In conversation

I recently had the opportunity to hear the amazing well known singer Anita Wardell live. In addition to her extraordinaries artistic qualities, Anita is a sensitive, passionate and generous woman. We met for this enjoyable interview where she told us a little about herself and her latest projects, and where we addressed some themes dear to us at Women in Jazz Media. Enjoy the reading!

DT:  Who is Anita Wardell? Tell us something about yourself.

AW: I’m mostly a very happy individual, with a very positive outlook. Like everybody else, things can get me down at times especially when life gets hard. However, I’m getting better at dealing with the hard times as I’m getting older. I continue to find ways to stay motivated, to stay young at heart, to stay fresh and come up with good ideas to help me move forward. I’m grateful for the people in my life, I love my family, whom I’m very close to. It’s important for to me to collaborate with other people on projects share ideas about this incredibly inspiring art form which I’m as passionate about today, as I always have been. I can remember the time, I first heard Charlie Parker and how excited I was about his music. I couldn’t wait to start my jazz journey and discovered the wonderful and inspiring artists that I still learn from to this day.

DT:  When did it happen?

AW: I was born in the UK and when I was 11 my family moved to Australia. I went to this kind of progressive school. I had never seen a school like this until I got to Australia. It was an open space  school. The classrooms were interconnected with concertina doors and you could hear what was going in adjacent areas. It was just amazing and everything was interconnected. We had a wonderful music department and this is where I fell in love with music. The first song I wanted to sing was one I heard on a musical film on TV ‘Long Ago and Far Away’ by Jerome Kern.  All these old musicals came on TV regularly and I sat there with a tape recorder and recorded the songs which happened to be standards from the American songbook. That’s how I learned my repertoire. I was totally engrossed in these movies. I learned all these wonderful songs by composers such as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and many more. I would have been around about 12 probably 13 at the time. My teachers found out that I was learning these songs and they really championed me.

I was mesmerised by this music whilst my family thought I was a “little mad” as they were listening to the Beatles and AC/DC and some and soul music. At University, I was asked to join the jazz choir and that’s when I was introduced to scatting and vocalese. One of the first pieces we were given was a great Phil Mattson arrangement of ‘Birdland’. I was given the Wayne Shorter solo vocalese to sing. I was over the moon. An Important teacher Eric Brice, knew that I was developing a love for this style of music asked me to join his combo- piano bass and drums and that’s how I learned to work with a band. At that point, I wanted to understand more about Jazz theory and harmony especially as I was interested in vocal improvisation and Eric suggested I  join the jazz course at Adelaide Uni. I was like one of two vocalists in jazz course where I studied to get my Bachelor of Arts in Jazz Performance. I don’t think I could have ever done anything else.

DT: When did you move back to the UK?

AW:  After I left University in Adelaide I moved to Sydney and got some gig experience there for a couple of years. Whilst I was there, I won the Jazz section of the Australian singing competition twice. In 1989, I decided to move back to the UK. I studied at the Guildhall school of Music and Drama in London where I was lucky enough to learn with some great teachers and musicians. For five years, I sang in bars, small coffee shops and bistros and had great fun honing my craft on the London Jazz scene. After quite a while I got my first break from Steve Rubie and sang at the 606 club not long after that and a real highlight of my career, I received a call from the legendary  Pete King, who booked the week long support sets at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, to perform my first week stint there opposite the Late Great James Moody. What an amazing opportunity. I subsequently appeared there at regular intervals during the 2000’s supporting Jazz greats such as Joe Zawinal, Joe Lovano, Lou Donaldson Dave Wekyl, Vincent Herring and many more. I spent many hours practising and studying to improve my craft and continue to do so. As with any specialism the deeper you dig the more there is to learn, which I truly enjoy.

DT: You are English, your family now lives in Australia, and you grew up there. You have also this link with the USA. So, you have experienced several cultural environments. How have all these experiences and different cultures contributed to your personal and professional development?

AW:  In a huge way because one thing I love, is meeting people from different walks of life. Everybody has something to teach us. Everybody has something to learn. Everyone has something to offer.  I love to hear other people’s stories, because it inspires me. So therefore, I don’t mind sharing my story, in the hope it may inspire somebody else.  Travelling exposes us to new styles and fusions from different genres. For example, Fado from Portugal, Indian ragas and the varied time signatures from Eastern and European folk music, inspires arrangements and helps cultivate new ideas in rhythm, harmony and melody.

DT: When I’ve listened to you at some of your concerts I was impressed about the way you were listening to the other musicians. I mean, everybody knows how interplay is important in performing. However, sometimes there’s a lot of competitive attitude in performing, especially in jazz music. What I felt in your performances is your deep way of listening to others. The way that you and the musicians of your band connected to each other was amazing, which is not to be taken for granted. I heard a not a competitive way to sing and to perform, but a sincere collective work. Is it related to your curiosity and openness to listening, which you were talking about before?

AW: I just then got a shiver up my spine when you asked me that question, because that’s really important and I think I’ve taken that for granted because I was told when I was at uni that we need to listen, it’s about teamwork. You are not the diva or the be-all and end-all.  It’s not all about you, the individual. It’s about the collective, I’ve always felt that. You listen because you want to be able to communicate with the band and be able to get deeply into the music. How can you communicate deeply, if you don’t listen? Some performers are not aware of the depth of the music in terms of listening. When I was younger, it felt hard to be part of the band and feel included. You might be really trying your hardest and you know, you’ve studied and you’re trying to improve. Listening and leaving space always leaves room for recovery when things go of track.

DT: Yes, and I think it’s good to talk about this because we will experience this feeling in our career sometimes. We talked about USA before, and I know that you went in a tour there recently. Can you tell me something about it?

AW:  For the past ten/ eleven years, I’ve regularly visited the US on artist visas for which I’m really grateful for.  I have learned so much during my visits and performances there over the years. Way back in 2004, I applied to sing and perform for the first time at the IAJE, International Association of Jazz Educators Conference which was held New York City.  I was successful in securing a performance spot and travelled to NYC for the first time with my UK Band to perform for Jazz industry people. I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I met that year. Recently, I have come back from performing in Seattle and Washington State with the fabulous Jazz Pianist Jeremy Siskind. Jeremy and I together, performed for three sold out House Concerts. Three lovely hosts opened their homes each sporting gorgeous pianos. These evenings are incredible and so joyous!

Before Jeremy and left Seattle, we managed to organise sometime in the studio and recorded an EP which we have plans to release in the near future. This Art form is so universal- How wonderful to meet someone you don’t know at all, play for the first time together and make music …..It was playful, challenging  and so rewarding- It filled my soul! On this recent trip to the US, I also headed East to NEW YORK CITY, where I was invited to play two gigs. One, at a very hip wine Bar with Pianist, John De Martino and Bassist, Dean Johnson and a surprise guest Pianist Jim Ridl. The second gig was at at ‘North Square’ a little club in the Village. It was there I played with Pianist, Misha Tsiganov and Bassist, Sam Bevan. Misha Tsiganov is someone I have known of for many years but never had the chance to play with The bass player, completely new to me was Sam Bevan. This duo was so amazing to play with I felt so relaxed with them – they really swung- Can’t wait to do that again.

DT: When you were away from home in USA, what were the aspects that made it so special?

AW: If there’s a gig-I love to play!  I think just being away is exciting and special and the icing on the cake is the people you play with- There can be some very small differences in approaches of some aspects but generally I find this music is a universal language. You can always find a meeting point! Generally, I found it a wonderful experience to play with People in the US. I found the musicians very open with great suggestions for arrangements and song choices. So spontaneous.

DT: In the last years there have been so many changes around. The pandemic has been a break point in our lives. From that moment something happened, especially in performing industry and market. You are an accomplished and well-known artist. There were any consequences for you too as a result of this events?

AW:  In 2018, I relocated to Australia and accepted a vocal jazz teaching position at Adelaide University. My idea was to travel back and forth between both the UK and Australia and keep coming back to London for touring and gigs during Uni breaks. In February 2020 the pandemic hit and everything shut down. The consequences of that were sad and disappointing as it put a stop to this new venture of travelling and continuing the music projects for a while. I loved the vital Jazz scene in the UK and I wanted to keep my connections here in London and Europe. The pandemic made me start questioning where I was in my life, what decisions and choices I was making and like many, I felt lost.  Spending days and weeks alone without seeing people, not feeling connected to those close to me and musicians I had worked with for years.

The feeling of being isolated was exacerbated by this and the fact that I was perhaps not getting as much work as I used to because of my age.  During the pandemic I tried to use my time effectively and be ready for when we could go back to gigging. I joined a song writing group with Geoff Gasgoyne and other musician friends which helped a lot. Luckily, I could do my Uni teaching on line. It was a big adjustment for many musicians not just myself.  Many of us suffered from loss of income with no help from the government. It was heart breaking and I started to feel so distant from communicating musically.

DT: Isolation is the one of the main topics that we have highlighted in talking and sharing experiences through Women in Jazz Media with colleagues and musicians. Those events have increased that feeling.

AW: Yes, the pandemic was a challenge and still there are many women in Jazz that feel isolated. We need to stand together and create change. To be as positive and supportive as possible. It’s amazing that Women in Jazz Media are doing so much to create opportunities for women. Helping us to string together and make connections that are meaningful and powerful.  Experienced female artists need support just as much as newer artists do. Let’s not forget the wisdom of older women and the experiences and the hard graft they have had to do to pave the way for female musicians of any age.

DT: Oh yes, it’s just doing something to break this circle!

AW: Yes! To create more projects, new opportunities to be seen and heard. It’s important to have compassion for other people and their journeys. Also, to be kind to yourself.  I think we need that always.

DT:  Yes, I love it. There is another topic that I want to introduce to you, and this is invisibility. Thanks to Women in Jazz Media connections, we experienced rising comments and talks about invisibility among female musicians. Maybe because the pandemic made things harder than before. I’d like to ask your opinion about this. What do you think invisibility means in jazz industry?

AW:  It’s a sensitive and personal subject. Last year, I started having more and more concerns about ageism and how it affects older people, in this case, older women in any work field. My dear friend and Jazz singer Karen Lane introduced to me to Jane Evans, founder of Uninvisibility, a project that aims to raise the profile of women over the age of 50. Jane is Executive creative director, activist and author. Champion of midlife women and is inspired to keep pushing for greater visibility. Jane created a multi media campaign about bring older women into the spotlight. It is about women’s experiences of getting older and how to push through the barriers, still feel vital and worthy and be seen and heard. Jane has appeared and spoken on some great podcasts about this you can hear these on Spotify “Magnificent Middleage. Where do we go from here and how do we feel valid? and how do we feel visible to the industry? We’re still learning and still trying to grow. We still have so much to say, we still have valuable information to impart. And…. we’re still people as well. Quite a few women (myself included) that I’ve been speaking to recently in Jazz, are feeling undervalued and invisible and easy forgotten.

DT: Thanks for that Anita. You are also a teacher. Lots of changes happened in education too. Even the role of teachers is changing over time. What are the changes that you face in your role as a jazz singing teacher? What are the challenges that you experience with your students right now?

AW:  That’s an interesting question because I do a lot of teaching.  I find nowadays students have a strong sense of how they want to approach their learning. It seems the role of a teacher has become more like a guide. We have to work with students- suggest ideas and projects that appeal to them.  I like to lead them to what I hope will inspire them and their learning and at the same time inform them of the important elements that will give them the knowledge they need to improve in areas that might be challenging for them. I want my students to enjoy their learning process. There are areas in Jazz that can cause some anxiety at first- I find it when the student is asked to improvise. So I like to help them find there way by breaking things down into manageable chunks – It’s wonderful to see their faces light up when they have executed something they perhaps thought was not achievable. I am very interested in teaching and the ways to help the student find who they are and what they love through the music itself. I don’t like to talk to too much in the lesson- – Practical seems the most effective way- let the student have a chance to find it! All of my students are wonderful, they’re respectful, and they’re very excited about the music.

DT: What would you say to a new student that comes to you the first day, and says: ‘I want to become a jazz singer?’

AW: The first thing I’d ask is ‘what elements of jazz do you feel most connected to’. There are so many!  I get great answers -traditional jazz singing, like Sarah, Ella and Carmen McRae.  More Soul/pop influenced – like Amy Winehouse. Sometimes I want to sing wordlessly- or bebop scat (I get excited with this answer- ha ha) or Brazilian music. It’s so diverse and I love it. It also tells me they actually listen to the music. I then explain how important is to listen to as many styles and recordings and live concerts as possible. This way I feel I have understood where they want to go with it. It’s all about listening isn’t it? Listening to all elements: ‘who you’re playing with? What they’re saying musically? What they’re saying voice wise?’ It’s about what they want.

DT: Now I go back to you as a singer and there will be so many things that I could ask you about your wonderful way to interpret, or everything related to your beautiful voice. But there is one thing that I really love and it is improvisation. A jazz singer does not necessarily have to improvise. But you really love doing it and you make it shine. What does improvisation mean to you?

AW:  I love that question. Improvisation means to me ultimate freedom melodically, rhythmically and emotionally. I feel like I can truly be myself when I improvise. I accept myself when I’m improvising and live in the moment and love experimenting with harmony, rhythm and melody. I like to invite all the elements of my personality with improvisation: playfulness, a sense of strength, the powerfulness, softness and the sadness within me. I feel that I have a sense of being at one with myself when I’m improvising and even if I make mistakes, even if I miss a chord change or it gets out somehow- whatever…it is the ability to experiment and explore and recover. I’m a free spirit as a person and I think that comes out in my improvising.

DT: how improvisation is developing in your in your daily work?

AW: I’m becoming much more scrupulous about things like tuning, rhythm, Harmonic and melodic sense and dynamics. I want my soloing to sound musical with the jazz history intact. I find it so interesting to practise lines and creating melodies and going for an Authentic sound. Ear training is an important part of my practise. I transcribe and practice hearing this way. I sing etudes and run through extended arpeggios, this is great for improving intonation. After working on these I start adding the altered extensions to train my ears.

DT: My last question is: what are your musical plans for the future?

AW: What I want to do now is to record a new quartet CD with Robin Aspland, Jeremy Brown, Steve Brown and myself. I haven’t done a quartet album since 2012. I also want to continue my visits to the USA and play some more concerts with the musicians I have met recently there.

DT: And I wish you best of luck for that! Thank you so much Anita, it was a pleasure interviewing you.

AW: Thanks Diana!