Marilyn Keller’s Musical Journey: From Gospel Choir to Classic Jazz

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Not long ago, Tony Welch, historian and long-time member of the Portland (OR) Dixieland Jazz Society, interviewed jazz and gospel singer Marilyn Keller. Ms. Keller, who was making one of her regular appearances in Portland with the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, spoke freely about her life in music and her experiences as a performer.

Tony Welch: Your business card is titled “Vocal Instrument,” which implies that you regard your vocal cords as a musical instrument—in a sense detached from your body as would be a clarinet or trombone. If so, would you describe the relationship?

Marilyn Keller: I dubbed myself a “Vocal Instrument” because vocal cords were actually mankind’s first instrument. I realized very early the relationship between my body, the air we breathe, and my determination to be creative. I took private lessons and was given speech therapy to rehabilitate and protect the only Instrument I will have in this lifetime—my voice. I therefore must not damage it through misuse or carelessness. Replacements are not to be found on the internet.

TW: At what early point in your life did your elders conclude that Miss Keller’s vocals were ready for public display? Or perhaps you came to this conclusion a step ahead of them?

MK: I was fortunate to grow up in dynamic surroundings. We were encouraged to sing in church, at school and during play time. Much of what I recall from childhood was learned in song form. The books of the bible, scriptures, history, our heritage—all became indelibly etched upon my soul in song. I had the further good fortune to be trained by the same music teacher—Mrs. Linda McAllister—beginning at the age of five in kindergarten, and lasting until the age of 14 as a sophomore in high school. She taught me to listen closely, to hear and respond to harmonic and counter melody. And to breathe and vocalize correctly. She recognized the spark in me at a very early age, and would not allow me to demur in my extreme shyness. I always wanted to both sing and dance—it was my passion.

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TW: Striving musicians are often inspired by one or more performing artist, whom they struggle to emulate. To what extent does this apply to vocalists, if at all?

MK: My personal path to becoming a vocalist has been shaped by the voices I listened to growing up as a child. The adult choir at Corinth Baptist Church—my Gospel “incubator” if I may coin the term—included voices that were as diverse as the gospel artists who were popular in that era. The choir had voices that would rival the likes of Mahalia Jackson and others of her ilk. Personally, I had aspirations of singing in that choir—standing next to my mother. My father was a Baptist minister; I’m one of the preacher’s eight kids. Dad also sang in an all-male gospel quartet. One of my earliest memories is being placed on the floor in the middle of a circle they formed during rehearsals. The sound of the voices would fascinate and soothe me. If I got a little adventurous, they would block my way with their feet to keep me from crawling away and getting into something I shouldn’t. We had a pretty strict upbringing.

But we also were well educated athletically and academically, and expected to succeed at whatever we applied ourselves to. And I taught myself to be self-reliant and resilient, as well. I would listen to the sound of human voices lifted in song—both solo and harmony—and imagine my voice blending in with that sound. I submit that, from early on, I was a very good listener. I’m fortunate to have a natural ability that has been shaped by knowledge of the vocal apparatus, anatomy, speech and articulation training—plus music lessons and on stage experience. I was taught to listen, absorb, and integrate that knowledge using my new-found skills. And then to stand and deliver. I now teach privately and also run master classes and vocal clinics and workshops. I encourage students to sing without musical accompaniment, so that they can assess just exactly what they are sending out over the airwaves. People sing along with recordings and think: “I sound just like Whitney Houston.” Nay! Whitney sounds good on that recording and that is her voice ringing in your ears! First, turn the recording off. Then stand in front of an acoustically reflective surface—or better yet, record yourself and listen—and do so honestly and critically. The object is to make the music your own, and not attempt to carbon copy someone else. I disagree with those who want to impersonate another vocalist. That’s for ventriloquists! Instead, be original—and free your own voice. You’re its sole owner!

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TW: Recall how your musical tastes evolved. What came first, and what followed?

MK: As a child growing up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, my musical choices were of course dictated by my family life, my church association, and school as well. Baptists were held to certain standards of behavior and comportment. (A-hem!) Thank God my parents were cool enough to allow us to listen to music that spoke to our souls! And that includes Soul, Funk, Blues, Jazz, Popular, and even Country Western. We even had “Family Talent Show” night. And we went to concerts. I would routinely get busted for staying up late to watch the end of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

TW:Eventually, you came to encounter traditional jazz in its many styles and interpretations. What difficulties, if any, did you encounter in attempting to develop a “stage presence?”

MK: When I received a track and field scholarship to Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Oregon, it was with the express thought in mind that I would audition for the vocal jazz ensemble, then under the direction of Hal Malcolm. I chose to sing Natalie Cole’s “Mr. Melody”—not because I knew she was Nat King Cole’s daughter, but because the song had a “scat” chorus. Well, I got that song down cold. Now I was ready to “scat” with the best of them. When I got to the audition, I didn’t see Mr. Malcolm—just a panel of students looking both bored and intimidating, all at the same time. I was so nervous! I started to sing. They stopped me after one stanza. I was crushed! I didn’t even get to scat. I turned to trudge out, slumped in defeat, when they stopped me. “Where are you going?” they asked. “I don’t know,” I mumbled, almost in tears. I sure wasn’t going to let them catch me crying!

Then they said: “We need to get your information and tell you more about the ensemble.” And I replied: “You mean I got in?” “Yes, girl,” she assured me. “You can sing your ass off!” I was stunned. “But,” I continued, “you stopped me before I could ‘scat’ for you!” They laughed. I cried! That began a series of listening and learning experiences that included Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dakota Staton, Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman, Billie Holiday and others. I had a great instrument, I was told—but the jazz chops had to wait their turn.

TW: Had you been born around 1905, we’d be listening to your dusty 78 rpm recordings rather than your current CDs. What part of the early jazz era do you regret having missed—and what part would you not give a plug nickel for?

MK: My stage experience began in early childhood in school and at church. We were encouraged to stand tall, face the audience and open our mouths and sing. I would get performance anxiety—breathlessness, a quaver in the tone, tears would fall. When I got on stage something would come over me. I wanted so much to meet my expectations. So then I would push through the fright and get that “glow” feeling. Mrs. McAllister would not let me fade into the background—she would make me get out front and solo. And darned if I didn’t end up being the only sophomore girl invited to the State Girls’ Chorus that year! That was an express honor and a step forward into believing I could really sing. As regards Mt. Hood College, it showed me how to take a song, de-construct it, assimilate it and make it my own. I also received the honor of singing solo with the Jazz Lab Band under the direction of Larry McVey. He convinced me of the power I possessed as a female vocalist—that I had the ability to draw the audience into the music in a way that personalized the song for the vocalist, for the ensemble, and the audience as well. I grew into my “instrument” by singing in front of that band. I also received my first standing ovation during that time. I loved it! I wanted it to happen again and again.

I also joined the Top-40/Soul Band while at Mt. Hood. The band leader, Dee Wiggins, was given my name as a last-minute substitute for an upcoming dance at the school. I credit him with physically taking me by the shoulders and turning me to face forward, saying: “The audience is there—so sing to them!” I had developed the habit of turning sideways, shoulder to the audience, so that I could watch Dee for cues in the music. Dee sure cured me of that!

Marilyn Keller’s Musical Journey: From Gospel Choir to Classic Jazz
Marilyn Keller performs with the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band at the 26th annual America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Lacey WA this year. (photo by Steve Bloom courtesy The Olympian)

I also had a new experience singing early jazz and blues when I joined Black Swan Classic Jazz Band eight years ago. Leader Kit Johnson had a vision in mind when he hired me to be the lady vocalist—grab the audience and shake them up and out onto the dance floor! He didn’t want me hiding behind a sheet music stand—he didn’t need a supper-club jazz singer. I was really stiff when I first started out singing with Black Swan. But the music we do is so infectious and engaging—it’s hard to hold back! Folks that knew me from the early days would constantly joke about how big my eyes were, and how stock-still I stood when I would grasp the microphone—another bad habit to shake.

And that’s how I was coaxed into creating a lively stage presence. Now my body was singing, too.

It saddens me that I missed out meeting and singing with the pioneers of gospel, blues, and jazz—what a thrill that would have been. They left such a legacy of music, dance, and film artistry that we all benefit from—but which will only survive if we in turn continue to preserve, teach, and perform as they did.

I’m uncertain that I would have survived the Jim Crow era that many of my heroes and heroines had to endure. I would have done or said something that would have had me blacklisted—or worse! I have a very deep sense of fairness and honor and justice, which encourages me to charge ahead and work proactively in hopes of brightening the society we live in.

TW: To what extent has your long-standing association with Black Swan broadened your understanding of traditional jazz and its variants?

MK: I now know more about the music, musicians, and sociopolitical make-up of the pre-20th and early 20th century because of my growth and development as the lead vocalist in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band. Mind you—each and every musician in that ensemble is steeped in the knowledge necessary to perform complex jazz compositions. Traditional jazz is the basis and foundation of a music form that is unique to this country’s development and history. Much of it is the aural chronicle of a people who suffered slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow suppression, and the upheaval that led to the civil rights struggle. And yet they triumphed and innovated and influenced the world with their music, lyrics, poetry, literature, dance, art, fashion, speech/slang, life-style, food—and developed the ability to live and laugh and love through it all. No small feat, to put it mildly.

TW: Is there a common feedback you hear from your listening audience, over and above the applause? Does the word “interpretation” enter into the equation, as being first and foremost in importance?

MK: What I constantly demand of myself is to ensure that audiences can clearly hear the lyrics I’m vocalizing. I am very attentive to both articulation and enunciating, thanks to a peculiar situation that existed during my childhood. I have a very husky, low-pitched speaking voice. Growing up in a large family made that a definite liability! I was often told to repeat myself. I was also called “that mumbling child” by my care givers. My family was loud and energetic and I would get lost in the cacophony. So I had to learn to speak up and be heard.

My ability to interpret this style of music was also something I worried about. When I met with Kit Johnson to discuss my addition to the Black Swan roster, I asked him point-blank: “Are you sure I am who you want for this band?” He told me not to worry—that if I forgot a few lyrics or came in at the wrong place—that was quite all right.

Then he said he had no doubt that my heritage and experience qualified me to embrace this kind of music. He gave me the freedom to explore what the role of the vocalist is in this genre. And that’s when a sense of belonging took hold, which remains deeply embedded to this day.

TW: It’s rumored you can sing in four octaves—if the moment calls for it and the urge compels you. Is there a particular song you favor that lends itself to such a performance?

MK: Kit’s band and the music that’s been arranged and written for me has certainly challenged my ability as a “Vocal Instrument.” For example, “Morocco Blues” is one of our most requested songs and it is a showstopper. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked to perform it, I could fly round trip from Portland to Morocco. I revel in the melody, lyrics and mood that song evokes. When we soar to the ending—which improvisation ignites my emotions—I close my eyes and stretch out my arms as though to embrace the universe.

TW: Describe your musical tastes, which vary widely. Also, name the foreign countries/cities in which you’ve performed. Is it true you’ve gone on Norwegian sleigh rides, sailed up fjords that echoed your voice, dined on lutefisk, sung gospels in churches—and, as rumor has it—even kissed a Lutheran pastor or two on the cheek? Details, please.

MK: I call myself a “Vocal Instrument” so that I will not be chained to a particular musical genre. I have resisted—most boisterously—any attempt to label me as “just a girl singer” or a gospel, jazz, blues, pop, or R&B singer. My musical tastes can skip around at a moment’s notice.

As for the distant places I’ve visited—no less than ten countries in all—they’re the result of dreams made real by family, friends, and pure Providence. Some of these include: Madrid, Segovia, and Toledo, Spain—as a chaperone for tours with Rex Putnam High School students. Valencia, Barcelona, and various other towns on the Spanish Costa del Sol, with The Disciples In Song (a gospel ensemble). Paris, France, as EF chaperone. London and various English cities/towns, New Orleans Delight Jazz Band, 2008.

Copenhagen, Odense, Maribo, Aarhus, Svanneke, plus multiple cities/towns in Denmark, New Orleans Delight Jazz Band, 2004 through 2013. Malmo, Goteborg, Stockholm, and many other cities/towns in Sweden, New Orleans Delight Jazz Band, 2004 through 2013. Sykkelven, Trondheim, Bergen, Molde, Geiranger Fjord, and other Norwegian towns, Blue Horn Jazz Band (no lutefisk, but a very tasty fish soup!), 2009 through 2012.
Enkhuizen, Holland, Gospel Glory ensemble, Second Line Jazz Band, and Enkhuizen All-Stars, 2008 and 2009. Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, Russia, with Darrel Grant and the Portland/Khabarovsk Sister City Jazz delegation, 2011. And finally—Perth, Fremantle, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and other Australian locales 2008—and again in 2013 on a tour of the same aforementioned cities.

Black Swan’s booked for an Alaskan Jazz Cruise next June, and I’ll be performing in February at the Central Illinois Jazz Festival. However, in the interest of good will and international relations I must refrain from commenting about kissing Lutheran pastors on their cheeks. Being a Baptist [chuckles], I need a special dispensation for doing that!

TW: What might be your foremost musical aspiration? Is there a performance level you feel you’ve yet to master?

MK: My ambition is to reach a level of performance that has me traveling the world as a headliner with symphony orchestras, recording movie soundtracks, and touring all over the world—singing with acclaimed musicians and ensembles. As you can see, I’ve set my sights rather high. I’m doing a portion of that now—with stellar musicians and in fabulous places. Beyond that, I’m aiming at the Sydney Opera House, the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center.


Marilyn Keller is scheduled to appear at the 42nd Central Illinois Jazz Festival in February 2017. Visit the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band on the web at www.bscjb.com; the site has a special section devoted to Marilyn. Find her also on Facebook and Reverbnation. You may send email to Tony Welch at [email protected]


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