How appropriate is it that JAM is the acronym for April’s Jazz Appreciation Month? It was created by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History curator and jazz afficionado John Edward Hasse in 2001 and recognizes jamming–slang for when musicians play together in a looser, improvisational style.
Jazz is polyrhythmic, always evolving, explained MJ “Willie” Williams, a 75-year-old jazz vocalist and musician based out of Helena who in 2016 received the Montana Arts Council Governor’s award.
As a friend of mine says, ‘When you’re listening to improv, you’re getting both process and product.’”
Jamming is key to understanding jazz, a uniquely American art form that easily spans 100 years from Dixieland to bebop to contemporary stylings. This year the Museum has stepped up efforts to recognize female jazz vocalists like Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone, as well as jazz musicians and bandleaders, which prompted us to do the same.
Williams remembers listening to vocal powerhouse Sarah Vaughan since she was in 7th grade, just a few years prior to her joining her musician father on stage at the age of 16. She’s been performing and recording ever since, including promoting the arts through innovation.
Williams co-founded the Montana Artists Refuge in Basin, which provided more than 300 artist-in-residencies during its 8-year run. And she also created a popup performance called Sound Gallery in Helena’s 1+1=1 art gallery.
Although she hasn’t been playing in public this past year, Williams has been plenty busy focusing on the piano with Bozeman-based musician, Ann Tappan, one of her Sound Gallery collaborators (along with bassist Rob Kohler).
A veteran of large and small venues—Seattle’s Bumbershoot, New York City’s Women in Jazz and both Le Sept Lezards jazz club and the Atelier de la Main d’Or in Paris, France—Williams is keen to share her music in smaller venues where the audience is there not to dine or drink, but rather to listen to the music.
For north Idaho’s Sandra Marlowe, “a hot little jazz club on the Big Island, Hawaii” called Gertrude’s would be her go-to for live performance since COVID closed venues.
“Live music is witnessing the creation of something into sonic form that did not exist before those moments, and experiencing the exchange of energies between musician and audience,” said Marlowe. “Vibration and sound waves affect us—physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
Marlowe’s background includes vocal coaching by Judy Davis (whose clients included Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra), studies at the Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, California, songwriting, and more than 30 years performing, as well as teaching.
Jazz is something she feels she graduated to, said Marlowe.
“I’ve always had an improvisational feel for music and rhythms, and interpreting a song in a way that tells the story,” she said, “but my early training—both piano and vocal—was of a more classical nature, as well as operatic training, where you really don’t sing or play what’s not on the page.”
The pandemic didn’t stop her from completing The Heart Always Remembers, a mix of originals, standard covers and reimagined vintage tunes, said Marlowe, who is in her early ‘60s. And when it was time to release it, they did a “drive-in” release, charging a per car ticket price for motor bound listeners.
“People were eager to just leave their houses and have something fun to do. ISI