Bethany Jazz Vespers: Camille Thurman

Camille Thurman stands out as a luminary in the world of jazz, possessing a rare combination of talents that place her among the elite in the industry. Not only does she command attention as a gifted jazz vocalist, but her skills as a saxophonist rival those of the great masters of the genre, showcasing a deep respect for tradition, coupled with authenticity. Her proficiency extends beyond vocals and saxophone, including the bass clarinet, flute, and piccolo, demonstrating remarkable dexterity.

In addition to her solo endeavors, the 37-year-old Thurman’s collaborative work further underscores her impact on the jazz and popular music landscape. She has shared the stage with an illustrious roster of musicians, ranging from jazz heavyweights to pop icons. This list stretches from Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, and Dianne Reeves to Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Alicia Keys.

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 6, Thurman will be appearing with the Darrell Green Quartet at the Jazz Vespers presented by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church. Following is an email interview with Thurman in anticipation of that concert.

JJ: How did you first get exposed to jazz?

CT: My mother introduced me to jazz. I grew up in St. Albans, Queens, a neighborhood with deep historical roots in jazz. At one point, Count Basie, Milt Hinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Lena Horne, and many others lived there. Of course, this was before I was born. My mother and I used to pass by a mural daily on the way to school, featuring all the entertainers and musicians that once lived there. The mural was being restored, and as we started to see who those images were, my mother, a schoolteacher, decided to make a project out of it for me. She would go to the library and bring home documentaries, CDs, photo essays, and books for me to learn about these artists. Through this research, my mom was introduced to jazz. She made her learning experience my learning experience. It wasn’t until I was much older that I picked up an instrument and started learning how to play jazz.

JJ: Who are some of your earliest mentors and influences?

CT: My earliest mentors and influences were Tia Roper (classical flutist) and Dottie Taylor (pianist, flutist, and composer). These two women encouraged me to play. I never saw or knew women who made a living as performers and composers. I met them both around the age of 12. They played a pivotal role in bringing me into their world, whether via teaching lessons or just seeing how they lived their lives immersed in the music.

Dr. Peter Archer was also a mentor to me. I wouldn’t be where I am or making a career in music if it wasn’t for him. He was my middle school band teacher and was the inspiration behind the Disney-Pixar movie SOUL. He encouraged me to play jazz. Whether it was giving me access to instruments to try out, dropping off etude books to prepare me for high school auditions, or taking me out on trips to jazz concerts, he believed in me and pushed me.

 My very first gig was with him and his band, Just Friends. I didn’t know I could make a living as a musician until he told me I could do it. He inspired me to want to play on Broadway as a woodwind doubler in the pit orchestra. Two of the proudest moments of my life were sending him a photo of me standing in front of the promotional poster for the Broadway musical Shuffle Along after playing my first show. The other moment was inviting him to a Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra concert, bringing him backstage to see my tour trunk filled with woodwinds, and thanking him for seeing that I made it to 60th and Broadway.

Mike Carbone (saxophonist/educator), Bob Stewart (tuba player/educator), Tia Fuller (alto saxophonist), Mimi Jones (bassist), and Antoine Roney (saxophonist) were also mentors who came into my life at a pivotal time when I needed it the most, as a young adult transitioning onto the scene. After experiencing a difficult time in high school dealing with sexism, rejection, and not knowing what to do, these musicians and educators picked me up, nurtured me, and encouraged me to pursue playing and singing as a career.

I am a huge Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan fanatic. They both gave me the “spark” to want to learn the language of jazz. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by George Coleman, Vi Redd, Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Dianne Reeves, Patrice Rushen, and so many other incredible artists.

 JJ: You have a unique skill set regarding your ability to sing, scat, and impress as a saxophonist. Was there ever any pressure on you to focus on one area? How do you balance your talents?

CT: Absolutely! I attended a specialized performing arts high school (Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts) and was among the few ladies in the jazz program. I remember often hanging out with band members after school and having my instrument by my side when strangers would come up and ask if I was the vocalist. I remember feeling like I wanted to prove to the world that I was one of the guys and could play, too. This was why I kept singing a secret for so long. I knew I could sing, but I also knew that I spent a lot of time studying how to play the saxophone. I thought that if I revealed that I could sing, people would discourage me from playing. I remember doing a gig at a Women’s Jazz Festival in my early 20s, and right after leaving the stage, I was told by an older gentleman that I should sing.

It wasn’t until I was in college (SUNY Binghamton) that my professor and mentors encouraged me to embrace both crafts. Of course, as I started to make a career performing professionally, there were times that I was told to pick one. I felt conflicted because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just be accepted as someone who did both gifts well and as a single entity. Louis Jordan, Vi Redd, Shirley Horn, and Ray Charles all performed as instrumentalists and vocalists.

When it came to working with promoters or looking for management and booking, the question always asked was, “So, are you a saxophonist who sings, or are you a singer who plays saxophone?” even though I recorded and worked with some of the best artists doing both. There were some moments when people in the industry thought that I was confused, “gimmicky,” or wasn’t serious because I did both. When I started out on the jazz scene, there weren’t too many young artists making a name as instrumentalists and vocalists. It was a challenge at first because I was young and embarking on something that was not embraced then. I remember being the first person for the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, competing as a vocalist and playing. Once I made it to the finals and placed in the competition, that’s when I felt things had shifted. People started to accept that I did both.

I’ve always learned both instruments simultaneously. The first instrument is the voice. Everyone tries to emulate that sound through instruments. I have been singing since I was four years old. When I started learning the saxophone, transcribing solos helped me understand the language of jazz. Singing the solos enabled me to internalize the music, and from there, I painfully and slowly learned how to develop the same internalized connection I had with my voice and ear with my saxophone. I had to study how to develop both crafts because I knew what I was up against, as far as judgment as a woman and judgment as someone doing both (when this wasn’t common at the time). Antoine Roney was a lifesaver to me during this time (and still is). He taught me how to develop my craft/idea, showing me how to embrace both gifts and put together music to showcase a balance of both crafts while striving for a level of excellence and identity.

CT: Naturally, music does not need a gender qualification, but do you feel women have been fairly represented in jazz? Can you speak of any struggles or discrimination you have felt as a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated art form?

 CT: I think there is always room for improvement. Some practices perpetuating a lack of representation are institutional, some are through societal practice (intentional and unintentional), and many, which I believe are a matter of educating the community/audiences as a whole on how things have been designed to uphold practices that are outdated, biased and need re-examining. I remember an encounter with an audience member on a Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra tour. After the concert, a woman came up to one of the band members, saying how polite it was of them to allow me to take a solo. The band member told the woman that having me take a solo had nothing to do with politeness or chivalry. It had everything to do with the fact that I, just like everyone else up there, could really play. I deserved to have that same space, too.

When he shared this story, I was surprised that it was a woman, but for the first time, it clicked in my mind that some of these biases are upheld knowingly and unknowingly, at large, by both men and women, and that time plays a role, too, in how viewpoints have been shaped. We must educate audiences by creating spaces where women can often be heard and seen performing at a high level to let people know that it exists. We, as women, can be admired and respected for our musicianship first and gender second. We need to continue to create spaces where we have opportunities for women to play a part in the art form, especially the gatekeeping aspect, the performance stages, and promoters/agents in academia and business. There is nothing like hearing a young woman say, “Because I saw you play, I now know that the possibility exists.”

JJ: Can you discuss your current musical activities/ projects?

CT: Currently, I am working on several projects. I am finishing up an album entitled Fortitude, a co-collaboration with drummer Darrell Green. I am also currently working on a Sarah Vaughan Centennial project. Sarah Vaughan was my biggest childhood inspiration and a vocal icon. I look forward to celebrating her music this year via a few performances. Recently, I have been working on a 60th-anniversary project of Charles Tolliver’s re-orchestration and re-arrangement of Africa/Brass.

JJ: What do you believe is the future of Jazz?

CT: This is a tricky question. The future of jazz involves a generation of young and older artists coming together and upholding the mantle at a high level. Our society depends on this. Jazz has always been a mirror to society in creating a space for dialogue and for the stories of people to be seen and heard, crossing cultural boundaries, uniting us at our common ground — humanity, the spirit, and the will to live. I believe it involves an awareness, sensitivity, and openness to younger artists who are bending and shaping genres, crossing and reimagining the cultural and sonic possibilities of jazz while also creating pathways for younger artists to see excellence and the spirit of this music thriving and being upheld through the elders still here, keeping the flame and pushing forward in that same spirit.

 As much as we need to make spaces inclusive of gender, the exact same needs to be done in making spaces inclusive of age diversity. Musical gems are sitting at home with no opportunities/spaces to be heard. Creating spaces where they can create and mentor younger musicians is vital to the survival and future of this music. Historically, men and women and younger and older generations paved the way for the music to move forward — Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams. It is going to require that same commitment.–JAY SWEET

 The Bethany Baptist Church is located at 275 West Market St. in Newark. Admission to the Jazz Vespers concerts is free. Camille Thurman will also be performing at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts on March 9 and Cape May Convention Hall on April 19. Other spring 2024 concerts are: pianist Sullivan Fortner, March 2; vocalist Tyreek McDole, May 4; and pianist Matthew Whitaker, June 1.

PHOTO BY DAVID KELLY CROW

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The New Jersey Jazz Society (NJJS) is a non-profit organization of business and professional people, musicians, teachers, students and listeners working together for the purpose of advancing jazz music.