“Montague has a voice that is immediately appealing, and is adaptable to the variety of tunes that she has chosen for the album. Her sound is smooth with a soulful edge. She never gets tied up with vocal excesses, emphatic when she needs to be, and tender at the appropriate moments.”
—Joe Lang, Jersey Jazz
“Antoinette Montague has a powerful voice, the ability to hold long notes without wavering, and a knack for making every song sound bluesy.”
—Scott Yanow, Los Angeles Jazz Scene
“Jazz players love to accompany a genuine jazz singer and Antoinette is as real as they come: good range, phrasing and taste.”
“Her lusty and soulful voice reaches your most inner core. Her strength is combining the heartfelt passion of the Blues with the sophistication of Jazz.”
—EAGLEyeONE Magazine (Canada)
Interview by Eric Nemeyer
Antoinette on the cover of Jazz Improv’s New York Jazz Guide!
What sparked your interest in this music?
AM: Probably my mother—who sounded a lot like Ella Fitzgerald. She was singing all the time. “A Tisket, A Tasket” never got done better, to me, than listening to her in the kitchen doing her thing. She’s the first person I heard sing, and do “The Big Apple” and “The Hucklebuck.” I’m the youngest of seven kids. My oldest brother is 68. I got to experience everything—The Ink Spots, Nat King Cole—the right people. Paul Robeson. I’m right in Newark, and Rutgers was his alma mater. If you came through the Newark school system, you learned about Paul Robeson. I remember the first time I heard Paul Robeson’s voice. It was almost like he was singing directly to me and telling me a story. The bottom in his voice was just outrageous. I could feel it on the wood in the classroom when the teacher played it. Now that is something to be able to do—to have your sound in the air, and have it reverberate, and feel it in the wood. My father would drop me off on Saturdays at the Newark Public Library, on his way to work, and I would listen to the Louis Armstrong Hot Five Recordings. But the one that blew my mind was the picture of Duke Ellington with the top hat on—the 20s and 30s Ellington. I just thought he was fine! He was gorgeous. But the music I listened to most was Louis. I can remember listening to Billie Holiday, and I didn’t like it when I first heard the sound of her voice. But, there was something infectious about what she was saying, and then I got beyond the sound of her voice, and started to appreciate the tearful , throaty sound she had. You really have to grow into loving the sound of Billie Holiday, if you didn’t grow up with it. I grew up with the Motown sound. The first single I bought was “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder.
JI: Does anyone else in your family sing?
AM: Not professionally. But they all would sing in the kitchen. They would never let me sing with them. Hah! Now look. My brothers liked Jimi Hendrix, and other arists, which brought in an infusion of rock into the house. We already had Ella and Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson. We had all the girl singers. There wasn’t a girl singer in the house that wasn’t in the house from one of my older sisters—who was in love with somebody, and playing the record over and over. And my mother would say, “Either have him call you back or take that record off .” [laughs] When you grow up in a house full of people, you grow up with all kinds of stuff that’s speaking to them—including James Brown: “Say it loud I’m black and I’m proud.” That just stopped our whole neighborhood. We would ask, “Are you gonna sing that?’ [laughs] If you are, whisper low. Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud, and come up and wash the dishes, with your proud black self.
JI: Newark had a whole host of jazz clubs.
AM: I didn’t go to clubs. I grew up in a very religious household. I missed the Key Club era, with George Benson and Lonnie Smith and Sarah Vaughn. I got to hear all the Key Club stories. People ask me why so many singers came from Newark. I don’t know. Go to any oppressed area. Go to Cuba and ask them why so many artists are in the area. Out of some sort of oppression comes art. People found a way to enjoy themselves, and make somebody happy—and it was in the community. And then drugs came along, and nobody could go out and hang out too long at night. It changed the fabric of the community in terms of accessible art that was a part of non-manufactured—that’s working on Madison Avenue—stuff that you put into a community. You rob it. You go out and manufacture it. An then go sell it back to the same people who live right there in the community.
JI: How is the kind of subtlety and intensity that is part of the music of Shirley Horn or Jimmy Scott a part of your music?
AM: To hear somebody fearless—in how they let sound come out of their body…it’s almost like being okay to cry profusely if you need to. To hear some of the Gospel singers, you’re dealing with a lot of spiritual expression. No matter what genre of music you put it in—as long as you’re not singing profanity—if you can take that spirituality and infuse it into jazz and the blues, and understand that it’s the same…it’s the expression of your soul…that’s what it’s about. If somebody else can connect to it, and feel better and think about living better as a result of it—and purify a little bit, then that’s the best thing for me. Because if I’m just playing safe inside of whatever it is, that’s nice. But, if you can get someone to say, “Amen!” then that’s soul. And, soul belongs inside of everything that is artistic—from canvas to the air that we use as a canvas.
JI: What were the things that first got you interested in being on stage?
AM: The first song I sang at high school graduation was “Send In The Clowns.” I don’t know what made her pick that song. But then, after going to Seton Hall University and hearing a Gospel choir, I got in that choir. We opened up for the Clara Ward singers, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, Mighty Clouds of Joy. After getting that kind of exposure and saying, “Okay, I’d like to do this” ... but then it’s something to do something in terms of solo. But how do you get a chance to sing publicly by yourself and do it until you’re 100. That’s through jazz and blues. So the Peppermint Lounge in East Orange was one of the first places I went and sat in. Friends were always encouraging me. They’d get in and tell the musicians, “My friend’s coming, and she’s going to sing. Can she sing?” And the musicians would say, “Oh boy, here’s another singer...yeah you’re friend can sing.” Syreena Wright and Cynthia, my two buddies—everyplace we’d go, they’d go in first and bug the cats. That’s when you start sitting in. I sat in at Trumpets with Ernie Green, an organ player out of the Newark area. You can get by on talent for a short period of time as a singer. You can’t just wake up in the morning and clear your throat. You have to go get some technique. Then if you’re crazy enough to try to be with jazz musicians—who as open and eclectic as they might seem to be—there are some moves. There are some basic things you have to know. You have to know your keys. Listen to where you are in the song. Stick to the melody at least first. You don’t know the melody? Then, don’t listen to somebody whose artistic and out there and accepted singing the melody differently. Then when you try to mimic that, you’ll be wrong. They were unique. You’ll be wrong. So you’ve got to go figure it out. You think you know how to sing. Then you get involved with jazz and blues professionals, and you realize there’s so much more to learn. Then you get to the next place, and you start peaking over the fence a little bit, and you see all that stuff that you never cover. But the fun of it is that you’re on a journey to learn something, and put something inside of you. Proficiency is doing something of excellence with more ease. At the end of the day, you want to be regarded as a professional and you want some excellence yourself. You know when you have something and you want more of it—so you just have to go back and do your homework. It’s a lot more of an isolated lifestyle than I ever thought it was—because you have to go and get, by yourself, to get this stuff in you. There are times when I’m out in public, and there’s time when I go home and practice and figure out what I want to say next. I was told by Rufus Reid that my record will be good for the next 30 years. Every step of this is a humbling process. You can’t wait for somebody to come by with a magic wand and do everything—record you, book you. That stuff doesn’t come. You have to figure out what you want. I don’t want to get to my deathbed and have a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” moment. I’m with CAP Records. It is nice to be a part of something. Mike Longo and I partner with each other, and his wife Dottie. Lee Greene is helpful. But you’re still accountable for what you do for your business: pushing your product,
16 February 2007 • Jazz Improv® Magazine’s New York Jazz Guide • www.jazzimprov.com
© 2017 Antoinette Montague