Like some other blues and jazz singers, Peter Skinner, is both a ‘wild boy’ and a ‘tender crooner’. A bad boy who is really good, a good boy who can be bad, in a jazz key. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, it’s a new epoch in his musical life. After a long and flourishing career in schools education, matched by a night life as a gigging vocalist, Peter is now hanging up his amateur credentials and undertaking the experience of professional training in music theory and performance at the Institute of Contemporary Music and Performance.
Over the past three years I have heard him make a jazz crowd at the Limehouse White Swan dance to his hootchie-kootchie man, and I admit that I have teared-up while listening to him sing jazz standards of broken hearts, aging hearts, and sweet hearts. His voice is sort of raddled, but the yearnings are heartfelt.
I met him for coffee and a chat a few weeks ago at the Euphorium Bakery in Belsize Park, where he greeted me suffused with the spirited air of a man going somewhere. Smiling and enthusiastic, Peter explained how he is taking to his gratifying, fast paced, hard-working, and physically exerting life of what he calls ‘synoptic’ musicianship.
What he means by that term is that the Higher National Diploma course he is on offers a comprehensive view of many areas of musicianship, including vocal and performance technique, working with and leading a band, arranging tunes, and more. Best of all, as he says, this vocational course will prepare him for work in professional environments and/or for doing an Honours degree in vocal performance.
While he described, with an unmistakable hint of pride in such lazing about, his usual practice schedule as “very poor, irregular, and amateurish”, with feedback from all his teachers mentioning “poor support and inconsistency,” he is now working a strong programme of ‘hard, hard’ practice and collaborative jams with his often younger colleagues. His humility is a bit at odds, however, with his musical history. He began playing piano as a twelve-year old, learning in parallel to the graded courses. He then became a folkie, and played guitar for vocalists and folk groups. He moved to playing blues and jazz in the mid-1970s.
When I asked him how he came to play and sing, he told me,
“I have always been interested in blues and jazz. The critical moment came when a friend died suddenly of CJD. He led a rock and roll band called Route 66. His son decided to curate a memorial concert in aid of CJD charities and when we gathered at a studio in Beckenham, I was deputed to sing at the concert as there was no-one else. My first blues utterance was Hootchie Coochie Man. I just decided to carry on.”
The band with a much-changed line-up is still playing at functions and open mikes as “Blue Turning Grey.”And like others who mostly ‘stay outside the law’, Peter remains a supple choral vocalist, and singing for the last 8 years in classical choir societies has widened Peter’s vocal range and interests.
Peter modesty describes “my musical knowledge as an incomplete jig-saw with many pieces missing,” which sounds just the right state to be in – ready to absorb and learn new things, and importantly, to think beyond the conventions of his trade.
As he leaves the café to return to Kilburn, the Parnassus of Vocal Performance, he adds “I just thought that what I really want to do is to write whole band arrangements”. What’s more synoptic than that?
JANET MCCUNN AN IMPRESSIVE IMPRESSARIA
McCunn at a Belsize Park cafe, and while we drank coffee and marvelled at the stunning London summer, we talked about how she has become the beating heart of many of venues and ventures of the South West London’s jazz and open-mic scene . Petite and with gleaming eyes, Janet has been cheerfully active in promoting jazz for over 15 years now: singing, organising open-mic gigs and Jazz Festivals, and generously helping new and young Jazz singers find their way in this creative, improvisational art of music. A participant as well as an observer, Janet is an accomplished jazz singer herself, which has given her both performance and organising opportunities. I asked her how she came to Jazz singing:
“I was introduced to the Richmond Jazz School by a friend back in 2003, when I went to see her in a lunchtime concert there and decided to have a go myself. I signed up for the beginners’ class and started in 2004. I first sang in an open mic at a pub near Richmond Bridge called ‘The Rising Sun,’ where I made many friends. This event later turned into a jam session for musicians and singers, and I took over its organisation when the previous organiser left –that regular gig ran for a few years, until that pub changed hands and we moved to a different venue, where I found myself running the weekly jam session for about three more years in a pub/restaurant near Kingston Bridge called ‘The Swan.’
Janet’s work in organising these jazz sessions led her to become a regular singer at jazz venues. She had a five-year residency, beginning in 2010, at ‘The Tea Box’ in Richmond: it met monthly, and Janet introduced two guest singers each month, who each shared a set with her. This has proven to be a reliable pattern for Janet’s jazz singing. ‘The Tea Box’ gig was also to lead on to Janet’s on-going collaborative musical partnership with pianist Terence Collie, (Mood Indigo Events), starting with their first joint project, a three and a half year residency at ‘Retro Bistro’, a French restaurant in Teddington. This jazz night, led by Collie’s quartet, featured top-line guest artists. Janet hosted and sang two songs in the second set each time
I asked Janet a question that we always like to hear about: practice! “What sort of practice schedule do you follow?” I don’t have a schedule as such. In the past I went to weekly classes at the Richmond Jazz School and also had private lessons. Now I practise at home, and perform live at our Jazz Cafe Posk gig every month, as well as going to the odd jam session. I’ve also been on a number of workshops over the years, both abroad (summer schools) and at home.
And from my own long struggle with organizing my songs, keys, and charts into some sort of order, I asked her how she organises her repertoire. “I used to have a file with charts in alphabetical order, but it became very heavy, but I now have everything on my iPad in Ireal. I use that when I go to jam sessions as most musicians use Ireal Pro and find the songs quickly on their phones or iPads. For jam sessions I just choose a song in the moment, but for gigs, I plan ahead and make a play list which I email in advance to the instrumentalists. I like to say a few words about each song, and sometimes I will sing numbers which illustrate a common theme.
One of the chief wonders of Janet’s portfolio of jazz events is the TW12 Jazz Festival, which Terence and Janet have produced and organised annually since 2013. “This year was the fifth TW12 Jazz Festival we’ve run. We started it as a one-day event in 2013 and extended it over the years. This year it was a three-day event in three different venues, all with the TW postcode. We book top-line musicians as well as local students and some student bands. This year our headline artist, flown in from the US, was Geoffrey Keezer, one of the world’s top jazz pianists, with Canadian vocalist Gillian Margot. Other headline artists have been Jason Rebello, Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son), Femi Temowo and the Engines Orchestra. We spend weeks planning, organising and promoting without funding, so it’s a challenging and full-on job! We rely largely on volunteer helpers during the festival though do employ a top rate sound engineer.”
Janet’s favourite singers include the cream of the crop — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, and Dinah Washington — and among contemporary vocalists — Georgia Mancio, Anita Wardell, and Jo Harrop. “When I have heard Kurt Elling at the Barbican next month, maybe I will add him!”
I asked Janet to muse on the best piece advice she has been given over the years: “To sing from the heart and not compare myself with others or try to sound like others. Also never to let ego get in the way. I have been told that I sing with sincerity and that means a lot to me.
So, what’s next for you? ” We’re on a summer break at the moment but we start back at Jazz Cafe Posk in September with our ‘Janet’s Jazz Night’ (not my idea to call it that!). This is a gig in three sets, the first one being instrumental with Terence Collie Trio plus a special guest instrumentalist, the second being a vocal set with myself and a guest vocalist and the third one (which starts late) being a jam session open to singers and musicians. Our next Posk night on 15th September will feature Mornington Lockett as guest on sax.
“We also run a monthly jazz concert at the Riverside Arts Centre in Sunbury on Thames called Riverside Arts Jazz. We’ve had some excellent guests there joining Terence’s trio including John Etheridge on guitar and we had Jason Rebello doing a sold-out solo piano concert last year. We regularly do tribute gigs to famous musicians/composers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Michael Brecker, Stan Getz plus more, which seem to go down well with our Sunbury audience. On 1st October we have Anita Wardell doing a Betty Carter tribute. I don’t sing at these but I host them and take joint responsibility for promoting and running them.”
Wow! I am worn out from the intensity and drive and accomplishments of Janet’s jazz world. The interview convinced me that Janet’s experience offers an excellent demonstration of how off-stage work can bring about more time on-stage performing. Why not look around your neighborhood for cages and restaurants, and ask if they want to try a monthly jazz night — and offer to arrange one evening as a trial? And when you find a pianist who really suits you and your voice, why not ask that person to be your ‘first choice’ for gigs?
And we hope to see Janet McCunn at Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle before too long — if she can find the time!
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