Preview: Anita Wardell’s Songsuite Festival at the Pheasantry (27-29 June)

Anita Wardell. Photo credit: Melody McLaren. All Rights Reserved

Universally respected British jazz vocalist Anita Wardell brings her third Songsuite Festival to the Pheasantry this June. She talked to Alison Beck about her life in music, and what makes this jazz festival a little bit different from all the rest. There is a special ticket offer for readers underneath this feature. Alison writes:

Anyone who’s ever heard Anita Wardell sing live will already know that she can really, really improvise. Her passionate love for scat singing and bebop – underpinned by superlative phrasing and an impressive work ethic – has won her many accolades, including a BBC Jazz Award in 2006 and Best Vocalist in the 2013 British Jazz Awards.

The first thing you notice about Anita when you meet her is what she isn’t: a diva. Instead, she’s warm, down-to-earth, and pretty much overflowing with generosity and positive vibes.

I was interested to know what drove Anita into the arms of jazz in the first place. Was it a big part of her life when she was a child, I ask her? Surprisingly, she says she doesn’t come from a particularly musical family: “Nobody was a musician in the family. My great uncle was an amateur pianist; that was the only thing. But everybody in my family had a huge appreciation for music.”

“My mum listened to Motown and my dad listened to the albums of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and all the big band leaders. He had a huge collection, and I used to learn all the trumpet and clarinet parts and everything when I was very young. I think my family thought I was crazy!”

When Anita was 11, the family moved from England to Australia. From there, her appreciation of music grew and grew, thanks to some incredibly supportive teachers. Anita says, “I was a very nervous child and a nervous performer. I had this burning love for it [music] but I wasn’t really capable of doing it at that point.”

When she was 16, Anita decided she really wanted to be an actor, and flew to London to audition at RADA. “I was too young, and I didn’t get in. So I went back and studied at college to become a music and drama teacher.” That’s where she joined a jazz choir for the first time (“I didn’t know what a jazz choir was”). And then one day, out of the blue, came her epiphany.

“I heard these two girls next door singing” – she breaks off talking to demonstrate: shabbadoo-ee, shabbadoo-aa! – “and I thought, ‘What the hell’s that?!’ I ran out of the classroom and peeked through the glass in the door. They were scatting over Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Birks’ Works’” – she erupts into another brief rainbow arpeggio of scat – “and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life’”.

From that moment on, she says, she “soaked herself” in recordings by the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Coltrane, Betty Roche, Miles Davies. Six months later, she transferred to the jazz degree course at Adelaide University, and the rest is history.

Anita says: “If you want to be a jazz singer that improvises, there actually isn’t any room for mediocrity; you have to know your stuff. Know what I mean?” At university she didn’t have a singing teacher that taught improvisation/scat (there wasn’t one); instead, she learnt her craft with the instrumentalists.

In 1989, Anita moved to England and studied with Pete Churchill and others on the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music. And she’s stayed here in London ever since.

After two decades of gigging on the tough British jazz scene, she says she’s been thinking a lot lately about her own musical journey and the choices she’s made along the way. “[I’ve realised that] music has to come from a deep passion and a deep sense of who you are, not what other people want you to do, or think you should do. You’ve got to trust yourself, and sometimes I find it hard in this business. Swing and the bebop thing – it may be passé to some, but it really thrills me, this music. I get excited when I sing it. You’re not following someone else’s career path; you’re following your own path. Say to yourself, ‘What do I like? What do I want to do?’”

Anita is such a superb teacher, conversations with her have a way of always finding answers. I had just two more things I wanted to ask. First, what were the moments she’ll never forget:

 “When I got to support Sarah Vaughan at the Sydney Opera House in 1984. And in 2011, getting up and singing with John Hendricks at the Jazz Academy.”

Her influence is everywhere among singers. So, I wondered, if she could give just one piece of advice, what would that be?

“Everything you need to know is on the records. It’s great to have lessons with people, but you learn so much by what the greats have done. And – never give up. If you worry about the struggles you have, that then becomes a block; another struggle.”

Anita Wardell and Ed Cherry, USA, September 2013

Anita’s Songsuite Festival

The Songsuite Festival is in its third year, and this June comes to the Pheasantry in Chelsea for the first time. (Sebastian interviewed her before last year’s festival).

Anita says her motivation for setting up the festival was straightforward: to give a host of talented British unknown jazz singers a chance to perform, alongside a clutch of more established local and international names. “It’s a celebration of the talent that we have in this country. And I wanted people to see and hear that.”

“In the other [jazz] festivals, it’s always big names like Gregory Porter, Gretchen Parlato – much as I love them and we should be going to see them – but what about the people who are quietly, anonymously working away, that need a little platform?”

She adds, “I like to choose people who are really dedicated, work hard and are into the music. That’s what makes my heart sing, when I see people that are so committed to the art form.” View the festival line-up (link to:

This year’s festival also features two international acts: Sandy Cressman, a San Francisco-based Brazilian vocalist, and Nicky Schrire, half-South African and half-English (and just returned from five years in New York City).

The final gig of the festival promises to be a highlight: vocalists Tina May, Cleveland Watkiss and Anita Wardell sharing a stage. “We’re all the same age, and we all have a love for bebop and improvisation. That gig’s going to be so exciting. It’ll be seat of your pants.”

There’ll be daytime workshops for aspiring singers too – on Brazilian music, scat singing, and the Great American Songbook – but they are already totally sold out.

The Songsuite Festival runs from 27-29 June at the Pheasantry. 

Tickets are available on the Pizza Express website (link: http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com/)

LondonJazz readers can buy tickets for £12 instead of the usual £15 by calling the box office on 0845 602 7017 and quoting the discount code “blue89”.

Categories: miscellaneous

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