Cecile McLorin Salvant: Growing Up Fast

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By Chris Wells


I write these words just prior to Cecile McLorin Salvant’s sell-out show at Ronnie Scott’s in London. The day after it, the 23-year-old will make another important debut: on Later With Jools Holland, for BBC 2 TV. It could be, certainly in marketing terms, that we just found our female equivalent to Gregory Porter.

Cecile’s talent is extraordinary. Not only is she an incredibly gifted singer, with an impressive array of tones and styles at her command, but her technique is already astounding; her delivery marks her out as something more akin to a vocal actress. Moreover, her appreciation of, and curiosity for, the music’s history is remarkable; it informs both her live performances and her very good debut album for Mack Avenue Records, Woman Child.

In 2010 Cecile won a very competitive Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition for vocalists, an achievement that, as you’ll see below, shocked her to the core, as well as won her a recording contract. Judges for the final were Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves.

Prior to that she’d studied in France – law and classical music – but, on meeting the man who became her vocal teacher, Jean-Francois Bonnel, she began performing as a jazz singer and her natural empathy for the style took over.

Here’s what she told us over the summer.


Echoes: You’re from Miami and your mother is French. The latter is presumably why you went to Aix-en-Provence to study?

“In part yes. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left high school and since I speak French and I am part French, it was the perfect country in which to change my environment, yet still be somewhere that was familiar. I have some family and friends there, so initially I saw it as the right place to spend my sabbatical year, which was originally my intention. I ended up staying because I began singing jazz and playing concerts there, and I met a wonderful teacher too. So the year sabbatical was extended to a four-and-a-half-year stay, where I was learning to sing and performing and getting to know the music.”


But your music studies were at first in the classical area?

“I liked to sing classical music and I did some classical piano as a child, but I also liked Motown, funk, soul, some rock – mainly grunge – and a little jazz. My mother listened to jazz when I was much smaller, so I heard Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Dinah Washington. There was some background knowledge there. I discovered the earlier, 1920s stuff later on.

“My mom encouraged me to sign up for the jazz class at my conservatory in France because she thought it might help me get my mind off the study and have some fun. It was supposed to be a hobby.”


It clearly spoke to you…

“What really spoke to me was my teacher’s dedication to the music. When you’re introduced to something by someone who is so passionate about it, then you really have a greater incentive to discover it. It made me more curious and want to seek it out. I thank him for that. I was lucky to have met him.

“I had also struggled with classical voice. It was a difficult thing. But with jazz, from my first concert, it seemed it was welcoming me more. I still love classical music, but there was something about jazz that was naturally unfolding for me. Everything I was learning and hearing was… well, it wasn’t easy, but there was something that seemed right.

“But it still took me a long time to decide that I was going to become a professional musician. I didn’t think I had what it took, partly vocally, but mostly psychologically. I didn’t think I could handle living the life of a musician. I liked academia and life in school. Then, suddenly, I had this teacher who was trying to help me be myself, and expected me to come up with songs I liked and arrangements I wanted to try. I had all this freedom and I didn’t know if I could handle it. It took me about three years to decide I would be a professional jazz singer. It was only about a couple of months before the Monk competition that I finally made up my mind to go for it.”


How did you end up entering the Monk competition?

“That was my mom again. She has been crucial to anything that has happened to me, musically. She put me in my first piano class at age four. I thought about quitting at around 12 years old, like all of my friends did, but she never let me quit. She pushed me towards the jazz classes in France. And then, when I was getting concerts in France, she compiled a list of competitions throughout Europe and around the world, and she sent it me. She also found out that the Monk competition was going to be a vocal competition that year, and so she sent in my application to them.”


An application that consisted of…

“A five-track CD. They have certain guidelines that you have to abide by – one ballad, one song with an a cappella part, and so on.

“I decided to go for what I did best. I’d previously sent in an application to a European competition and they didn’t even answer. I was also in a vocal competition in France and I wasn’t even placed. So the Monk competition… I just tried it. That’s why I did what I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to reinvent myself for the judges.”


How nervous were you?

“Very scared. When I got the call that I was going to be in the semi-final, the pressure was on. I was going to sing in front of this incredible panel of vocalists and I also knew that Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were going to be in the room. There were all these other singers around me too.

“Getting through to the final, I was shocked about it. I felt I had a 95% chance of not going through. When it happened, I was so mixed up. I felt even more pressure during the final. I couldn’t see how I was going to win. So it was really shocking to me when I did win. I can’t tell you how shocked I was. People who saw my reaction were surprised. I had such a dumbfounded expression on my face. I just thought something must be wrong.”


Did your victory change everything?

“Winning a jazz competition is not going to make your career for you. It will open some doors and get your name out there, but… well, take Joshua Redman: I don’t think the fact that he’s so successful now is contingent on him winning the same competition years ago. I didn’t realize that at the time. I just thought everyone would expect me to be really great. I had to live up to all those people who had won before me. I had to be this amazing jazz singer. Then, after a month, I realized that’s not what happened. I met record label executives and I found my management, but basically I kept doing my thing – singing in France, working on my music, doing my routines. A year-and-a-half after the competition, when I started recording my CD, playing with my American band and I met Wynton Marsalis, things began to change. Although, to be fair, I met my manager because of the competition, and my manager introduced me to Wynton. It’s all linked.”


Wynton Marsalis is quoted on your album sleeve. He says you have, ‘poise, elegance, soul, humour, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace’. He’s a man not easily impressed, but that’s some recommendation. What part has he played?

“The first time I met him, I did a 15-minute rehearsal with him and I learned so much in that 15 minutes. He gave me some great advice – great information about what I could do to be better. And when I saw him again a year later, he saw that I had followed a lot of his suggestions. I think that reassured him that I was serious about this music and trying to improve. He could see I wasn’t hanging out on what I could already do. It has been invaluable to sing with him and the Big Band. It’s an honour, very humbling actually, to be with a musician of that level.”


Your feeling for the history of the music is evident on the album. Where did that come from?

“I like history, in any subject. I did in the classical area too: I was attracted to early instruments and early music. I’m generally just attracted to good music and I like to know where it comes from and how it came to be.

“When I sing a blues that Sarah Vaughan liked to sing, and then I find out about Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines, and then Teddy Wilson… you can keep digging like that. There’s so much other beautiful stuff. It’s so rich. It’s unfortunate that more people my age aren’t curious about that stuff. The 20th century had such a wealth of amazing art, and jazz music is flabbergasting. I saw The Great Gatsby movie recently and I was irked because they didn’t use any music from the ‘20s at all! I mean, I get the reason why they’d use pop music of today, but the ‘20s jazz music was so rich.”


Your album has some of those old songs too. Yet, the title track, which you wrote, is my favourite.

“Thank you. The lyric is completely autobiographical, of course. I was encouraged to write when I looked into Abbey Lincoln’s music. For a while I was a bit reticent to compose because I felt it was… a clichéd thing to do. Everybody does it in jazz. I was thinking, ‘What happened to just singing the songs?’ Some artists are good at doing that and that’s what they should continue to do. And I never saw myself as a singer-songwriter.

“Having said that, I always did like to write things down, and I have music of my own in my head… so I began to wonder if I was just going against the tide of opinion simply because there was a tide of opinion to go against. I ended up trying to write something.

“It took a while to come up with something that I thought was alright, though, something that I thought I could sing in public. There was a bunch of things that went to the garbage can. Woman Child was the first one I presented to the musicians and that I sang in concert.”


Throughout the album you seem to act out the lyrics, especially on tunes like Jitterbug Waltz and You Bring Out The Savage In Me. That calls for a DVD to bridge the gap between the studio and the stage?

“I was a little bit worried when I was recording, because a lot of what I like to do live is, as you say, really to act out the story. I wondered how I would translate songs like that from the studio. I consider myself as more of a live performer – I haven’t recorded that much in the studio.

“Of course, now we are in a an era of studio musicians who only tour to support what they recorded – I’m being polite here! – but, in jazz, it’s really the opposite of that: we record from time to time what we do live. So when I recorded the album I was thinking, ‘But people are not going to see my face when I sing this’. I was thinking, ‘Perhaps we do need a DVD’. The label wasn’t going to let that happen. Al Pryor, the producer, told me, ‘People are gonna know what your expression is, where you’re coming from, just by listening’. I’m glad you said what you said, because now I know he was right.”


Cecile McLorin Salvant plays Ronnie Scott’s club, London on Monday, October 7. It’s sold out.

Watch her on Later With Jools Holland the following night, Oct 8, on BBC 2.


The album, Woman Child, is available from:



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