Primary Instrument: Vocal
In the music world, jazz and blues have a long history as close companions, but singer Antoinette Montague joins those genres in holy matrimony on her debut album, Pretty Blues.
The phrase “Pretty Blues” is simply another way of describing Antoinette’s jazzy-blues. Her strength is combining the heartfelt passion of the blues with the sophistication of jazz. Her style can be powerful one moment and soft-and-delicate the next. Her lusty and soulful voice reaches right into the heart of the listener.
“At times I have been called a jazz singer who can belt the blues, and other times they say I am a blues singer who can swing with a jazz band,” states Montague. “I don’t care. I am just happy to be a singer. Period. I’m just letting it flow however it goes. Of course I mix jazz and blues. It’s natural to take all of your inspirations and blend them together. You also might hear me throw in a little gospel, R&B, Motown soul or big-band stylings. We build on what came before. The classic example is Billie Holliday, who was influenced by Bessie Smith’s blues, but Billie took it into more of a jazz direction.”
Antoinette Montague’s new CD is on CAP Records (Consolidated Artists Productions) and is available in record stores nationwide, online at major webstores (including amazon.co, cdbaby.com and jazzbeat.com/html/montague) and at digital download sites such as iTunes.com.
“Blues originally came out of the moaning and spirituals first heard in the workfields, but then soon heard in churches and honky-tonks as well. The more life-dues you pay, the better you can sing the blues, no matter what your heritage or whether you are rich or poor. The blues have to be honest. Everyone can relate to the blues because we all have had trouble sometime in our life. Singing the blues looks so easy, but I found out it’s not. You need a little soulful heartache, some suffering and then a dab of grease to make it slide along. The blues reflect the lifeblood and the spirit. The blues are a great release for me, but also a healing experience,” explains Antoinette.
“Where the blues are a basic part of life, an almost primeval experience, jazz is an elevated artform. Jazz follows a rich artistic path of high caliber. Where blues is the solid foundation for so much other music, jazz goes its own way. Jazz is infinite in possibilities. The greatest jazz comes out when the musicians exchange ideas. Jazz combines lofty thought with spontaneous improvisation. That’s why I love the idea of combining the best of jazz and blues whenever possible. They compliment and balance each other.”
For Pretty Blues, Montague assembled a top band of some of the best jazz masters in the country with a wealth of credits--pianist Mulgrew Miller (Woody Shaw, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves), tenor saxophonist and flutist Bill Easley (Duke Ellington Orchestra, Benny Carter, Ruth Brown, George Benson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Isaac Hayes, Dakota Staton), drummer Kenny Washington (Lee Konitz, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Joshua Redman, Phil Woods), and bassist Peter Washington (Art Blakey, Benny Green, Lionel Hampton, Marlena Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Michal Urbaniak). Montague co-produced with musical director Kenny Washington while Miller contributed arrangements.
On the CD, Antoinette covers some classic material. She shows her blues roots on the opening medley, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water/Everyday I have The Blues.” Following that full-throated blues number, Montague comes right back with the delicately-sung sweet love song “Unless It’s You” (“We’re never completely free of people we have loved and this song reminds me of doubts I had when leaving relationships”). Antoinette also shows what she can do with standards--three by Irving Berlin (“How Deep Is The Ocean,” the top-speed “From This Moment On” and “Blue Skies”) and a pair by Sammy Cohn (“Dedicated To You” and “Teach Me Tonight”). The album title comes from her version of the Joe Williams tune “Pretty Blue.” Among other tunes, Antoinette sings “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” written by Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie for the movie “The Color Purple.” “That song is for all my ‘sistuhs’ out there. It acknowledges the lonesome, scuffling road, but encourages women to raise their self-esteem and believe in themselves.”
Montague also offers worthwhile advice with the song “Pure Imagination” from an unlikely source, the original “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie. “I don’t really remember the film, but I have heard several jazz artists perform it over the years and it always gave me chills. The words are an inspiration. If you want to do something, imagine it first and then make it happen. Try to be worthy and true to yourself. Keep honest energy around you. I use the lyrics to shed self-doubt and catapult myself into action.”
Before headlining her own shows, she sat in on hundreds of gigs in an effort to practice her craft, learn the ropes and work her way into the music scene. The past decade Antoinette has been one of the hardest-working jazz-and-blues singers in New York City. For example, on Monday nights when there are jam sessions at clubs all over town, she would often sing a song or two with the Harlem Renaissance Band at Lucy’s and then hop over to 125th Street to vocalize in front of the Cotton Club Big Band directed by Ed Passant. Montague has worked regularly with Bill Easley, Tom Aalfs and Mike Longo’s New York State of the Art Band (including the 88th Birthday Celebration of Dizzy Gillespie). She also was in the Great Women in Music Festival at Birdland with the Duke Ellington Band, directed by Jack Jeffers and filmed for television by the BET on Jazz channel. Antoinette performed at the 10th Anniversary of International Women in Jazz (she serves as the Vice President of that organization), and the NAACP’s Tribute to Milt Jackson.
Antoinete was mentored by some great singers--Carrie Smith (“She inspired me to have a big voice onstage”), Etta Jones (“She could transport the audience”), Della Griffin (“She showed me laid-back phrasing and how to use the comic side of my personality”) and Myrna Lake (“She let me sub for her and that’s when I learned to lead a band through three sets a night”). In addition, Montague has performed onstage with many top jazz and blues musicians including Red Holloway, Benny Powell, Earl May, Winnard Harper, Wycliff Gordon, Stan Hope, John DiMartino, Bernard Purdy, Victor Jones, Tootsie Bean, Zeek Mullins, Paul Bollenbeck, Frank West and numerous others.
Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Antoinette grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. “I was singing and humming from an early age. It was how I created my own private, comforting world.” In the fourth grade, Antoinette would go to the local library and listen to albums by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. Other influences were the R&B-soul of The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, the Jackson 5, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding; and singers as varied as Mahalia Jackson, Maime Smith, Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Little Willie John, Etta James, Patsy Cline and Nancy Wilson.
When Antoinette was a teenager, she got a hard dose of the blues when her older sister, who had helped raise Antoinette, died of kidney failure. Only a couple of years later her mother died from a brain tumor. Music helped get her through those hard times and took some of the pain away. “Publicly I was stoic; privately the music would let me sing and cry and feel relief.” Antoinette sang “Send in the Clowns” at her high school graduation ceremony. She went to Seton Hall University on a full academic Martin Luther King Scholarship and joined the college’s Voices United gospel choir which got to open for Walter Hawkins, Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Soul Stirrers. This led to her joining another gospel group, the Judah Chorale. She performed with an R&B group and recorded some demo tapes, sang in a blues band called Five Kings and a Queen, took piano lessons, and studied vocal techniques under Norman Simmons, Kate Baker, Inez McClendon and Jim Carson. Montague also recorded a not-yet-released album with Norman Simmons, Paul West, Joe Farnesworth and Tom Aalfs.
“On my CD I sing the tune ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and it has been my theme song for the past few years because I have been learning as much as I can about music from everyone I meet. The biggest lesson I have learned from performing music is to try and ‘live better.’ With my music and by my example, I would like to inspire people to go out and do new things and make their lives better.”
“Jazz players love to accompany a genuine jazz singer and Antoinette is as real as they come: good range, phrasing and taste.” --Jazz Times