Opera Star Jessye Norman Picks Her Favorite Jazz Singers

In a conversation aired on WBGO, Jessye Norman credits the study of jazz with her understanding of song interpretation.  Credit: Carol Friedman
In a conversation aired on WBGO, Jessye Norman credits the study of jazz with her understanding of song interpretation. Credit: Carol Friedman

Written by Tim Wilkins from WBGO-FM

Jessye Norman‘s commanding soprano voice makes her the quintessential operatic diva for many listeners, as she embodies dramatic roles such as Verdi‘s Aida and Bizet‘s Carmen. But she frequently draws inspirations from jazz: She ranks singers like Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer and Sarah Vaughan high on her list of influences.

“I love singing jazz,” Norman says. “I don’t like the idea that classical music should be over here and jazz should be someplace else. It’s all wonderful, and we should be open to enjoying it all.”

Early in her career, Norman says, hearing singers like Holiday taught her that interpretation is as important as a written score. In her view, this applies to opera as much as it does to improvised music.

“One has to draw upon one’s own musical thoughts, and one’s own musical acumen, and not to be afraid to let that come into one’s work,” she says. “Perhaps that comes with more experience, but perhaps it also comes with daring, and believing that you should.”

Norman sat down recently with WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton to play some of her favorite jazz records, and to discuss her musical inspirations.

“We singers have a different level of responsibility from other musicians,” Norman says. “We have words that we must convey; we have meanings that we must convey through these lyrics.”

Jessye Norman also hosts a special performance in New York on Sept. 24 of the musical Lady Day, which stars singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, to benefit WBGO. The musical opens at Broadway’s Little Shubert Theater on Oct. 3.

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