Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cecilia Long is Singing Strong

Singing standards and blues number as well as reinterpretations of pop standards in a style that brings to mind Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn and Nina Simone, no one questions when Cecilia Long steps on a stage that she should be doing anything else. A regular on the Bay Area jazz jam scene, the Washington, D.C. native has gigged in Paris and collaborated on cross-genre projects in Bulgaria in addition to working with a host of Bay Area notables. With a couple of live Cds under her belt, Long is spending the early part of 2009 finalizing arrangements on her first studio recording. Despite her busy schedule, she found the time to chat a bit about her current projects and the past that brought her to now.

Q You've been singing since you were a child but you didn't embrace performing fully until the past decade?

CL I remember when I was 15, I told my piano player I wanted to sing jazz. He said 'Roberta Flack is taking vocalists.' But my parents said 'no' and after that they cut off my piano lessons. They didn't want me to get into the music world. My parents thought there were a lot of African Americans in the arts and to them, success was going to college and getting an education and getting a real job. I was an only child and I was going to fulfill the dream of the family. So that was heavy.

It [took] sort of a midlife crisis [to sing again]. I was very frustrated with my career and I saw , Ronnie Wells, a well known jazz vocalist in DC on television who with her husband pianist Ron Elliston had just started a jazz vocal workshop. I called her the next day. I sang and she said "why aren't you singing professionally? You're a natural."

She'd developed The East Coast Jazz festival and about a year after [we started working together] she said 'we're having an emerging artist competition.' I said, 'that's nice.' And she said, 'yeah, and you're in it." I sang Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia" and a blues tune, "Candy," and I came in second place.

Q Were you surprised?

CL I was. I didn't think I was ready. Then when [I came to California] Raz Kennedy, a founding member of Bobby McFerron's Voicestra said 'you should have a concert.' They had studio space on Folsom where he and his partner decided to hold a series of concerts. Although I agreed, I started thinking that perhaps I wasn't ready. At one point I pulled out of doing the concert and said I wasn't going to do it. He called me and said, "We need to have a talk, something is seriously wrong with you. Why do you keep denying that you are an artist?" He gave me a list of musicians to work with…

Q And how was that show?

CL It was excellent. It was sold out. After that, I did a lot of sitting in around town. I used to go to the piano bars quite a bit. I was working at a consulting firm doing educational research papers, and I went to them and said "I can't do this," and I quit. I didn't know what I was going to do. A friend of mine got me a part-time job with the local Grammys, helping them plan events. I sang at one of their events, a woman told me about a place in Danville that needed a singer for New Year's Eve 1999, Faz restaurant. I sang there on New Year's Eve and I got a regular gig there every Saturday for two years.... I've had these little angels all my life.

Q How did you start recording?

CL In 2003, I decided that I was going to go to Paris but I needed a good-quality Cd to take with me. I was friends with a sound engineer at Dolby Sound. During that time I was substituting teaching every day, not making much money, paying my rent and eating…lettuce. [laughs] I was in class with these kids who went 'yo, substitute,' but somehow, I was good at it so I had all these teachers calling me with work. One year, I had a kindergarten class for a whole year! At the end of the year, I pulled them all together to sing "I Believe I Can Fly!"

So I was trying to get my Cd together. Brett and his wife invited his friends to a soirée and I performed and he recorded "T'Aint Nobody's Business." People liked it. I got some good reviews.

Q And you went to Paris?

CL I was going to the church of Religious Science — create by thought — and the pianist there, Jackie Hariston, told me about a woman [Rickie] who moved to France with her 11-year-old daughter and ran something called "Blacks in Paris" for expats. Jackie sent a letter of introduction. When I hit the ground, Rickie gave me the numbers for a bunch of musicians. As a result of her, I did two gigs in Paris in two weeks. Two years later, I went back Paris and stayed a month. I'd go to the jams, and I got a couple of gigs. Again, I met someone who said 'you just need to move here.' [But] I came back and eventually got a gig at Zingari in the Donatello Hotel. I was there three years on Saturday night with pianist Paul Dorr. Then I just sang around in the Bay Area, doing what I could, when I could, sitting in. I played the Plush Room, again with Paul Dorr... another sold-out show.

Q Now a third Cd is on its way…

CL It will be the first time in a studio. It's a big deal. I love live so much, I've always done stuff live. I'm working collaboratively with pianist Art Khu to come up with unique arrangements. We're going to do 15 tracks—bossa, blues, some tunes with gospel, swing, which is really my thing. All kinds of songs, all kinds of rhythm. I think it will launch me into a different level. I finally have songs that resonate with me.

Q You're more an interpreter than a writer…

CL Yes, and I'm a storyteller [Cecilia is a Master Teaching Artist at Streetside Stories, in the SF Unified School District] so I like telling a story through songs. Each song I select has a back-story in my life. That's how I put emotion it. It's me using the other person's words to tell my story.

Q When will it be ready?

CL I'm returning to Bulgaria in August so I want it to be ready before then. In March or April I'll have a Cd from the Bulgarian project, ValR_CiYa, a collaboration I did with YaYa, a jazz hip-hop artist in the Balkans, and with Valia Balkanska.

Q Are you going to do a tour with that project?

CL I'll be singing in Kustendil… and a couple of clubs in Sophia, and my manager is negotiating with The Bansko Jazz Festival, perhaps with YaYa collaboratively, but I'm going to be doing things on my own.

Q Where do you hope to be in a year?

CL I hope to have had gigs in New York City and return to Paris. Touring. I'd like to go to Berlin. I'd like to sing in London, do some stuff in Washington, D.C., my hometown. …. Apparently the Obama Administration is going to have something like a Musical Peace Corps. Like the WPA under Roosevelt. There are huge changes going on. We're having to do things in community, in partnership and being of service to each other. I think musicians and artists can play a key role in helping young people. It taps a different piece of them. We help people's souls.

Cecilia next sings at a benefit for Teach with Africa February 12, at the Saint Regis Hotel and on February 21 at the Dogpatch Saloon with a quartet featuring Art Khu on piano.

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