Mothers In Jazz (41): Melissa Stylianou

Mothers In Jazz” is a new series, started by vocalist Nicky Schrire. The initiative aims to create an online resource for working jazz musicians with children, those contemplating parenthood, and jazz industry figures who work with and hire musicians who are parents. The insight of the musicians interviewed for this series provides valuable emotional, philosophical and logistical information and support that is easily accessible to all. “Mothers In Jazz” shines a light on the very specific role of being both a mother and a performing jazz musician.

Canadian jazz vocalist Melissa Stylianou has garnered acclaim as both a gifted songwriter and a bold, imaginative interpreter of material ranging from the Great American Songbook to Johnny Cash. Hailed by pianist Fred Hersch for her “gorgeous instrument, superb musicianship, and great taste,” Melissa is also one-third of the infectious, Boswell Sisters-inspired close-harmony vocal trio “Duchess.” The trio, which comprises Melissa, Amy Cervini and Hilary Gardner, received the 2021 & 2022 “Vocal Group of the Year” Award from the Jazz Journalists Association. Her latest album “Dream Dancing” documents her close musical bond with guitar legend Gene Bertoncini and sought-after bassist Ike Sturm. Melissa lives in New York City with her 9.5 year-old son, Bayly.

Melissa Stylianou. Publicity photo by Ichiro Okada

LondonJazz News: What is the best advice you received about balancing/juggling motherhood and career?

Melissa Stylianou: I think the best advice I received was to take care of myself. My mom says it all the time, and other moms repeated it. As fellow singer and mother, Amy Cervini is fond of reminding me: “Put your own mask on first” (it was a reference to emergencies during airplane travel, but now it sounds a bit different, doesn’t it?!).

LJN: What information or advice do you wish you’d received but didn’t (and had to learn through trial and error or on the go)?

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MS: I’m sure there’s something more global and wise I could say, but I really just want moms and moms-to-be (and their partners) to hear that if you end up getting a C-section, or if your birth plan doesn’t go “to plan”, it is not a failure. I’m sure it was hormones as well (those are no joke), but I had some processing to do around how my birth unfolded, in addition to it being the only time I’d ever had any surgery, and I felt all the prenatal education had primed me to view C-sections as some kind of cop-out. Also, nursing (if you want to do it), can be so, so hard for lots of reasons, and it is not always going to just happen “naturally”. And that’s ok, too. Another area where I felt betrayed by the well-meaning guidance I received/sought out before having my child.

LJN: Your top tip(s) for other mothers in jazz:

MS: There are so many ways to be a “solid” parent/family. Even when things are hodge-podge and you’re suddenly bringing your child with you to “work”, or you miss a bunch of bed-times (or weeks of them) while on tour, the love and connection you have with your child carries through it all. And, quite likely, your child/family will develop certain strengths around change and flexibility because of the artists’ life you model/they live out with you.

LJN: Baby/child gear tips for travel/touring/gigging:

MS: In the beginning, we were lucky that the ergo/bjorn carriers worked for us and Bayly would hang out while we rehearsed. Also, my friend loaned us a fantastic bouncer that clips to a door frame and that bought us time during sessions when Bayly was tiny. AND, most of all, the arms of a willing friend – Nicky Schrire herself provided a very important baby bouncing service to our months-old Bayly when I jumped up to sing a song with Amy Cervini at 55 Bar!

LJN: Best general travel/gigging/tour-with-child advice:

MS: Start early. Jump in. It’s hard, but you and your child will become accustomed to it. As recently as last weekend, Bayly (now 9) was on tour with me and surprised me by how helpful he was. He got Clarence Penn another music stand during soundcheck. He also wandered onstage during a song to mime-ask if he could have a snack. So, it’s not seamless, but…

LJN: What has surprised you about becoming a parent and remaining engaged with your professional activities and ambitions? 

MS: What has surprised me is how fucking hard it has been to stay connected to my career goals and ambitions while parenting my one child the way I want to and the way the situation seems to demand. Luckily, I’m an eternal optimist, and I operate under the assumption that it is a long road and there is room for me and my voice, even if there are long spells where I’m less “productive”. And, so far that has been true. I just released my 6th album (after an 8 year break, which included the death of my father, multiple diagnoses of learning differences and neurodivergence in our son, a divorce and a pandemic). And that is the album that received a 5 star review in Downbeat. I guess the lesson is, keep on singing your song, sisters!

LJN: What boundaries have you set for yourself as a mother in jazz (could be related to travel/touring, riders, personal parameters, child care decisions, etc.)?

MS: Self-advocacy is hard for me (or it used to be), but being a parent has sharpened that skill, and I have had to set boundaries about what kind of gigs I’ll do and how much I need to be compensated for them. There are other factors now (childcare, opportunity cost of being away from Bayly). The triangle I think about when being offered a gig is still there. It should have at least two of three sides: 1. be artistically fulfilling, and/or 2. a fantastic “hang”, and/or 3. financially lucrative. Only now the 3rd side has a bit more weight than before. 

Melissa’s album “Dream Dancing” features guitarist Gene Bertoncini and bassist Ike Sturm was released in 2022 on Anzic Records.

LINK: Artist website

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