Judy Niemack was born in Pasadena, California, and began singing in public in church at the age of seven. Throughout her school years she used to sing in every thinkable kind of vocal ensemble: in a chamber choir, a musical theatre, in folk groups and rock bands, and eventually in a vocal jazz quartet. When she was seventeen, she decided that singing was her life...
Judy Niemack has written and recorded several of her own compositions, and also original lyrics to many other musicians' compositions, becoming an official lyricist for Pat Metheny, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and many others. She is also very active in the world of jazz education, and has given classes around the world in conjunction with her tours."About Time" is her latest production that she did together with her husband Jeanfrançois Prins.
Anja Fröhlich talked to Judy Niemack and Jeanfrancois Prins for Jazzdimensions
Anja: You have worked together with many great artists - who influenced you the most and why?
Judy: Well, I have to say that my teacher, who was one of the great jazz-saxophonists, was a great influence on me - this was Warren Marsh - because I was in the beginning of my jazz exploration and I was in my early twenties. I met him actually when I was eighteen but began to study about three years later. That had a really profound influence on my approach to improvisation and my feeling of his confidence in me that I could do it. Whatever I wanted to do he was positive I could do it, which is so much of what a teacher gives - just the belief in you. In that way he influenced me a lot. He was also somebody, who was a very pure musician, who lived for the music. He was not doing it for commercial purposes but merely - above all - to explore and to create.
Anja: You are said to be one of the world´s best scat-singers - what makes scatting so special for you?
Judy: It's like being a painter with this incredible palet of colours - like in "Fantasia" the Disney movie - anything flows out of your brush. So it's the feeling of being a co-creator in the moment with the whole band of this new music that´s coming through you and coming out of you. And the ground is prepared for that with the study of scales and rhythm - and harmony and all that's come before - and composition. You have to create a new melody, instantly remembering what you do, so you can build on it and make a coherent scat-solo. It's really the tools of composition but with the freedom to react to what's happening at the moment with the other players. So that's the excitement. It's just fun!
Anja: Did you ever paint?
Judy: Oh I have painted - this is my plan for my retirement to really get into painting. But right now I don't have time...
Anja: Did your career as a singer always work out well? Were there times where you thought about giving up - and if so what made you carry on?
Judy: O.K., for me there was never a point where I considered giving up. And I think there won't be because my singing and my music is not dependant on the outside world. It is something I'm gonna do even if I'm sitting alone in a room when I'm an old lady. For me it's just fascinating to keep creating with this medium. And to be an artist does not depend on audience response in my world. I've had times where I seriously questioned careerwise whether I would ever break through or whether it made sense to work so hard for such small response. When you're getting started it's tough. Singing jazz is something which in English we say "you have to pay dues for". You have to sing in all those little smokey clubs and sometimes there're people who aren't listening when you get started. I spent years working as a waitress and supporting myself with other jobs so that I could do the music I wanted to do. So that's where the hardship comes in. But I never doubted whether I would sing.
Anja: I heard that you even lived in a garage for a couple of months...
Judy: (laughs) Yeah, when I first went to New York. We were totally out of money and we had to get food stamps. We had no money for gas and the car and it was this icy storm winter of 1978. We had moved there from California thinking, well you know I'll get a job and I´ll make some money and it'll be fine! And it was just much much harder than I ever expected. That was a real low point I got to admit. I didn't question whether I would sing but I seriously thought about moving back to Califonia (laughs) - where it was warm. So there's been tough years and living in New York for 18 years. You have to really want it.
Anja: Can you compare the life in New York to the life in Berlin?
Judy: (to Jeanfrançois) You want to answer this one?
Jeanfrançois: Sure. I mean I've been sharing Judy's life in New York for a few years now. I've never really lived there for years at a time. I think the longest time I stayed there was five months, but I know the life in New York more than most Europeans, I guess. I would compare a lot of the creative energy that I feel there and feel here. Berlin is a kind of "magnet" for creative people like New York is. And many things are possible because of the quantity of creative people that are here and the way they influence each other.
I feel personally the scene in Berlin is the most interesting in Europe. This is the place in Europe to be. New York is usually "the place to be" in the world for jazz musicians. Well, this is certainly another wonderful place to be and I don't think it's only for jazz musicians. I think it's the same for classical musicians and for dancers and painters and sculpturs.
Judy: There's a lot happening also because of the opening up of East and West Germany. That whole mix is happening here in Berlin, as we all know, since we live here. In the international character of Berlin there´re so many different nationalities mixing together I find very interesting and comparable to New York.
Anja: What would you say has changed since you married and work together?
Judy: Well things gradually changed. We've been together now for around thirteen years, although we only got married back in 1998. So we've been married five years. But we met at a jam session, we met through the music. We met playing together at a party in New York - a party for Belgian jazz musicians I was invited to. So I met this young guy there and we got together. Being two musicians happened before we fell in love with each other. And we knew we loved each other's music.
It's always grown together. First actually we didn't perform together that much for a while - I had my own separate career, Jeanfrançois had his trio, his quintet - and gradually we performed more and more together. This project - "About Time" - is really the first one that we created together. To conciously say: "Let´s do something with us at the core and build it around this intimate sound of voice and guitar and the bass".
Anja: You are also very active as a songwriter - what inspires you to write lyrics and how do you choose your subjects?
Judy: Usually the music itself suggests something to me. And sometimes it's the title. The Pat Metheny song on the album ("About Time") was called "It's just talk" first and I had the idea of talk - O.k.: talk, communication, what do we need in this world now? We need communication, we need to take time to talk and not go into aggressive action immediately. We need to be open to other cultures. So, for example that title and the optimism of the music made me want to write something about finding the way to peace through communication.
Judy Niemack - "About TIme"
I got so interested in lyrics and poetry and somehow this process of fitting a lyric to an existing melody is really fascinating for me - it's a real craft, a challenge. Another song was originally called "Time" which is why I chose it partly and I always loved it. So I started thinking about time and time passing and my feeling of the world giving us a bit too much information for the amount of time we have to absorb it. Then the lyric came out of that like "cease the day, cease the moment, take time to experience what's happening now, rather than regretting the past or worrying of the future".
Anja: This explains why you chose not to use drums, because it's not supposed to rush forward...
Judy: Yeah, to leave space for things to occur. And that choice, of course, was also based on that nobody has to keep the time...We can create the time ourselves. We are all independent musicians and don'´t need a time-keeper.
Jeanfrançois: Even though we love to play with drummers! But for this one it was part of the idea soundwise and musicwise that we wanted to create this environment without the sound of the drums.
Anja: Judy, you're not only a singer but also a teacher. You have taught singing in many cities at many universities around the world. At the same time you are at home on stage - do you see yourself more as a singer or more as a teacher?
Judy: I guess I have to honestly say it's both! It coexists. I've been teaching since my early twenties and I've always loved it. And I find that there's no contradiction. I bring my students into the music and I teach them how to improvise. I improvise with them, I explore the lyrics of great songs with them, I try to turn them on to songs, they bring me songs they want to do and we get into them. It's all part of the same creative journey that I would take in my own music.
Of course as a teacher sometimes you have to come down to your students level to bring them up and in that case you need to be able to turn that off and get back into your own higher level of music-making. That has been what I have learned to do over the years. To keep the performance side on a high level you have to be able to turn off the teaching.
The teaching is my way of giving back to the world. I've been given so many gifts, I'm so lucky to know what I wanted to do with an early age and to find my path, so I wanna give that back. Performing can tend to be very egocentric - me, me, me...So it's part of my spiritual journey and my feeling of what I owe to the earth to give it back.
Jeanfrançois: I think it's also a motivation, an inspiration for the students to see what she's doing on stage and to see that she's performing a lot. It makes them see how she applies what she's talking about.
Judy: And then you better do it! Do what you're talking about...
Anja: What would you say is the most important aspect of becoming a professional singer? What would you tell people, who want to become professional singers?
Judy: Well, you have to be ready to work - and work hard! That's my belief and that's how I teach. I believe that singers should be as well trained as their instrumental counterparts. There's no excuse that because you're a singer you shouldn't know the chords to the song or what's the harmony that's going on, if you wanna be an improvisor. So that's part of it.
The other thing I would say is that you need to listen to the feedback from the outer world and really be ready to take criticism in order to get better. So, anybody who wants to make a profession out of it should ask for feedback from professionals. Whether it's painful or not, you need to really be willing to hear if you have a chance or not.
If you've been to the entrance examinations, you know that for example last semester I had 76 applicants for one place. - And it's hard, if you're gonna be competing with people who would just do anything to succeed... So, you better be full of passion and ready to work hard.
Jeanfrançois: Well, I think you need to get the tools first. So if you want to become a professional plumber you need to learn how to use all the tools technically perfect and then you can be creative and adapt to whatever the situation is.
Judy: This is an interesting comparison - plumbing and jazz...
Jean-François: If you want to be a professional musician you have to do the groundwork. You have to learn the technique, you have to practice a lot, work a lot. And of course all that makes no sense if you don' t have the gift at the beginning. You have to have your personality and you have to have something to say. But it doesn't work without the work. So some people have the gift and don't do anything about it. Some other people work hard but they don't have the gift. You have to have both!
That's the key to become a professional. I mean you can have fun with your friends and that's wonderful. It's important to have some art in your life. But if you want to be a professional singer or a professional musician you have to be able to go in a studio and sightread something that somebody else wrote. And just do it "like this" - that's being professional!
Now, if on top of that, you want people to recognize your name, then you have to have a strong personality, a sound that is yours and an artistic vision that will make your voice unmistakable. If I hear one note of Chet Baker or one note of Eddie Gomez or one note of Judy Niemack, I don't need to hear more - I know it's them. And that's the goal!
Anja: Talking about being professional - How do you handle being married and being a busy artist?
Judy: Actually it's easier than it was when I was single. I did it a long time single. I traveled to Japan and I would sing with the Japanese Trio and I traveled to Finland and I sang with a Finnish Band and went to Holland and France and Germany and I played with really good local musicians - that's really nice but there's nothing to compare with having your musical partner with you.
And then we have like "90% of the band" taken care of - we have the chords and the arrangements and the voice - so musically it makes total sense for me. The other factor is that Jeanfrançois is absolutely supportive of me and not competitive. He doesn't mind that I'm the leader of the band on stage and getting the audience involved and that I get applause. And I have no problem with giving him his spot. That's so important when couples work together.
Jeanfrançois: That can be the problem with artist couples when you're afraid that the other one overshadows you. We don't have that problem. I feel like we're very complementary - also on the human side - as a couple. It's extremely hard to find somebody who's not an artist who can understand that you are going to be on the road for ten days and then you're coming back for a few hours. And then going to teach somewhere and things like that.
Judy: Right, we have the same priorities. So if we get a call, like there's a gig, or there's a workshop that I wanna do, it's like: Of course we're gonna do it. If I'm gonna do it - he'll say: "Go, I'll see you in a week".
Jeanfrançois: We understand that and it's great that we can do so much together. But it's also good that we have our separate projects, too. You know, it's very healthy. So, it's a very good solution for us.
Anja: What is the next project in the future?
Judy: I have several resolutions for this year! I've been writing a book for seven years for jazz-singing and I'm determined to get it out this year. I even have "Advanced Music" - a wonderful German publisher - who wants to put it out, I just have to get it done. And it's gonna be great. We recorded the CDs, Jeanfrançois played on and helped me to produce the CDs to go with it in New York last spring with an incredible rhythm section, totally swinging and grooving.
So, these will be the playbacks - I'm singing on it, Mark Murphy's singing on it - and these will be the examples. So I'm excited about getting that one done. The other project is a WDR-Bigband-Project that I've done in 1993 and in 2001 with arrangements by this grammy-award-winning arranger Jim McNealy with compositions by Mike Stern, Jeanfrançois, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, etc. and my lyrics. So this I´m gonna finish.
Jeanfrançois: I have started writing music that is inspired by this physics professor who wrote a book about hyperspace and the ten dimensions. I also have a trio with which I recorded an album and now we´re gonna record a new one. But basically we want to perform a lot together.
Anja: Can you describe a typical Judy Niemack day or a typical Jeanfrançois Prins day?
Judy: Yeah, I can describe a typical teaching day, which is that we get up in the morning, we drink lots of coffee, do our separate exercises. He has his routine, I have my routine - I do my yoga thing and my warm-ups. Then, of course, we get on the phone, try to answer e-mails, do the business part. And if it's a teaching day we usually get to school around 11:00 or 12:00 and have a day of maybe six hours of teaching. And at the end of that, since this year, we join the fitness club.
We were really into feeling good this winter and not getting in the "Berlin blues". So those are the good teaching days and the fitness club is near the school, so that works out great. On the week-ends we try to play together and rehearse when we can, but we also enjoy the movies - he's a big cinema buff.
Jeanfrançois: So I'll take a usual playing day, since she took a teaching day. At a playing day, if we are flying or taking the train or driving somewhere, we want to get there as early as possible to see what the room looks like. To talk to the sound-engineer, to install everything on stage. To practice, think about the music, think about the place we´re in. E.g., is there any reason why some of our repertoire could seem aggressive to some people? Then we need to explain to them why we do it or not do it.
Aktuelle CD: Judy Niemack - "About Time" (SONY JAZZ 509824-2)
Judy Niemack im Internet: www.judyniemack.com