Born: November 7, 1955 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Kitty Margolis is widely recognized as one of the most innovative and inspired singers in jazz today. Her imaginative improvisations, dynamism, and inventive scat have redefined the art of jazz vocals. Jazz Times has praised her visionary approach to melody and rhythm, and noted New York writer Stanley Crouch observes, Kitty Margolis is an original who has made the heritage of all the great jazz singers her own. Beyond her virtuoso technique, she has an epic feeling, a willful breadth of emotion that is artfully focused on the details of life. She is not afraid to be as intimate as a diary or as athletic as necessary in order to stand up to the power of her band. Like all true artists, Kitty Margolis adds something good to the world that it did not possess before she came along. She is, as they say, the real thing.
To celebrate her 15th year as a Mad-Kat artist, she brought her recording career full circle, taping live in front of a packed house at the old On Broadway Theater in her hometown of San Francisco, only a few doors down from the legendary but now defunct Jazz Workshop, where she made her debut album. It is a rare event when a recording captures the excitement of a live concert. With Heart and Soul: Live in San Francisco, Margolis has done just that--it is brimming with the raw energy, subtle beauty and unpredictable excitement of the singer's club set, down to her dialogue with the audience and off-the-cuff humor.
But then, despite her reputation as an artist who creates complex, cutting edge music in the recording studio, Margolis is most comfortable live in front of an audience. As the Los Angeles Times' Don Heckman wrote in his review of a recent concert, Margolis offered a performance that was a brilliant reminder of the great pleasures of jazz singing when it is delivered by a mature, gifted, creative artist. Her set dispensed multileveled layers of pleasure. There was, first of all, the sheer sense of joy in performing that was a palpable presence in everything she did. Completely centered, completely in the moment, Margolis' total involvement in the enjoyment of making music reached out to embrace her players. Underlying and enhancing all her other extraordinary qualities, there was Margolis' sophisticated musicality--an ear for harmony, an improvisational imagination and a buoyant sense of rhythmic swing that place her at the very top level of the jazz vocal art.
This sheer sense of joy in performing is admirably documented on Heart and Soul. As Jazziz Magazine stated, Her greatest strength is her attitude: a nervy, knowing verve that captures the spirit of the present without drowning out the past. Margolis is a tremendous improviser, a risk-taker at her very core, a key reason why a live album holds such appeal for her and makes an especially welcome vehicle for her talents. Here she can truly stretch out. Kitty's riveting live appearances have established her as one of those rare performers who entertain without watering down the jazz content. Although she's a consummate musician, Kitty says, All the skill and 'chops' in the world don't mean a thing if you can't make people feel something. Music has the power to bring people from extremely diverse backgrounds together in a magical way that erases all our superficial differences. At its best, it is a very healing force. To me, that is the most important energy I can try to connect with as a performing artist.
Margolis is a fourth generation Californian with deep roots in the state, and in the city of San Francisco. In fact, she is as San Franciscan as 49ers, earthquakes, and cable cars: Her great-grandfather was a gold rush pioneer, her grandmother survived the 1906 quake, and her grandfather was the president of the famous Market Street Railway. Growing up with the San Francisco Sound and experience had a big influence on Kitty. As a youngster, she was glued to underground radio stations like the legendary KSAN, in the days preceding strict formats, when Ramsey Lewis was spun alongside the Beach Boys. John Lee Hooker and Santana, and Tower of Power was a local band playing at her high school dance.
When I was a kid, barely twelve years old, I would go to the Fillmore and Winterland and see all sorts of bands on the same bill—Miles, the Dead, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Gary Burton, Muddy Waters, John McLaughlin, Taj Mahal, Buffalo Springfield, Charles Lloyd, Frank Zappa and BB King --and it never occurred to me that they belonged to different musical categories. As Duke said, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. That's the mentality I grew up with that kind of eclecticism. It's an intrinsic part of my music and deeply imprinted in me. At the same time the young music fan became a musician when she got her first guitar, and soon she had taught herself to play folk, country-rock and blues, emulating her heroes Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt and creating bands with her friends during high school, among them her first singing partner, actress Polly Draper, later of Thirtysomething fame.
Her formative years also found Margolis voraciously absorbing sounds from around the world from the field recordings she collected of indigenous music from Appalachia to Africa. Not surprisingly, these global influences would come into play in Margolis' future recordings. As jazz Renaissance man Ben Sidran put it in the liner notes to her fourth CD, Left Coast Life, Margolis' approach is 21st century, connecting all the musical idioms of her ear into one mother tongue.
One of her most defining moments came when, while a freshman at Harvard University, she went to visit relatives in New York. My uncle took me to the Village Vanguard and as we went down the stairs I saw a wonderful older gentleman in dark glasses, a wild hat and three saxophones in his mouth making the most amazing, otherworldly sounds. It was Rahsaan Roland Kirk, of course. That was my first real jazz concert and my life was never the same again.
At age 20, after performing professionally with a Western Swing band around the Boston Area at night while maintaining Dean's list standing at Harvard by day, Kitty moved back to the Bay Area. She had decided she wanted to be a jazz singer and learn recording studio arts, and San Francisco State was the place to do both. There she studied with saxophonists John Handy and Hal Stein. The two musicians initially somewhat grudgingly let her in to what otherwise were instrumentalists-only improvisation courses, but quickly recognized her talent, and soon were inviting her to join them on gigs. In San Francisco's bohemian North Beach neighborhood, home of the Beat Generation, Kitty soaked up the classic jazz recordings that filled the bins of the neighborhood used record store where she worked part-time and regularly sat in with Joe Louis Walker's blues band at San Francisco's oldest and funkiest club, The Saloon, and at the jams Bobby McFerrin hosted around the corner at a little bar called Cadell Place.
My first apartment was on a tree-lined one block alley in North Beach, down the street from Stan Getz and his Dalmatian, James. Nearby was one of the last great clubs, Keystone Korner, a home place run by impresario and producer Todd Barkan. I usually sat in up the booth with Milton, the soundman. Rahsaan was the club's figurehead and through its doors passed all the heavies: Dexter, Blakey, McCoy, Cedar, Freddie, Flora and Airto, Horace, Betty, Elvin, Joe Henderson, Red Garland--everyone. During her first jam session at Keystone, Kitty sang Charlie Parker's solo on 'Billie's Bounce' for her idol Eddie Jefferson, who gave her a big thumbs up. Soon afterwards, Kitty started her first professional jazz band, with Eddie Henderson, Pee Wee Ellis, and Joyce Cooling.
With all her diverse influences, love of musical exploration and cross-pollination, her exposure to the jazz greats at an early age gave her the unique opportunity to become steeped in the tradition. Her firm roots in this tradition are particularly apparent in her virtuoso performance on Heart and Soul. As New York critic and author of several books on jazz singing, Will Friedwald, writes in the liner notes to Heart and Soul:
When I listen to Kitty Margolis sing, I can't help thinking about how solidly she fits into the great tradition perfected over the last 50 years of improvising, modern jazz vocalists, the tradition of such colossi as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Anita O'Day and, most appropriately, the late Betty Carter. For generation after generation these amazing artists have found creative and challenging ways to expand the purview of the jazz singer's art, and Ms. Margolis is the direct heir to their legacy.
Margolis started Mad-Kat Records (which has since become a successful independent label) in 1988 after she suffered a serious back injury. As she tells the story, Awaiting surgery, I wasn't sure I'd even survive, much less be able to sing again. With weeks in bed to meditate on my uncertain future, I vowed that if I got better, I'd have a record out within the year. I didn't even consider approaching a major record company. There was no time to waste. Instead I got together with my friend and fellow jazz vocalist Madeline Eastman, and as soon as I was back on my feet Mad-Kat Records was born. In the 80's, there were virtually no artist run indie jazz role models in the Bay Area. We were working on blind faith, gut instinct and a burning desire to call our own creative shots.
Since her first Mad-Kat release, Live at the Jazz Workshop in 1989, Margolis has not looked back, and has thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and the rewards of being her own boss. Awards and accolades for her innovative recordings have been steadily piling up at her doorstep. Most recently, Left Coast Life was nominated for the 2003 California Music Award for Best Jazz Album as well as being named the #1 Vocal Jazz CD of 2001 by the International Association for Jazz Education Journal. She is a frequent presence in the Down Beat International Critics' Poll, and won the BAMMIE for Outstanding Jazz Vocalist in 1997. She also has received the Certificate Recognizing Exceptional Creativity from the BAMMIES three times, including Best Jazz Album for her 1994 Evolution, which The San Francisco Examiner called the best jazz-vocal disc in years. In 1999 she was nominated for the Soul Train Lady of Soul Award. Kitty's unique talent has not escaped the attention of jazz royalty such as the late, great Lionel Hampton, who dubbed Margolis the next great jazz voice.
Her records and concert performances have brought her international status, and performances on such prestigious stages as The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Holland's North Sea Jazz Festival, The Sydney International Festival of the Arts, the Monterey Jazz Festival, London's Royal Festival Hall, Gstaad's Yehudi Menuhin Festival, the Telluride Jazz Festival, the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Hamburg's Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Seattle's Earshot World Jazz Festival and The Boston Pops. She's also sung at many of the world's top jazz clubs, from Tokyo to New York to Paris.
Over the years Margolis has performed and recorded with many of the greatest names in jazz and blues, including Joe Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Elvin Jones, Roy Hargrove, Leon Thomas, Charles Brown, Hank Jones, Mark Murphy, Herb Ellis, John Handy, Joe Louis Walker, Red Holloway, David Fathead Newman, Pee Wee Ellis, and Eddie Henderson. She has also performed and/or recorded with such diverse artists as rap group The Coup, Swiss composer George Gruntz's jazz opera The Magic of a Flute and Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. Her lyrics have been sung by artists such as Dianne Reeves, and her song It's You has become an underground remix hit in Tokyo and London.
Margolis is also deeply committed to jazz education, never taking for granted her good luck in learning the jazz tradition the old fashioned way, straight from the masters. She is on the faculty of the Jazzschool in Berkeley, CA. and gives workshops, master classes and private lessons at high schools and colleges as she travels the globe. Her arrangements and scat solos have been studied, transcribed, and recorded by numerous college jazz vocal ensembles. In 2001 she accepted an appointment by the International Association of Jazz Education (I.A.J.E.) to chair the I.A.J.E. Jazz Vocal Resource Team., a position she kept until that organization ended in 2008. In 2009 she was tapped to participate on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Live panel. In 2011 she will co-moderate a panel Exploring the Recording Artist / Record Producer Relationship: A Dialogue About Creative Synergy at the newly formed Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference in New Orleans. Many of the students she has mentored have gone on to develop successful recording careers of their own.
One of the other hats Margolis wears is activist. In 2008 she was elected to the S.F. Board of Governors of The Recording Academy (GRAMMYs) where she served as Vice President of the Executive Board, and where she continues to devote her energies to helping keep the future of the San Francisco and national music scenes healthy with her hard work on the Advocacy and Education committees. In 2011 she was elected as a National Trustee of The Recording Academy, and is very honored to represent San Francisco as one of the very few artists currently sitting on this countrywide board.
To compliment her performing, educational and activist work, Margolis teams in consulting with Alfonso Montuori Ph.D. to offer corporate and academic clients a unique opportunity to explore the creative mindset and improvisational skills of the jazz artist and bring fresh insight into the life both inside and outside of the workplace.
In their interactive workshop In the Flow: Creativity and Improvisation at Work,® Margolis and Montuori use their combined experience as musician, producer, executive and management development consultant, educator, and creativity researcher to illustrate innovative ways of looking at everyday challenges and problem solving on the job. Recently, the dynamic duo led a weekend creativity retreat Welcoming the Creative Impulse: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Table® for a house full of lucky participants at the prestigious Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.
But back to the core essential, Margolis' breathtaking music: About Heart and Soul, she says, I think it completely captured the essence of who I am as an artist and the musical values I stand for. I love live performance. Here you have the raw truth, the bare essentials, an old school live blowing session with a great trio. There is nothing like the circle of energy between the band and the audience on a good night. When it's happening it's the best feeling in the world.
And in the late-breaking news department, 2013 will bring a development that Margolis' fans have eagerly awaited. She'll be back in the studio, recording her sixth Mad-Kat CD as a leader. Says the peripatetic and multi-faceted artist, I'm finally ready now. Some very profound things have happened in my life and in the world since I produced my last one. I can't wait to sing about it all.