Laura Windley: Accidental Jazz Star

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Global pandemics aside, the Mint Julep Jazz Band is enjoying great demand. With band members featured at North Carolina’s Lindy Focus—one of the planet’s biggest swing dance festivals—this NC-based ensemble has toured all over the US; they plan to fill in the gaps when circumstances allow. It’s the sort of barnstorming success its musicians must have dreamed of since their student days—all except singer Laura Windley, who “fell into jazz singing accidentally,” that is. When Laura went to college, her main ambition was to pass the bar. Little did she know that she would end up fronting a globetrotting swing sensation, as well.

Jazz and Laura didn’t gel straight away. “My grandfather was a bit of a record collector,” she said. “He would always be talking about people like Django Reinhardt. I just didn’t know who these people were, or care.” Cue the nineties swing revival, when the likes of Royal Crown Revue and Squirrel Nut Zippers (also from NC) briefly reclaimed the airwaves for jazz. Suddenly, grandad’s old records were of interest. “I realised he had been listening to this music all along, so it wasn’t difficult to find out more about it,” said Laura. “He was able to share a lot with me.”

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Her next epiphany came from a 1998 commercial for GAP called “Khakis Swing,” in which khaki-clad cool kids performed fancy footwork and air steps to Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” (It was filmed using the “bullet time” camera effect soon to be made famous by The Matrix.) “I think that’s an experience common to many dancers my age,” said Laura. “That started me off digging for more and more of these bands.” The newly swing-obsessed teen took up Lindy Hop at high school—a passion which continued into her freshman year at East Carolina University. “We were a two-hour drive away from the nearest festival in Raleigh,” she said, “so we would commute to events there and get home at two or three in the morning.”

Laura Windley
Jazz Chanteuse and Attorney-at-Law, Laura Windley. (photo © 2018 Voon Chew)

Her record collection growing apace, Laura took “extra credit classes” as the scene’s go-to DJ. “I had the largest CD collection, so I became the DJ,” she said. “That prompted me to explore the music even more. I resolved then to buy one CD a month and constantly grow my collection.” But, like young Louis Armstrong’s leg-up from Lil Hardin, Laura’s accidental jazz career only took off after meeting trombonist and soon-to-be-husband Lucian Cobb, a student on the college’s jazz program. “They had a great music library, which I was able to access,” said Laura. Records inherited from her granddad were added to by one inspired wedding present. “Someone gave me the complete Time Life Swing Era collection on LP,” she said. “It felt like a pile of bricks, but it’s a great set.”

Former church chorister Laura had been singing along to her jazz idols privately, over the years. “I loved Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald,” she said. “Then I discovered the Boswell sisters—they produced some great material.” One self-effacing singer caught her ear in particular—someone who would influence her vocals perhaps more than any other. “I came across Annette Hanshaw in 2008,” Laura said, “when a friend told me about this movie called Sita Sings the Blues, the soundtrack for which is all Annette.”

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She added: “I love her because she’s such a transitional singer, between the Jazz Age and the Swing Era; she swings so sweetly and beautifully. I love the tone of her voice and the phrasing she uses. There’s a little bit of sass, but also a lot of vulnerability too. And it’s just so sad that she never liked anything she recorded.”

With an encyclopedic knowledge and a well-tuned voice, the stage was set for Laura to launch her accidental singing career at an audition—not hers—to sing with a band in which Lucian was then playing. “I thought I’d sit at the back, do some studying and just listen in,” she said. “They knew I read music, so they asked if I would come up and sing for the mic check. The singer came and auditioned and, in the end, they decided I’d done a better job!”

Laura was gobsmacked. “I just couldn’t believe that this could happen,” she said. “I hadn’t studied jazz but I knew what Lucian had gone through, so I knew what I didn’t know—that was terrifying!” She asked Lucian if she was up to the gig. “He said sure, if you can hang,” Laura recalled. “It was a bit of a challenge to me, so I accepted. Like he said, I had already been listening to jazz for a decade, which is what a music school would tell me to do.”

Mint Julep Jazz BandThe large and lively NC swing dance scene gave her plenty of opportunities to earn her stripes. Soon she and Lucian started their own outfit, with the aim of crafting the ultimate dance band. “There was definitely a shift in the swing dance community, moving away from rock and blues-based music towards more of a big band swing sound,” DJ Laura said. “So Lucian and I decided to put together a new band with dancers in mind. Triangle Swing Dance Society was running two or three live music events a month, so there were a lot of slots to fill.”

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The Mint Julep Jazz Band’s impressive repertoire includes both classics and originals, thanks to talented swing composer Keenan McKenzie. “I’m very fortunate to be working with Keenan, who is a wonderful reed player as well as a great composer,” said Laura. “He’s writing songs with me in mind, so he knows my range and the approach I like to take, but he will give me guidance on the kind of sound he’s looking to achieve.” This killer combo graced New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2016—“You know you’ve arrived, when you’re asked to perform there!”—as well as music and dance festivals all over the country.

But the singing lawyer, who still describes swing dance as her “first love,” much prefers playing ballroom functions to sit-down concerts—no matter how prestigious the concert hall. “Sit-down concerts often feel incredibly awkward when you’re used to getting that immediate, visual feedback from the dance floor,” she explained. “Dancers are really reacting to what’s happening on stage and not staring at you! So I’m much more comfortable singing at a dance festival.”

They were playing a dance friend’s wedding when a TV producer asked to meet them. “Sesame Street needed some original music for a video project in which some kids were making a sculpture,” said Laura. “So Lucian wrote a tune and I did a scat vocal, as the piece was being narrated.” They recorded the track with Jim Ketch, Director of Jazz Studies at UNC. “It was an honor to do it,” said Laura, “as Sesame Street has always been great at promoting jazz; it was probably the first place I ever heard jazz. One of my friends with small children was watching it and she rang and said, ‘Are you on Sesame Street?’ It was definitely a career highlight.”Mint Julep Jazz Band

Last year saw Laura’s first dates in an international touring career curtailed (for now) by coronavirus. “Last year I went to South Korea—that was incredible, because that’s one of the biggest Lindy Hop scenes in the world,” she said. “The event was so well-attended, despite warnings of a typhoon coming.” Right before the pandemic, the band performed for three nights in Slovenian capital Ljubljana—a “really beautiful city. It was a beautiful hotel, a beautiful ballroom, and we were so well-received,” said Laura. “I was just pinching myself, thinking, “What is this fantasy I’m living? How is this my life?”

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Musical magpie Laura has a huge catalog of singers to refer to, when she needs vocal inspiration. But her dancing plays an important role in shaping her singing, too. “When I’m presented with an original song, I listen to the recording and I try to find out what approach I want to take with it; what’s going to be the best fit for this piece,” she explained. “I’ll listen to it and filter it through my own ideas of what I’m comfortable with—as a swing dancer and a singer. I’ll make choices based on how I would move to it; choices in phrasing and timing, maybe adding emphasis to certain words.”

It’s more complex than simply picking one historical singer to mimic, she added. “Sometimes I’ll channel Annette Hanshaw or Connee Boswell; it’s as though they’re sitting on my shoulder, telling me what approach to take, though I never end up sounding just like them.”

Laura likes to put her own stamp on old favorites, too. “When you start out, you’re trying to emulate the singers you’ve heard,” she explained. “You’re not trying to be an impersonator, but you’re trying to do the things they did with their voices. The more you listen, the more you find your own style and make your own musical decisions.”

Again, inspiration comes from her huge record stash. “If I’m singing a classic song, I will find as many versions as I can find and listen to the approach other singers have taken,” she said. “As time goes on I start to come up with something between that and my own style; I’m trying to do something which respects the iconic versions, but which also feels good to me as a singer and as a dancer. Sometimes we’re very faithful to the original bandleaders and sometimes we’ll diverge from them.”

For now, Laura is recording remotely from home—for her band, for Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders, and for a whole album of original swing music by Keenan McKenzie and the Riffers. “It can be very tedious, because you’re not really getting anything from anyone, in terms of energy,” said the sociable singer. “The vocal is usually recorded quite early in the process, so I’m sometimes singing to just percussion and a bass; I have to try and create that energy by myself.”

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She also recorded for musical fundraiser Rhythm Relief, in support of other out-of-work musicians. “That was very enjoyable, as I really felt like I was something much bigger than myself,” she said. “Rhythm Relief has already raised a hundred thousand dollars; it’s just incredible, when you think that was all raised by such a small subculture.” The qualified attorney was also on the fundraiser’s grant-giving committee, deciding who should benefit and by how much. “I was so humbled to be asked, as it’s such a terrible situation,” she said. “I think my legal background does make me a good choice; evaluating everyone’s living expenses and so on is a lot like working out alimony!”

When her showbiz career takes off again, Laura has no intention of giving up the courtroom for the ballroom. She works for a Durham, NC firm whose sympathetic boss allows her to schedule court dates around tour dates. “Her undergraduate degree was music, so she gets it,” said Laura. “A lot of the time I’m only away for a weekend, and people are booking the band six months in advance; we can schedule court around my music and there’s no chance of a clash.”

Her tandem careers often amuse clients. “It’s funny when a client searches my name online,” said Laura. “We’ll be talking about their case and then there will be an awkward pause and they’ll ask, ‘Do you sing?’ And I say, ‘Yes I do.’ And they say they saw a video of me online. But they usually think it’s fantastic. I still feel like a lawyer first, in my day-to-day life. But in the evenings and at weekends, I’m a jazz singer.”

Like fellow dancers the world over, Laura has struggled with recent separation from a physical, sociable scene. “I can solo dance a bit, but there’s nothing like holding someone on the dance floor and making art together,” she said. “For me, this music and dancing is all about human connection. I miss that very much. I miss my music and dance family, who live all over the US; it’s been a huge blow.”

Mint Julep Jazz Band
The view from the bandstand during better times.

Coronavirus has the veteran DJ wondering what her beloved subculture will look like when dancehalls do reopen. “There’s real concern the dance community will shrink, as people will have found other hobbies and not come back,” she said. “But there are a lot of people thinking hard about how we get back to dancing.” She added: “I think there will need to be a rebuilding process, particularly around things like hygiene. Maybe we will have to take people’s temperatures at the door; I don’t know what protocols will have to be in place. I just know that it’s not going to be safe for us to just go back to normal for a long time.”

The largely-white, worldwide dance community is also reflecting on issues of cultural appropriation and non-white exclusion, now thrown in sharper focus by the Black Lives Matter movement. But Laura sees the potential for meaningful change. “My hope is that there will be a positive change for Black members or our community,” she said. “I think we were heading in that direction already, but hopefully recent events will cement a commitment to follow that through. People are taking real and constructive measures; that work just has to continue.”

Laura can’t wait to dive back into a jazz culture and career she came to serendipitously—for which she still can’t believe her luck. “It’s just been a case of riding the wave and seeing where it went, knowing it could end at any time, but it just keeps rolling on,” she said. “I just say yes to as many things as I can and it’s been a really exciting ride.”

She added: “There have been so many highlights. I’ve loved becoming a regular performer at Lindy Focus, and premiering a lot of charts which haven’t been played since the Swing Era. I don’t have any formal training, so I very much feel like I’m wading through this pool of professional jazz trying not to embarrass myself. And it just keeps going on, so I guess I must be doing okay!”


Learn more at laurawindley.com, mintjulepjazzband.com, and her fashion blog lindyshopper.com.

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