Revibe: Janet Lawson 1995

Throughout the history of jazz there have been many vocalists who, thanks to a priceless verbal and lyrical gift, have known how to express the deepest, most darkest, wells of human angst. To hear a singer breathe words ripped from the soul, inflected with the scars of past demons, can be like living life’s most intense experiences in a brief moment. The vocalising of sound and emotions, most musicians agree, reaches the pails other instruments do not.


In the case of Janet Lawson, the semi-veteran US jazz scat vocalist, best known to very different audiences (for very different songs), the listening experience is less self-indulgence than spiritual catharsis: more akin to church than a jazz club in London’s Camden Town. To understand why this is, is to understand her approach to music, if you get that far you’re pretty close to knowing the curious character that is Janet Lawson. “I’m just coming out of a real dark period,” she confesses in a low, drawn-out voice. “For 7 years I was really doubting if I was ever going to feel a certain way again, feel alive, feel free, feel open, feel like I’ll ever have anything to say, or be able to make a difference in life. Now I feel like a baby being born into new life.”

It’s hard to imagine acclaimed musicians ever-falling prey to the creative block and mental malaise that’s so common in artistic circles. On paper, Janet’s career is impressive. Once nominated for a Grammy, taking home a respectable second place to the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, she has performed with the likes of Duke Ellington, Marian McPartland, Ron Carter and Barry Harris.

It all started when she moved to New York in 1960, where she became part of a very exciting jazz scene. “Miles lived three doors up from a friend who had this apartment on the next street to me. This cat used to have parties on his penthouse roof that had every jazz musician in town come and we would all play and jam and talk. Miles never came, I don’t know why, but we knew he could hear this music a couple of doors away.” Managed by the same Mr. Columby who looked after Monk, the vocalist spent a lot of time hanging out in NY’s Five Spot with the era’s most exciting names.

“Jules managed me during that period so I would go to the 5-Spot and listen to Monk all the time. I’d just sit there and listen and then go in the kitchen where Monk would be hanging out talking.” She softens her voice, in excitement, “I didn’t know who he was or what was going on, I just knew I loved it. He turned me on to a lot of people, Eddie Gomez, Art Farmer, Ron Carter, and Pete Laroca. About the same time, Duke Pearson, Ron and I used to play in a trio in a little club on New York’s East Side. It was so much fun.” The death of her mother and a growing disillusionment with the industry in the early 70’s was to change the course of her life and transform her from straight-ahead night club singer to dynamic jazz scat vocalist. “My mother died in 1969 and I stopped singing for two years. She was a singer and a lyricist, and losing her was so painful I couldn’t sing anymore. I got involved with improvisational theatre, and when I tried singing again I was in the spirit of improvisation.

The experience went on to shape Janet’s instrumental approach to jazz singing. To hear her in full scat is like hearing harmonic singing in tongues stretched over four octaves. “This was the first step that marked the change in my life. That whole openness and multi-rhythmic, multi-sensory connection to improvisation kept me alive. It still keeps me alive, I would have been gone a million times over without it,” she insists. Clearly a strong light in her life, music has been especially helpful in her struggles as a woman. “I was very much involved in the woman’s movement in the 70’s. I helped work with ‘Woman against Pornography’ by singing at rallies, and writing lyrics about feminist issues to be-bop tunes, our version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Ornithology’ we renamed Pornothology.” She laughs at the suggestion that Bird would have turned in his grave. “I come at it trying to contact people as a human being,” she adds in a serious tone, “and to recognise the injustices on all levels. My journey as a human being includes me as a woman, whose consciousness is tuned to the discriminations and injustices that have been and continue to be done. I’m not saying male thinking is wrong, but power-struggle thinking has got us into a lot of trouble. The masculine and feminine in people need to merge…”

Mara Paul, Janet Lawson and Paula Hampton.
Mara Paul, Janet Lawson and Paula Hampton.

Interesting, but what’s all this got to do with music? As she speaks, the fascinating, theatrical aura of Janet Lawson the performer we all witnessed recently at the Jazz Café, begins to unfold. “To me jazz is like sex; most of the male influence has been one big climatic moment and that’s the end of the solo. However, there have been great jazz musicians like Miles and Trane whose integration of their feminine side has created style. Stylistically they have the feminine ebb and flow and peak like the female orgasm.”

On and off stage, Janet might occasionally drift away on her own abstract thoughts but she remains brutally sincere throughout. On her unique scat style, she’s adamant. “You can hate it, you can love it, but it’s real. I give you my honest heart and soul. The most important thing to me is to be able to take off my mask and take chances.”

Like twenty years ago, her music is beaming a light for new things. “The Jazz Café gig, and the way the people received the music, was very important to me,” she says. “It made a place for this new life to begin and I’m very grateful to everybody for that. They may never know it, but it’s true.”

Simon Rawles

Since writing this article, back in 1995, Simon has become Winner of Press Photographer’s Year 2013 (Best Film)

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