave the stage between the two portions of the show because I was sick. It takes all my energy just to have clear tone.

HBK: That is unfortunate. You have a really good audience here.

VS: Even in cars I get sick. This is a great profession for someone who gets sick traveling. < laughing >

HBK: < laughing > And there is no medication that can help?

VS: The medication that helps makes me very sleepy and drowsy.

HBK: Nevertheless, I hope you’ll be back next year.

VS: So do I. Thank you, Hans.

HBK: Thank you, Veronica.