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San Francisco - Greetings From The San Francisco Chapter Board: Kitty Margolis
Kitty Margolis – Jazz Vocalist
San Francisco Chapter Trustee
How/When did you get your start?
I was lucky to grow up here when SF was the epicenter of the music revolution. My brother and his friends took me to the Fillmore and Winterland starting when I was 12 and we saw all sorts of bands on the same bill—Miles, the Dead, Otis Redding, Sly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Gary Burton, Muddy Waters, John McLaughlin, Taj Mahal, Buffalo Springfield, Charles Lloyd, Frank Zappa and BB King. That eclecticism became deeply imprinted in me and is an intrinsic part of my music. At the same time I got my first guitar, and taught myself to play folk, country-rock and blues, creating bands with my high school friends but my parents wouldn’t let me work professionally in the clubs when I was underage.
The first thing I did when I got to Harvard as a freshman was answer an ad in the Boston Phoenix “rhythm guitarist/singer wanted for Western Swing band.” I got the gig and juggled regional touring with a challenging academic life. After two intense years I decided to take a year off, came back to SF, got an apartment in jazz club filled North Beach and took a job in a used record store. Before I left the East Coast I had seen Rahsaan Roland Kirk at NY’s Village Vanguard and he blew my mind.
I decided that jazz, would be my path so I transferred to the BECA program at SF State to study recording arts and music. My jazz improvisation teacher, saxophonist Hal Stein, who had grudgingly let me in to what otherwise was an "instrumentalists-only" improvisation course, bequeathed to me his steady Saturday night club gig and I began to lead my own band, Pretty soon I was working 5-7 nights a week. In 1989 my first CD came out, impresario Jimmy Lyons heard it and hired me for the Monterey Jazz Festival. I have been a touring jazz artist ever since.
What was the most interesting experience you’ve had while working?
There have been so many adventures. Here are a few: Playing a festival in Sydney, Australia for an audience of 65K people with a quartet I had just met the day before. Singing with drummer Elvin Jones and pianist Hank Jones in a rare concert reunion of these legendary brothers who almost never played together. Having the hard drive in the remote truck melt down during a live CD recording and riffing with the audience for 1/2 hour while they got it fixed. Having a sign language person onstage signing the lyrics and me trying not to crack up when she “translated” my scat singing. The time the Russian mob swooped in and shut down a swanky Upper East Side nightclub in NY the night before I was to start a two-week run. The night my biggest hero Betty Carter sat in the third row at my Jazz Workshop gig. Thank the Buddha she didn't split. She would have made a big show of walking out if she didn't dig it.
Who is the most interesting person(s) you’ve worked with and why?
Some of my most inspiring musical relationships have been with master horn players like Joe Henderson, Pee Wee Ellis, Eddie Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Red Holloway and David Fathead Newman. I have always thought as much about the storytelling on the musical side as I have about the lyrics and am very inspired by horns, which are the closest thing to the human voice. We both work with the timbre, phrasing and the breath, one note at a time. I recorded with Joe Henderson just before he won his GRAMMY for “Lush Life.” Being in the studio with him was particularly fascinating because of the way he worked at the piano, arppegiating the chords vertically before he took his solos. Observing him made me start thinking about harmony in a whole different way.
Who is someone you would like to work with and why?
Wayne Shorter. Need I explain?
How does a band or artist become a brand?
Beats me. I never think about it. I suppose tenacity, originality, marketing, luck.
What is your favorite piece of equipment and why?
Aside from my ears? The iPhone is my lifeline. Voice Memo records rehearsals, Tap That gets me the BPM tempos, Nota for boning up on music skills, iReal Book has a bunch of charts for standards, Singers Friend warm up, plus camera & all the communications stuff you need on the road (mail, FB, Skype, phone, text, weather, currency translator, calculator) plus the all important Around Me, astrological transits and food truck finder apps.
Where/how do you hear about new music?
My friends, my students, NPR, Pandora, surfing iTunes, sounds I hear in stores & restaurants, hitting the clubs, other artists on the bill at festivals I play.
What’s the best part about the San Francisco music scene?
San Franciscans have the pioneer spirit dating way back to the Gold Rush days when my great-grandfather came here. We’ve always thrived on eclecticism and individualism. This is not a commercial music town and there is no cookie cutter formulaic music coming out of here. We are a multi-cultural town on the Pacific Rim near Silicon Valley and that really shows in the different threads woven together in the fabric of our music community. Music lovers here seem to feel comfortable moving in between the high culture of the concert halls and street culture of the clubs and more underground performance spaces. We value tradition highly and at the same time, originality and risk-taking are core values. That works for the kind of person I am and the kind of musician I am.
What books would you recommend as a must read for someone?
Letters To A Young Artist”- Anna Devere Smith
“Creators on Creating”- Alfonso Montuori Ph.D.
“Songwriters on Songwriting “–Paul Zollo
“To a Young Jazz Musician (Letters From the Road)”- Wynton Marsalis
“Steal Like an Artist” –Austin Kleon
"Loving What Is" by Byron Katie
"The Soul's Code" by James Hillman
What’s a piece of advice you’ve learned that you wish someone had shared with you?
Back up to an external hard drive every night. In 2004 I lost everything and even the folks that retrieved the Challenger data could not help me. Pack everything you need for the gig in your carry-on. Never touch the pillows and blankets in a plane.
Growing up, which artists inspired you the most?
When I got my first guitar it was all about Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. Before that Captain Satellite (He actually ended up being one of my professors at SF State, a class about “Human Potential,” a movement that was quite new at the time.)
What advice would you give to a young artist just starting out in the music business?
Be authentic. Be independent. Be original. Tell your own story. Take risks. Stay humble. Don’t be afraid to stretch the boundaries. Learn as much about music technique & theory, recording, mixing, aural and visual aesthetics and the music business as you can. Practice your ax. Study your tradition and learn the language from the ancestors. Then evolve it. Play live shows as much as you can. Circulate a mailing list at every show. Make time to talk with your fans. Play with musicians who are more skilled and experienced than you are. Listen to your gut intuition about people and situations. Keep your publishing. Own the rights to your masters. Don't try to second guess what will make you successful. As they say “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
How are emerging technologies changing the music industry in general and specifically your field?
Today’s technology has completely changed the game, setting the stage for the indie majority. I have relished my independent status in the recording industry since 1988 when we founded Mad-Kat Records. Back then there were very few indie labels and definitely no women-run indie jazz labels. And the aesthetic paradigm for jazz singers was frighteningly conservative with production values tilting towards dull sound and dated, unimaginative concepts.
By doing it for ourselves there was never anybody saying, “ You can't do that. We want you to make a record of love songs from the '30s and wear Billie Holiday’s dress, put a flower behind your ear and stand still. Here's the look we want for you. Here's the sound. Oh, by the way, here are the songs, and meet the producer -- he's 72 years old, he’s jaded and he wants it just like it has always been.” I like the fact that none of that ever happened at Mad-Kat. We got to make adventurous music and it has paid off internationally on a critical & business level and (most importantly) on a soul level.
Now the music business has been upended. In many ways the leveling of the playing field has been very empowering to artists. No one needs anyone’s imprimatur to do anything and it can be much easier and cheaper to lay down tracks. The flip side is that just about anyone can make a record and many folks are recording way before they have anything to say. The marketplace is flooded with amateur outings from hobbyists that are being packaged and promoted in the same way as the work of dedicated lifer artists.
Obviously this cluttering brings inherent challenges. There is only so much bandwidth, the death of music education in the schools has dampened critical listening skills, seasoned music journalism has been eaten by the blogosphere and image has overtaken content. And because of streaming, music is becoming devalued. It's everywhere and it's free. There's a glut of content with very little quality control.
The good news is that generally, the cream still rises to the top. You can surround yourself in the studio with hungry-for-work badass side-people and fix the hell out of your tracks with Autotune, Photoshop your CD cover to make you look like a super model but at the end of the day, jazz is still all about live performance. That’s where the rubber hits the road, no smoke, no mirrors. And that’s something that’s never going to change.
What Social Networking sites do you use the most?
Facebook. A little Twitter. I'm on LinkedIn, but it's not that pertinent.
What are your favorite performance venues in San Francisco?
Bimbos, Yoshi's, house concerts. Used to be Great American Music Hall, but the owners don't book jazz anymore. I am looking forward to the new SFJAZZ Center.
What are your "secrets to success?"
I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you.