Friday, June 14, 2013

Life of a Working Musician: An Interview with Jazz Voclaist Kathy Kosins Part 2 of 2

Kathy Kosins photo by Ralph a. Miriello
In the first part of this interview with the Detroit jazz singer Kathy Kosins (which you can link to here.,) we talked about her experiences growing up around her father's famous clothing store, a Detroit landmark. Her first dance single and her experience with producer Don Was in his funk 1970's soul/funk group Was Was Not. Now we delve into her jazz repertoire, her concert productions, her artwork and her future projects.

NOJ: You turned from soul, pop and funk to jazz. What made you make that transition?

KK : I was writing jazz tunes here in NY with the idea of selling those songs to already established jazz artists. I came back to Detroit and I was on the east side of Detroit burning cassettes of my mixes from NY, in order to start sending them to various managers and publishers. I ran into this guy ... who managed George Clinton and the P funk ( Parliment Funadelic). This was the beginning of sampling. They would take all of George Clinton’s floor sweepings and sampled them out to all these rappers that wanted to  use them in their own records. He said “Give me one of those cassettes; I am going to a meeting with Steve Bergman from Schoolkids Records.” He called me like a week later and he said “I got you a record deal...” I said “what?” I flipped.  It came out on me and I called it All in a Dreams Work.

NOJ: This was your first jazz work. What female vocalists particularly inspired your music, especially your jazz vocals?

KK: Really nobody. I listened to the jazz instrumentalists. I listened to Miles Davis, first and foremost. Second to Miles Davis I listen to Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Don’t forget this was of the seventies, fusion. That’s what I was listening to. I didn’t want to copy any other singer and I stayed away from singers.  I really liked Carmen McRae, ... liked her the best.  I admired and had a huge amount of respect for Ella’s technical proficiency; I mean spot on in tune all the time. Sarah Vaughn, I mean the tone is just amazing. Carmen, there is something about Carmen, she is of that time, but there is an edge about her that I liked.

NOJ: How about Betty Carter?

KK: I didn’t like Betty Carter. When I was coming up in that big band, I was taught stick to the melody and she did everything but stick to the melody. I just think she was too far the other way. I would rather hear the melody instead of a long, endless scat solo. I’d rather hear a variance of the melody the next time through. 

NOJ: What about Dinah Washington?

KK: Her husband, the football player was one of my Dad’s customers. I met Diana Washington when I was  little. She was married to a football player. He was a Detroit Lion. I actually liked the stuff she did with Brooke Benton. That’s another guy who I really love. “Rainy Night in Georgia”. I have a really wide interest. I don’t listen to much country, but there are pop singers that I really like. I listen to Adele, she’s good. There is an earthiness about some of these singers that I really dig. Same with Carmen, there was an earthiness about her and Sarah. Billie Holiday, I really loved Billie Holiday, but she didn’t inspire me.

NOJ:  What contemporary singers blow you away?

KK: Contemporary singers who blow me away? I’ll tell who blows me away Dianne Reeves, Diane Schurr, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nancy King. 
Patti Austin

NOJ: How about Patti Austin?

KK: Love her. She was my first jazz inspiration as a singer. I wrote her a letter she lived in Orange, NJ. Oh God, I would love to meet her and bow down. It was her and Marlena Shaw. Unbelievable. Nasty, nasty, but unbelievable.  

Tony Bennett, God I want to meet him. I could kiss his shoes. I am crazy about him. He’s to me is the best male singer. To me there is no one like Tony.

NOJ: Your bio said you worked with the JC Heard Orchestra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra tell me about those gigs.

KK:  JC Heard did an event for my father... some foundation honored Kosins Clothes and my dad. He got letters from the President and the Governor and the Mayor. It was at a big hotel in Detroit.

Harry Shirley Kosins. He took on the name Shirley because of the poet. May he rest in peace and is smiling down on his kid. He never got to see one thing I did, nothing. He never saw any of the records.
He could be mean. He told me once “You’re a bum. You’ll never amount to anything. Go get a job.” But you know, that’s because, I think he was afraid of the artist’s life for me.

JC Heard played at my dad’s party and I sang with them a couple of other times. I was with the Johnny Trudell Orchestra when Nelson Riddle’s son, Chris Riddle, who somehow  got his Dad’s charts, asked me to go sing with his band. One gig was in Dallas/Fort Worth and it was a big private function. The band he got together were all North Texas University guys, they were incredible. The second gig was on a ten day cruise ship, Alaskan Cruise, which was for me was like a really great paid vacation. I stopped off in every port and saw everything.  This was in 1993 or 1994.
All in a Day's Dream 1995

NOJ: Let's go back to All In A Dreams Work, your first jazz album back in 1995. How did that evolve?

KK: I went from LA to NY. I was writing on the upper West Side with this guy Jeff Franzel, who was writing all this pop material. It turned out that Jeff was a really good jazz pianist and he loved jazz.   I was also working with Marcy Drexler of ASCAP, who was also working with Jeff,. She paired me up with a woman, who has now become my best friend; her name was April Lang. April ’s mother and her mother’s sisters were jazz singers on the radio, you know how they had radio singers on radio broadcasts?  April went to the NY School of Performing Arts. April’s surrogate uncle was Dave Lambert from Lambert, Hendrix and Ross.   So Jeff, April and I started writing what would become my first cd. All in a Dream’s Work.

I didn’t know it was going to be my first cd. We would write the songs with the idea that I would demo the songs and we would farm them off to all the established artist like, Nancy Wilson, like Lena Horne at the time, Diane Schurr, like Diane Reeves whoever. It’s a great record.

NOJ: What is your favorite cut from All in A Dream’s Work ?

KK:  There are three. Actually one of them I re-did on Vintage . There is an original tune on Vintage called “I Can’t Change You,” I cut it in a different key and put it to a reggae beat. “Time Changes Everything” dark music noir. “Man of My Dreams” and “Down to My Last Dream.” 
Mood Swings

NOJ: Then you did Mood Swings which was a complete turnaround where you tackle songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady.” It took you seven years between records. What took you so long?

KK: I don’t know. I wasn’t focused. I was between records and I was sure what I was going to do. I think I was in a relationship at the time and it took up a lot of my time. I didn’t feel motivated to write and get another record out right away. Life happened.

NOJ: What made you go in this different direction?

KK: It really wasn’t a different direction. I was there as an original “No Ordinary Joe.”  I took the music from “Pennies from Heaven,” and rewrote the lyric and melody.  “Living in Style,” a very Dave Frisberg style... tongue in cheek. I cut “Maybe September”, Percy Heath, beautiful tune. It’s just a hodgepodge of original tunes and a few non originals like “Gee Baby A’int I Good to You”. I just wasn’t focused.
I think Mood Swings was literally an extension of having mood swings (laughter). I was kind of all over the place.” Foxey Lady” we tried to take into adult contemporary, it didn’t work but we tried. When I hooked up with (bassist) Michael Henderson’s band he knew that I was going into jazz writing and he pretty much said,".. look at me, I was in with Miles Davis and you can have one foot in each thing and it’s ok."

NOJ: What made you cut Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots”?

KK: I cut “These Boots” because I had been singing that tune for a while with an arrangement that Paul Keller wrote for me. Paul Keller is a jazz bassist in Detroit, he runs The Paul Keller Orchestra and he would write all sorts of fun charts for me to do on a “live” show. He made it sound like, “Killer Joe”.

 I thought if I handed to Aaron Goldberg he would do some wacky arrangement on it. I like it and it got a lot of airplay on jazz radio.

NOJ: Which are favorite songs from your great 2005 cd Vintage?

KK: “Tip Toe Gently.” The woman that wrote it is ninety years old and her name is Paulette Girard and she lives on the upper west side. She’s fabulous. She wants me to start writing music to her songs. She wrote all kinds of stuff for John Coltrane and all these jazz instrumentals. Her real name is Paulette Rubinstein, she married a jazz harmonica player, a guy from Denmark I think, or maybe he was an accordion player. She married him so he could get his green card and through him she met all these great people.

“Look Out Up There” and “Tip Toe Gently “are my two favorites, followed by “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast” and “Go Slow”. That was my entry into West Coast Cool. “Look Out Up There” was on June Christy’s   “Something Cool “record.  John Ellis played a wonderful soprano saxophone solo on that tune. That was a great record.

NOJ: You did the music of June Christy, Julie London, Chris O’Connor and Anita O’Day in To the Ladies of Cool. What inspired you to do this record? What gave you the idea?
Henry Mancini

KK: I started listening to West Coast Cool. I started listening to Mancini. I started listening to Mandel. I started listening to Chet Baker and then I started listening to female west coast vocalists. Jackie and Roy, Irene Krall, Jerry Southern, just a bunch of people from out that way.

The song that I cut called “Free and Easy” came from a really bad rock and roll movie called “Rock Pretty Baby,” Sal Mineo was in the movie and I was on the road and one night my eyeballs popped out, I’m looking at Turner TNT and I’m looking at this really bad B movie in black and white. I guess it was about a delinquent, a JD, juvenile delinquent, and I’m hearing this jazz in the background. The kid wants to be a rock guy and the soundtrack was all dubbed in by these west coast cool guys and it sounds like jazz. So I did my homework and I found out that Mancini did the music, Bobby Troupe took the music and wrote the lyrics for his wife Julie London, who was formerly married to Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, by the way. 
Johnny Mandel and Kathy Kosins

Mandel’s “Hershey Bar” was written for Stan Getz and Anita O’Day cut it as a scat. When I got hold of it I knew I wanted to do something without photocopying Anita. So I was on the plane and had a few vodkas and I wrote the lyrics and it was like a stream of consciousness. 

NOJ:  What are your favorite songs from To the Ladies of Cool?

KK: “November Twilight” is my all-time favorite. Do you know the story of that song? Julie London cut an LP called “Calendar Girl, where she is pictured in a fold out with a different outfit and a different song for each month. She did “Memphis in June” most famously but most of them I didn’t know.  When I heard “November Twilight” I said that’s mine.
When Johnny Mandel came to my gig in California I said “The guy that wrote the lyrics to “November Twilight” was your co-writer on “The Shadow of Your Smile.” He told me he almost wasn’t his co-writer. Johnny Mercer was supposed to write “The Shadow of You Smile” with Johnny Mandel and Mercer passed on the project. So they gave him Paul Francis Webster, who was much older than Mandel, and Mandel thought to himself “What am I going to do with this old guy.” But they did it and out comes the mega hit  “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyrics to “November Twilight” with Pete King.  I found this poem by some nineteenth century poet, called November Twilight, and I sometimes read it on the stage, it’s really abstract. I usually tell people to close their eyes, because the imagery is so evocative…I almost started crying when I did the song at the club Half Moon Bay recently, because there is a line in there about sunburnt arms and garden swings. When I see that in my mind I see Malibu or I see the beach in the nineteen fifties. You know, with those modernistic houses jutting out over the water. Then here I am at this guy’s place (Half Moon Bay) looking out at the sea, singing there, I almost left the planet for a minute. I had an out of body experience.

NOJ: You have done some interesting productions involving older jazz standards. One particularly interesting production was a program you were involved in with the Helios Jazz Orchestra titled Rhapsody in Boop featuring the music of Betty Boop.  How did you get involved in this?

 A Lady ahead of her time
The Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop

KK: I loved Betty Boop. I have been watching her cartoons forever, but the more I watched them the more I saw a thread between her and Cab Calloway and Don Redman and Louie Armstrong. All these guys appeared in her cartoons on screen. Cab Calloway had his first on screen appearance in “The Old Man of the Mountain” and the other one was “St. James Infirmary”. “How am I Doing, Hey, Hey“ was Don Redman. When the animation opens there is Don Redman and his orchestra is playing.I thought the Fleischer brothers were forward thinkers. They were jazz freaks that found a way to incorporate African American jazz into these cartoons. Betty was an actress and a singer and a femme fatale and a lover of animals and the first women’s libber. She was a character!

NOJ: What was her time period?

KK: Nineteen thirty to nineteen thirty six. Like six years, maybe into nineteen thirty-seven. What happened was in 1934 the government came down. The censors came down.  It was the enactment of the Production Code Act which set moral standards for motion pictures. They had to lower her skirt so you couldn’t see her little garter belt and you couldn’t see any more cleavage. She started looking more like a schoolmarm.

I’ve done six of these shows and I would really love to make it work and I would love to play it with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I mean its right up their alley but I can’t get to these guys. But there are orchestras out there. The charts are well written. The guy’s name is Dr. Jack Cooper, he runs the University of Memphis Jazz Studies group and Paul Keller wrote a couple of charts.

So Louie (Armstrong) did some music and Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Don Redman and then there were songs by these Jewish writers, where you could find snippets of these songs in her cartoons. I said let’s make a big band chart of these. So there is like fifteen pieces and a couple of them are instrumentals.  We have a Power Point with a big screen behind me and the band, and film shorts for the intermission, and I talk about the Fleischer Brothers and the animation cells, it’s a whole story.

The guy that came up with a lot of this is Kevin Mahogany’s business partner, this guy out of Detroit, Rick Cioffi. I’ve known him for a million years. He has done a lot of work on my career. He and I kind of came up with this; this is our brainchild. He is the one who came up with all the footage and all the animation cells and the whole Power Point. I played it in Florida, Detroit and another part of Florida and in Memphis. It’s an all-ages show. It goes well beyond the scope of jazz and crosses right into Americana.
Kathy Kosins with Big Band

NOJ:  How hard is it to sing in front of a big band?

KK: I love it. Nothing is hard. If you would have asked me this question twenty years ago, I would have been intimidated, but after you do this for so long, I can front any size band. I can get on stage with one piano player or sixteen peoples. Each set-up is appropriate for different reasons.  I love the power of a big band. I love interacting with a big band. I just did this in Santa Rosa. I wished I did more big band always. I love performing with a single piano player or a trio. I have done my Tamir Hendleman charts with the two horns and with the trio and it works both ways for me. I have done my Ladies of Cool material with just a piano player.

NOJ: Do you consider yourself more of a singer or an entertainer?

KK: I consider myself a musician who likes to sing and entertain.  I think it’s one and the same. I think a lot of singers today do not entertain. They get on a stage and they are really arrogant. There is just a real coolness about them and they don’t care to connect with the audience. I don’t care how old the audience is I want to connect with the audience. I don’t want to get on the stage and not talk between songs and just sing a bunch of tunes and just introduce the band and get off. I know that is what a lot of these people do. That’s just not me. I’m a Midwest girl. I’m not a New York girl. You get these New York singers and I don’t know what it is about them, there is snootiness, there is an inside something about it that I don’t get.

NOJ: You have been a modern abstract artist for some time and some of your work is impressive. How did you get into this form of expression?
Recent Painting by Kathy Kosins Untitiled

KK: I don’t know the, the spirits guided me there. It wasn’t a conscious thing. I started painting in about 1990 right about the time my Dad died. It had nothing to do with his death.  But now I’m really taking advantage of using it in all my performances.  If I talk to a performing arts center, the first thing I ask them is do they have any gallery space. The Milford Center for the Arts, in Milford. CT, is considering having a show of my paintings. They want me to tie the art in with my improvisation on canvas clinic, which is a painting with jazz clinic where I teach students how to hear color and hear shapes. So wherever I go first thing I ask now is, “Do you have a space to hang artwork?”    “Would you be interested in giving me a gallery opening before the concert, to make it a couple day event?” I am doing this next month ( June 7th & 8th)  in Newport, Oregon. The Newport Jazz Party is run by the Oregon Council for the Arts, so Holly Hoffman pitched me to all the patrons. It’s like a benefit for all the patrons. She saw my art work and she loved it and said would you send me thirty of your paintings. We are going to put them in a show. They’re hanging on the wall now. The Baruch wants me to do this too. So now I’ve opened a new can of worms. I like painting it keeps me sane. It keeps my Jou Jou going.

NOJ: Amazingly, you are your own one woman musical machine. You do your own publicity, booking, scheduling, promotion, managing, in addition to writing music and lyrics, performing and releasing cds, selecting band members and producing your artwork. How do you do it all and what can you advise people who want to become a self-promoted professional musician?

KK: I don’t think about it or I couldn't do it all. I just wake up in the morning and I either work out or I work all day and then I go to do something at the gym. Yoga, I love Yoga. It helps, it helps.  It centers me a little bit. Yes the door has been shut in my face. I might get three yes’ for fifty no’s. So I have got to stay positive. Every call I make is a new call. Just like the song I recorded “Tomorrow's Another Day”.  I have never had anybody say don’t call me anymore. I’m relentless. I’ll call every few months and I stay on their radar and eventually they will hire me.

I went to Europe with Kevin Mahogany, Cyrus Chestnut and may he rest in peace Red Holloway. That was 2009, I said if I could get myself into Europe one way or the other. That’s all I wanted to do, I had an obsession. I just wanted to do some dates there so people would know of me and then I would get invited back. But you need a hook up, you need a way in, you can’t just show up. If…you not esoteric, they don’t care. Getting back to my advice to young people.

NOJ: Just do it, like Nike says, and give up your life to it?

KK: I hate to put it like that, I mean it sounds ruthless. I am relentless; I’m like a pit bull. I don’t let go. I don’t give up. You have to be ready willing and able to do it all. You have to do your own administration, your own PR, manufacturing the records, the artwork, the production, who else can do it for you but you?

NOJ: What is next on the agenda for Kathy Kosins?

KK: A vacation (laughter).  I am putting this record out, which as of yet has not title. What’s next for me? My garden and a little gardening; when I get home I’m going dig some weeds because that’s therapeutic. I’m going to paint like a crazy woman because I have another art show in August.

After Newport, Oregon, I’ll be in Portland, then I’m going to remix and release an album of music that I did in LA a little while ago.  The first cut on this album will be “Drowning in a Sea of Love”. Let me tell you about this project. Before I recorded the To the Ladies of Cool cd, I recorded with Tamir Hendleman (piano), Bob Hurst (bass)and  Eric Harland (drums)  with Larry Koonse ( guitar) playing on a couple of tunes. When I did a concert  at a performing arts series in Beverly Hills, California I met Tamir and he and  I connected. I said I want to do a record with you. So I picked these very obscure tunes, somewhat Ladies of Cool, a little bit of Marlene Shaw, a little bit of Mark Murphy and Tamir did some nice arrangements.

I went to California and I went into the same studio as the Ladies of Cool. It includes,” Drowning in the Sea of Love”, “A Song for My Father”, a wonderful tune  called “Spring is Where You Are” that Steve Allen wrote, there’s a tune called “Don’t Be On the Outside” which I found on a Shirley Horn with a big band record. There is a wonderful tune called “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s” it’s a barroom lament, but it’s a great song. I play “You Fascinate Me So” with a Brazilian/Latin kind of a vibes and the end of it.
It’s got that Ivan Lins thing at the back end of it. I cut a tune called “Social Call” and a tune called “Passing By” …I like obscure tunes. I am working on getting this ready now for release later this year. Then the next project I think will be half my compositions and half contemporary songs with jazz vibes that I will be working on for release in 2014.

NOJ:  Thanks Kathy

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