10 Questions With Grammy Winning Jazz Songstress, Cécile McLorin Salvant

10 Questions With

Grammy Winning Jazz Songstress, Cécile McLorin Salvant

Photo courtesy of NPR

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Jazz in the 21st century has proven to be a conundrum. The popularity of rap and auto-tuned djing has meant the more traditional forms have faded into oblivion when facing off with the Taylor Swifts and Kanye West of the worlds. Even last year’s beloved La La Land, was criticized for its portrayal of the music that defined the 1920’s. Damien Chapelle’s film, as lauded as it was, showcased jazz through the lens of a white man trying to save a genre of music historically intertwined with black culture.

So if La La Land is the best depiction of jazz this generation could come up with – does this bode well for the future of the genre? Or is this just another treasure “millennials have ruined?”

Cécile McLorin Salvant would have you believe otherwise.

Her meteoric rise to fame signals that not only is the form not dying – but that there’s a new wave of followers coming to support and adore the genre (and her incredibly evocative vocals).

Growing up in Miami, Salvant was musical instantly, beginning the piano at age four. With familial encouragement, she sprouted an interest in this near century-old form, and by the time she was 24 she received her first Grammy nomination for WomanChild. 

She may have lost out that year to Gregory Porter, but it was to be hers in 2016. Her winning album For One To Love took home the “Best Jazz Vocal Award” after receiving acclaim from critics throughout the world. “She treats love not just as a many-splendored thing,” remarks critic James Reed in a review of the album, “but also as a source of consternation and a time of reflection.” It was then perhaps a perfect time to be at the forefront of the industry, for, whatever the implication, people were talking jazz again with the upcoming release of Chapelle’s picture.

Now, Salvant is a household name in modern jazz, selling out some of the most esteemed venues in the world, including New York’s Village Vanguard, and Le Trianon in Paris, she also took to the famed Hollywood Bowl stage as the opening act for Bryan Ferry this past September. Below, we talk with Salvant about her incredible career, cementing herself with the genre’s greats and her opinions on the current state of jazz.

1. How did you get into jazz?

I first heard and loved jazz thanks to my mother. I wanted to sing classical music though. When I moved to France after high school, I met a jazz teacher at the music school I wanted to go to, and he encouraged me to pursue it.

2. Who are your biggest inspirations?

Louise Bourgeois, Colette, Nathalie du Pasquier, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Marisol, Barbara, Mercedes Sosa, Bessie Smith, Patricia Lockwood, Anne Sexton, James Blake.

Cecile Mclorin Salvant
3. In an age of auto-tuning, how does jazz remain relevant?

I am not interested in the idea of relevance. I think concern with contemporary relevance can be a pitfall in any kind of creative endeavor. It’s like caring if something is trendy. (Unless you consider the word “relevance” as a connection between ideas.)

I am interested in the idea of presence. I want to communicate across time, through time, play with time, rather than thinking of it in such a way as “that was then and this is now.”

4. Lala Land made such a big impact and had a lot of people talking about jazz – why in your opinion did it resonate so much?

La la Land is unfortunately another example of people talking about jazz, and the lifestyle of jazz, without any actual jazz within it. It is in line with a certain obsession with ‘branding’ and visuals that blocks us from actual experiences. On the one hand it’s lovely to hear someone talking about jazz in a movie, but if jazz is only an idea and something someone can talk about, rather than an actual experience of music, it is quite unfortunate.

5. You create all your own album artwork – have you always been so creative/multi-talented

I feel in a lot of ways like I never lost that sort of shameless searching a child has. I enjoy drawing without a real purpose, and testing things out. I also love making my albums a very personal experience, inside and out.

6. You started playing the piano aged 4 – how does it influence your vocals?

I still play the piano a little bit. I’m not sure how it influences my singing, but it definitely helps with songwriting!

7. When did you first realize you wanted to become a jazz singer?

I don’t think there was a big realization moment. I was just singing, doing concerts, and it sort of kept going naturally from there.

8. How hard has it been to get your name out there, create a fan base?

I haven’t put an enormous amount of effort in getting my name out there. The effort has been in the content of the music, in my singing, in understanding the history of the music. In that way I have been lucky, because I didn’t focus energies outward. I tried to make sure I was developing as a musician without sacrificing time on things I didn’t understand like popularity, branding, and my name. I feel so grateful for that because I know that is not the case for everyone.

9. You only wear Issey Miyake on stage – is there a particular reason for this?

I love how the dresses look and move, how light they are, how there’s really only one size, and that you can travel with them sort of rolled up in a suitcase without worrying about ironing them.

10. How did the Grammy Award change your life and career?

I’m not sure! Getting the Grammy was a beautiful moment shared with my family and my band. We got this mainstream validation for a record that had not been influenced by the penchants of the music industry. This is to say, we made exactly the album we really wanted to, without any compromises to placate a label, or to attempt to become more popular. For this I am grateful, and feel encouraged to keep developing the content of my music. To not focus on my “brand” or lack thereof. I can continue being ‘anti-brand’ and ‘pro-content’!

Amy Corcoran

The Associate Editor of SWAAY: Amy is an Irish writer, avid foodie and feminist with an insatiable appetite for novels and empowering women's writing. She has enjoyed calling Dublin, Paris and now New York her home.

1 Comment
  1. Beautiful interview. I have seen Cecile McLorin Salvant 10 times in the Netherlands by now (since her first concert on the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2014 – including 3 times in one week this month). Everytime I become an even greater admirer of her voice and also of the Aaron Diehl trio who are outstanding musicians. And after these three concerts I understand how she keeps herself motivated: no concert is the same. I even think that they do not play one song in the same way. I hope she returns to Holland soon: I will be there (everytime).

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