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Joani Taylor
interview by Cory Weeds
August 2008

Joani Taylor has been one of Vancouver's most notable and admired jazz vocalists for many years. This weekend (September 20, 2008) she releases her latest album, In My Own Voice. Cory Weeds thought this would be a good time for and in-depth interview.


Cory Weeds: Lets start with where you were born and what was going on around your house musically in your formative years.

Joani Taylor: I was born in Vancouver BC. The home I grew up in was so full of music that I was very surprised when I was at a friends home and I couldn't see a piano anywhere. I thought everyone was like our family. My parents would have parties with a house full of musicians and singers. My brother Jim and I figured out pretty fast that we could get to stay up late if we sang. We've talked about why we grew up to be musicians and I believe we all have talent, it's just what we're exposed to and in our case our father being a very good singer and doing occasional gigs, it was all in his eyes. When he sang, when he listened to music it was his deep passion for it that was so intriguing to me and he loved it when we sang. I have been on stage since I was 3 years old. I have a recording from a performance when I was four. I always knew I would be a singer, always.

 

Do you remember when the first time you experienced live jazz and what that experience was like for you?

I first experienced live Jazz was when I was about fourteen. My Dad took me to a Jazz Club. There were lots of people smoking, maybe everybody, sitting in the dark with candles just listening and occasionally applauding and saying yeah! There was a big band playing. It was Ray Sikora's band and they were playing Thelonious Monk tunes. WOW!!!! Man!, I'd never heard anything so fun and exciting before. Maybe that's when I wanted to sing Jazz, I don't know. I think I wanted to sing everything I could wrap my soul around.

 

You say you always knew you would be a singer. How did you just know. Did you ever have an inkling to play any instruments. Did you ever take piano lessons, or guitar lessons?

I honestly don't know how I knew, there was just never any doubt that that's what I was and would always be. I took piano lessons with a few different teachers. I learned a bit but dyslexia makes learning some things very difficult for me and I didn't know I had dyslexia until I was an adult. I had one teacher who just gave out gingerbread cookies and didn't really care if I practiced or not . And another teacher whom I was afraid of because she was so old and she had an upright grand that had bottles of pills all across the top. I would arrive at her door and all would be dark. I'd knock and she'd take so long coming to answer, I would imagine she was dead in there. Also, she wasn't a good teacher. Then I fell in love with Bob Murphy when I was 16 and married him at 21. He's such an amazing musician I didn't want to work on the piano with him in the house. Why would I?‌ But now — all these years later — I'm taking piano lessons from Bob Murphy. I'm slow, but he's very understanding. I reminded him when we started, of my fear of math and music and he said ," Joani, .... pause.... It's arithmetic." That was cool. I've learned so much more in this past year than I ever thought I could.

 

We'll get into stylistic things a bit later but you are a jazz singer. Anyone who has heard you sing can clearly hear so many different influences in your voice. Who were some of your early influences, who did you try to emulate, steal and borrow from and, why?

Some critics claim that a Jazz vocalist has to scat like a horn. Well I don't feature that very often, and Billie Holiday never did. To me, a jazz singer brings his or her own interpretation to a song and improvises through words, sounds, notes, and phrasing, while being spontaneous, and at the same time listening and reacting to the other musicians, expressing how it all feels in the moment, but with some respect being shown to the original lyrics. Having said that, my influences in my younger years came from whatever my family played — which was Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Sam Cooke. (I would play his album over and over.) I had a neighbour who was much older than me who was an opera singer. I could hear her practicing, she had such a huge voice. I had an Aretha album and I'd turn it up really loud when my mom wasn't home and sing as loud as I could in hopes that the opera singer could hear me sing loud too. I loved Aretha! I spent more time copying her than anybody — and also Frank Sinatra. When I was older I dug Carmen McRae, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, all the usual suspects. But my Dad and my brother were my biggest influences, umm, I'm trying to think. You know what would bring me to listen to different artists and copy them most, would simply be that I was liking a certain tune someone did and had to learn it, so they would become my source for the tunes I was learning and therefore influence me a lot.

 

You feel in love with Bob Murphy at 16 and married him at 21. Obviously over the years you guys have been through a lot, including a divorce. You have, however, remained very good friends and, more importantly, musical collaborators. There aren't very many albums of Joani Taylor's that you can pick up and not see Bob's name somewhere. Can you talk about your musical relationship with Bob and why you two seem to work together so well.

We were both very young — too young. But even though our personal relationship created a lot of pain for both of us, we have always had an undeniable, very deep musical and spiritual connection. Besides, this is a small town and we're both in music. We have many of the same friends, so we're going to run into one another. Whatever we went through, we knew we loved working on music together and, especially in this idiom, it really helps to trust who you're creating with completely. Maybe this is the relationship we were really meant to have all along.

 

I want to keep talking about yourself and Bob from a musical standpoint. Can you elaborate on what it is about maybe the way you work together that is so intrinsic or second nature? As a singer what is it about Bob's playing and accompanying that resonates with you, for example?

Perhaps the answer is 'you don't know, it just works,' and that's okay. I have listened to all the cds with him and hired you guys at the club many times and there is just something there that is hard to explain. Bob gives you everything and nothing at the same time. His chords and voicings are so open, suspended, that you could play or sing anything and it could sound right, at least for that moment, but you'd better know what you're doing and if you do, there'll be an even deeper experience for you if you're listening. He plays very little sometimes for me and that's great. There's lots of space and I can leave space, too. As Quincy Jones says "When you leave space...you allow God to walk in." If you listen for example to our work on The Art of the Jazz Ballad, it's as if we're breathing together, meditative, it's in another place. Ross Taggart and Bob did an album together and I noticed the same thing. It's heavy.

 

I have had the pleasure of playing with Bob a few times over the years and the thing that always gets me the most is his time feel. He swings really hard but in such a convoluted way, if that makes any sense. Do you know what I mean?‌ Like you say, you'd better be listening and counting! Especially if you're playing duo. Thoughts?

If you play things Bob's way you'll go to places you've never been before. I mean it! You have to let go! I don't think he demands it or anything, it's just the way it is. He's listening and right there with you. He puts himself right out there.

 

You mention that your dyslexia wasn't diagnosed until you were an adult. Obviously that affliction would be very hard to deal with being a singer and a musician in general. I'm sure it was frustrating not knowing what you had when you were younger but in some ways may have been better to not know, as you may not have been able to accomplish what you have. Can you maybe give our readers a glimpse of what you had to deal with in regards to being dyslexic?

It was more than frustrating not knowing I had dyslexia when I was young. It was degrading because my mother was told that I was "slow", or that I was a "daydreamer". I was put in the "Blue Bird" reading group, which meant I was stupid. Even my mother would tell people — when they would compliment my singing she'd say, "Yes, but she can't spell." The final humiliation was failing grade seven in school and all my friends moved ahead of me. That was when I gave up and just put in time at school. In grade nine I was appearing on TV and radio and making more money than any of the girls at school so they disliked me for that. I was miserable, I quit in grade 11 near the end of that year.

I have always regretted not having a proper education. But when I found out why, that there was a reason — it was through our youngest son being diagnosed with dyslexia. The woman who tested him called to give me the results of his testing and I started to cry and said, "That's me, you're describing me!" She then told me "Yes, it usually runs in the family." I was so relieved. I wasn't stupid, and it gave me the best opportunity. I could tell my son and help him. He had marvelous help in school, but I worked with him also and when he left Capilano College, he was placed on the "Dean's List."

I was and am extremely proud of both our boys, and of another young man who also lives with us. Oh, and after all my school problems, who did I marry? My husband is a math and science teacher. So yes, I was an accomplished singer, but the school of hard knocks was a very tough upbringing physiologically. I still felt stupid. But you know, without it I may have not felt so compelled to pour all of my heart into my material like I do. I often tell my students to use, create around, and maybe even embrace what they label as their handicaps. It will make them different than everybody else and give them more inner strength. It did me. But I do appreciate spell-check.

 

You say in grade nine you were on TV and singing on the radio and making good money. Can you talk a little bit about some of your early professional musical experiences and how various opportunities started to develop?

Sure. In grade nine — I remember because I was happy to get out of math class to go and do a TV series — I was on LET'S GO, a show that offered the top songs of the day. Tom Baird was the musical director and I remember singing Dusty Springfield tunes. The show was on for a couple of years. Though I wasn't on every week I did quite a few. There were other little half hour radio and TV shows that I would guest on, too. I thought at the time that if I was good enough for the musicians to like my work I'd get more, and that's what happened. I worked at a place called "The El Mocombo". That was with Wilf Wiley sometimes, or Frank Mansell, who wrote some of my charts; a Young Don Thompson, and Terry Clark, just to name a few. Too bad the band wasn't better ... HA! Anyway, I was only supposed' to be there for one week. The owners of the place took an ad out for my appearance but could get it cheaper apparently if they could remove one letter. So they took the E off of JOANIE and left me JOANI. Then I was held over for 13 weeks so my name was from then on Joani — I legally changed it. After that, I was in a small band with Bob Murphy, Bob Turner, and John Le Marquand, and also did a lot of casuals with Carse Sneddon and Danny Romanuck. I hung out at the jazz coffee shops too – "The Espresso".

Bobby Hales told Isy Walters, (who owned "Isy's", one of the two biggest venues in the city) he should hire me. He did and I worked there from when I was sixteen until I was twenty-one. I opened for Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Smith, Little Richard, and so many more, and when I couldn't open for Sarah Vaughn because they wouldn't have one female singer open for another, I got to go and sit with her and watch her every night. Cool — hell yeah!! When I was 21 I recorded my first album. I was approached by the CBC and Dave Bird to record songs that Dave Robbins would arrange for big band. So we did that and to this day there's a big picture of me at Mushroom Studios where the recording took place, of myself and some of the band and Dave. So that's how I started to meet people to whom I would be connected, and work with, and befriend for many, many years.

 

Okay, speaking of good friends you rubbed shoulders with one of the greatest alto saxophonist jazz has ever seen, Julian Cannonball Adderley You also hung out with the late Joe Zawinul.

Julian was a good friend, a friend you see every couple of years and spend a day or two catching up and we were both signed to Capitol records. He invited me up to the studio when I was in L.A. — once while he was mixing — so we hung out. He was a wonderful person. Kind, a great listener, and a gentle man. I met him when I was married to Bob Murphy and we opened for them for three nights, I think. Joe Zawinul stayed at our home that time. We stayed tight from then on. Julian, or Walter Booker, or Joe would call me anytime any of them came to town after that. I guess I'm just irresistible. [smile] There were others that were going to record with me. One was David Foster. Another was Tom Baird of Motown fame. But that's another story.

 

I have heard a rumour that you and Cannonball were supposed to do a record together. Is that true?

When I was in LA he just talked about how he would record me. Not with the group I was in. I should have contacted him after the separation from Skylark but I was shy, too screwed up, and negative. Who really knows what he meant, if anything, but I should have called and told him what was going on in my life. I did call him once but his wife wasn't very welcoming to my call even though I told her I was a friend from Vancouver.

 

I hadn't realized that you were actually signed to Capitol Records. How did that come about? Talk about working with a major major company like that.

I was in a band called Skylark since it's conception. It was a band created by David Foster's wife, BJ Cook. She put the band together. A funky, organic, pop band featuring a lot of vocals. There was BJ (she was a good singer), me, Flip Arellano — all on lead and background vocals. David Foster on keys, Steve Pugsley on bass, Doug Edwards on guitar. Everyone sang except the drummer. Actually we went through a few until Duris Maxwell. It's a long story but we all worked hard on the group and BJ had some great contacts in L.A. Bob Murphy and I split up in the middle of all this and I was living with Flip, just below BJ and David's apartment in the West End. I was asked to go to L.A. with BJ, David and Doug Edwards to sign the contracts with Capitol records and look for a studio to record at while we were there. We went, but Capitol records had my name, David's, and Doug's on the contract — not BJ's. She was really mad.

When we got back to Vancouver to rehearse for the recording, BJ persuaded the others in the band to fire Flip and me, saying that they heard we were planning on leaving the band once we got down to LA. A rumour that BJ and another singer who wanted Flip's gig started, and no one believed us. We told them it wasn't true but they asked us to leave the band anyway. I was so hurt that these guy's would believe this that I froze. A week later we could hear them rehearsing with our replacements upstairs. Flip had to leave the country as he was an American citizen and couldn't work here much. I got a gig singing with Sweet Beaver — ha! yeah, sweet beaver — and I was drinking a lot. One night David Foster came into the club and asked to speak with me. We went into the club's office and David told me that the band was leaving for California but the border officials wouldn't let them through because my name was on the contract. David pulled out some papers and asked me to sign them. I still felt so bad about everything that I signed it. Then David said, "I really owe you one! You know, you could have sued us. You owned a third of the band." He never did pay me back. Never helped me in any way. Now, aren't you sorry you asked about Capitol Records‌?

 

It sounds like the whole Skylark / Capitol Records thing was a pretty unfortunate incident and one that would potentially lead to a life of bitterness, anger and resentment. One thing I love about you, Joani, is you're so positive and so upbeat and it comes across in your singing. How do you maintain such a great attitude?

The Skylark thing was a bad deal but I had a worse one than that when Tom Baird wanted to produce me and had written some really wicked, powerful tunes for the recording. Tom and I met when I was on "LET"S GO" in grade 9. He went from here, with "Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers" (no relation), [Bobby's no relation to me] to MOTOWN. There, Tom became a staff writer, arranger, and producer and won many gold and platinum records from the work he did with Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the stars from that company over the years. He left Motown and struggled for a number of years with them to regain the rights to the songs he wrote while there. He was in the band "Rare Earth" and then a band named "Hub". Tom had the musicianship and the energy you dream of! He would call me, or just show up at my door to play me a song he thought I could sing great. And when he said "Great!. Better than Streisand", you believed him because he worked with her. He would get so excited about playing something he wouldn't even sit at the piano — he'd stand or kneel there. His enthusiasm was like a child.

He went to California to tie up the business with Motown and come back to record our album, when I got the terrible call telling me that Tom was killed in a Catamaran off the California coast. He left a beautiful family. His wife Joanie and their two young children. You know that was devastating to me. After that I almost signed many contracts but I kept comparing those other people to Tom Baird and no one came close. I tried to to do a recording of his tunes many years later but I couldn't find very much at all, I even spoke to Barry Gordy Jr., who couldn't help me find anything. I remembered that Tom's wife Joanie said in an interview after his death that his favourite song of all time was "You Are My Sunshine" so, that's all I could give him, was my interpretation of that song, for him. It's one of the three standard tunes I recorded on the new album.

Yes, I've had bitterness, anger and disappointment. But life is what you make it. People should live long lives, and help each other, and have a conscience, but that's not life so you bend with it, you use the power of it to create and to teach others to make wiser decisions. My students all know about the business of music and will not let their feelings being hurt get in the way of a contract. So helping others has been my saving grace. I will tell anyone my truth on anything they want to ask me. Whether it's about singing or life. If I can suggest something to someone that will give them a shortcut or less aggravation then good! Besides, I love to sing! Even when I was a kid, I'd rather practice or rehearse with someone than do anything else. If I'm recording for myself or anyone else I'm there! You have to shut it down before I tire out. I also believe I'm pretty humble and my experiences have given me that. I have a pretty amazing family that remind me that the singer is just a part of the whole, and there's a whole lot more. A whole lot more!

 

In my years of listening to music at the club and playing beside some pretty amazing musicians, what I have noticed listening and playing with you is your sound and style comes from a very deep place. You are someone that has "been there." Having "been there" I suppose could be defined in many different ways. Maybe style comes from the trials and tribulations you go through in life being a musician, I don't know. It became very apparent to me when I was playing beside Red Holloway. I could transcribe every note he ever played and practice ten times as much as he did and I will never get that sound that comes from so deep. You have "that" sound. Can you talk about this a little bit?

That's a very good question. I believe it's more than the dues you've paid, or technique. As you said, it's much deeper than that. I think, for one thing, it's revealing your passion. It's also in the details. When and where you leave space, where you hold or caress a note, or lyric, or break a note, or scream it, or soften it, or play it straight and dry, or use vibrato to add some tension to the end of a phrase. Most of all, how you listen and how willing you are to expose all that you are. It's risky playing right from your solar plexus. It isn't a good kind of music for background in a restaurant or shop. Because of the passion alone, it commands your attention. So it isn't for everybody. But every time you hear it, you hear something different, and you're moved. It's actually very easy to do. You just open up your mouth, and let your heart come out. I just can't sing any other way.

 

How did you learn to expose yourself like that and make yourself vulnerable? Did it ever backfire?

First of all, my Father was my teacher and he would yell at me if I couldn't make him feel what I was singing. He said I had to sing to someone and move their heart. Later, it was sometimes a form of therapy for me to let out feelings I otherwise couldn't express. Sometimes I just hold one note, and see how happy or sad, beautiful, soulful, or strained I can make it . But people aren't always open to hearing such depth, because they want background music for their conversations and shopping. When there's something very soul-felt or deeper, it touches something they don't always want to feel, or deal with. It backfires only by being sensitive to music, I feel I'm too sensitive in other ways. After all, I'm laying my heart on the line here. I know, though, I can't please everyone so I just do what I do, and be who I am

 

Who are some of the musicians that you play with and/or listen to that you feel really expose themselves?

Eva Cassidy is the first person who comes to my mind. Etta James, Bill Evans, Elis Regina, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, and Stevie Wonder are full of passion, depth, and expose a vulnerability. They all have great emotional range in their music. Bob Murphy and Ross Taggart are two people I currently work with who certainly go there and I'd like to know and work with others. I heard Tom Keenlyside play with Bob a while ago and he was definitely there, wicked and risking it. Funny, even though most of these artists have a lot of chops, sometimes it's when they play the simplest phrase that leaves them so open. These people voice their music straight from their open hearts. There are, I think, cultures that show more passion musically than others, also. Just for example, Portugal, Brazil — and I would love to go to Cuba next year, if possible. I'd love to surround myself with some of that!

 

When you talk about your upcoming release In My Own Voice I can sense an excitement in your voice. You're really proud of this release. Talk to us a little bit about the concept behind it and what has you so excited.

I am excited about In My Own Voice! I've had this concept for a long time now, starting from using the same core group from the critical successful Wall Street Sessions. This time I worked with Miles Foxx Hill co-producing. Miles described this production as built around the voice, totally enriching, and allowing space. So with Bob Murphy as musical director we started. I wanted to do something more with the material. For example, I wanted to do Take Five. I had this idea to use an emcee. I met this young guy Jay Kin a year or so ago. He and my son came by a rehearsal I was having with Bob and loved what we were doing. I asked him if he'd ever heard of the beat poets who would deliver their spoken words to jazz. He hadn't, so I suggested he check it out. That stuff was before my time, too, but I remember seeing it in movies. When I thought about this, I was working with a student on a Hip Hop Project and at the same time hearing emcee's rappin' through my son's bedroom door. So I called Jay Kin, he was really surprised and excited, and when Miles Hill and I got him in the studio he was perfect! He tore it up!

We're filming a video for the tune and it's going to be the first single off the album. I wanted to write a lot of this project partly because as an indie jazz artist I can now do whatever I want, with my own work. And I was co-writing with some great musicians who were really inspiring me. So my co-writers and I can give this stuff away if we want to. I like that freedom. I also like recording. No, I love recording! I don't like listening to it after so much, but I love the conversation, the energy, the space, the alive feeling, and I always love recording raw and real. No overdubs. One or two takes! That's it! It's never happened, but if something needs too many takes‌ I'll tell you what .... Take it off!! I wish you could have been there when we laid these tracks down! Great music is almost always a product of collaboration. And I will tell you that there was such a feeling of 'somethin's goin' down here!' Even during playback, to see everyone listening and applauding one another. There is such a high level of playing here. It takes my breath away every time I hear these cuts, and hear every musician: Bob Murphy, Miles Hill, Buff Allen, Bernie Arai, Doug Stephenson, Ross Taggart, Brad Turner, Jack Duncan, and me. I get to be the 'chick singer, whoooooooh!, hell yeah!!

 

Can you give us a glimpse as to what we can expect in a jazz video?

The video is the tune Take Five. The treatment is basically a story of contrast and attraction. There is the performance of the tune of course, but there are a number of hip hop and free form jazz dancers all relating individually to this old school jazz tune. While at the same time, the setting is a hip place where the band is playing after hours. There's a girl there who we see seems to be not one of the usual crowd. One of the regulars, a dancer, takes notice of the beautiful shy girl and by the end of the song we see them together. So it's different dancers and people, the hip and the sophisticated, the flamboyant and the shy, all coming together around this very cool jazz music.

 

What is the purpose for doing the video?

The purpose for the video is to promote the album and me, here and around the world. I'm hoping stations like Bravo will play it, and it's a new kind of calling card.

 

Finally, Joani, I just want to ask you what music and jazz has meant to you in your life.

I've had quite a passionate affair with music. Loving it, hating it, believing it's what I have to do, and then feeling — maybe because I've had so much frustration with being dyslexic — that I it's the only thing I can do with my life. Of course I know it's not who I really am, it's just what I do. But of all the different styles of music I have worked at, Jazz has the deepest connection to my heart. Truth is I'm addicted. It will never let me go, I'll never get enough.


Links:

Joani Taylor web site
Joani Taylor CDs at CDBaby