An Architect of Song. Juliet Wood

Annie J interviews Juliet Wood:


I met with the jazz singer and architect Juliet Wood at a café in Belsize Park, sitting alfresco and sipping summertime cold drinks. I have heard Juliet sing at Vocals at Vortex, at the Toulouse Lautrec, and only a few weeks ago, at Harold Saniten’s Girl Power night at the Crazy Coqs. She has a rich smooth voice, clear as Ella; and when she is in the mood and in her Tracey Neuls high heels, as witty and clever as the writers of the be-bop and vocalese tunes she sings.

Juliet has thel to be both a classical and a jazz singer.

“Mine was a musical family. My dad used to love singing the Messiah, but he also sang us lullabies. He played the piano, and loved Chopin. My dad had very few records, by today’s standards, but he loved Souza marches, James Last dinner jazz, and Simon and Garfunkel. As a family, we listened to The Temperance 7, a 1920s-style jazz band.”

{AJ: And I see that The Temperance 7 are still touring in 2017, with 200 years of service among all those who have been in the band!}

“I did a lot of music at school: I used to play guitar, violin, alto sax as well as singing in school choir; but when I was a teenager, I saw myself more as a folksinger. I became the ‘girl with a guitar,’ and I used to get gigs in restaurants, playing folk music.”  Juliet’s repertoire included some Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon songs, but as well, some traditional Lancashire folk songs.

Juliet looks back at that period as one in which

“I did some songs about Manchester and they were industrial songs, like the one about the ‘Manchester Chamber Maid,’ which is a bit racy; there is some sort of commercial traveller, and who makes a Chambermaid pregnant…” and one by Ian McColl and Peggy Seeger, ‘The fireman’s not for me,’ about an engine-driver fireman, and how you can’t trust them.”  Juliet wryly added, “His one love is the engine, his wife.

“I carried on with sax lessons into my 20’s and used to play occasionally – at the first office I worked in we had a cover band that played for office parties, and I’d either sing or join the horn section!”

Juliet’s singing life still swings among genres: “I don’t think I really started singing classical music seriously until I was in my late teens, in 6th Form College.  When I was at school, where we had a good music department, I sang in a big choral society choir and a motet choir and a madrigal group.   From when I was 17, I sang in the Greater Manchester Chorale, which used to do concerts broadcast on the radio on Saturday nights. 

When I went to University, I joined another madrigal group at UCL, and an Opera company there, and it was always a UK premiere. I sang in an opera by Verdi, “Uberto”, which was probably its one and only UK performance.  I finally did my Music O level then”.  

When you listen to Juliet’s jazz tones, you can hear the clarity of her ‘head’ voice as a legacy from her classical work – she goes up to the top of the room and as smoothly returns to jazz rich lower timbres.

Juliet’s interest in jazz began with Ella Fitzgerald, but with Ella’s encyclopaedia of the American Songbook: Ella producing the standard for standards.

 “But when I went to College, in my 20s I gradually acquired cassettes; one with a track at the end with Ella singing “Lady be Good”, with the most fantastic scat at the end, and I used to try singing this along with her, and I couldn’t sing it, and it was just too complicated for me, and I think at that point, I put scat on a pedestal as something that I couldn’t do, but aspired to be doing! After I met Greg, my husband, who has very eclectic tastes in music,  I heard more interesting jazz, and we began going to some more interesting jazz events. Greg was a modern music person.”

Juliet and Greg keep up with the contemporary jazz scene: “We go to gigs about three times a month – Pizza express, 606, sometimes Ronnie’s Scott’s.”

We live in an open-mic-rich city here in London, and I asked Juliet to speak about her experiences in the amateur scene:

“I started going to open mics quite a few years ago – but after I first started learning jazz it took several years for me to pluck up the courage to go along. 

My first one was at Vocals at Vortex, a monthly open-mic begun by Brian Shaw Romy Summers & Bob Stuckey. I sang a slightly obscure song “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” which caused some confusion as it was written by Charles Mingus, not Ellington.”

Juliet now sings at least once a month at open-mics, “so I have a “deadline” for getting new things up to scratch”.  Her venues include our Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle, and the Nelson, Crazy Coqs, and SUFS at the White Swan Tavern in Limehouse. Her performance at Crazy Coqs gave her the opportunity to sing in a more gig-like event “Crazy Coqs was nice because we had time to rehearse with the pianist and the bass player.  So, compared to an open mic you can feel a bit more confident about how things will work out in performance, which allows me to tame the nerves a bit.”

Juliet is a student of jazz singer Clare Foster and attends Foster’s weekly Masterclass. “Clare is my mentor, and she has given me has given me lots of good advice to help me sing more in the jazz idiom.  I now sing with less vibrato –  and I have a wider range of styles: I like the complexity of chords and being  ‘in the thick’ with the harmony, not singing the top line.  Clare also taught me how to become more conversational in my singing, speaking them through and then adding pitch. I love vocalese, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I love to sing those jazzy blocks of phrase and melody. The singers I admire change over the years. There are always more things to discover.  But Ella, always. Annie Ross, Norma Winstone, Joni  Mitchell”.

  I asked Juliet to speak about her practice schedule, as we all can learn from each other about how to organise and to vary our rehearsal time!

“I usually go to a jazz class once a week, and a choir practice once a week, and then have a solitary practice session.  I start with warm-ups, e.g. runs of scales, humming, lip trills, and scales, aiming to stretch my voice at either end of my range.  I also do some singing while listening to myself through head phones.  And I also sing sections of pieces to get things right. Since I also sing in a choir, some practice is note bashing for that, or more intensive practice when I have solos or have to face auditions. What I’m working on is driven by the next deadline, class, open mic. I learn lyrics on the tube; walking is also good way to drum them in.

I have a “piano” on my iPad which I can plug myself into when travelling, to use time checking tricky bits.” 

What’s Next for Juliet:

“More of the same, more singing, more often, maybe singing more gigs; it would be nice to do the occasional paid gig. I think that what I want to do, really, is to keep on learning, and absorbing stuff.  I would like to get more confident about improvising.”

“My Style” – “I am still finding my style.”

Janet McCunn writes about the June 2-4  TW Jazz Festival:

The TW Jazz Festival started back in 2013 when pianist Terence Collie and I were working together on a local monthly quartet gig in a French restaurant and Terence suggested we put on a jazz festival in our local area in SW London. At first I thought he was joking, but then realised he was quite serious!

The festival has grown from a one day event in one venue to a three day event in three different venues, this year all with TW postcodes – Richmond, Sunbury and Hampton Hill. Over the four years many award winning and top rate artists from around the world have performed including Gwilym Simcock, Kyle Eastwood, Gilad Atzmon, Nigel Price, John Etheridge, Georgia Mancio,Anita Wardell, Andrew McCormack, Jason Yarde, Kate Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Partikel, GabrielGarrick and last year Femi Temowo with the Engines Orchestra who were recorded at Hampton Hill Theatre for BBC Radio 3. As well as these internationally renowned jazz stars we have involved local students from the Richmond Music Trust and some local performers. Terence’s quartet (TC4) is playing on the Sunday and my set this year (Janet and Friends) will feature two young rising star vocalists on the Saturday with the Meredith White Trio.

This year we are thrilled to have internationally acclaimed and multiple GRAMMY-nominated US pianist, composer and arranger Geoffrey Keezer closing the festival on Sunday evening. He will also be taking a workshop (a first for us) alongside featured vocalist Gillian Margot.

Our festival this year has three very comfortable venues, all with grand pianos (hired in specially for the Sunday concerts at Hampton Hill). We receive no funding for this and with the exception of the professional sound engineers on Sunday, we rely largely on volunteers to help us during the three day event. It’s certainly an ambitious project and labour of love! Ticket prices are very reasonable and there are many different options, plus one free event each day.

1 Comment

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