Jazz education has made tremendous strides in recent decades, Bobbe Norris and Jerry Dunlap said. But, like all progress, it has come at a cost.
"Now it's all very academic," vocal veteran Norris told me a few years back in an interview. "It's not the same as the old-timers, who sang from the heart and from doing it, by paying dues. Now (vocalists) come out of college and get a job and they get well known. They are singing it ... but there's no depth."
"A young singer would more likely be working in a band with people around their own age," said pianist-husband Dunlap, noting how previous jazz generations regularly apprenticed with older, established artists. "And there are a lot more people performing."
Norris and Dunlap will bring their shared decades of experience to one of the Northern California’s steadiest jazz venues – the Sequoia Room at North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg – Saturday night.
During the couple’s own formative years, Dunlap noted, performers "didn't think of the business side of it much at all. 'I'm going to be able to pay my bills and get some nice trips.'
"But more and more, you have to know the business end of it. The people who are the good business people work a lot more, but that doesn't mean that they're good (musicians)."
Norris and Dunlap have embraced the new work ethic. They released "Out of Nowhere" (2004) on their own Four Directions label and keep busy with side projects.
There's been a good deal of success. Together and separately, the couple's credits include performing with everyone from Art Farmer and Gerry Mulligan to Joe Henderson and the Pointer Sisters. It takes a lot of hard work and, at times, can be frustrating.
"A lot of it rests on the artists themselves," Dunlap said. "The artist has to put out a lot of effort."
It helps that, in this case, it's a joint effort. Norris and Dunlap came together musically in the mid-1970s.
Raised in Portland, he had come to San Francisco to further his career and earned a regional reputation with Mel Martin's Listen. A Marin native, she had returned to Northern California following a difficult decade in New York.
Norris had gone east chasing a jazz dream. Like Dunlap, she grew up surrounded by music. Her parents played piano, and a grandfather doubled on accordion and mandolin. One uncle "sang like Sinatra," said Norris, who became fascinated with recording her own voice from age 7.
As a teenager, music led her to the jazz clubs of San Francisco and, after arriving in New York, the presence of John Hammond. A pianist pal helped win an audience with the legendary Columbia Records producer, whose discoveries included Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"I sang for John in his office with a trio," Norris said. "I remember I sang 'Spring Is Here' but that's the only one I remember. And he sort of tapped his foot and put his head down and he got into it.
"Then he told me I could do a jazz record and I would probably be on the label for a year and they would get rid of me."
Columbia, it seemed, had no real interest in jazz singers. What it wanted were pop vocalists in the fashion of its current best seller, Barbra Streisand
"So I had to go over to Streisand's (producers), and they were trying to get a kind of Streisand thing going," Norris said. "They always wanted me to sound like her."
That's not what Norris wanted but she went along, recording a series of singles and an album for Columbia. She also played New York's hippest nightspots and appeared on the "Tonight" and "Ed Sullivan" shows.
Her jazz roots eventually got the best of her. Columbia wound up releasing Norris much as Hammond had predicted, and she slipped into semi-retirement before Dunlap urged her back on stage.
By the early '80s, their musical partnership had evolved into marriage. Dunlap also was seeing quite a lot - professionally - of British singer Cleo Laine. Their collaboration began in the late '70s, when Laine and husband John Dankworth moved to Sonoma County. In the market for Northern California musicians, she was steered toward Dunlap.
"I used to work at the most four months out of the year with her," Dunlap said."Cleo's not only a great singer, but a really wonderful person.”
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