For some artists, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition would be a career highlight. But three years later, the feat seems almost a footnote for Cécile McLorin Salvant, a Miami-born singer who entered the 2010 contest as a virtual unknown.
Wynton Marsalis, artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, has showered McLorin Salvant with praise: “She has poise, elegance, soul, humor, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace,” says Marsalis, who is featuring her with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on a tour that stops at at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday, Dec. 20.
Music critics have been similarly, uncommonly, effusive. Her second album, WomanChild, received glowing reviews, and last week was nominated for a Grammy Award.
On stage and recordings, McLorin Salvant exhibits a poise beyond her years. But when discussing her appearance here in a program of Christmas music that’s part of the Arsht’s Jazz Roots series, she sounds like a typical 24-year-old giddy to go home for the holidays.
“Special? Oh my gosh, yes. For me it is amazing to be able to go home and sing in my hometown because for years it’s been difficult to set something up in Miami,” she says by phone from New York. “I think I sang one night at a club [the Van Dyke Café] on the Beach, but it was always difficult to perform in Miami. So this for me is going to be such a pleasure.”
It’s not like she takes it personally. In fact, she sees Miami as “a really bizarre place for jazz.”
“There are not a lot of clubs for jazz music, but there are amazing jazz musicians,” McLorin Salvant says. “It’s incredible the number of jazz musicians I’ve met who come from Miami, and they are some of the best musicians around … and yet there isn’t a scene. But you still have this high level of playing. My only regret is that I never was able to take advantage of that when I was living in Miami.”
The daughter of a Haitian physician and a French-Guadeloupean educator, McLorin Salvant was born and raised here. She started piano at 4 and began singing with the Miami Choral Society children’s choir at 8.
“It was a great experience because there were songs to learn, I think there was a little bit of reading and there were some concerts to prepare, so there was discipline,” she says.
She attended Sunset Elementary, Carver Middle School and Coral Reef Senior High. When it came time for college, set set off to study law in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France.
“Music wasn’t in the plans,” McLorin Salvant says. “I’ve always studied music, but it was kind of a side thing to academics, and I thought I would continue doing just that: Go to school and maybe do music on the side.
“I was very much interested in classical music and, if anything, I was hoping I could become a classical singer. So I enrolled in a law program and music was really like an after-school thing. But eventually I stopped going to class and would go to the [Darius Milhaud Conservatory] every day.
“I ended up doing law long-distance. I would have all the course work and learn it by myself on my own time; that way I could go to the conservatory during the day. I did finish it. I got a bachelor’s, so I didn’t get too, too far but I did finish it.”
A key figure in her evolution as a jazz singer was her teacher at the conservatory, saxophonist and clarinetist Jean-François Bonnel.
“He had a bizarre way of teaching,” McLorin Salvant says. “He didn’t really have a curriculum or a fixed idea of what we were going to do, but every week he would bring a stack of 10, 15 CDs and say ‘Have you heard this singer?’ or ‘You need to listen to her,’ and the following week it would be: ‘OK ,What do you want to do?, What have you prepared?’ So it was a very interesting way of learning.
“Basically you had to learn by yourself and find your own way. And to me that’s the way the greatest jazz musicians learned — with help along the way, of course, but on their own way of doing things.”
In that process she discovered both the classics and the unexpected. She rattles off the names of giants like Louis Armstrong, Betty Carter Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but also Blanche Calloway, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Blossom Dearie, Bing Crosby and Abbey Lincoln, who, she says, inspired her to write her own songs.
Eventually the student became professional partners with the teacher, performing concerts and, at 19, recording the album Cecile with Bonnel’s quintet.
Then came the Monk competition — and all that followed. Friday, however, the repertoire will be holiday classics like The Christmas Song and I’ll Be Home For Christmas.
McLorin Salvant plans to return to Miami with her own band and jazz repertoire in April for Tigertail Productions’ Florida-France Festival. It seems like a natural for a Miami native who grew up speaking French at home, learned about jazz in France and sings in English, French and Spanish.
From her song choices to her interpretation and phrasing, McLorin Salvant brings an outsider’s sensibility to her music.
She says she’s not sure how Miami has influenced her approach to jazz, but then adds: “There is something to be said about growing up with friends that had all kinds of backgrounds. I have this closeness with Latin American culture. My mom lived in Cuba and the Dominican Republic so she speaks Spanish perfectly. My aunt lived in South America for years, she lived in Argentina, I went there for two months as a kid.
“My friends growing up were Colombian, Mexican, Argentine, Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, so I don’t know what it is like to be raised in a situation where everybody is like you and has your same background. I’m used to spending time with people who have a different background and figuring out a way to communicate with them and empathizing with their culture. I don’t know how that shapes my music, but it definitely shapes my personality.”
As for Christmas in Miami, she chuckles as she playfully notes that her band mates “are all freaking out. They say, ‘It’s so weird to be playing Christmas music in Miami. It’s going to be hot in Christmas,’ and I tell them, ‘Maybe, but hey, we love Christmas music in Miami, too.’”