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Jazz Improv Magazine Vol. 4, No. 4, March 2004
Interview with Meredith d'Ambrosio

JI:  Could you talk about the visual art that you create - watercolors, eggshell mosaics, etc.?
Md'A:  After searching for a different mosaic method, I discovered the eggshell mosaic by accident after wiping the kitchen counter. Some eggshells were swished into the porcelain sink and sounded like glass. A lightbulb went off in my head. I completed 45 eggshell mosaics from 1958 to 1977. I needed to take brush in hand, and began painting in watercolor (over 110 completed works). Before the eggshell mosaics, oil was my medium. I'm a traditional painter, bordering on impressionism/realism.

JI:  How does your visual art influence your vocal and compositional art and vice versa?
Md'A:  I believe that my style of painting, singing and composing, piano playing and lyric writing are interwoven. Nature prevails in each form of creativity - impressionistic, romantic, earthy, strangely hip.

JI:  Who or what inspired you to want to begin serious study and career pursuit as a vocalist?
Md'A:  My father, a bass/baritone radio band singer, and my mother, a professional singer/pianist coached me on breathing and phrasing and shading. At eleven, I had already developed a style of my own. They believed that I should continue developing without the influence of a vocal teacher. That year, I was sent to the Schillinger House (later known as Berklee) in Boston to learn jazz chords. But from age six, they insisted that my piano education should be classical. I think my real education and desire to be a vocalist came when I was four singing along with the wonderful singers on the radio in the mid-forties. From age fifteen, my mother often invited me up to sing at her gigs. She was the deciding guiding influence in my singing. Singing before an audience at such a young age paved the way to becoming comfortable with an audience.

JI:  Describe your first live jazz performance and what you felt.

Md'A:  If you mean first unpaid jazz performance, I appeared live on Boston TV when I was fifteen and sang "Prelude To A Kiss" with a band on the show. By biggest concern was remembering the words. It was my first lesson under pressure in learning how to concentrate and disperse my nervousness. My first live paid jazz performance was with Roger Kellaway and his group in a jazz club in Boston. I was seventeen. We did some straight ahead tunes and some standards. I felt enlightened. Creating music without rehearsal taught me that nothing is impossible in jazz. This experience was a milestone for me.

JI:  Describe how you began your writing songs and lyrics.
Md'A:  I would feel compelled to sit at the piano and suddenly there was a tune. The chord patterns seemed to bring about the melody. The lyrics fell into place after the music was written. The notes of the tune have always dictated to me what the lyrics will be. I believe that I have no control over the process of writing a song. I'm just a vehicle.

JI:  Describe the process or different processes that you go through when you compose.
Md'A:  There are times that I will begin writing a song by working on the last line first. The first line grows from it. Sometimes I begin in the middle and surround it. Most often, though, I begin at the beginning and the tune will evolve on its own. But the melody is usually formed by the top notes of the chord patterns.

JI:  What is the source of your inspiration, or ideas for lyrics for your own tunes, and for specific tunes, such as your lyrics to Clifford Brown's "Daahoud"?
Md'A:  Sometimes ideas for lyrics to my own tunes come from scenes in my dreams, or my own life experience, or conjuring up a story in a daydream, or wishful thinking (a vivid imagination helps), but most times the story writes itself because of the music. Almost always the lyrics are about romance in all of its complexities. I read a book about Clifford Brown. It described him as being extremely romantic and gentlemanly and sweet and caring while courting his wife-to-be, LaRue (who asked me to write the lyrics). My lyrics to Daahoud [Arabic for "beloved"] had to show all of this with a touch of cool.

JI:  Who are some of your favorite vocalists and how have they influenced you?
Md'A:  In the mid-forties to the mid-fifties, my biggest influences were Dick Haymes, Anita O'Day, Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Jerri Southern, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Joe Williams, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, my father Barry Worth and mother Sherry Linden. All with impeccable phrasing. Other favorites, like Maxine Sullivan, Mildred Bailey, Irene Kral, Blossom Dearie, Mark Murphy, Jay Clayton, Dave Frishberg, Madeline Eastman, Judy Roberts, Nancy King, Roberta Gambarini, to name a few, were discovered after I began recording in 1978. All of the above taught me the importance of having an original sound, not only vocally, but instrumentally as well.

JI:  What does an accompanist have to provide for you to be at your most relaxed and creative best?
Md'A:  Knowing how to read music, having a good sense of swing, a sense of humor, a good nature, and not minding rehearsing are the things I hope for in an accompanist, so that I may be at my most relaxed and creative best.

JI:  Who or what makes you laugh?
Md'A:  Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Robin Williams, Jim Carey, Duffy Jackson, Oscar Levant, Eddie Higgins, Jerry Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Jonathan Winters, Dave Frishberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Benchley, Lee Musiker, Tom Hanks, S.J. Perelman, Cary Grant, The Marx Brothers, Martha Raye, Sid Ceasar, Rosalind Russell, Milton Berle, Katherine Hepburn and a myriad of others, and also very funny movies.

JI:  Could you discuss one or more of the most humorous, dramatic, of unusual experiences you've had?
Md'A:  Before our wedding, Eddie Higgins and I told our friends that we were planning a quiet wedding to be held at the edge of a river in a pristine place at the end of a long old Indian path in the woods. We were inviting no one but the best man, matron of honor, and the Justice of the Peace. Our friends persuaded us to change our minds though, and on the day of the wedding at noon all fifty of us met in a parking lot. They followed us to the woods in shared cars. Dressed in our lovely clothes wearing sneakers and mosquito repellent, we battled the long narrow path through nature and found the opening overlooking the Mashpee River (Cape Cod). Everyone gathered standing close to us in the small area. When the Justice of the Peace asked me to repeat after him, his words were garbled, as if he were speaking with marbles in his mouth. After each sentence, I said "What" or "Pardon me" three times before he made his words understood. Meanwhile, we could sense the restlessness of our guests, sympathetic to my plight but bursting with the urge to break out in unified laughter. Most of them kept their cool until one guest uncontrollably burst into stifled laughter. We managed to get through the word-repeating somehow, and on the way back, all the way down the path were echoes of uncontained laughter. That day will be remembered by all who attended. This story may not seem so amusing, but you really had to be there.

JI: Describe some of the rehearsal of preparation that you undertake in learning a song, and in preparing for a recording.
Md'A:  When learning a song, the first thing I do is write out the song in my key. I accompany myself of piano until I've learned it note for note, chord for chord. Then I write an arrangement for the coda at the end of the song. After this, I reharmonize the chords if needed. I memorize the words which may take many days. I usually don't practice improvising on a song till it's time to perform it in concert. It keeps it fresh for me this way. When preparing for a recording, I go through the same process. The selections of the tunes are most important to me. I plan the songs so that the same key doesn't repeat, and tempos and rhythms with each song are varied.

JI:  As a musical and visual artist, you've been fortunate to have discovered your gifts and have pursued their expression. Henry David Thoreau said "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." What has your art, effort and success taught you that might illuminate other people's lives to avoid the fate Thoreau mentions?
Md'A:  I've never been motivated by money. I have always been ruled by the gifts entrusted to me at birth. I believe I was given the responsibility to nurture those gifts, watch them grow, and never abandon them. Finding the song within is one thing. Seeing the possibility and setting a goal to develop it is another. Discipline's the final key.

JI:  What ideas or sensations occur for you when you feel that your performance is extraordinarily rewarding and successful?
Md'A:  When an audience derives a sense of peace and joy from my music, it reminds me that I'm on the right track.

JI:  Could you share some of your perspectives about learning how to improvise?
Md'A:  I think the best way to learn how to improvise and scat is to sing along with musicians when they're soloing on recordings, and also try to emulate the tones and pitches of each instrument. I found that memorizing the whole album, almost note for note, of the Birth Of The Cool by Miles Davis, helped me tremendously to learn how to improvise, and scat.  It is most important to understand the notes which make up a chord in order to improvise without clashing with the chord. Learning basic chords and how to read notes will speed the process of learning how to be a better improviser. It is important to listen carefully to the chords while improvising.

JI:  Describe some of the rehearsal or preparation that you undertake in learning songs.
Md'A:  After writing charts for the musicians, I study them, and memorize the arrangements. This takes about a month or two. Once the music is honed, I make them into books, and mail them to the musicians to become familiar with the songs and especially to observe the codas and other parts of the music which I mark in red. I also make sure I know something about why a song was originally written, when, and by whom.

JI: What are the non-musical ideas, events, people, elements that make your life most meaningful?
Md'A:  Cooking; my Chocolate Lab, Clifford Brown; tennis; ping pong; scrabble; completing goals; cryptograms; swimming; staring at trees; observing nature; watching my husband and friends eat my food; nesting.

JI:  If there is one for you, what is the connection between music and spirituality?
Md'A:  There is no doubt in my mind that any work of art - musical or visual - having dynamic symmetry (what I think of as magical balance) is inspired by the spiritual world. Think of how amazing it is that there are zillions of songs and not one is the same - all with individual fingerprints. And why does music have healing qualities? I believe there can't be spirituality without music. I also believe there can't be music without spirituality. They're fused.
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