An Interview With San Francisco Jazz Phenom Kim Nalley

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Photo Credit: Gulnara Kamatova

This month, I was fortunate to sit down with local jazz songstress, Kim Nalley at Revival Bar in Downtown Berkeley. When I arrived, the place hadn’t filled up yet. But it wouldn’t be long before the dinner crowd filled in. Kim caught up with me on her way from UC Berkeley where she is a doctoral student in the history department. She walked into the restaurant looking decidedly studious in a long breezy dress, pulling a small speaker behind her. I gave her a quick once-over and said, “You really are going for your PhD!” She laughed graciously and we decided where to set for the evening. We settled in a quiet-ish spot by one of the gaping windows looking out onto Shattuck Avenue.

EZ:

In September of last year, you wrote a piece for your blog that really stuck with me. The subject was concerning the importance of female mentorship in jazz. In a profession that can easily be thought of as a sort of “Good-Ol’-Boys” club and often linked to competitiveness and managing egos, a community seems the least likely and yet most powerful tool for success. Having basically come-of-age and developed your artistic presence in the jazz world, what is one revelation that you had that you’d like to impart on female vocalists trying to make it in jazz today?

KN:

“You will never be a side-man or a side-woman or a side-person if you are a singer. I think that is one of the most important things. Singers are categorically different from the instrumentalists in a fundamental way, — no matter what, you will always have to front the band. Nowadays, singers don’t have Big Bands to cut our teeth on as canaries. Nowadays we have to come right out of the gate being both a bandleader and having a finished product. If you’re very young that sometimes means directing men who are ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years older than you AND coming up with a product that is uniquely you even though they have way more experience than you do. That is something that I didn’t quite understand at first. I just wanted to be one of the guys. After a while I figured out, ‘No. You are the bandleader. You have to lead the band.’ At any given point, even if it is not your gig you’re leading the band.”

“If you’re talking about female instrumentalists, then I think that’s a whole other ball of wax altogether. Many jazz purists don’t like singers for certain reasons or that only instrumental jazz is true jazz. But if you don’t like female instrumentalists, then it’s just flat out sexist,” laughing heartily. “You know?” she says conspiratorially. “They’ll say things like, ‘Wow, you don’t play like a woman.’”

EZ:

Have you heard that being said?

KN:

“Yeah, that’s been said to Tammy Hall. Somebody insisted that she was male. ‘That this was a male piano player judging from the way that she played.’ He meant it as a compliment, you know? ‘Do you play like a girl?’ ‘Do you play bass like a girl or do you dig in?’ You know, things like that. Just the whole concept of jazz and the way that it’s organized and the aesthetics that it admires are very male oriented. Once there is a vocalist involved then it sometimes becomes a little softer. But a lot of jazz is basically horn players, and think of them as antelopes locking horns on the Serengeti Plain and they’re, you know.” Kim balls up her fists and pound her knuckles together making crashing sounds as if two bucks were fighting.”

EZ: (Can’t help myself, I giggle)

KN:

“‘My solo!’ Crash! ‘Grr, MY Solo!’ You’re just searching for your little bit of space where you can make your statement. It can be very aggressive. And I say this as somebody who was raised on a jam session. Obviously somebody who is not a musician who is just sitting back listening to Miles Davis records is saying ‘Well, Kind Of Blue wasn’t like that!’ That’s completely different. I’m talking about the experience of being a jazz musician in a club and what that atmosphere is like. I’ve definitely seen situations where they have dismissed a woman just because she was a woman. They said, ‘Send her home and get me another bass player,’ or ‘another trumpet player,’ or whatever. With vocalists at jam sessions, they’ll let us sit in for one tune, maybe two tunes as opposed to horn players who, if they’re good, they could maybe sit in for the whole jam session. Nobody lets a female vocalist sit in the entire time except for Vince Wallace. Vince Wallace let me sit in at his jam session as much as I wanted. He said the only caveat was that I had to sing lyrics; I had to know the lyrics. I couldn’t just scat the whole time. That was such a rare opportunity for a vocalist to be given. I would go to that jam session at Schooners on 24th and Valencia, a little Irish dive bar, and they would play all kinds of tunes and I would have some Fake Books with me and once I figured out what tune it was I would flip to it and listen to it and follow along with the chords until I had it. I would motion to Vince that I wanted a piece of the tune and then I would sing. I didn’t sing the head in or head out on any tune, but he would always give me some blowin’ room. These were the types of rare mentorship opportunities I was given. As females, we need to think about giving them back to other females. Especially when there are two singers, you might be worried about your rank or somebody might be coming up ad taking your thunder but you have to let that go. You have to share these opportunities, because a lot of guys don’t want to give those opportunities. They don’t want girls up in the jazz club. Not all of them but enough so that it’s a problem. I can assure you that it goes from the very small dive all the way up to the highest levels of jazz. It’s a boy’s club. It really is.”

EZ:

What is the one piece of advice that you would give to any female musician trying to find a voice in the jazz scenes nowadays?

KN:

“Make sure that you have your shit together. Make sure that you are beyond reproach. One of the reasons why I was accepted was because I had musical training. I had training in classical music and they really respected that. The fact that I read music meant that, to them, I was a serious musician. So, even if you can’t play, teach yourself to play. If you can’t play with both hands, play with one hand. If you can’t play with one hand, play with one finger. Look at the chord changes and at least pick out the bass notes! At the absolute minimum, know what keys you sing in and, better yet, know where the tune is situated. Does it start on the 1, does is start on the 3? Something so that, when they give you shit, because they WILL give you shit, that you can throw it back in their face and they can know ‘Oh! She’s not to be trifled with.'”

EZ:

I’d like to quote a section of your blog, which really struck me: “The jazz world tends to be biased against females in general, so being a female vocalist is a double strike. Often I see high school all-star jazz bands who are all male with no vocalist or even a female instrumentalist in the band and I think to myself, here is another opportunity lost both for singers and for women, and more importantly for the band to learn how to play behind singers and work with females. The divide simply becomes vaster. Short of quotas, the best way to combat this pattern is for us female vocalists to mentor and support young female vocalists, because they are unlikely to be given a chance by others. Especially a chance that has no sexual strings attached.”

You drop an evocative statement of “finding mentorship without sexual strings attached.” Did you find this was something you came across often? How did you navigate the advances of people who you ultimately respected and from whom you wanted to learn?

KN:

“We had some situations where a much older gentleman, who will remain unnamed,” she pauses dramatically and whispers “I’m going to save that for my memoirs.” Then she resumes more loudly, “Took me around to a bunch of places, gigs to sit in on and things like that. Then at the end of the evening he attacked me in the car! This guy is old enough to be my grand-FA-ther and I am eight-TEEN years old! Somebody 30 is old to you when you are 18, you know? Much less somebody who is old enough to be your grandfather. Literally! His tongue was like….” Kim makes a squished grossed-out face as she gestures the act of trying to push someone off of her. “I physically had to beat him off. I had bad dreams about his little slimy tongue on my face. He was a total creep! Oh my god!

So I was on my guard after that.”

EZ:

After that incident, how did you temper your expectations? How did you navigate the scene especially since you still wanted experience, knowledge and mentorship?

KN:

“I was very wary about people especially if we were going to spend one on one time with each other. I didn’t really let my guard down. I’m not talking about somebody propositioning you, or letting you play in the band if you sleep with him, which happens all the time. It’s not about someone feigning interest in your music in order to get you into bed. I’m talking about somebody physically assaulting me and having to physically kick and beat and try to get somebody who is much heavier, much taller than me, off of me. So, I would try not to be alone with guys, which is hard because the industry is ALL guys. At some point, you’re going to be left alone with them. How are you going to navigate that? So you find a couple of “safe guys.” In the old days, singers talked about making sure you had a “boyfriend” otherwise you might get passed around which…kinda sounds like rape to me!”

(We both nod at our plates)

EZ:

A little bit….

KN:

“You just learn to find someone who’s going to protect you. Guys are SURPRISINGLY mellower when you say that you have a boyfriend, especially one who they know. Recently that’s come up as a feminist “cop out” or something. But as long as you are at risk of being raped and the guy might not rape you because you’re the girlfriend of somebody that he knows, I’m sorry, that’s not a cop out, it’s called…”

EZ:

Self-preservation?!!

KN:

“Yeah. Self-fucking preservation! It doesn’t have to be a boyfriend. It can be a male friend or just a buddy that you trust who you don’t get separated from. I was very young, I was starting off in the scene at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old and I was going to clubs where there was alcohol and drugs and all kinds of stuff. Once you get older and have kids, you realize that a seventeen, eighteen-year-old female is very much a girl who doesn’t know very much about navigating her way around the big boys inside of the dens of iniquity, which is where jazz takes place. Jazz doesn’t take place on albums or in auditoriums. I mean it does…But the bulk of the history of jazz has taken place in bars where there are drugs and pimps and prostitutes. It’s not a genteel profession. We think of jazz as some kind of ‘Art’ form. “It’s AH-t!” Maybe intellectually it is. But in reality I spend my life in bars with drunk people and most likely a lot of other unsavory elements of life.”

EZ:

Who were your main influences and mentors? When you were finally able to find the knowledgeable and reliable members of your community that you were seeking, who did they turn out to be?

KN:

“I was lucky that I found a several of people very early on that were very big supporters of me. One of them was Vince Wallace who sadly just passed. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about him for my blog about him. He was really great. Denise Perrier was the first female vocalist who didn’t cat me up “meow meow!” She would say things like “Oh Honey, you so great!” She would help me out and she would take my flyers and give them to people at HER GIGS! There was such a generosity of spirit. It was unbelievable and I love her to this day and you don’t really find that a lot. But she was really great and she really helped me find an audience and gigs. Lavay Smith is an amazing businesswoman and she and Chris Siebert have been so generous with knowledge, contacts and even charts. BJ Papa was definitely my main mentor. I did write about him on my blog for those who are curious. I was SO surprised that he never hit on me. He was never even remotely suggestive with me. He was really like Papa. He would always have a new crop of kids and he would say ‘It’s okay! I know one day you gonna fly away from the nest, and that’s okay. Just don’t forget Papa! Just don’t forget Papa!'”

EZ:

What would you say is one of the big differences between when you were starting out in the San Francisco scene and what it is today?

KN:

“When I first came to San Francisco, it was very gritty. One time a guy I know got mugged right outside of the club he was working as he was on the payphone talking to me and we got paid in cash back then. People expected you to look like royalty with full length gowns and heels and pantyhose and done all up like you’re some star and then, at the end of the night, I have to go back to my flat on Haight and Masonic which was really sketchy and right next to a halfway house. I had to double park my car, get out of the car, leave everything in the car so I can get myself into the house immediately to drop off my money. Then I change into grey sweats and sneakers, go back to my car, unload my PA system, cause you don’t want to ruin your dress or break a heel carrying that PA around. Then I have to get back in the car to circle the block five or six times trying to find a parking spot and then maybe walk five or six blocks at 3am in the morning. And I would do that because I didn’t want to get mugged and have my money taken from me. I also needed to make sure I was dressed appropriately in case I needed to fight which definitely has happened a couple of times. One time I was mugged, fighting for my life and because I’m black nobody fucking helps me. They’re just sitting there looking at me and I’m yelling, ‘Help! Help! Help!’ And everyone’s walking right pass me…you wouldn’t believe! It was crazy. They just saw two black people in a fight and I’m yelling, “Help! Help! He’s robbing me!” And nobody would do anything. Now it’s more gentrified, there are more businesses, there are more people generally. So it’s not quite the same, there aren’t as many clubs playing until two o’clock anymore. But definitely when I first came here it was really really gritty and very unsafe. That’s the flip side to gentrification that people don’t really want to think about. It was very dirty,” she laughs, “And nothin’ worked right. It’s pretty swank-o-matic now. There are many more neighborhoods that are a lot safer. I only paid $200 a month back then for a room in a big flat. The whole flat was 600 bucks for two bedrooms…”

EZ:

That’s gold nowadays.

KN:

“Yeah. It was two bedroom with a formal dining room, big kitchen and if we wanted to we would rent out the living room and we’d get down to $200 each. BUT! It was very dangerous; there was never any rest. There was always somebody doing something or yelling something like “HORSE HORSE HORSE!” Or “Doses! Doses! Doses!” Just constantly. If I wanted to walk less than a block down the street to my coffee shop, I would have to be so careful because if you weren’t, next thing you know, you’ve been pick-pocketed! San Francisco reminded me of New York in the 80s. It was for real! It was UR-ban!”

With an international reputation as one of world’s best jazz & blues vocalists, Kim Nalley has graced concert halls from Moscow to Lincoln Center. A true Renaissance woman, Kim Nalley has also been a featured writer for JazzWest and SF Chronicle’s City Brights, shortlisted for a Grammy nomination, a produced playwright, a former jazz club owner, an accomplished stage actress and an avid lindy hop & blues dancer. Her many philanthropic endeavors include founding the Kim Nalley Black Youth Jazz Scholarship. Kim Nalley is on faculty at the Jazzschool’s Bachelors of Music program. She is also a history student in UC Berkeley’s PhD program with plans to write her dissertation on the Globalization of Jazz and Black Cultural Politics. To learn more about Kim and her adventures as a new momma, PhD defending Jazz singer, visit her online at www.kimnalley.com

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