Jacqui Sutton – Billie & Dolly
Turning 50 and starting a garage band is not the usual vocalist’s narrative. But that’s what happened with me. It’s not just any band, but what I call the Frontier Jazz Orchestra-a stylistic mash-up of jazz, bluegrass and orchestral/chamber music that come together in my debut CD Billie and Dolly-an homage to my two vocal heroes, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. As a singer, getting there wasn’t a straightforward trip.
I was born in Orlando, Florida, the second of six children. In the 1960s, my mother (newly single, and pregnant with her sixth child), was determined to make a better life for all of us. She moved us to Rochester, New York. Think: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Beatles, school busing, and the Jackson 5. It was about crossing lines. That sense of boundary trespass filtered into my world as I found myself drawn to experiences that were the opposite of my own. I could never get enough of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, nor the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” We had one of those old-fashioned, what I call “kitchen table radios”, with the round wooden body, fabric over the speakers, and a crackly dial. I’d lean against that radio and be consumed by the sadness of “Yesterday.” Later in life, even certain songs that I heard on Muzak radio stations could make me stop in my tracks. It just had to sound beautiful to my ears.
As a musician, I had a brief stint in grade school as a flutist-recitals and everything-which ended abruptly at around age 11 when I lost the instrument and was terrified to report it. Around 1982 (my early 20s), I realized that there were no flute police in the Rochester City School District, and
I could well have gone on to have some kind of instrumental career.
I made this revelation during my time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bobby McFerrin and Tuck & Patty were on the rise. As soon as I got there, I cast aside what I thought was my dream to be an environmental designer and at the insistence of one of my roommates, I auditioned for Jazzmouth, a vocal jazz ensemble led by Molly Holm. I had been a competitive gymnast for 11 years, but nothing seemed more dangerous, physically precarious or, paradoxically, beautiful than singing. My roommate helped me prepare one song: “Summertime.” I had several false starts in the audition room, the most serious being I could not find my starting note. I finally pleaded to sing it a capella so I could get the heck out of there. Embarrassed, I bolted as soon as I was done. Molly called me up several days later and asked me to join, with one admonition: “You’ve got to study.” I did. A lot.
Well, Jazzmouth came and went. I moved to Portland, Oregon and got lured into the world of stage acting-from Shakespeare to dance theatre. Acting felt safer than singing because I was part of an ensemble-and besides there was “work to do.” I could distract myself-plus, there was all that cathartic emoting! Things changed after I moved to New York. I began studying with Jane Burbank, which was a partnership that lasted my entire 15-year stay. When my husband and I moved to Houston, Texas, the foundation that Jane gave me helped me fully appreciate the last steps that were needed to help my voice become reliable. And I took those steps with Cynthia Clayton, an amazing, no-nonsense instructor who helped me love singing for the first time in my life. Not the idea of singing, but the act. Now you can’t shut me up! She gave me the freedom to create a vocal style and sound that produced what I think of as “vocal honesty”-something I hope that is authoritative, and my own.
Billie & Dollyis the beginning of the journey for me. I’m curious to see where this will lead. Stay tuned …