Mothers In Jazz (43): Laila Biali

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.

Laila Biali is a multi award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter, pianist and CBC Music national radio host. She has headlined festivals and venues spanning five continents from New York City’s Carnegie Hall to Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, and sang backup vocals for Sting, notably on his album and DVD “If On A Winter’s Night”. Known for her original songs, Laila returns to jazz standards for the first time in ten years with her new album “Your Requests”. The recording, out on ACT Music on 26 May 2023, features an all-star lineup including guests Kurt Elling, Anat Cohen, and Grégoire Maret. Laila and her husband, drummer/producer Ben Wittman, live in Toronto with their 12-year old son, Josh.

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Laila Biali. Photo credit: Natalie Jane

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

Laila Biali: It did my heart and conscience a world of good to hear that you are often a better mother when you do what you love, even if that means some time away from your child or children. On a more practical note, I was also advised that, while routines can be very helpful, be prepared to update and change them regularly. Sometimes fluidity is what’s most needed. Maintain open lines of communication with your partner and your child, even from a young age. Watch for cues (what’s working, what’s not?) and, once they can express themselves using words, invite them into the dialogue around family and work balance. Within reason, if your child feels they have some choice and some voice in the matters at hand, in the matters that affect them, they will often feel empowered rather than coerced.

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)?

LB: There were a few areas where I didn’t invest as much time and energy into Josh as I would have liked. But I was generally praised by my peers for maintaining such a high level of career focus, even after having a child. Now, looking back, I wish someone had encouraged me to focus more on establishing some important foundations for Josh. I was deeply afraid I might just stop altogether if I lost too much momentum in doing so; but in hindsight, I think it would have been perfectly acceptable and even good to have slowed down during those critical early years. That investment would have yielded such value for us all down the road. Now we’re doing our best to make changes so we don’t find ourselves saying the same thing in another 10 years.

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

LB: A portable wind-down routine is useful. For example, we bought a little white-noise box on Amazon that we bring everywhere. It still helps Joshua when it’s time for bed in an unfamiliar hotel. We also always had to have lots of options to keep our son occupied. We brought all the usual things – small favorite toys, books, paper, pencils, markers, portable games, and yes, an iPad (I know parents have mixed feelings). But I wish we’d thought to give Josh his own handheld instrument. There would have to be rules around when to use it, likely keeping it stowed away until soundcheck. But once Josh could move around, he often wanted to be a part of the sounds Mom and Dad were making on stage. This usually meant he would raid Dad’s collection in a way that was cute but disruptive and required lots of management. If we’d given him his own little instrument to bring along – something small and relatively quiet (like an egg shaker), he would have had a way to participate, engage and stay in the family fold on a gig day without creating too much disruption.

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

LB: If you don’t have a family member or nanny you can bring along, find out from the presenter in advance if they have a trusted person on site who can help with childcare during the show. Not every parent will be comfortable with this, but some of Josh’s most memorable experiences on the road came from time spent with babysitters and helpers. Often they were responsible, fun adolescents who had a connection to the event promoters, so trust was built in. Occasionally they would stay back at the hotel with Josh; but, whenever possible, we tried to keep him in a secure area backstage so they were closeby, especially when he was younger.

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

LB: Parenthood has added such depth and weight to what we do. It has also forced us to make better choices because, if we don’t give careful consideration to the options presented and try instead to just “do it all”, most likely everyone will suffer. For the first few years of motherhood, I operated this way and it felt like I was doing too much all the time. My constantly overstuffed schedule gave me the feeling of accomplishment; but in truth, it also decreased my joy in parenthood and in music. Now my partner Ben and I revisit our priorities regularly so that we’re not just “flailing through” but intentionally creating the best space in which to thrive as professional musicians and as a family. I never imagined I would enjoy the pressure it took (and still takes) to create this new way of thinking, planning and working. The criteria for a “successful life” has totally changed for us now that Josh is in the mix.

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.)?

LB: This one is hard for me because I value social interaction, but now more than ever I try to keep visiting with people pre- and post-show to a minimum – even family members and friends. I’m usually eager to say hello at the merch table immediately following a performance, but I’m generally more careful not to book separate social engagements around tour dates unless we have a day off or it will be lifegiving for our whole family trio (i.e. a visit that enriches the experience for Josh, Ben and I without adding stress). I know that might sound a touch selfish, but my primary responsibilities of delivering strong shows, ensuring Josh’s well-being and my own self-care have to come first.

“Your Requests” is out on ACT Music on 26 May 2023.


…including Ronnie Scott’s 1 June 2023 (Bookings)

LINKS: Artist website

The complete archive of Nicky Schrire’s Mothers in Jazz series

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