INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Carla Cook (Pizza Express Dean St 18 & 19 April)

Carla Cook
Publicity photo supplied

Vocalist Nel Begley writes: Carla Cook is a wicked and groovy jazz singer, with clear influences from various genres including funk, R&B and gospel. She describes herself as not being a ‘jazz purist’, yet her repertoire clearly personifies her musical background and brings to life the many voices of jazz through the ages. As a singer, I love the way she manipulates her tone so effortlessly, bringing so much spice into each piece, alongside really cool song and ensemble arrangements. Ahead of Easter dates in London, I am pleased to have interviewed her for LondonJazz News:

LondonJazz News: When did you start singing? Are there other musicians in your family background?

Carla Cook: I started singing in my church choir at St. John’s Christian Methodist Episcopal Church at age five. There it was a mixture of anthems, hymns, spirituals and an occasional Carole King tune. Several of my siblings sang in church choirs, but no other musicians are in my family.

LJN: Detroit has produced so many great jazz musicians and so much great music. Are there certain musicians in particular there that inspired you?

CC: Well, there was an extremely vibrant music scene in Detroit while I was growing up. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave was a local favorite among several others. However, my main source of jazz education as a child was a great radio station WJZZ – I listened to that at first because my oldest brother was a fan. I became an early fan of the station because he bought lots of Miles, Nancy Wilson, Jazz Crusaders and Wes Montgomery recordings and I wanted to hear those artists on the radio. It opened my eyes and ears to so many more artists it took no time at all to become completely hooked!

LJN: Being from Detroit you must have been surrounded and influenced by Soul and Motown music. Who were some of the people you listened to and had an influence on you?

CC: Wow. I love this question because I truly believe all of the music that I loved as a child had an influence on me as a jazz artist. If I may be so bold to speak for all Detroiters, (Ha) all of the music that came out of Hitsville (Motown) was influential. In addition, groups like Parliament/Funkadelic were the soundtrack of my high school years. I have to give a shout-out to the Detroit Community Music School where I studied European classical voice as well. My formative years were full of great music from many genres and it has never dawned on me to shy away from any of it even though jazz is what I love most and it’s where I live.

I listened to a lot of Sarah, Miles, Eddie Jefferson, Ella, Betty, Wes. I think the first singer I started listening to was Nancy Wilson. A ton of her recordings were in my home because of my brother. 

LJN: Were there some musicians that supported, helped and mentored you?

CC: I left Detroit and moved to Boston for North Eastern University at age 18, so I’d only done a few gigs in Detroit before leaving. While a high school student though, there were several kids like me who had plans for a career in jazz and we’d get together and jam and turn each other on to new music quite often. We were basically a self-contained support system. Our parents paid for private lessons and we were already enrolled in Detroit’s prestigious Cass Tech High – so we really believed we’d become jazz artists one day. 

LJN: Of the jazz vocalists did you have any particular favourites, and if so, what was it that grabbed your attention?

CC: This is a tough one. I had favourites in different phases. I went through a Betty phase, an Eddie phase, etc. I supposed if I had to nail down a few that have remained my ultimate favourites.
1. Sarah Vaughan for the warmth, range, beauty and gutsiness of her use of her instrument.
2.  Ella – I still remember being stunned by the idea of improvisation. Me: “You mean it’s different every time?”
3. Eddie Jefferson for the way he’d scat! He made it all sound so fun!
4. Betty Carter, because she was such an innovative voice and carved out her own space in jazz vocal history.

As I think of it, all of these vocalists could scat their brains out and that had a huge influence on me.

LJN: You write songs and you arrange your own material. Do you think it is important for a vocalist to be able to do all this as well as sing.

CC: Absolutely. From a practical standpoint, it’s nice to have a few songwriting royalties come in, but more importantly: fresh ideas! Even if your ‘forte’ is song interpretation, one should be able to express musical ideas to add to the pantheon. If you are alive you have something to say. We may not write like Ellington, but some listener out there wants and even needs to hear you express what they are feeling.

LJN: You are going to Barcelona and will be featured in the Global Music Foundation GMF Barcelona ’19 week of workshops and concerts there next August. How did that come about?

CC: This is exciting. I was invited  to attend by my dear friend and drummer Stephen Keogh along with an international group of musicians. It’s always a groovy thing when jazz musicians from different parts of the world come together – professionals, students. It seems to me the healing properties of jazz have never been needed more. I personally can’t wait to get together with the cats and catwomen to share stories, workshop, jam and break bread!

LJN: What three things/words of advice would you say to young upcoming musicians now?

CC: I would say learn the history of this music. It’s great to love and be influenced by more contemporary artists, but this music has roots. Like a  tree that you’d like to see continue to grow healthy and strong, its roots need to be nurtured or you’ll soon just have an empty, dead trunk! If you want to add something to the jazz conversation, you can’t start in the middle – you’ve got to know the whole story. Then practise as if your life depended on it!  In short, learn red and blue before you try to get to purple.

Secondly, I’d say to be mindful that this is still a business. That project you poured your heart into may be your “baby”, but if you want to make a living doing this, remember that your “baby” is still a product. 

Thirdly, this is supposed to be fun! If you don’t enjoy making music with all your heart, find something else to do because life is short.

LJN: Are you writing anything now? What plans do you have for the future?

CC:  I’m very slowly working on a project that I hope will honour my old hometown radio station WJZZ. That’s all I’ll say on this because it’s taking a long time to pull things together. In the meantime, I’m doing what I always do – some touring, some teaching and any number of interesting new projects that come my way. Sometimes that’s scary, but it’s also the way I measure my personal growth – taking risks. 

LJN: Do you have anything to say to the people of London in advance of your dates at Pizza Express on 18 and 19 April?

CC: I’m looking forward to returning to Pizza Express. I remember it so fondly because the audience was warm and receptive! I hope to see faces old and new so that we can swing in some good vibes to ward off all the bad stuff taking place on both sides of the Pond! 

Nel Begley is a young, highly talented vocalist, composer and arranger from Leeds. She was awarded a scholarship in 2015 to attend the GMF Tuscany International Jazz Workshop and Festival and she is now teaching, performing and producing at GMF Barcelona ’19, 21 July to 7 August 2019.

Carla Cook UK Dates

Pizza Express Dean St
18 April at 20.30h
19 April at 19.00h and 22.00h

Nel Begley’s dates are:

26 May Manchester Jazz
Mini UK tour with Rafe’s Dilemma in Aug/Sep including
27 August Vortex
29 August Chapel Allerton Arts Festival


GMF Barcelona ’19 – a week-long festival of concerts, jams, participation workshops, classes, beach club and martial arts, featuring Charles McPherson, Carla Cook, Perico Sambeat, Jean Toussaint, Peter Churchill and many more. Info and applications here. Quote this code LJN-BARCELONA-GMF when filling in the online application form before the end of April and receive a discount of €75.00 off the course fee.

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