Mothers In Jazz (66): Amy London

Mothers In Jazz” is a 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.

Vocalist Amy London has maintained a steady performing and teaching career for more than 40 years on the jazz scene. She is busier now than ever, singing in New York jazz clubs and internationally, both as a soloist, and with her vocal quartet, The Royal Bopsters, who just celebrated their 10th Anniversary. Amy is currently on three faculties: New School Jazz, Hofstra University and City College CUNY. Along with the Bopsters’ bass, Dylan Pramuk, she co-created the Vocal Jazz Academy at Christian McBride and Melissa Walker’s ‘Jazz House Kids’ school. Amy lives in New York and has two daughters, aged 24 and 26.

Amy London. Photo credit: Joseph Boggess

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

Amy London: I actually never received any advice about this. I honestly think my parents thought I would grow up and marry somebody who would support me financially, like my Dad supported my Mom and our family. She never worked outside the home after she married him. I think they expected that I would become a stay at home Mom and homemaker, like my Mom and Grandmas. It could not have worked out more opposite than that! However, there were two pieces of advice in general that I specifically remember from my parents. My Mom told me, ‘Always have eyes on the back of your head.’ (It is probably a Yiddish proverb.) My Dad told me, ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

They were also both hard workers, and I learned by example. My father ran several stores, was a brilliant man, and a true self starter. My Mom was a great homemaker and caregiver, and a comedienne. She had acted in high school, and during WWII she performed on a live radio show, in a quartet, ironically, (who knew I would end up in several high level vocal jazz quartets?!) every Friday night. As a parent, I’ve always been a self starter and worked hard, and I brought my two daughters up with lots of music and theater.

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)?

AL: I have been on voice faculty at New School Jazz since 1992. My kids were born in 1996 and 1998. I wish I had had the confidence to demand a teaching schedule change from evenings to daytimes. As it was at that time, most of my classes were scheduled between 6 and 10 PM, and I missed a lot of dinners and bedtimes with my children when they were little. I really regret that. I was so scared I would be fired if I became demanding in my work environment. Now I truly feel that it would have been perfectly fine to ask for a schedule change.

Also, I wish I had been more adamant about teaching my children how to sleep properly and have meals regularly. Both of my kids struggled with sleep from Day 1, and they both still have sleeping issues. I was completely sleep deprived for their first 5 and 3 years, and even had a mild car accident at one point (luckily no one was hurt). I tried the sleep training for a few days, but didn’t have the support of the kids’ father, so it was impossible. Our schedules were so chaotic, and I feel that it would have been way more helpful for my kids if a regular schedule of meals and sleep had been established. Also, I wish I had been more demanding about getting enough sleep and taking care of myself. I had a cold for the entire first five years of parenthood. I was really running on empty.

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

AL: Good babysitters are worth their weight in gold! If new parents are fortunate enough to have their own parents nearby, or any family members who can help out, that is a tremendous gift. It is impossible for two working parents to raise children without help. When children are infants, it can be very stressful, especially if the babies are collicky or have sleep issues. Couples can get super grouchy with each other. It is equally important to take care of the baby as it is to take care of oneself and each other. Don’t forfeit your own health. Parenting and work are so difficult when you are sleep deprived. As the kids grow, once they are in preschool and kindergarten, and then off to elementary school, life opens up, schedules settle in, and it is much easier to get work done. But during the first few years of infancy, toddlerhood and childhood, you really have to focus on parenting, and that may mean forgoing some gigs. Again, try your best to get your kids on a regular schedule of sleep, meals and when they enter school, provide enough time in the mornings to get ready, even if it seems really early. I was your typical jazzer in my 20’s and 30’s, gigging a lot, hopping from club to club, often up until 3 or 4 in the morning. The minute my first daughter was born, when I was 38, my schedule completely flipped, and I was abruptly thrown into being a morning person. My ex continued to do lots of gigs, so we had basically no schedule, we were living on jazzer schedule and parenting schedule all at the same time. It was very chaotic. Ultimately, it is so important to collaborate with your partner to create a realistic and functional schedule.

My other main tip is to play music for them and sing to them all the time, starting before they are born. I was the band singer at The Rainbow Room through both pregnancies, standing in front of the drummer, and both of my kids have great rhythm. My kids both grew up with lots of Ella Fitzgerald, Laura Nyro and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, plus classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals. I constantly played CD’s on the car stereo for them. Long car trips were joyous family singalongs.  When my older daughter was 4 years old, she could sing Twisted and Ella’s entire arrangements (melody, scat solos and orchestrations) from her car seat! When my kids were around 5 and 7, another Mom in Teaneck, NJ where I raised them, asked me to do a ‘musical theater backyard camp.’  For 5 summers, 6 weeks each summer, I directed musical theater camp, with 15 kids in my house, and I rewrote and directed some classic musicals (Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Annie Get Your Gun, Annie, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, etc.) to make them appropriate for kids. I would divide the main parts into two or three, so that no kid felt left out (all of Dorothy’s lines were shared by a wise cracking Toto,) and we would perform the shows on the stage of the synagogue down the street. We painted our own backdrops, and everybody contributed props and costumes. I accompanied them at the piano and transposed the tunes to put them in kids’ ranges. As a result, both of my kids, now 24 and 26, are talented singers and have great ears and good taste in music.

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

AL: I didn’t really go on the road much when my kids were little. When my first daughter was born, it was easy to carry her into gigs at clubs. She was a very late night baby, and I think she actually loved being around the music.

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

AL: Again, when the kids are very little, it is not easy to tour. We had so much gear: car seat, stroller, diaper bag and pack n play. If one were to do serious touring with a baby/toddler, I think the best gear would be a babysitter. 

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

AL: I think I am most surprised at how much I can handle and how strong I am. When I was young, I never foresaw all the hard work it would take to maintain a performing career while raising kids. I was always ambitious, and I always wanted children, I kind of forged ahead blindly and learned on the go. It is not easy to ‘have it all,’ a lot of compromises were made, but it has all been worth it. The gift of parenthood has definitely inspired some of my musical choices. There are many songs that I sing based on my love for my children. I feel extremely fortunate to have successfully weathered a 40 year career as a jazz singer, and raised two wonderful young women.

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.)?

AL: When my kids were babies, I went right back to teaching. My first daughter was born in February, so I took that semester off, and went back to work in September, when she was 6 ½ months old. My second daughter was born in May, and I went back to work in September when she was 3 ½ months old. It was way too early for her, and she cried and cried when I left the house. As an adjunct college professor, there was no maternity leave, and I had to go back to work. I felt extremely guilty about it, and I would also cry on the way to work because I felt like I was abandoning her. It is extremely important to have paid parental leave from employers, and workers must demand it. I still regret not staying home one more semester with my second daughter, but I feared my job was at stake.

LINKS: Artist website
The complete archive of Nicky Schrire’s Mothers in Jazz series

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