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Ann Hampton Callaway: ‘I Am a Hybrid of Many Influences’

The American jazz vocalist talks about being a multi-faceted artist, what fuels her creativity and the upcoming India visit

Sunil Sampat Apr 11, 2018

Callaway tells us about her music, painting, philosophy and more. Photo: Bill Westmoreland

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It strains one’s memory to remember when a jazz singer-songwriter last performed in Mumbai. It is a rare occurrence. Thus, the visit of Ann Hampton Callaway for a concert tour of India stirs up a fair bit of excitement and curiosity among the jazz community in India.

This lady is really multi-talented; she is a pianist, lyricist, arranger, actress and jazz educator apart from being a singer and songwriter. Callaway has written and sung the theme song for the television series, The Nanny and starred in the Broadway musical Swing. She has composed over 250 songs for TV, Broadway and other theater. Her music and lyrics have been performed and recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Blossom Dearie and Carole King among others. A major achievement for Callaway was setting the lyrics of the legendary Cole Porter to music for the song, “I Gaze in Your Eyes,” making her the only composer to collaborate with Porter.

The music from The American Song Book is thus close to Callaway’s heart and we had a chat with her to ask about her music. Her response was eloquent and far reaching and went from her music into the wider regions of painting, philosophy and life itself! Incidentally, her pianist and musical director, Ted Rosenthal accompanies her on the India tour.

Our conversation with  Callaway was freewheeling and most informative. Here are excerpts from it:

We hear that you are dedicated to the American Song Book. While this is a very rich musical treasure, what part of it do you find exciting? Are you partial to any particular composer? What are your favorite songs from this rich heritage?

I love the way the writers of The Great American Song Book so eloquently capture the pinnacle moments of our lives as if they are happening in the moment. When I sing songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer–I am transported to other realms. Their artistry is so beautiful–they’re build to last, just like the Taj Mahal. “Over the Rainbow,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Blue Skies”–these are a handful of favorite songs I will be singing in my long awaited debut in India.

Who were your earlier influences in jazz singing? Apart from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, what has been the impact on you of Billie Holliday, Carmen MacRae, Betty Carter or others?

Billy Holiday’s heart wrenching story telling, Peggy Lee’s warm and mesmerizing style, Mel Torme’s impeccable swing and velvety sound, Betty Carter’s inventive musicality and mind blowing scat, Anita O’Day’s ability to swing as dry as a martini, Nat King Cole’s irresistible charm–these are some of the artists my journalist father, John Callaway, introduced me to as a child who, along with Ella and Sarah, captivated and inspired me from the start.

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Has jazz singing been affected by the electronic sound that led to fusion? Have jazz vocalists been impacted by these influences?

I call myself a pop/jazz artist. I am a hybrid of many influences as most singers are of my generation. Al Jarreau was an inspiration who was able to marry the pop feel emerging with traditional jazz which later was called smooth jazz. I love singing his song “Spain.” My friend Kurt Elling is a great singer who blends contemporary and traditional sounds to make his own powerful statements on songs and ideas. We each absorb the sounds of our world differently. I am a romantic at heart and most of the songs I sing are about love. It’s my hope that when people come to see me, they feel more in touch with their hearts afterwards and more emboldened to share who they are with someone special. The world we live in is often chaotic and overwhelming–I try to sing songs that go deep inside and re-humanize us. Pop, jazz, theater–it’s all a part of a Callaway listening experience.

We hear that you put the lyrics of a Cole Porter song, “I Gaze in Your Eyes.” How did that project come about? Apart from the honor of getting to collaborate with such a great songwriter, how was the challenge of putting music to the poetry of this musical legend?

Cole Porter died leaving this song he wrote without lyrics. A friend of mine, Bradshaw Smith, discovered this lyric in a book of Porter’s lyrics and suggested I compose the music. When I sat down to write I asked the spirit of Cole Porter to help me so it came with grace and the music seemed to be waiting in the words. Many years after co-writing the song, I played it at a recording session with producer Ben Bailey. He insisted we record it though it was not published. As soon as the head of the Cole Porter estate heard it, he wept and decided to publish it, making me the only composer ever to have collaborated with Cole Porter. I am deeply honored to be associated with one of my favorite composer/lyricists. It seems that my life of loving his music prepared me to write music that would compliment his words. Later, when I was in London on the BBC, I told the story and the person who Cole wrote the words for called in. I actually have a copy of the letter that contains his lyrics to his loved one!

Has this experience been a help to you in interpreting the music and poetry of Porter and other great songwriters of that amazing period in American lyrical jazz?

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What a great question! It probably did help me to try to go inside the lyric of this great writer and think with his mindset of how the music could further develop the story of the song. It reminds me of when I was studying painting at The Art Institute in Chicago. I spent every Thursday painting all day in class and then at night, the museum was still open so I could walk around and get close to the masterpieces and feel as if I could be with the painters as they were painting with the smell of paint and the feel of the brush to canvas fresh in mind. Any time we dig in deep to the work of great artists, we are better for it.

Tell us something about your association with Ted Rosenthal and his influence on your music.

Ted is one of the best pianists in jazz today. We met at the 92nd Street NY, one summer day in 1996 as he was doing a two piano jazz concert with my friend Bill Charlap and it was love at first note. Not many pianists who are such superb soloists are adept at accompanying singers. Ted is that rarity who adds greatly to the story telling of a song without distracting from the singer’s connection with the audience. I give him lots of solos in my shows because he brings such beauty and excitement in the music. Singing with him has made me a better singer. I’m so happy we are both making our India debut together!

Several jazz musicians have been keen to visit India and play here. Did you have a curiosity about this country with its rich musical tradition? Before you set out on this trip, what are your thoughts and feelings on this India trip?

Singing in India and visiting this great country has been a life long dream. When I was 12, I discovered Indian philosophy and spirituality and was changed and inspired ever since. I love Indian music, food, yoga and the ancient wisdom which has been a bedrock for me most of my life. In 1991, I had a dream come true and found my spiritual teacher, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the spiritual guru of Siddha Yoga as taught by Baba Muktananda. Her teachings have increased the longing in my heart to come to India. This trip is a dream come true. I’m so happy to meet the great jazz fans in India and I hope I will make some important new friends there and learn much about the country who has been calling to my heart to visit!

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