Gretchen Parlato: Musical Immersion
Just moments after Gretchen Parlato’s hour-plus set had wrapped up at the Caramoor Jazz Festival on July 28, the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA) presented the vocalist with the JJA Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist. Parlato took the opportunity to give thanks, something that she wasn’t able to do at the actual awards ceremony.
“It’s a unique opportunity for me to thank everyone who’s ever supported what I’ve done,” Parlato said. “Especially to my band.” She fondly turned to the members of her quartet, which includes drummer Kendrick Scott and pianist Taylor Eigsti.
DownBeat had the pleasure to chat with Parlato about her promising career as a young vocalist, the various influences that inspired her, including her family, and how she began to finally hone her skills as a composer.
Given that your father, Dave Parlato, is a bassist, and your grandfather was the late trumpeter Charlie Parlato, did you immediately know growing up that you wanted to become a vocalist?
I think what was immediate was that I loved to sing. I didn’t know very early that I wanted it to be my profession. But from when I could speak, singing was just a part of expression and joy and freedom. Growing with all kinds of artists in the family, it was definitely just a part of everyday [life]. But it was later on in my life that I realized that it was really something that I would turn into a career.
At what age did you realize that you wanted to become a professional vocalist?
I was an early teenager. It was in the ninth grade. I auditioned for the school musical. It was a production of “Bye, Bye Birdie.” I was always in choirs and in the chorus, studying music in and outside of school. But that was the first audition that I thought, “Oh, maybe I can do this.” When I got a role, I just fell in love with the whole production. In elementary school, we were involved in productions and classic plays since first grade, so I had actually fallen in love with that whole feeling of preparing for a show and being part of the ensemble. But it was really at 14 years old when I found out about an arts high school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), and by my ninth-grade drama teacher. I thought I'd audition for the school as a theater major or music major. I chose music because at that age, I looked at the audition requirements and it seemed easier for me to choose a few songs to sing. I wasn’t really a trained actor at all, so as a teenager I thought, ‘well let me choose the easiest route.’ But obviously in the bigger picture, there was a reason why I chose that path. Attending the arts high school, that’s really when it shifted from a hobby and a joy into a career.
How did you become introduced to jazz?
In my family I had heard all kinds of music at home, specifically jazz, from the very beginning. My father was a jazz musician, and his father [was] a singer and a trumpet player. My mother’s a musician and my maternal grandmother loved jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. I always say that even before I could define that sound, it was just something that was very familiar from either a recording or even just hearing my dad practice warm-ups and scales on his bass and [going to] hear him perform. It was always around. It wasn’t until junior high school that I actually decided to attempt to sing that style of music. I also heard Bobby McFerrin very early and was completely blown away by what he’s capable of doing with his voice. It’s amazing to hear something that advanced and profound young because it inspires you so much. I always say that there’s only one Bobby McFerrin and he’s the only person who can do what he does. But when you hear that really early, you think of it as normal and possible. In that way, it was very inspiring to be exposed to all different kinds of music and it just opened up my mind and my ears to what could be possible for me.
Let’s talk about the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It’s helped to launch the careers of so many young jazz talents—pianist Aaron Parks, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and of course yours, especially after winning first place in the 2004 International Jazz Vocals Competition. What has the Monk Institute instilled in you as a jazz vocalist?
It’s an honor to be a part of the pool of artists that have been a part of the Monk Institute. And luckily for me, I was in the Thelonious Monk Institute and [Jazz Vocals] Competition. I had many years and so much that I gained from both of those experiences. It’s a really wonderful program, the institute itself, to offer two years of study and focus. And it connected me to Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. It becomes therapy for each artist. You feel like you’re examining yourself, analyzing and getting really in touch with who you are and what you want to do. The competition, I think, for art, it’s not necessary for artists to be put in these situations where we’re competing against each other and being judged by this elite group of people and kind of placed comparatively. I think there’s room for everyone. It’s not like we need it but it was a very good motivation and inspiration to push me. It opened up my career in a way that it hadn’t been before because it just very gently opened up people’s eyes and ears to what I was doing. I like to say that maybe they leaned and took a closer listen to what I was doing. Then they could still decide if they like it or not. It gave me some really great exposure and validation for what I was doing. I’m thankful for it, but I always like to add that there are so many artists who don’t have that experience and the competition doesn’t make you or break you in anyway. But personally, it was a wonderful experience for me.
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