The 1957 Verve album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, contained 38 tracks, including some of the best-known tunes associated with Ellington such as “Solitude”, “Satin Doll”, and “I’m Beginning to See the Light”. Contestants in this year’s sixth annual Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Vocal Competition, sponsored by Blues Alley Jazz, were asked to select any three songs from that album for their contest auditions.
The winner, April Varner, decided to challenge herself by picking some of the lesser-known tunes such as Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” and “Clementine”, and Ellington’s “Love You Madly”. The task was even more formidable because only one of the selections, “Love You Madly”, contained lyrics, combined with scat. “Chelsea Bridge” was sung by Fitzgerald as an instrumental vocal, and “Clementine” was all scat.
“The Ella Sings Duke album, Varner said, “is obviously huge. Looking through that list, I thought ‘What are some songs I know everyone is going to gravitate to?’ I wanted to set myself apart from everyone else in a way I thought was good to showcase my voice. In competitions like this, you want to pick carefully. I wanted to showcase my ability to sing non-lyrical stuff. It’s always fun to try to tell the story without words. ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is a very complex melody, so that was kind of fun and a challenge to emote what the tune is about without lyrics. Now, I have these great tunes that I can use in my repertoire for gigs all the time.”
The strategy worked. One of the judges, Darden Purcell, Director of Jazz Studies, Jazz Voice, at George Mason University, was impressed with Varner’s “beautiful, full-bodied voice, great fluidity between the registers, and wonderful intonation. Her interpretation of ‘Love You Madly’ was swingin’ with great phrasing and outstanding scatting! She has a wonderful career ahead of her, and I can’t wait to follow her future successes.”
Celebrity judge, vocalist Jane Monheit, described Varner as “an incredibly talented vocalist who has clearly put the work in to understand and express this music on a high level. I will definitely be following along her path and supporting her future music!”
The 26-year-old Varner grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and began taking voice lessons as a classical vocalist at the University of Toledo when she was eight years old. After graduating from high school, she attended Indiana University as a vocal performance major. “I was classically trained,” she said, “and I thought that was my path for a long time. At Indiana, I was in a show choir called The Singing Hoosiers. We did all kinds of music in that group – some classical, some modern, and we did some jazz. It was a great outlet for me. I did musicals in high school. I loved theater. I loved dance.”
Duane Davis, the Assistant Director of The Singing Hoosiers, convinced her to join his jazz ensemble, asking her to consider being a jazz singer. Recalled Varner, “I had zero knowledge about jazz. I didn’t like it without even giving it a chance. I did notice, though, that I was getting kind of sick of the classical repertoire. I could not picture myself singing in Italian on a stage. So, I continued in the jazz ensemble, and, finally, I decided, ‘I really like this. This is fun.’ I especially loved the freedom jazz gave. In classical, it’s all written down for you. So, the idea that I could do what I want, the way I want to was just kind of crazy to me. I kept in the group, fell more in love with jazz and made the decision to become a jazz major at the end of my freshman year. It was the best decision I ever made.”
After graduating from Indiana, Varner moved to New York in August 2020 and began studying for her Masters in Jazz Voice at the Manhattan School of Music, which she earned in May 2022. “I always knew I wanted to move to New York,” she said. “I did my auditions for grad school about a month before everything shut down due to Covid. My first year was a little weird. All of the academic classes were on Zoom, and the combos and bands were in person with masks on. My second year was better, no more masks.”
At MSM she studied with Grammy-nominated singer/composer Theo Bleckmann. “He is probably the best mentor/teacher I’ve ever had,” she said. “He helped me develop my voice, my style, helped with writing, how to make connections, how the business works. Theo continues to help me today on pretty much everything.”
Bleckmann said Varner came to him, “already fully formed and ready to take on the world. She really has a voice, and she loves jazz. With April, it’s all about the music. She wanted to be challenged.”
While still at MSM, Varner got her first real gig at Rue B on Avenue B, a club that is no longer in business. “I performed there every two weeks for many months,” she said. Also, during her student days, Bleckmann got her ensemble booked at 55 Bar, another club no longer around. “The vocal students,” she said, “got to perform two or three songs a month.”
Varner’s major jazz vocal influences are, “Obviously Ella. I also studied Carmen McRae a lot. I love her diction when she sings. And, I love her intentionality with the phrasing. You can just listen to a recording and picture how she would look singing it. Her voice just emotes so well and tells the story so well. She’s probably my second favorite.” The McRae album she likes the most is Something to Swing About (Verve: 1960). “It’s one of her earliest records,” Varner said, “and I love how witty all the songs are, and they’re not super well-known ones either.
“Nancy Wilson is probably my third favorite,” she continued. “Coming from a classical background, I have a big vibrato, and Nancy does not hold back with her vibrato.” Varner particularly likes Wilson’s 1963 Capitol Records album, Broadway, My Way. “I love the arrangements of all my favorite show tunes!”
Recently, Varner released a four-tune digital EP entitled Hummingbird. Available on all streaming services and her YouTube channel, it includes two original compositions and two original vocalese arrangements. She’s currently at work on her first full album, which will be produced by drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. “We’re getting the band all lined up,” she said, “and the plan is to record it in August and release it in February 2024.” As for current live performances, Varner hosts a weekly jam session on Sundays from 5:30-8 p.m. at a coffee shop called Dear Mama, which is on 129th Street near the Manhattan School of Music. She has also begun singing during brunch, from 1-3 p.m., at Sauce, an Italian restaurant located on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.
Varner’s favorite American Songbook composer is Irving Berlin. “Ella Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook (Verve: 1958) is one of my favorites,” she said, adding that, “During the pandemic, I listened to Bill Charlap’s Berlin album, Always (Venus: 2008) religiously. I learned all of the songs.”
The great vocalese artist, Jon Hendricks, grew up in Toledo, but, as a child, Varner “had no clue who he was. Jon was still alive the first two years I was into jazz, and I had a mutual friend, a photographer in Toledo who was friends with him. But, before I could organize a meeting, he passed away. I’m still kicking myself that the stars didn’t align for that. Jon Hendricks is one of my favorite vocalese artists. He’s a huge inspiration to me. I wish so badly I could have had just one conversation with him.”-SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY TORY WILLIAMS