BWW Interview: Julie Charnet in DECADES: THE LADIES OF JAZZ at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia
They say the couple who plays together stays together. Jazz crooner Julie Charnet and her drummer/husband Jon Ball don't often get that chance, but whether they're playing individually or with Ball accompanying Charnet at her gigs, they make beautiful music. Audiences will get a chance to hear the pure tone and phrasing of Julie Charnet as she plays at several gigs around the City of Brotherly Love, including an upcoming one at The Ethical Society of Philadelphia on October 1 which also features vocalists Rhenda Fearrington and Shakera Jones. The October show called "Decades: The Ladies of Jazz" features selections of jazz hits from the 1920's through 1950's with a female-led jazz quartet, a rarity in jazz circles. With a three-octave range, Charnet has performed at a variety of venues throughout the East Coast, including Paris Wine Bar, Fridays at the Radisson Blue Hotel, Paris/London Bistro, SOUTH Jazz and Supper Club, The Legendary Razz Room, The KimMel Center, Annenberg Center, August Moon Supper Club, Chris' Jazz Cafe, and others. The smooth influences of Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Julie London can be heard in her tone. Ball has been a drummer for Broadway, regional theater, jazz/blues tours and festivals. He has performed regularly at Bucks County Playhouse and Bristol Riverside Theater and has been featured in the solo shows of Shirley Jones and Sally Kellerman, among others. He will be backing up Charnet at the October 1 show and at the Paris Wine Bar on August 20. It will be time for audiences to kick off their shoes and be prepared to swing.
Q. Julie, what drew you to jazz and swing?
What drew me to jazz and swing was my mother. Though she played classical piano at home, she also loved Broadway, especially musicals. She would sing swing tunes at home from Oklahoma or Annie Get Your Gun. We lived about 40 minutes from Manhattan, so birthday presents for years were Broadway tickets. She took my sister and I to our first show when I was 7. It was Dancin' from Bob Fosse, then came Annie, A Chorus Line, and others. I loved the music, and that led to me to find artists who sang those show tunes and other music. The other music was jazz.
Q. Who were some of your earliest influences?
My earliest influences came from some of the albums my family had, so Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and so many others from the 1940's and 1950's. I was also influenced by the Carpenter's, Queen, and the Beatles. Pop was big in our house too, and there was always a variety of music played at night and on weekends. I'm so grateful for that. It trained my ear for certain patterns and melodies, but also harmony and how each type of song was put together so differently, but had commonality too. As for specific artists early on, I would say Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughn, Julie London, Nina Simone.
Q. Jon, did you start out as a child wanting to be a drummer? How did you wind up doing it professionally?
My father played the drums. Even though he had become a doctor and wasn't working as a drummer any more, he kept his drums set up in our house. We also had a piano in the house. My sisters and I all took piano lessons, but I was more interested in the drums. I studied drums and percussion with a private teacher and played in pretty much every band and orchestra at my high school. I went to music school at University of Michigan and majored in music performance in classical percussion. I started working professional gigs during high school, and continued through college and after graduation.
Q. What other types of music influences you, Julie?
Blues and early Hip Hop. I've always been very drawn to the feeling, the intensity of emotion mixed with short story. Johnny Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Bonnie Raitt, Bessie Smith, and Sippie Wallace, so many artists told really great stories and quickly. Blues is neither complicated nor singular. It gets to the point and is relatable on a host of levels. I perform blues often and tell my own stories the best I can. Sometimes it's just plain funny. "You Can Have My Husband, but Don't Mess With My Man." "Women Be Wise." The sentiments are timeless.
Hip Hop influenced me in that it had the story up front and the music was secondary, but I found that fascinating and loved the changing rhythms that mixed through both so well. It was done with humor and a certain cleverness that is missing today from too many Hip Hop tunes. Groups like Doug E. Fresh, Grand Master Flash, Run DMC, all were special in that way.
Q. Julie, what is your favorite decade of music?
My favorite decade really spans two: 1930's and 1940's.
The key to playing diverse gigs as a sideman is to remember that your role is to support the star(s), the music, and the show. It's not about showing off every last lick you can play. It's about being about to play what the show requires, being consistent, and taking and carrying out the direction from the music director.
Q. Julie & Jon: Do you have to prepare for the unexpected when you gig? What can or has gone wrong in past performances?
Julie: You learn fast to prepare for anything-from not getting paid in cash to pay the band, to being double-booked with another band. Once these things happen, you learn to prepare yourself for next time-bring cash yourself, offer to split the time with someone else, if they show up, have phone numbers of management, etc. It's not always pretty, but most issues can be fixed. Sometimes things happen like a musician being stuck and not able to make it, but you have phone numbers on hand to call in a favor/replacement. I just learned as it happened, and made sure to be prepared for anything.
Jon: I think most musicians prepare for how they want and expect the gig to go. But you have to be able to adjust on the fly when less than ideal circumstances arise on a gig. We've played at bars, restaurants and clubs that have TVs blaring and you can't really hear the singer or the rest of the band as well as you would like. Sometimes you arrive to find a piano that is terribly out of tune or a performance space that presents acoustic, size, or other logistical challenges. You do your best to overcome the less than ideal circumstances and make music as best you can.
Q. Jon, there's an old musician's joke: "There are three kinds of drummers in the world -- those who can count and those who can't." But according to some findings, including from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, drummers have fundamentally different brains than the rest of us, suggesting drummers might be natural intellectuals.
I remember seeing that article when it came out. I suppose that while learning to play drums. the process of having each limb doing something different at the same time takes and develops certain "brain power."
Q. How do you feel drummers are different from non-drummer musicians? What is unique to drumming as opposed to playing other instruments?
Every musical instrument presents its own unique challenges in terms of playing technique. All the technique in the world doesn't mean much without musicality and musicianship. Most of the drummers and percussionists that I know and have gotten to work with are well-rounded musicians. In that sense, I like to think we're not different from musicians that play other instruments.
Q. Julie, you're known for having a great rapport with the audience. How do you build on that?
The audience is everything. Some people will say the music is most important and it is, but not if the audience isn't with you. You can play any music you want in your basement with your friends, but an audience expects you to play for them. So, if it looks like they are in a rowdy mood, I do more blues than swing. If the crowd is from a certain generation, I will do songs that I know they will remember from their childhood. It's learning the vibe, and performing your music in their vibe. They came out to support you, so support them back. Not enough people in jazz do this, and take for granted that what may be musically be interesting to them is what everyone will want to hear.
Q. Julie, tell me about Decades and the other artists who will be performing with you on October 1. I know you are performing with jazz vocalists Rhenda Fearrington and Shakera Jones. How did you come together?
I wanted to a show with vocalists and performers who I know through the jazz community in Philadelphia. A lot of jazz groups perform as instrumental groups only, and that is wonderful. However, vocalists are not always hired with these groups, and that could be for a host of reasons. Maybe the management thinks it will be a distraction and they want "background" music, though many artists would not consider themselves background, it's been said to me and others. I wanted us to come together and put on a show to pay tribute to those vocalists who came before us and highlight some of the great songs that combined wonderful music with vocals of different decades of jazz.
Hear Julie at the following venues:
August 20, 9pm and August 21, 12am- Paris Wine Bar -2303 Fairmount Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19130. With Tom Lawton on piano and Alexandre Delcourt on bass.
September 15, 6-9pm-Heritage Bar and Restaurant-North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. With James Collin on organ and Jon Ball on drums/percussion.
October 1, 7pm to 10pm -Decades: The Ladies of Jazz. The Ethical Society of Philadelphia-1906 Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA 19103. With Adam Faulk on piano; Nimrod Speaks on bass; Time Price on tenor sax; and Jon Balls on drums/percussion.