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‘I'm doing my best to tell the truth’: Brianna Thomas on tour with ‘Songs We Love”

Brianna Thomas
Matt Baker
Brianna Thomas

A few years ago, I visited Cleopatra's Needle, a former New York City jazz club and restaurant on Broadway between 92nd and 93rd Streets in Manhattan. It was my first time in this legendary haunt. There was a young vocalist that I'd never seen or heard of before - Brianna Thomas. She had my full attention. She sang familiar standards from the Great American Songbook with such passion and a whole lot of soul, as if she'd lived every one of those tunes. I was hooked and soon became a fan and a friend. Brianna is currently on a 47-city tour for Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: Songs We Love with the Next-Generation Jazz Stars. Songs We Love is a journey through the first 50 years of jazz song under the musical direction of Riley Mulherkar. Brianna  is one of three guest vocalists who will join an all-star band  made up of New York’s rising jazz stars.

Songs We Love will be presented March 9 at the Grunin Center at Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J. Learn morehere.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: Ms. Thomas, I remember the first time I saw you. It was late night on the Upper West Side, not too far from where I live now, at Cleopatra's Needle, no longer there. I walked in. I heard you singing. I'm like, “Who is this sister?” You knocked me out and it's been a joy for me to witness your journey. Can you share with us how you made your way from your hometown of Peoria, Illinois, where at the tender age of six, you made your singing debut, performing the jazz classic “What a Wonderful World.”

Brianna Thomas: I did. My father was a vocalist and a drummer. He called me onto the stage. So that's how that began. I was very fortunate to have many mentors and teachers along the way who ushered the right music, the right inspiration, the right paths, the right thoughts, the right just everything into my life. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I wouldn't be anywhere, not just here, but anywhere, if it hadn't have been for them, starting with my parents who really encouraged my inklings towards jazz and music in general. From singing in Peoria, I sang through high school. I played saxophone.

I didn't know that. Will we hear that from you soon? Somewhere down the line, will you break out on a saxophone solo?

I had a teacher who was very wise that insisted that I continue playing saxophone past middle school on into high school in concert band and big band, and that exposed me to a way of listening and a way of sharing music on stage. There are small ensembles, but a big band is different. You have to get in where you fit in, so to speak, because it's a whole masterpiece and working of things. With a small ensemble, it's the same way, but it can be more free. That happened and I went on to college. I went to The New School in New York. From college, I did the JazzMobile in New York City. I did that competition at Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead and I met more mentors. I really want to emphasize the importance of the people who came before us, and who are still with us. We can be mentors. You can be a mentor at any age. When you're on stage, you're seen. Whether it's someone who is enjoying music or someone who is involved in music, you're with a message. It has been a tremendous journey for me, and I'm really looking forward to see what's coming next.

Well, you are doing the thing, as they say. You are out there doing it. I love seeing you in large ensembles and small ensembles. You are a regular at Jazz at Lincoln Center. You are a superb interpreter of the Great American songbook. Were you involved in curating the program from Jazz at Lincoln Center “Songs We Love”?

Yes. The band leader is Maestro Riley Mulherkar. It's always a pleasure to work with people, but it's especially wonderful when you work with someone who gives you the opportunity to join them in a program of music and you get to say, “This is what I want to sing.” He extended that opportunity to all.

There's two other vocalists, myself, Shenel Johns and Vuyo Sotashi. There have been some other vocalists that have come in and out. Joshua Banbury, fantastic voice. And Tahira Clayton, another amazing vocalist. And Tyreek McDole.

These are all new names to me, so we'll be on the lookout for them all.

Riley gave us the opportunity to choose what we wanted to sing, and then with his masterful mind, he took these songs that we chose and made these amazing arrangements. Some of them he worked with us on, and some of them he came to us and he said, “Here's what I did with this, what do you think?” It's been a real collaborative experience. That has been a joy too, because we all learn from one another. But I have to say he knows how to write and how to arrange and how to lay out the carpet for the vocalist that he is arranging for…to make them shine in their best way. It's been a real joy to work with him. And he’s a trumpeter in the group too. There are three horns. All of it has been exciting.

You have already started the tour.

We just went through the Midwest—St. Louis. We were up in Michigan, in Wisconsin, and we're in Lancaster, PA now. We're headed over to the East. We are about four and a half or five weeks in now. We started January 17th and we will end April 4th.

How has it been out on the road again and so extensively?

Honestly, I personally love the road. I think as an artist to have the opportunity to do what you do so consistently is such a blessing. It is only the type of thing that can sharpen one and make one better, especially when you're surrounded by tremendous talent. Just all of the lessons, like having to show up to soundcheck every day. We have to manage soundcheck. By manage, I mean you have to think about your voice and how you use your voice and the room and conserving from day to day and just managing.

When I wake up in the morning, I am always thinking about what do I need to do today to improve? What do I need to do today so that my voice comes out today. What do I need to do to give my voice the best opportunity to do what it can at its best? To do that every day and then to be able to show up and perform with amazing musicians, it’s just the opportunity, honestly, of a lifetime. I feel like I've been bitten by the tour bug and I'm like, “Let's go.”

Hit the road, Jack. This program includes some serious jewels by masters of song crafts, such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen. What is it about these songs that have remained an inspiration and a reference for generations of jazz and pop performers and songwriters?

These songwriters and composers that you've mentioned were the way that they wrote, the stories they told. They told a story in a song is immortal because when you tell a story, you're telling your truth in someone else's. When you deliver a song with truth, it's just something that people will not forget. They hang on to those experiences. We, as performers, hang onto those experiences of the room and every audience is different. These composers that we have the pleasure and honor of singing these songs …the stories in the song.

That's what strikes me most, like “I Loves You Porgy,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” All of these songs have their own storyline and inspiration and whoever you are in the room, you've lived your life, you've come to the room with your experiences. You’re having your own individual experiences, but you're sharing it with everyone in the room, and that is the immortality of these songs to me. They mean something. No matter if they were sung then, and if they're sung now. And they will mean something into the future because it's the human experience.

Do you write your own music?

I do. I do write and it is, oh man, I love to write.

And you've recorded some of your own music, haven't you?

I have.

I listened to you. One of my favorites is a song that you didn't write. It's written by Stevie Wonder, one of the great storytellers.  “I Never Dreamed You'd Leave This Summer.” Yes, you killed that one, girl.

Thank you. Oh my goodness. I loved when I heard that song. You listen to the lyrics that Stevie writes and that’s one thing about great songwriters. They write great melodies, and the melodies tell the story, but when you put the lyric to the melody it makes it personal. But I do write and I have the great pleasure of being a part of the lineage of songwriters. I'm doing my best to tell the truth.

Tell us a little bit about your process. How do you go about writing a great song?

With the writing that I've done so far in life, my songs have come out of life experience. I think a song that reaches a crowd is a universal truth in a way. And even though it may mean something different to everyone. Someone might be listening, let's say, to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and they might be thinking about their loved one that passed on. Someone else might be thinking about their dreams. Those two people can be crying, but for different reasons, or they can be celebrating for different reasons. It's universal in its ability to reach someone at their core. So when I write songs, the way that inspiration comes to me is usually it hits me in my face and I'm not even looking. Like I practice looking for it. But you go through life experiences and when you're vulnerable and you are not afraid to tell the truth, it can really not only minister to you, but to others. That's been my path in songwriting. I know there are people, I admire who can just pick up a sock and write a song about a sock because there are some incredible people out there that can write a song about anything. My path has just been to write about things that I have been through or that I understand as a human being.

That's encouraging because as a singer, I'm trying to learn how to take some of the words that are in my head to the paper and also not expose myself. It’s very personal, so you kind of put yourself out there in telling your story. It's a little scary.

I would love to hear some of your songs because I love the way you tell a story like, “Here's the truth.”

It's coming. It's just getting over the “Is it good enough?” But you know how that goes.

I do know how that goes and I went through thinking that, and I go through thinking that and then something comes to me and says, “It is good enough because you lived it and you aren't the only one and somebody needs to hear it.” I can't wait to hear what you have to say.

Thank you. Soon come. I'm working on it.  Why are singers drawn to some of these songs, these standards from the ‘20s and thirties and forties? What is it that makes you connect to these songs? I guess it's just the lyrics.

The way they make you feel. I think one of my great teachers, Mr. Richard Harper, he always says, sound follows feeling. If you listen to a Duke Ellington song or a Gershwin tune without the lyrics, you can still feel it. But when the story is present, it just hits differently and it allows people, again, to interpret it in their own personal way. So I think it's just a feeling of these songs and that's why we love them. That's why they're songs we love. It's because of how they make us feel.

Tell me, is there anyone in the band over the age of 30 in this ensemble? I was just wondering because you are the next generation of songwriters, singers and musicians.

Oh, there's a few of us over 30. Honestly, I know age is like a thing sometimes, but there are some songs that I had to live a little before I was able to sing them with any amount of truth and sincerity. I think that only gets better, like wine. So there's a few of us over 30, but we're all still learning life and still trying to understand and process things and forever students.

That’s a wonderful thing. You're going to be with the ensemble down at the Jersey Shore in Toms River on the 10th of March at 8 pm at Ocean County College at the Grunin Center, with a wonderful lineup. “Songs We Love,” spotlighting the next generation of jazz stars and iconic songs from the ‘20s through the ‘50s. Brianna Thomas can sing. Shenel can sing. Vuyo can sing. So you all need to go out there and get your tickets and be a part of that and follow these young people because, as sad as it is, a lot of people seem to think that jazz is dead. And I'm like, no, there are a lot of young people out here like yourself, making sure it lives.

It lives in and of itself and it lives in the things that came after it. I love what Sonny Rollins said. He said jazz is the type of thing that can absorb anything and still maintain itself. Because of that, I think it spreads out all over. It's the spirit of it. It's the spirit of freedom. It's the spirit of joy. It's the spirit of sorrow, because the blues that's in it. It's the spirit of humanity. So it's very much alive.

There you go. Go ahead, Reverend. Are there any gospel records maybe in the future, because I know you can sing some gospel?

A funny thing. Some of the songs that I've been writing have been laced with that kind of reverence and thanks. I just recently sang with my hometown symphony, which turned 125. They invited myself and Victor Wooten, and I did “Precious Lord.” That's kind of a family song to me. So that's a song that I would want to record.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.