Jazz. The music defined elegance for decades. The lyrics still resonate with romance. Our age of often overdubbed pop stars singing more of lasciviousness than love makes the local jazz vocalist scene a delightful alternative.
“There’s an enormous amount of talented jazz vocalists in the Twin Cities,” says Ronda Lawrence, singer, and president of the Minnesota Jazz Vocal Coalition (JVC). “Style runs the gamut from crooners to scatters to torch to Brazilian.” With chapters in Los Angeles and New York City, it’s strengthening the local network of artists carrying on a tradition that’s continued by life-long artists and newcomers.
Celebrating their first anniversary, the Jazz Vocal Coalition is releasing a CD featuring its 14 members, due out for the holidays. Besides individual gigs around the Twin Cities, JVC holds one or two monthly showcase performances.
This writer spent a weekend checking out three JVC singers.
Wearing a red chiffon dress, a droll black hat covering dark bobbed hair, Christine Rosholt looks like an ingenue from between the two world wars. A Chicago Art Institute graduate in performance art and photography, Rosholt acted at Children’s Theatre Company, and has been singing only for the last three years.
“I did performance art that included Harold Arlen’s song ‘That Old Black Magic.’ In 2000, a country music performance art band, Dixie Cups and the Little Darlin’s, asked me to sit in, ‘to be the cousin who sings jazz.’ A country mouse, city mouse thing,” Rosholt giggles. “It started as a joke. Amy Browers did Tammy Wynette’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ I did ‘Night and Day.” Then, I decided I wanted to do it for real.”
Rosholt sings with flirtatious charm, like a girl with her heart on her sleeve, who suddenly yanks it back with a blush.
“I love watching another JVC singer. See how they come out on stage. What intention they bring to the music. Are they shy or upfront?” Rosholt muses. “Few of us have our own bands, so you’re always working with different musicians.”
Rooted in theater more than musicality, Rosholt creates a character that’s frothy entertainment.
Faithful to jazz for over 35 years, Arne Fogel writes, lectures, and has hosted radio programs about the genre since the 1970s, which provide deep roots for his singing. He’s one of three men—with Bruce A. Henry and Dennis Spears—in a scene dominated by women.
“In the Twin Cities, if a man’s not holding a guitar or singing the blues, then, he’s seen as a lounge lizard—as that character Bill Murray did on Saturday Night Live,” Fogel bursts into a silly imitation of Murray, then abruptly stops. “If you’re a male singer, you have to be extremely careful what material you do. When people request ‘New York, New York’ or ‘My Way’—those anthems—I don’t do them!”
What Fogel does is subtle. His baritone is good bourbon on the rocks—sweet with a touch of snap. He’s the guy you don’t fall for fast—but who wins you over completely with a wistful blend of warmth and flashes of wit. An interview with him quickly becomes a jazz history lesson in which he talks about his inspirations—Louis Armstrong, Fred Astair, and Bing Crosby—far more than himself.
“The surest way to know who the important innovators are—look to see what was happening before them,” Fogel says.
He also wants to talk about the new singer with whom he’s just recorded a CD. Fogel says during a late night set he jokingly offered the microphone to her in the audience, and she sang a chorus of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” He knew then that Maud Hixson was special.
For 15 years, Sunday brunch at The Times has featured the Twin Cities’ longest running house band, The Wolverines Trio. Dressed with tailored simplicity, honey-haired and fresh-faced, guest vocalist Hixson takes the stage with unadorned stillness. Her voice has the sophistication of silver satin, a cool sexiness that’s absolutely in control of the situation. Doing the clever banter of Gershwin or Cole Porter, she sounds the way Grace Kelly looks.
“I approach jazz as a musician, as an instrument. You’re also a storyteller,” says Hixson during a break in her set. “I sublimate my voice to the lyric. I won’t show off just for the sake of it. My voice has to express the song—not obscure it.”
Hixson did Johnny Mercer’s ballad ‘I Hate To See October Go’ and achingly exposed lost love. Truthful emotions expressed with such beautiful nuance break an audience’s heart a bit, and Hixson brought tears to my eyes by the song’s close.
“I didn’t find anything in the angry, angst-ridden music. Everyone trying to be ‘cool’ and ‘edgy,’” she says of her brooding younger self when she discovered jazz, with a special love for Judy Garland. “Being positive and expressing happiness and joy—these songs are real and grown-up. “
Hixon and Fogel’s collaboration of joyous duets, “Let’s Not Be Sensible,” presents both artists in a fun frolic of adult musical attraction. The chemistry is Astair graciously supporting Ginger Rogers to swirl in all her shimmering glory.
“There’s two reasons Hixson’s special. She’s immersed herself totally in this music—she’s not just trying this on. Her intonation, pitch, and musicality are intrinsically part of her nature,” he laughs. “Maud’s got this music so down, she really keeps me on the ball!”
The song, says Hixson, is king, as she prepares for her final set of the evening. ”If I didn’t love this music, I’d do something else.”
But, Maud Hixson is totally, madly smitten with jazz, and if you give her a listen, there’s a strong chance you’ll be infatuated, too. It’s a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon—or, better yet, take a special someone out on one of these autumn evenings.
For listings of jazz performances, see: www.jazzpolice.com or www.tcjs.org. Jazz singers, classic and current, are featured on these programs on KFAI 90.3 FM Mpls and 106.7 FM St. Paul (www.kfai.org): Collective Eye(Thur., 10:30 p.m.) “Mostly Jazz” (Sat., 9 a.m.) Bop Street(Mon., 3 p.m.). Also tune in to KBEM Jazz 88, 88.5 FM (www.jazz88fm.com).