Chatelaine et Chanteuse: GIlly Johnson in Hastings and France


I had a lively conversation a few weeks ago with Gilly Johnson in London. We were all excited that Gilly was coming up from Hastings to sing at Tina Learmonth’s Sunday Jazz at the Windsor Castle, and particularly since some of the regulars at the Windsor Castle hadn’t yet heard her.   Gilly is a singer, an educator, and a woman who has been organising summer jazz workshops first in Portugal and later in France for some years now.  She works with the wonderful team of Sophie Bancroft, Sara Colman, and Liane Carroll, with whom she has been friends since she and Liane were 16 years old.  She says:

“I started singing lessons when I was around 8 years old. My parents wanted me to be a classical singer, but I rebelled at 11, persuaded my uncle to buy me a guitar, stopped the singing lessons, which I found a torture… and I started singing folk music.”

Once we had settled down to our chicken burgers, I asked Gilly how it came to be that she was taking singing lessons at the early age of 8.  She told me that her strong and mature voice had been heard by teachers at school, and her parents thought it would be lovely if she could get some training.  Her family was, it should be known, a very musical family with siblings today working in bands, opera, and instrumentalists: “I was drawn to singers like Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, John Martyn and Sandy Denny. I loved Fairport Convention and Pentangle (Danny Thompson is still one of my favourite bass players), Steely Dan and of course music from Motown and Stax records.It wasn’t until my brother came back to live with us again that I started listening to jazz; Miles, Trane, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and Sara Vaughan were my first (and lasting) loves, with many more to come later.”

“From 16 onwards I sang in bands, both a capella and not. When I moved to Hastings there was a lively folk scene and plenty of opportunities to sing, so that’s what I did. In Hastings the only open-mics were folk ones and I did those pretty regularly. I did gig regularly with a great jazz band in my twenties and 30s, though interestingly, we didn’t do many ‘standards’, I now realise.

Gilly, like most amateur singers, also has a day-time job: she is a Deputy Head of Buckswood school in Hastings,  and when we met she told me that her school had just been through an OFSTED ‘visitation,’ which includes an enormous amount of paperwork, and a great many days. It was nice, I hope, for her to get a break and come up to London for a sing.  When I asked her how her singing fits in with the rest of her life, her reply was: “Good Question” – I felt as if I had got a solid ‘b’ for that one :

“Good question. It doesn’t fit in very well, because I let work take over. If there was a jazz open-mic evening once a week or once a fortnight in our area, I know I would make time to go. Hah! That’s another thing I can organise”.

When we went upstairs to the room where the Sunday Jazz Events are held, Gilly was greeted by many of her friends from workshops held by Sophie Bancroft, Sara Coleman, and Liane Carroll, and Gilly was the first on the programme for singing with pianist Jenny Carr, and bass player, Julie Walkington.

Gilly sang “Here’s to Life,” a melancholic ballad sweetened by the long experience of living and its pleasures as well as troubles. When Shirley Horn recovered it as a ballad sung out of time, it became a  signature tune of her’s.  But the arrangement Gilly sang, written for her by Liane Carroll, took us back into time, and allowed the often neglected joy of it be heard.  It was beautiful and it was underpinned by a sureness of rhythm.  I asked her who her favourite singers are now:

“Sassy, Ella and Betty C are amazing. I love Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, Claire Martin, George Benson, Etta James, Amy W, Natalie Cole, Aretha.. I could go on and on… but I think my favourite jazz singer; the one I find to be the most accessible (and not just because of geography) is Liane Carroll. Whatever she sings, she sings with such purity, openness, truth, huge love and absolute, total commitment. I’ve listened to her music in good times and some of my worst. Watching her is always a masterclass… Along with all of the above plus Carol King, Bonnie Raitt and Joni, Liane’s music is inextricably woven into the fabric of my adult life.”

Gilly’s repertoire is organised around her moods:  “I just have a list of songs that I love to sing, songs I call ‘cliff faces’ because they’re so difficult and a few ‘duvet songs’ that are easy and comforting to sing in situations where I might not feel so confident.” I think that is something we all might want to emulate, arranging the repertoire not only in relation to the balance of genre and key, but as well, to how comfortable we are with ‘duvets’ and how to work up to the ‘cliff faces.’

And the best piece of advice she has had from singers is:

“Be real, be honest and don’t over articulate the lyrics! As a language teacher, accurate pronunciation and diction as perfect as I can get it, are my daily necessities. It’s been a revelation to me that these very things can negatively affect how a song sounds to others. I’m not there yet. I still sometimes forget, but I’m working on it!”

As her friends whisked her away for a more intimate audience,  I made sure to take home with me the announcement of the July 2018 Workshop she is running this summer at her house in France…. Read on:

 Liane Carroll, Sophie Bancroft and Sara Colman will be coming to our lovely home in South West France to do a jazz vocals workshop. They are the heroines of the piece. I just do the booking, the cooking and a bit of singing! It will, I think, be the 10th year we’ve done this; firstly in Portugal and latterly in France. We work hard, sing all day and evening, we eat great food, laugh (SO much that my stomach muscles are always better toned by the time I go home), we sleep and then we get up and do it all over again!

Every year is different but the day goes something like this:

Sophie Bancroft keeps us balanced and grounded with her morning session of Qigong, then Sara limbers up our voices with her fabulous (and sometimes very

challenging) vocal warmups, Liane then teaches us as a ‘choir’ and makes us laugh so much it hurts. After a coffee, we then go into groups for a masterclass with one of the tutors. Each person sings and gets feedback from the rest of the group and the tutor. Then we usually have lunch and after that we can have a bit of time to practise, swim, go for a walk, or perhaps a little sleep in the sun. There will be a private lesson with one of the tutors for everyone, during the afternoon. (During the course we will all work with all the tutors, one to one) We eat around 7 and then we have a concert, where we can show what we’ve learned that day. After that, the course participants go back to their accommodation and get ready for the next day!

We ask people to bring at least 3 songs to work on, though they may bring more if they want to. The atmosphere is massively supportive, so people can feel safe to experiment, open up; whatever it is they need/want to work on.

 This year there will be a couple of concerts to see, as it will be the first year of Haimps’ Jazz festival. There are 2 evenings of music. Firstly, an evening with Jan Widger; an accomplished Irish singer, who lives in the village, then, on the Friday evening, a double bill with the Bancroft, Carroll and Colman Trio and after the break, Liane will sing with her own trio.  You can contact Gilly by going to her facebook page, or writing to her for more information and booking.

Come on Jazzers, let’s get going!







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