What brought you to Switzerland?
I first came to Switzerland in 1976 when I was touring with jazz great Lionel Hampton. We came to perform at the Bern Jazz Festival, held at the Kursaal.
Could you tell me how you became a jazz singer?
I come from a musical family, all my uncles on my mother's side of the family were musicians. There was always music in our house. I remember my uncles used to play a record and tell me they'd give me a dollar if I could keep quiet and sit still during the whole song. But I couldn't help myself; I always had to sing along or dance to the music. I never did win that dollar!
After high school in Michigan, I went to Howard University in Washington, DC to study sociology. However becoming a singer was always in my heart. As I auditioned to transfer to the Fine Arts Department at Howard, I was informed by Dean Fax that I should not become a singer but a music librarian. So I hired a classical singing student to become my first teacher. As I began performing in clubs in DC someone heard me and arranged an audition with Lionel Hampton. So I moved to New York and began touring with the "Lionel Hampton Inner Circle."
Since the dean of the Howard University Fine Arts department denied me admission, I've performed with some of the greatest jazz artists the world has ever known: Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera, Jimmy Woode, Al Grey, Junior Mance and Benny Bailey. I've toured America, Europe, Russia, Siberia, the Middle and Far East. I have an extensive discography, from duo to symphony orchestra, many of my own productions and compositions, given workshops in four countries and was the Jazz Vocal Professor for the Jazz Department of the Hochschule der Künste in Bern for 18 years. I wish he could see me now!
That said, I did learn something very valuable from Dean Fax. As a teacher I always choose my words carefully. I know that words have power and I wouldn't want my words to destroy someone's dreams.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
As a singer, I most enjoy exemplifying the story of the song. Each song has a story to tell and it's up to me to bring it to the audience and get them involved in it. As a teacher, I enjoy helping my students develop their talents and reach their goals.
What inspires you?
Many different things! I worked on a project with Jazz bassist Thomas Dürst that I called "Painting Jazz." My inspiration for that project was the swirled colors on a vase that belonged to my mother. The vase now sits atop my piano and it still inspires me. My travels also inspire me.
I first went to Russia in 1993 on the Gershwin & Ellington Tour. There I met and kept in touch with a Russian pianist named Lev Kushnir and we worked together on my CD "AmeRus", which brings together the music of American and Russian musicians.
Sammy Davis, Jr. has also been a great inspiration to me. He was an all-round entertainer. He could sing, dance and act – he could do it all! My concept show, "Sandy Loves Sammy" is a tribute to him.
Do you have any tips for a musician trying out their career in Bern?
Get out there and get to know the scene. Go to concerts, find jam sessions and start practicing with other musicians. Networking is important. Additionally, I'd advise singers to always have a list of tunes with tonality charts in your wallet, so that if someone asks what you can do you don't have to spend any time thinking of a fitting song. And today, singers must also be musicians!
Any tips for building and maintaining a network?
In order to build a network, whether for your business or your private life, you should socialize as much as possible in order to get to know people. But that's only the start; it's crucial to keep in touch. There's a piano player I know from the years I spent in Marseille and an Italian saxophone player who I still work with whenever possible. Then there's the "Don't Change Your Hair for Me" and our Bern-based group "Friends 4 Friends" We've done projects together in the past and currently we're working on a reunion. I also keep in touch with former students.
Based on your own experience, what would you tell newcomers about feeling at home in Switzerland?
There are so many things I love about this country. Little things like the sound of church bells and the stores' early closing times. More significantly, living here can give you a change of perspective. Unlike in the US, there is a real commitment to culture here. There is a jazz school in almost every canton, for example. I also appreciate the fact that people still believe in the honor system, that the public transportation system allows people to stay mobile and that the cities are safe. Plus, Switzerland is in the center of Europe, so you can easily travel to different countries and also experience different cultures in everyday life.
The Swiss have embraced me, and so I decided to really let myself be at home here. Over the past twenty years, I've built a great circle of friends. These are the people who know me in real time – where and who I am now – and not how they remember me to be. Now, when I go to the States for a visit, I'm eager to get back home – back to Bern. I look forward to growing old here.
Photos:Marcel Meier & Doris Kuert