L'CINDA: It was a great pleasure spending a little time talking with the gracious, sassy, sophisticated, Hip Priestess of Swing, Miss Marlena Shaw. She was delightful with a capital "D."
Stunningly dressed, casually cool...pleasurably warm...in fact a joy to behold, Marlena Shaw invited me to join her in her dressing room where we chatted and reminisced about her career and talked about her fine release, Dangerous.
"When I started out people were supposed to have an act...you were supposed to show up with an act. You danced a little or did a little something. And, darling, you know I will not dance under any circumstances. So I used humor to make my own act."
L'CINDA: Dangerous is a marvelous album, it contains a lot of lovely standards and some great new songs, but isn't it a departure from some of your releases where you've done the monologues that you're so famous for?
MARLENA: I think just the fact that it's Concord Jazz to begin with, should indicate change. And also time has a way of changing things. So we cannot stay in one genre--at least I can't. From 1965 or 1966 or 1967, I forget when I actually started recording--that spans thirty years. So I guess we're going to have some departures.
L'CINDA: Has working with big bands such as the Count Basie and Sammy Davis, Jr. bands added to your flexibility and versatility as a vocal artist?
MARLENA: I would probably think so. A lot of the growth takes place in a person. I don't think we're aware because we're not constantly comparing it to yesterday. We get up and we start doing whatever we're doing today, however we feel about all those things today. So I would say it probably added to my sense of time and sense of ensem. Because I came from a background of gospel choirs, junior choirs, and things like that. So I did have that awareness in just the singing part of it. But I didn't have it so much for instrumentals, and what the other part of the band was doing. So with time, in particular, I learned. Basie always said, "Don't put it above a heartbeat--(and) I've seen him rock the house. It ain't about the notes, it's about the space between them.
L'CINDA: You always give a dynamic performance. And when you're working with organists --Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, and the Bay Area's own Ed Kelly--you really cook, does this ease of working with organists have to do with your gospel background--of singing in choirs and working with church organists?
MARLENA: I don't know because I always said I had a hard time working with organ players because of the overtones sometimes. But I guess I've learned more. Years ago there was the organ trios. One of my earlier jobs was with an organ trio, Lord I can't remember who the organist was, I just remember Roy Eldridge was playing trumpet. My goodness, I was so young my minister came to the club to check it out.
L'CINDA: So you started young and you also performed on the talent show at the Apollo?
MARLENA: Oh yeah. I was on one of the first black talent shows out of New York. I don't know exactly how far it was broadcast, but it was called "Ralph Cooper's Spotlight On Harlem." And, I was in my early teens, sitting on the piano singing "Tenderly." And I tell you who else was on that show...Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters. So it was quite something.
L'CINDA: You also worked with your uncle's band as well?
MARLENA: Yes I mostly worked with my uncle. I played piano and sang and he played trumpet and sang.
L'CINDA: I know you worked the Playboy circuit and the Catskills Mountains. But when did you really move out in your own right into the mainstream?
MARLENA: I would say in the mid 1970s.
LCINDA: It is often noted that you have great musicianship and that you're a great vocalist and consummate entertainer, Entertainer in capital letters, and that you have a flair for the dramatic and comedic. Have you ever done or wanted to do stage or film acting?
MARLENA: No, I never studied acting and never wanted to be on that side. But I love it. I think it comes from a childhood filled with radio. I would make up stories and would have my own little radio show behind a little box. And I wrote plays and stuff like that when I was a kid. Basically what I'm doing on stage is kind of acting it out. I just love being the whole thing. That's another reason why I like to perform "Go Away Little Boy." I never get tired of that because it's almost as though--(and) I have had people tell me--it's like you can see the other person when I'm talking to him, et cetera.
It's like you just know what that person is doing. Also I think humor is a part of our make up. I think a lot of us use humor as a kind of little hiding place--I suppose. Maybe that's how it started. When I started out people were supposed to have an act. I didn't start out in any really low-class places or anything like that. I worked pretty good joints. And in those places you were supposed to show up with an act. You danced a little or did a little something. And, darling you know I will not dance under any circumstances. So I used humor to make my own act. Some people at one time--management--wanted to have a show written for me, and they had commissioned several good writers. But those people said "There's no way. She can write her own stuff." And I could never remember anyway, because it didn't have any relationship to what I was doing.
L'CINDA: You have a warm, down-to-earth stage presence which makes listeners feel comfortable and that you relating to them personally. Does this ability come naturally?
MARLENA: First of all it's important for me to be relaxed when I go on stage. I can't sing if I'm nervous. Everybody get's nervous and feel a little curdle. I think that's only natural because you're gonna face a lot of people. But , and I guess I'm more nervous and anticipatory in new surrounding. I feel very much at home when I go to the Blue Note in New York. There's something about looking around an audience, although I'm near sighted. I can get a feeling if it's friendly, or it's called "entertain me" or "I'm waiting to see the other act," or one of those kind of things. But when you see people with a smile on their faces when they see you, it's like "oh there she is" and it's like seeing old friends. It's very welcoming. I get that feeling on both coasts, here in the Oakland in particular. But in Los Angeles we've lost a lot of the places that we used to have. It is friendly but kind of clannish. I find Los Angeles to be very clannish. If you've been one of those people who've been running around the streets of Hollywood and they see you in many places--or they can see you in many different settings, or at their parties or at their fundraisers--that's something else. But if you just come into town, it's almost like going to a foreign country.
L'CINDA: How did touring with Stanley Turrentine and Brother Jack McDuff this year--although I'm not sure if you're still touring with him-- come about?
MARLENA: No that was just a special guest appearance and also because he's on Concord. Basically, this agent talks to that agent and they say "Marlena Shaw has worked with such and such and so and so before" and they offer you as a package. Then they call you up and say "Can you make it?" I also like working with Turrentine because we kind of draw from the same fan pool, sort of speak. We're both kind of blues-oriented, easy contemporary artists. Sometimes people are diametrically opposed. And they think, or sometimes a promoter will say, "We'll get so and so's audience with that person and so and so's audience with this person." But indeed that doesn't always often happen well because they (audiences) will say, "I would like to see so and so but I'm not interested in...well the ticket price is to much..." and then they go to the other one. So I think it's wonderful when you get two people who work together. And he's such a doll to work with. It's like he's one of the family.
L'CINDA: You and Kevin Mahogany complement each other gorgeously on the selection "You Make Me Feel Brand New" on Dangerous. Had you all ever worked together before this recording session?
MARLENA: Actually only in what we call jamming situations. We were, as a matter of fact, Stanley Turrentine, myself and Kevin Mahogany, and many other artists, were in Kansas City for the Count Basie birthday bash, and we took turns doing blues and stuff like that. And then once when I was in New York working at Fat Tuesday's Kevin came in to see me, and of course I had to drag him up on stage. So, just from those experiences I enjoyed being with him and his lady. And once you get to know a person you can tell. And he's just a very sweet young man. I think he'll be a very big name in this business. We're gonna have to do some other real stuff.
L'CINDA: On Dangerous, you sing " Keep On Trusting," a fine uplifting gospel composition that your wrote, and you also did a gospel album with Joe Williams that we reviewed on Jazz, Roots, Rhythms, does spirituality play an important part in your life?
MARLENA: Every day. Constantly. All my life, of course, I've been in the church one way or another. But I got more involved in reading the Bible and studying the Word and studying the Scriptures and understanding where I am. And I also started to understand. So many times we beat ourselves up over things. And I said, well God gave me this talent--this comes from the Creator--and he knows how far I can go and what I can do, et cetera, et cetera. And it sort of takes the weight off. If it wasn't for the Lord what would I do?
L'CINDA: Thank you Marlena for taking a moment to talk with us. It was simply marvelous. And, continued success to you in your stellar career.
You can find out more about Marlena's life and career here.