“Music can bring out so many facets of one person.”

Vocalist Jeannette d'Armand.

Vocalist Jeannette d'Armand.

I’m excited to post the first of four interviews with musicians performing at the Seattle Women in Jazz Festival next week. We’ll begin with vocalist Jeannette d’Armand, who kindly answered questions about her singing and inspiration.

Jeannette is a familiar face (and voice!) for Fifth Avenue Theater regulars, and Seattle jazz lovers are beginning to appreciate her talents, too. Her roots in musical theater and jazz will both be on display during her vocal showcase at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center on Friday, April 26 beginning at 7:00 p.m. Backed by guitarist Troy Chapman and bassist Rick Leppanen, both from the popular gypsy jazz group Pearl Django, she’ll sing a collection of oldies but goodies from the American Songbook, jazz standards, and plenty of Joni Mitchell.

If you’d like to study up before the concert, check out Jeannette’s debut CD Stage Road, with arranger and pianist Tex Arnold and backup vocals by Manhattan Transfer founders Janis Siegel and Laurel Massé.

Now on with the show!

Tell me about your musical beginnings. When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?

Originally, I wanted to pursue acting as my profession and wound up going to New York University and obtained a BFA in Acting. It was there, when singing in my voice classes, that my voice teachers really encouraged me to keep up the singing as well as the acting. I began studying with a voice teacher in New York, and it was then that I started to discover more fully what my voice could do.

I had sung in my vocal jazz choir in high school and college and always loved it. I loved singing along with Manhattan Transfer which is why it was a real thrill three years ago when I worked with Janis Siegel and Laurel Massé on my debut CD “Stage Road.” My father has often said that when I was about four years old, I really perked up when hearing jazz and I would start singing and even anticipating the musical progressions. He and my mother are both opera singers and taught classical voice in universities back East, the Midwest, and Alaska. So what I grew up hearing around the house was a lot of vocalizing, voice lessons, and operatic repertoire. I think because the two of them were in opera, I felt compelled to pursue a different track. In my teens and early twenties, I wrote a lot of songs. I think music has continued to find me through the years, and every time I’ve tried to do something practical for my living, I have inevitably been pulled back into music in one form or another.

You have a background in musical theater and cabaret. How does cabaret inform your jazz singing? And vice versa.

I think my background in theater innately makes me think about the story of a song, the setting I’m in, and who I’m talking to. The two forms of music are intertwined, and in both of them it’s important to me to feel connected to the text. If I don’t, I know I have some homework to do.

I think my experiences as a jazz singer inform my musical theater singing in various ways. Sometimes I’ll have to straighten out a tone and pull back from an impulse to sing with more body. Other times, more body is what a vocal line will demand. It depends on the director, the show, and what is desired in the overall sound. I sang in Cirque du Soleil for a while and that experience required that I use all kinds of vocal qualities. It was quite fun to be able to play with my voice in so many ways within one show. Working in cabaret has made me much more comfortable with a smaller audience. What I love about cabaret and jazz singing is the intimacy of the setting and the interplay I can have with the crowd. The improvisatory nature of jazz encourages me to take risks that I am not at liberty to take in musical theater.

How do you choose your repertoire? What are you looking for in a song?

How I choose my repertoire really comes down to one thing: Am I moved to sing this song? Does it speak to me? Music can bring out so many facets of one person. There are pieces that are definitely fun to sing from a strictly musical standpoint and so those become draws, but then sometimes they wind up being taken off of a set list because I just can’t connect to them. I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan and I love singing her music. I love her lines, the poetry, all of it. And then there’s a side of me that has a blast singing the tunes that Betty Hutton made famous. Two of my favorite singers are Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. I often choose songs from their repertoire as well.

When you are singing a standard or something from the American Songbook, how do you keep it fresh and make it your own – an expression of your unique musical identity?

What makes the American Songbook and all those wonderful jazz standards so enticing to sing is that each person can put his or her own imprint on it simply by being who they are. In other words, how I choose to express a phrase is going to be different than how someone else does and what makes that expression unique is our own set of histories and the ways in which we like to sing.

Do you try to sing like an instrument? If so, which instrument?

I’ve never tried to sing like an instrument, but it’s true, singers can evoke certain instruments. I’ve been told by several people over the years that my voice sounds like a cello. I took a master class with Marni Nixon a month or so ago and she, too referred to my voice as being like a cello. Given that my two favorite instruments are cello and clarinet, I can live with that comparison!  

Do you think it’s harder being a woman rather than a man in the world of jazz? Have you felt pressure to be one of the guys? Is there a similar culture of machismo in the world of musical theater?

I wonder if that is truer for female instrumentalists than vocalists as I have not experienced that myself. Given that I am usually the only female in my group, it’s actually a refreshing change of pace! And, in my experience, there is no sense of machismo in musical theatre whatsoever.

Tell me about the set you will be performing April 26 at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center.

We’re still fine-tuning the set and will know more after this weekend’s rehearsal, but I imagine you will hear some of the following songs. My love of a great ballad will probably have to be reigned in when it comes to solidifying the set as we can’t put that wonderful Seattle Women in Jazz audience to sleep!

“Black Coffee” by Paul Francis Webster and Sonny Burke
“Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn
“With Every Breath I Take” by Cy Coleman and David Zippel
“Come On a My House” by Ross Bagdasarian and William Saroyan
“Blue Motel Room” by Joni Mitchell
“Black Crow” by Joni Mitchell
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf
“Small Day Tomorrow” by Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman
“Johnny One Note” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers
“Sweet and Lovely” by Gus Arnheim, Charles N. Daniels and Harry Tobias
“Blues in the Night” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
“Murder, He Says” by Frank Loesser
“Where is the One?” by Alec Wilder
“It’s Only a Broken Heart” by Carol Hall
“Night in Tunisia” by John Gillespie, Jon Hendricks and Frank Paparelli

A big thank you to Jeannette for sharing her thoughts. Our next interview will be with a relatively new addition to the Seattle scene, soprano saxophonist Kate Olson. See you then!