Interview – Salena Jones – jazz doyenne who bridges gap with pop

salena-jagz-17SALENA JONES is one of the finest jazz singers around. Singing from childhood all over the world, she has performed with all the greats from Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan to Dudley Moore and Tom Jones, among many others. Salena has recorded more than 40 albums and more than 20 singles. She is appearing at The Pheasantry in the Kings Road, Chelsea on 15 and 16 October and at Ronnie Scott’s in November. Here she talks about her long career.

You have been singing since you were a child and made your first recording at age 11. Presumably singing was always something you wanted to do as a career?

Of course, absolutely, that’s all I ever wanted to do and all that I have ever done. In fact I was recorded singing live unbeknownst to me, and the single ‘He Knows How to Hucklebuck’, a dance craze of the time, was released in July 1949 – I know this from a Billboard cutting that I have in my scrapbook.

You have worked with all the great jazz artists in your time – Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Mark Murphy, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Toots Thielemans, etc. Do you have any favourite fellow artists among them?

I have met and sung with some wonderful artists over my career. Of course my favourite was and still remains Sarah Vaughan. I was a very young girl making my way in New York and got to know her and love her great talent. When I arrived in England in 1965 and had to change my stage name, I made up ‘Salena Jones’ from a combo of Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and my own name Joan Shaw.

Of course I`ve also worked with a great number of very talented musicians both here in England and elsewhere who are not yet regarded as all-time greats!

In New York you had your own band, the Blues Express Orchestra. How did that come about?

My career really began in the 1950s R&B era and I was getting a lot of attention from the record companies promoting me, so we came up with ‘Joan Shaw and the Blues Express Orchestra’ and toured extensively. Incidentally, my saxophone player was the wonderful ‘King’ Curtis (I gave him his name). He is the great sax player on the Coasters records such as ‘Yakety Yak’, and he opened for the Beatles’ first US concert at the Shea Stadium

You had recorded some 15 singles by the age of 15. At such a young age were you at all fazed by the music business, as it must have been overwhelming for a young girl then?

Not really, because I knew that all I wanted to do was sing and was actually quite experienced by the age of 15! The music scene in New York where I grew up musically was thriving and there were many of us all trying to do our own thing. I had the confidence of youth in my talent and some good representation which helped me make my way. I used to network very well too, at the Brill Building and at all the Manhattan clubs and venues.

You were once placed alongside the likes of Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme in a list of promising newcomers. Did you meet or work with any of the others and did such an honour go to your head?

It was Leonard Feather, a noted jazz writer in the US, who listed me with these names (in 1964 actually in the Downbeat magazine). I didn’t meet these particular artists. What you have to appreciate is that at that time, no one knew that these singers would come to be regarded as all-time greats – at that time, as you say, we were all listed as ‘most promising newcomers’ in the jazz scene

You have worked all over Europe and elsewhere. Do you find that touring is tiring or does it have its compensations in other ways?

It’s a privilege and pleasure travelling and performing in other countries, meeting people, experiencing different cultures but yes, long haul and jetlag can be quite difficult.

Can you explain why you are so popular in China, Thailand and Japan, seeing that you have played Japan some 70 times since 1978?

I’ve been fortunate that they took to me in a big way throughout the Far East, especially in Japan – and the fact is that this has sustained my long career. As I understand it, they love my voice, sincerity, swing and personality.

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-15-59-04You have your own Japanese quartet while you are performing in Japan. How did you manage to find such a good group in the first place?

Through my Japanese promoter, though of course it’s taken time to gradually arrive at the current, highly talented group.

Do you have any particular favourite songs or composers whose material you always love to perform.

I’m a broad church musically – I don’t like to be simplistically labelled as this or that. I sing pop, jazz, the blues, latin, fusion, ballads, swing. I’m proud of an album I made of songs derived from famous classical melodies (including for example ‘Air On a G String’). I recently made a beautiful album of famous Japanese ballads which were especially translated into English for me

It was a shame that the jazz club you opened at Shepherd’s Bush in 2001 wasn’t more of a success. It was a good venue and would probably work now. Perhaps you were there before your time?

I’m proud my manager and I did it because otherwise it would have been an unrealised ambition. It was a big challenge, and although we couldn’t make it work financially, it was a lovely club that we created.

Of course jazz is a difficult business anyway, but it was also in the wrong place (we had local gun shootings and petty car crime) and by its nature we couldn’t do anything in the daytime to earn more income. I was also proud that when we saw the writing on the wall, we closed down in an orderly way so that no one such as staff, artists, suppliers or the landlord lost any money (only we did!).

With the revival in cabaret and music rooms such as Zédel and The Pheasantry, do you think that London is back to what it used to be as a great nightlife city?

By comparison with New York and Tokyo, London, a capital of nine million people, is an impoverished city as far as quality live music rooms are concerned. When I first came to England in 1965 there were numerous smart nightclubs and venues in London, but these have all but gone as the live music and entertainment scene has changed over the years.

It must difficult looking after your voice, so how do you manage to keep your vocal instrument in trim? Has the timbre changed over the years?

I take care of my throat in simple terms of keeping out of draughts and air conditioning, and not having ice in drinks, but that’s all I do really. I am a natural singer and I sing properly, from my abdomen. Well yes, my tone has naturally deepened over the years and become warmer too, I think.

Can we look forward to some more CDs from Salena Jones in the near future?

This is sadly becoming less likely because the recording music industry has been so affected for many artists like me by technology, piracy, downloading and streaming. Music is generally not valued as it used to be. Also if you don’t have a high profile, then it’s hard to get the sales anyway. These days they are done more online or at shows, because even the record shops are pretty well all gone too.

No doubt you will never think of retiring, so how would you like to spend the rest of your working life – more touring, more recording, more concerts?

I just love singing whenever I get the opportunity!

* Salena Jones is at The Pheasantry on 15 October (evening) and 16 October (matinee) – www.pizzaexpresslive.com.

* Salena Jones is also at Ronnie Scott’s on 13 November – www.ronniescotts.co.uk.

Compiled by Michael Darvell

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