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‘When you hit the stage, it should be boom!’ Champian Fulton on the joys of live performance

Champian Fulton

I first met Champian Fulton a number of years ago, shortly after she arrived in New York from Norman, OK, just south of my Oklahoma City roots. At the time I marveled at her incredible swing as a pianist. The years since have only increased her dexterity, as well as her vocal sensitivity. At this point she has seen far more of the world than I or most people have, taking her message of swing and song for audiences to enjoy around the globe. But, when she comes home later this spring, she'll play where her new album Meet Me At Birdland was recorded.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Brian Delp: Champian Fulton has been in New York City for about 20 years now, but as she joins me today, she is actually doing what she does so very often—globetrotting. At this very moment, Champian is joining me from lovely Spain in Barcelona where she is preparing for a show tomorrow night. Champian Fulton, welcome to the WBGO Studios.

Champian Fulton: Hi Brian. Nice to see you. Thank you for having me.

It's our pleasure. This performance that you're doing in Spain is just one performance out of so very many. Right now you're on tour in Europe for how long? About a month?

Yes, about a month. I started the tour in Canada actually on February 10th, and I was in Canada for about two weeks. I've been in Europe since February 23rd, and I will be here until March 26th.

We're talking about not just Spain and Italy and France, but you're really going all over. You've been in Graz, Austria. You have been in Germany. You're going to Denmark. What is that like for a woman who was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma which is less than 10 miles, by the way, from where I was raised. What is that like to be touring the world these days?

I love it so much. I enjoy all of it. Even the other day we had a 10-hour car ride, but even that was fine. It was beautiful. We drove through the Alps, through the mountains. I just really love the opportunity to travel, play music, meet people and see things. You know, a rolling stone gathers no moss.

But it does manage to swing, which you always do by the way, every single time that you sit down at the piano. I know I'm going to hear some incredible swing, and I'm sure that the audiences in Europe probably feel the same. How have you found the audiences on this current tour?

It’s been really great. It’s been almost a little more than 10 years since I've been coming to Europe. I usually come every spring, then in the summer, and sometimes in the fall. I think I've developed a really nice rapport with the audiences here given the full houses. People are very warm. I just love seeing the same people over and over again every year who follow me.

You keep up on your Facebook page and your other social media. How important is that to young artists these days?

I think it's really important. It's very important to me because I love to share what I'm doing with people and I love to talk to them. Every morning when I wake up, I spend a lot of time replying to messages and DMs because I think the relationship with the community of the music is very important.

In other words, you're really presenting yourself not just as a performer and an entertainer, but also as a friend. It seems you are developing a close relationship to the people who actually listen to you all the time.

I think so. I hope so. Louis Armstrong loved to respond to letters by writing back. I learned about that from Clark Terry, who also loved to write letters and postcards and call people from the road. Of course, there was no social media, but he would stay in touch with people just the old-fashioned way. I sort of just learned it from them and I like to do it and I think it’s important.

This is encouraging because I'm finding people your age who only use social media, cell phones and smartphones in particular, tend to put distance between people.  I think that's probably one of the major drawbacks of that particular form of communication that has become so ubiquitous for almost everyone on the planet. But here you are building relationships by using this technology in a very positive way.

I think it's because I think of it as a tool, like a letter or a postcard or the phone. Personally, I like to talk on the phone as well, so I tell people, if we're doing business or anything, that we can talk on the phone as opposed to going back and forth on email and text. I like communicating and staying in touch by using all the different technology available.

I think that's a very healthy attitude and I hope that some people will adopt that even more. Ironically, I saw on your Facebook page a posting that you did about talking on the phone some months ago and how you wish that people would just pick up the phone and chat for five or ten minutes. That phone connection seems to be so much more personal.

Unfortunately, people don't like to talk on the phone anymore. I remember when I moved to New York and I met Frank Wess the first week I moved here. I asked for Frank's number and asked him, “Can I call you sometimes?” He was like, “Yeah, call me.” After I started calling him, he would call me sometimes every other day, to check in and ask, “How are you doing? How's school? What's going on? Are you coming to town?” We would talk for five minutes because it was part of his day that he liked to call his friends regularly. And I like that too.

One of our great joys was running into Frank Wess and his wife. Wherever we seemed to go, it seemed like they were there, even if he wasn’t playing.  Frank and his wife were just hanging.

Frank loved to hang. He would go see shows and he loved to go out to dinner and to gigs—even people's little gigs. I loved that about him.

Let’s move on to your new album, which was actually captured live at what I guess is your home base really more than anything. It's reflected simply by its title, Meet Me at Birdland, which is where you and I have met most often.

Birdland has been my home base in New York for a really long time. I got my very first gig there in 2003. I played happy hour piano for Gianni at the club on Thursdays, from six to eight or 8:30p.m., because the main show used to start at 8 45. After I did that for a few years, I started singing with David Berger (back then they were called the Sultans of Swing) every Tuesday, which culminated in my first professional record. Ever since I've just stayed working at Birdland on Sundays. In 2020 I did my very first week and I thought, “Wow, why don't we make a live record here—like Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson?”

Was this before or after the pandemic began in 2020?

I don't know if you remember but New York reopened at 25%, for about five days in December of 2020. By chance, I had gotten those dates at Birdland, and so we played those days that the club was open and it was great. Then Gianni said, “Why don't you do Christmas of 2021”? I said, “Great.” We were booked for two different weeks—one in September and one in December. The idea started culminating in 2021 and got fleshed out last year in 2022.

Cover of Champian Fulton's album Meet Me at Birdland
Cover of Champian Fulton's album Meet Me at Birdland

The result is her new album, Meet Me at Birdland, which comes out on April 7 and you will be returning to Birdland to celebrate that.  But I'm fascinated by the set. I was just listening to it and the fact that you did four nights at Birdland last September and you never repeated a single song.

That's what they say. I don't really remember. It's with my trio which includes Fukushi Tainaka on drums and Hide Tanaka on bass. We have been working together since about 2004 or 2005.

That's a very long stretch, especially for someone at your age to be with the same trio for almost two decades.  What is that like?

I have other recordings with other rhythm sections like David Williams and Lewis Nash. I did work with some other bands off and on, but Fuku, Hide and I are always drawn back to each other because we have a real rapport with the same musical ideas or values. We also really love playing together so we have a large repertoire at this point.
This is the reason you could do four nights and not repeat a single song.

I think so. The guys are so creative and it's a very fun trio. I play piano and I sing, and then the bass and drums are like accompaniment or they're following me all the time. But with Hide and Fuku, it's not always me leading, and I love that.

A good example of that on the new album is your original composition, “Happy Camper.”  I was immediately snared by it because it swings, which is always welcome to me. For another thing, it evoked exactly what the title says. It's a happy sounding tune.  But then you have another instrumental feature on the album that's a good nine minutes long called “I Don't Care.” Where does that come from?

That’s a blues tune written by Ray Bryant, the great jazz pianist. I used to hear Junior Mance play that tune all the time. I was good friends with Junior and saw him many times in New York. We hung out a lot and he used to play that tune.

I love that it's a minor blues. In the past couple years I've just been getting into that tune. People are like, “It's nine minutes—are you going to put that on the record? It's very long.” And I said, “Yeah, I'm going to put it on the record unedited. Let's just put it on there.”

Well, it's a live performance after all.

I want it to be like a real jazz record, because sometimes jazz records have long tunes.

That's the whole idea. Ever since the invention of LPs 33 1/3, it's like you just go for it. Do what you want, especially on a live date like this one.

Hide has a great bass solo on “I Don't Care.”

The interplay that you have with Fukui and Hide brings to mind another fabulous player, Marian McPartland, one of the original women of jazz.  Seventy years ago, she was doing work like this with bassists like Bill Crow and drummers like Joe Morello. They played at the Hickory House on 52nd Street for years. Do you foresee something like this for yourself?

Well, I hope so. It's important to have longevity in the music, and especially with an ensemble. I think if you stay with the same people in your band, you grow and learn and you develop together. I think if you're always changing ensembles or if you don't have a band or the concept of a band, it's hard to grow.

Champian Fulton
Robert Davidson
Champian Fulton

But in this case, you have played with those two musicians for so many years, although you're playing with different musicians, for instance at the date that you have tomorrow night in Barcelona. Now are you employing that same rhythm section on your entire European tour, or do you actually employ different bassists and drummers depending upon where you are?

It is different, depending on where I am. What I like to do is keep a rhythm section for at least a couple of weeks so we travel together. I just did Italy, Germany, and Austria, and that was the same rhythm section the whole time. It will be the same rhythm section in Spain, France, and actually in Brussels, it'll be the same rhythm section. I think it's nice to have still the concept of the band, even if we don't play together all the time. The guys know the tunes I like to play. I know the tunes they like to play and we have a repertoire.

By the same token, when you do get into a trio situation like that for two weeks, do you find that it's easy to find the groove every night when you get on the bandstand?

It should be. That's the idea of course, but when you're on the road and you're playing so often, every day is a little bit different. Sometime you're tired or you don't have a good sound check or the guys are arguing about something stupid or whatever. But I think when you hit the stage, it should be boom.

Well, let's talk about what the last 20 years have been like. This is Women's History Month after all and you represent the coming generation, the future history of this music. What has it been like coming up over the last two decades? Have the last five, six, seven years made a huge difference because we do see the scene changing.

Yeah, for sure. The scene is changing a lot. I can't believe that I've been in New York for 20 years. It's shocking to me.

I know. Time flies, doesn't it?

Very fast. I felt very lucky because when I moved to New York, I was able to make really good friendships and relationships with some of the jazz legends and heroes, including some that have passed away. Not everybody, of course. I'm still really good friends with Lou Donaldson. He just turned 96. I feel like I was able to learn a lot and be a part of that community, which is so fortunate for me. It was my dream. That's why I came to New York from Oklahoma. That's what I wanted to do. I loved being a part of that. And now the past five, six years have been great because I'm working more, I'm traveling more. I'm achieving those things that I wanted to achieve. I feel pretty good about everything.

Do you find it's different for a young woman like yourself than it was when you came to New York or even different from what it was like five, six years ago?

I don't know. I think it's because I've been on the scene so long. Things are different to me just because I've been around for a long time and I know everybody. Still, it's a man's business although I think maybe it's changing. I was lucky. When I came to New York, that older generation such as Frank Wess, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes—those guys were super cool to me. I didn't feel that they treated me differently necessarily because I was a girl. They treated me I thought like a musician, and that I think gave me a lot of confidence. Sort of protected me almost like within the scene.

The theory I've always had, and I've been here a little bit longer than you, putting this music on the air since before you were born, is that swing really doesn't depend upon your gender. You either can do it or you can't. If you've got that thing in your left hand like you do—and the very first time my wife and I saw you, by the way, probably at Birdland, I leaned over to my wife and said, “Her right hand's hers, but her left hand belongs to Erroll Garner.” Or Earl Fatha Hines, I can't remember. The point I was making is that jazz is the kind of music that you can either play or you can't.  Your gender or your age doesn’t matter. If you've got it, you've got it. If you don't, well probably find something else to do for a living.

Yeah, I agree. I think that's really what it comes down to. You're either a part of the community of musicians or you're not.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Delp has been a member of WBGO’s on-air team for more than two decades, most-recently as the long-time host of Jazz After Hours. He has emceed at nearly every major jazz venue in the New York City area and hosted a portion of New York City’s City Parks Foundation’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival over several summers.