Cécile McLorin Salvant talks to Moneyish about the power of subversion, the limited utility of the golden gramophone trophy and the optimism of being a young black woman
Cécile McLorin Salvant is Black Girl Magic.
At just 28, the Miami native already has one Grammy under her belt: the 2016 golden gramophone for best jazz vocal album. She’s a favorite for a repeat award next year thanks to her fourth EP “Dreams and Daggers,” which Pitchfork lauded for its “gravitas, humor, and modernity.” Wynton Marsalis, the elder statesman of jazz and a mentor of sorts to Salvant, was quoted in a flattering New Yorker profile comparing her talent to a young Michael Jordan’s.
But Salvant likes her music to be a challenge. She thrives in lending her voice to lyrics that veer into controversy and sometimes, outright misogyny. In “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” a standard from the 1968 film “Funny Girl,” Salvant sings of drowning a girl or throwing a woman into jail if she isn’t pretty enough. “And the men will always be men…/Hey, little girl, better wear something pretty,” she crones in “Wives and Lovers,” a 1963 hit made famous by Frank Sinatra.
Those lyrics “come from a place of great oppression and difficulty that women still deal with today,” she tells Moneyish. But by singing them her way, with variations in say, tone, from the originals, Salvant gives them a decidedly progressive, mocking take. “I like to deal with pain through humor. There’s a certain power in laughter.”
Salvant has taken an unusual path. Born to a Haitian father and a French musicophile mother in Florida, she left the U.S. for Aix-en-Provence in the south of France shortly after she turned 17 for an education in music and law. She had no plans to study jazz singing but was prompted to give it a try by her mother. “I had never really met many jazz musicians,” she says. “But I met people my age playing jazz in France. It was a discovery of performance and collaboration with others…music as an art form and not purely as entertainment. It was certainly an intense moment.”
In 2010, she came from obscurity to win the Thelonious Monk competition, a major jazz get-together, and dropped her first album. She started booking more gigs and encouraged by her parents, dropped out of school to pursue a musical career full-time. “It was the opposite of what you’d expect parents to say but it didn’t feel like a big risk,” Salvant says. “It just became increasingly useless for me to study” law.
Salvant supports herself with music and via booking standing room-only crowds at Village Vanguard, the legendary downtown Manhattan nightclub, but her appeal is still decidedly niche. “My band has an audience that supports us and I don’t feel like it changed because of the Grammy. We’ve been slowly growing,” she says. “In terms of my life, the Grammy has not made a huge difference. People don’t pay as much attention to it as pop and we can get lost in the categories.”
Though female jazz vocalists are dime a dozen— visit any hotel lounge in the little hours— there are significantly fewer women instrumentalists for them to work with. “They’re quite rare and that’s unfortunate,” says Salvant, who notes that the number of jazz musicians is already small thanks to it requiring “thousands of hours practicing alone. It’s a lot of work for very little recognition.”
That she says, is slowly starting to change: Salvant recently went on tour with Woman To Woman, an all-female ensemble. The 2017 series of gigs were announced on International Women’s Day and unfolded as a deliberate show of feminism in music. “The band I [normally] play with are like my brothers, but there’s a certain freedom in what you talk about with a group of women,” she says. “It was an amazing time and especially interesting to see how they dealt with being female in a very male-dominated sphere.”
Salvant is also particularly enthused by younger black women who are refusing to conform to stereotypes and standing up for things they believe in, with the overwhelming number of African American women who voted against alleged sexual harasser and failed Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore being a case of point.
“I feel very inspired by these younger black women who are dealing with the world in a beautiful way,” she says. “They’re very open and tolerant and not bogged down by the same things we hear about all the time. ‘You’re a black woman, act like this. You’re a gay man, act like this.’ That’s being challenged all the time.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved