What singing for Quincy Jones taught me about trusting my gut
It was a steaming hot July in the stunning Swiss town of Montreux. The clouds above us were slowly filling with water from Lake Geneva, the humidity was rising from the pavement like sizzling rocks in a sauna, and I had the shits.
I knew it. My parents (who had flown half way across the world to see me) knew it. Even my unhappy gut knew it. I was about to make a huge mistake.
This was not my first rodeo. This was the second time in my young jazz singing career that I had been chosen to compete as a semi-finalist in the Montreux Jazz Festival Shure Voice Competition.
I was just 22 years old when I first competed at Montreux. In 2006 I got to sing for Al Jarreau, which was pretty damn cool, and equally as tumultuous.
I was up against some super stars that year, including another Aussie singer who ended up winning the comp, Kristin Berardi. She was (and still is) talented, diligent and lovely, and taught me a lot about the business over our brief post-competition celebratory drink.
The experience made me realise that if I wanted to be taken seriously in the jazz scene, it wasn’t enough to just have a “pretty voice”, I had to learn how to write my own charts and direct a band too.
I dealt with the immediate loss as maturely as any 22 year old from Australia would do – with a two week girls-trip around Europe, drinking Magners Cider, eating nothing but hot chips, baguettes and pasta and returning home with the distinct appearance of someone who’d been stung by a rather large bee!
Fast forward five years and here I was again. But this time the stakes were higher.
I had been attending the Los Angeles College of Music, studying under the guidance of my favourite living jazz singer Tierney Sutton and American Idol coach extraordinaire Dorian Holley, and had not only learned how to write my own charts and direct a band, I had also learned how to sing and perform like a professional.
I had achieved what I’d set out to achieve and was back to make my mark at Montreux.
My college had paid for the return airfare, my mentors had coached me within an inch of my life, my friend had even set up a backstage meeting with Chick Corea, for the night after the competition! I was on top of the world, and I was ready.
But something felt a little off.
Something in the shape of an acoustic guitar.
At music school in LA I had been working with an amazing songwriting teacher, and had grown in confidence as a guitarist and songwriter. The rest of the teachers at school who I trusted implicitly also encouraged my songwriting, and while I always felt like a below average guitarist, their positivity made me feel like my skills were passable.
Over time I started feeling comfortable performing with my guitar, it almost became a crutch, like I was able to be a more authentic version of myself on stage with a guitar in my hand.
So, when it came time to decide what songs I would play at the semi-final for none other than Quincy (OMG) Jones, I convinced myself that playing one jazz standard and one original song on guitar would be the way to go.
Being a jazz vocal competition, this was a risky decision, but our second song could be a “free choice” tune, and my music school friends and mentors (and my ego) convinced me that my style of songwriting and “swing guitar feel” would be more than jazz enough.
I had also prepared an extravagant medley of Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s Four and Prelude To A Kiss to show off my jazz prowess…so my bases were covered.
In hindsight, what I should have done is followed that smart little arrangement with a simple jazz standard.
Instead I followed it with this…
Yeah, it’s a cute song, but it’s certainly not Quincy Jones worthy, and when you have the entire American Songbook to choose from, why would you bother with anything else?
So, when big day eventually arrived, I confidently strutted on the stage (the first performer of the day) and sung my two very different arrangements with gusto.
Starting with the Miles medley, backed by a magnificent house band, and finishing guitar-in-hand with my own little tune.
Initially, I felt great about the performance and my decision.
Even as the finalists were announced and my name wasn’t among them, I felt ok. A little wounded, but fine.
I was confident in what I had presented. I was proud that I’d come so far in the five years since my first Montreux performance. I was complimented by members of the crowd and the judges, and even got to have a cuddle with Quincy!
As time went on though, and I had to drag that damn guitar back around Europe and home again, it began to feel like a big old weight around my neck, a symbol of my failure. An icon of pure red-cheeked humiliation.
Who did I think I was!?
I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to sing with an amazing house band and present my jazz chops to not only a crowd of jazz lovers, but to Quincy Jones Jr himself!
Instead I chose to sit there with my guitar and play a mediocre song of mine own.
The frustrating thing was, I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t a good idea. And instead of listening to my gut, I listened to my ego.
Whether or not the outcome would have been any different – Quincy might have thought I was a shit jazz singer too – I couldn't help but feel ashamed.
So, how did I push through the humiliation?
I learned that listening to your gut is actually really hard. Especially when you’re surrounded by people you admire and trust who all have a different opinion about who you are, and what you do, how you sound, and what your talents are.
I learned that sometimes the best way to learn, is to fuck up.
I learned that being a beaming bridesmaid is better than not being at the wedding at all.
And then I did what any 27 year old music student would do. I wrote a song about it…