Lena Seikaly: A Bright Voice in Jazz

You’ll hear old and new jazz tunes at this January 18 show!

Named “one of Washington’s preeminent jazz singers” and “brightest voices in jazz” (The Washington Post), Lena Seikaly is making her mark in national and international jazz circles as a revivalist of traditional jazz vocals, as well as an innovator in contemporary vocal jazz styles. She was one of eleven semi-finalists for the prestigious 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocals Competition in Los Angeles and is an alum of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in Washington, D.C. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, Blues Alley, the Hamilton, and Strathmore Music Center, and has headlined at jazz festivals throughout the U.S.

Tidewater Women recently asked Lena Seikaly a few questions about her upcoming January 18 show at the Attucks Jazz Club in Norfolk.

TW: We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Attucks Jazz Club in January. How did this performance date come about?

LS: I’m looking very forward to performing at the Attucks Jazz Club, myself! It’s an honor to be included in such a wonderful lineup of musicians. This concert came about when pianist John Toomey invited me to perform with his group after a mutual musician friend recommended we collaborate. He saw this series as an opportunity for us to do so (and I’m so glad he did).

TW: What do you think resonates with jazz audiences today?

LS: In my experience, there are a few types of jazz audiences: those who prefer more traditional jazz, those who crave something new and different, and those who enjoy both and everything in between.

I personally love the old and the new and include a little bit of everything in my concerts by invoking the classic vocal styles of the swing and bebop eras, infusing some more contemporary harmonies into some of my arrangements, and nodding to my non-jazz influences in my writing style, among other things.

I find that most people who talk to me after concerts mention a particular aspect they enjoyed, and often times, it’s totally different from one person to the next. I love it! It really speaks to the uniqueness and versatility of jazz and its ability to resonate with everyone differently.

TW: How can we be a good audience for you when you are on stage?

LS: This is a fantastic question! I really appreciate when everyone is present with us while we are performing. At a jazz concert, it’s appropriate to be quiet while the musicians are playing, but you can (and should!) applaud after solos. When we are improvising, we are really opening ourselves up creatively—to our fellow bandmates and to the audience—and appreciation for the experience is shown by clapping. And usually, if it’s not too dark, we can see everyone in the audience, so it’s great to look out and see smiling, engaged faces.

TW: I understand you’ll be working with students while you are in town. As an educator and workshop instructor, what do you get most out of teaching jazz vocals?

LS: Education is the key to ensuring this music continues. I absolutely love witnessing “Eureka” moments with students because those are figural points that advance us along our musical paths. My formal education is in classical voice and I firmly believe that healthy vocal technique spans all genres and styles, so I enjoy helping singers manage difficult vocal passages when singing jazz. I love encouraging newcomers to jazz to get comfortable improvising and help them identify what makes jazz singing different from other vocal styles (e.g., musical theater, opera, pop, etc.), and help them incorporate those elements into their sound.

Something I like to impart to singers is the importance of not just being a “singer,” but a real “musician.” Serious vocal jazz students should be doing much of the same work (music theory, history, etc.) that instrumental students do, since improvisation is so central to what we do. So when I see a student begin exploring the genre like an instrumentalist, it informs their singing in such a deeper way, and it is so gratifying to watch their improvement.

TW: Who are some of your musical heroes and/or mentors?

LS: My heroes and muses in this style are the classic jazz singers of the swing, big band, and bebop eras: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Lorez Alexandria, Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Maxine Sullivan, Peggy Lee, and so many more. I am also heavily influenced by early singers like Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. When it comes to improvisation, I really look to bebop instrumentalists for a more in-depth understanding of jazz vocabulary.

TW: What else do you want us to know before your January 18 performance?

LS: I would just like to thank everyone who is planning to attend our concert, and to anyone who would like to say hi after the show, please do so!

For more information about the Jan. 18 concert at the Attucks Theatre, please visit www.vafest.org.

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