The Art of Independence: A Riffs, Beats, & Codas interview with jazz vocalist Karen Marguth

San Francisco Bay Area jazz vocalist Karen Marguth is one of the most acclaimed vocal jazz artists to emerge in the 2000s. Marguth is an independent musician who has released six albums as a leader including The Best Things, Carols Everywhere, All the Waiting, Karen Marguth, A Way with Words, and Just You, Just Me. 2009’s Karen Marguth (Wayfae Music) earned four and a half stars in Downbeat magazine and is considered her breakthrough. 2013’s A Way with Words, and 2015’s Just You, Just Me have also earned strong critical recognition.


Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright   ©   Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright © Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Riffs, Beats, & Codas recognized her voice and bass album Just You, Just Me (recorded with bassist Kevin Hill) as one of the finest new albums of 2015 in the November 2015 blog “2015’s Raves & Faves.” Marguth is an instructional coach for the arts and literacy in a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes periodically on her blog Marguth on Jazz and previously hosted “The Vocal Hour” a weekly radio show on Fresno’s KSFR.

 In late December I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marguth over email about her career as an independent recording artist, the process of recording Just You, Just Me, and her philosophical approach to the arts. Below are her reflections.

 R, B, & C: To begin: In the music industry what distinguishes the career of an independent artist from a non-independent artist?

  KM: The first thing that comes to mind is the sense of creative control that independent artists have. When you connect yourself to a producer or a label, you give away control of some aspect of the creative process, as well as some of your earnings. In one case, I considered working with a label that would allow me to create whatever album I wanted, and then I would pay them to take over control of things like manufacturing the physical product, and deciding how and where to promote it. For many artists, who don’t want to deal with the business side of things, this is a perfect relationship.

 Another valuable aspect of being independent is that you are free to move with the ebb and flow of your own muse. I can’t imagine having any outside pressure on my process, for example, being required to meet someone else’s deadlines, or adjusting my vision to meet someone else’s taste, or having to select songs for some marketing person's target audience. 

 The challenge of being independent is that it’s a lot of time and effort to manage things, and you have to be willing and able to book gigs, manage rehearsals and studio time, acquire recording rights, pay for photography/design work, and do all the mailing out to radio and reviewers and such. If you enjoy the process of learning how to run your own business, then being independent is a joy.

 Finally, I think each artist has their own goal, their own definition of “success.” For me, I am as much in love with the details of the process as I am with final products and performances.  

 R, B, & C: Your response is very illuminating in terms of the sheer scope of responsibility and the struggle for artistic and creative control. Just You, Just Me has gotten consistently positive notices. As an independent artist how impactful is popular media support for your work?

 KM: Media support is that rare, elusive gem for an independent artist. I used to work at a jazz radio station, and the volume of CDs that come in each day would astound you. I’m talking hundreds of CD’s each week. It was impossible for us to listen to every CD. I did a show about female vocalists, so I would sift through the bins for those and try to listen to every one, but even in just that small category there were dozens to consider each month. I would imagine that the same is true for magazines and reviewers; there are just too many CDs to consider. 

 If a CD comes in from a well-known promoter, or a respected record label, then it definitely gets listened to, that's just the reality. So, as an independent artist, I know that I may mail out 350 CDs and not get a single spin on radio or a single positive word from anyone. But again, for me, I love the process of making music so much that I'm not really focused on what others may or may not say about it. 

 Once, I was corresponding with the great John Clayton, and I shared with him a great review I’d gotten. His response was so lovely and perfect. He wrote: “Do remember that while we celebrate these groovy and uplifting reviews, would it have affected your art, your expression, your joy and commitment if it had only received one star? My mentioning that is not to add some sort of dark cloud to the party.  It is to encourage you, stand next to you in support of what you do, no matter who encounters it. Keep doing what you do.  You and your art are too important to the world.”

 I didn’t address impact. It helps tremendously. After I received my first review in Jazz Magazine of France, you better believe I ordered stickers with quotes from the review, stuck them onto every CD, and mailed those out to hundreds of radio stations and reviewers. 

 And it made a difference. Shortly thereafter, I got reviews in both Downbeat and Jazz Times, and a steady trickle of CD sales and downloads began. 

 R, B, & C: Speaking of bassists: You have written previously about working with and learning from bassists Kevin Hill, Jason Jurzak, Sam Rocha, and Pat Olvera.  And Sheila Jordan pioneered the bass and voice duo style. What attracted you to the format?

 KM: I started learning to sing jazz in a trad jazz band. When not singing, I’d sit back by the bassist (Jason Jurzak). From that spot, I could really hear what he was doing, and how he interacted with the other sounds on stage, how he prompted some things and responded to others. I tried to hum along with what he was playing, as he played, and learned a lot from doing that. As he made choices in the moment, my understanding of each song deepened, which informed choices I could make in the future. 

 I’m attracted to the bass lines in songs, the same way I’m attracted to the harmony lines when there's more than one vocalist. I’ve always been drawn to the roots of chords, and inventive counter-melodies. 

 I also just feel so happy when I hear a bassist who can really swing. I’m always looking for that sound, always so moved by it. 

 R, B, & C: One highlight of the album is the variety of the repertoire. For example, I adore Phoebe Snow and your choice of “Harpo’s Blues” was surprising. What shaped your song choices for the album?

 KM: Song choices are such fun. 

 I keep lists of songs that I love, and then I group them into categories that seem to fit together. Some songs, like “Harpo’s Blues,” end up in multiple categories. If a song keeps showing up, again and again, I’ll most likely record it or perform it at some point. 

 In the case of “Harpo’s Blues, I only discovered it five years ago, when someone came up after a gig and suggested it as a song I might like. I love it when people do that; I’ve found so many untapped beauties that way. I heard it, and loved it, and then researched everything I could find about it. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And, I found that very few people had covered it, so I knew it hadn’t been done to death. It’s such a gorgeous tune, with wonderful lyrics, and it’s strange that so few other people have recorded it. 

 And, the content of the lyrics resonated with me. I definitely get that feeling of grief and loss when a wonderful collaboration or project comes to an end. 

 When putting together the choices as a whole for this album, I considered tunes that I loved, that lyrically fit the idea of “just two people,” and which would feature Kevin's inventiveness.

 R, B, & C: This is interesting to me because I imagine vocal artists must have some system to decide on what to sing. There are some other gems that are relatively obscure that grabbed my ear. I enjoyed your rendition of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives Me” which I had only previously heard on a Dinah Shore collection. When did you first hear that one? Similarly, I was totally unfamiliar with “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood” and it’s fabulous. 

 KM: I was schooled on “Naughty Sweetie” by Brady McKay, a vocalists who tours on the Trad Jazz circuit and who wrote the hilarious fast verse on it. And “Lazy Mood” I learned from a Susannah McCorkle album I found at the radio station one day, as I was digging through female vocal CDs. 

 I feel like one of my responsibilities is to mine for those hidden gems from the past. I’m in agreement with Becky Kilgore that some of the finest songs were crafted before the 1960s, and that a jazz vocalist needs to be carrying those songs forward so they aren’t forgotten. 

I also think that there are songs that have been done too many times, over and over again, with no value added. If I can’t add something new to a song, or if there’s already a stunning version of it that's been done, then I'm wise to respect that and find an overlooked gem and present that instead. 

 R, B, & C: As an independent artist it seems that live performance is an essential aspect for sharing your art, as well as developing comradery with local and regional musicians. What role has the Fresno jazz scene played in shaping your artistry?

 KM: The Fresno jazz scene is almost entirely responsible for shaping my artistry.

 The “bad boys of Dixieland,” Fresno’s Blue Street Jazz Band, gave me my initial experiences with performing jazz. I'd been a listener of it all my life (thanks to the Columbia Record Club, with albums arriving every month throughout my childhood). But working with Blue Street pushed me to learn to sing many, many, many tunes. In some cases I was asked to master the band's arrangement; in other cases, I was asked to just know the tune and be ready in case it was called, to-be-arranged-on-the-spot. They didn’t ever make set lists, they'd just call tunes as they went, so I just had to have the tunes in my head and be ready if a tune was called. It was what I call scary-fun.

 Fresno also has several weekly jam sessions, an organization called Jazz Fresno which brings in performances, and several great venues which feature weekly jazz gigs. One band, Espacio, invited me to join them at their weekly gig for several years, and that collaboration deeply enriched my growth. Getting out a few times a week to either perform or listen to live performances is THE way that jazz artists develop. And the musicians there, well they’re just so open and supportive of each other. Everyone works gigs with everyone else, in varying and ever-changing configurations. I was made better by every single musician I got to hear or work with in Fresno. And last summer, I was invited to serve as an instructor at the Milestones Youth Jazz summer camp in Fresno, which was such a gift -- to see hundreds of kids there, at all levels, just loving the chance to learn and jam. 

 I’m not in Fresno now; I’ve moved to the Bay Area, so ‘'m back to that phase where I have to find connections and make gigs for myself. It's a new challenge. But I go back occasionally and record and perform in Fresno, and really really miss all the great musicians there.  

R, B, & C: As an educator working in a vulnerable field, the arts, how do you convey your passion for the arts to your students?  In a related vein, in addition to teaching and singing you are also a radio show host and blogger. What motivates you?

 KM: As an educator, I have found that children are inherently motivated and engaged by the processes in all of the arts, whether music, visual art, drama, or dance. When I’m able to incorporate arts into, say, a math or history or science lesson, student engagement shoots through the roof, and learning of concepts happens on a deeper level. Students start to lose interest in the arts when it becomes separated out from the academic curriculum and called “an elective.” It becomes something that's separate, extra, not-everyday. That’s when you start to hear kids say things like, “I can't take art, I'm terrible at drawing,” or “I can’t take choir, I can’t sing worth beans.”  Or, their parents say, “You don’t have time to take band, you need to get in all those AP classes!” 

  share my passion with students and colleagues by continuously pointing them to research on the benefits and rigors of artistic habits of mind. Fortunately, the pendulum in US public educations seems to be swinging back toward valuing at least music, if not the other arts, in a quality academic environment. 

 My motivation for doing what I do comes from a clear sense of my own purpose, and that has grown over a lifetime of trying different things, different jobs, and finding myself always circling back to the power of the arts and the creative process. There’s so much wickedness and worry and fret and garbage out there, but then look what happens to people when the aesthetics of their neighborhood is improved, beautified, or when live music is performed—they get uplifted, and they behave better towards others. It seems to me that we've gotten away from the things that sooth our souls, and connect us as human beings, and remind us of our common frailties and our goodness and our capacity for joy. Making some good jazz music, and advocating for the arts in education is my small way of adding some goodness to my community.   




2015’s Raves & Faves

Taylor Swift probably sold the most records this year, an entity named The Weekend apparently wrote and produced many of the bigger hits, and Kendrick Lamar made a lot of people hear hip-hop differently. Still, 2015 continues the ongoing diffuseness of pop music. No one singer or song or genre really defines the age. Further, no central medium (i.e. TV, Youtube, radio) speaks to the needs of all or most. It’s a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us and hope for some nourishment.

 As the year winds down November is a great time to reflect on the music that stood out as well as books and films worth adding to your collection. 2015’s Riffs, Beats & Codas Raves & Faves:

 Best BIG POP song of the year: “Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

 The biggest radio hit/pop song of the year is also the best. On this Morris Day& The Time/Prince inspired slice of mid-1980s style funk Mars, one of contemporary pop’s greatest pastiche artists, struts his stuff. As a vocalist and performer Mars and his entourage of performing singers (singing performers?) bring out all the song’s colors in full force delivering some of the more dynamic TV performances in ages via a Westside Story-ish strut + call-and-response interplay. 


Most Notable music on film:

Documentary film: Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia)

 Amy, a documentary about Amy Winehouse’s career rise and descent into addiction and ultimately death, is as much about the voraciousness of celebrity as it is about the musician.  In the film success amplifies Winehouse’s vulnerabilities to addiction, and breeds a willful callousness and indifference among many in her entourage toward her wellness.


Narrative film: Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad)

 Love & Mercy (starring Paula Dano and John Cusack) upturns the traditional static rags-to-riches biopic by bringing viewers into some of the touchstones of Brian Wilson’s life including sketches of his compositional prowess, his gentle rapport with musicians, especially in the studio, and his complex relationships with his family. By showing you Wilson as a young man in his creative prime, and as an older, more confused man seeking to balance creativity with the need for stability as he pulls through debilitating co-dependence, the film brings you closer to understanding the whole man with refreshing efficiency.


 Most Notable new books on music:

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking) by John Szwed

 Szwed’s book is one of the more incisive and original takes on Holiday’s storied life and influential career. He probes beneath the surface of established myths about her life to reveal new layers. Further, by focusing primarily on the impressive range of musical innovations she pioneered, including her sophisticated rhythmic prowess and advanced melodic embellishments, he provides a fresh take on a legendary figure.

 Who should sing Ol’ Man River? The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press) by Todd Decker

 Cultural appropriation remains a vital issue and Decker raises compelling questions about the oft-recorded standard “Ol’ Man River” sung most famously by Paula Robeson in Showboat. After exploring the song’s origins, he analyzes the different approaches vocalists and musicians have employed in their interpretations of the song across genres and era. In doing so he unpacks the complex evolution of racial attitudes embedded in popular culture over the 20th century.

 Most Listenable Album: Pageant Material (Kacey Musgraves; Mercury Nashville)

Country musician Kacey Musgraves has one of the clearest and boldest voices in popular music. Proving her debut Same Trailer, Different Park was no fluke she has made a funny, poignant, and well-observed album premised on the virtues of integrity and authenticity.  Musgrave is a warm, appealing personality whose album has a near perfect balance of melodic and textural variety, smart wordplay, and rhythmic range.


Best Party Album: Dee Dee’s Feathers (Dee Bridgewater, Irwin Mayfield & the New Orleans Orchestra; Okeh Records).

 Dee Dee’s Feathers teams jazz’s finest vocal improviser with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Bridgewater and company take on the classic New Orleans repertoire including Louis Armstrong classics like “Do You Know What it Means to Miss new Orleans” and “What a Wonderful World,” as well as a highly personalized, stretched out “St. James Infirmary” with a full complement of brass, and a “New Orleans” featuring an extended vocal plunger solo from the singer.   Her duet with Dr. John on “Big Chief,” the “Treme/Whatcha Gonna Do” medley, and the throbbing “Congo Square” are especially fun, uniquely New Orleans performances that make full use of the band. There are also interesting detours including Bridgewater’s take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the charming original title track. At turns wistful but mostly jubilant she and the Orchestra are playing at full blossom making it the most festive vocal jazz record of the year.


Less-is-More Awards: Just You Just Me (Karen Marguth; CD Baby); The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap; Columbia Records)

 Voice + Piano: After his cycle of rather gimmicky duet sets Bennett finally released a solo album with The Silver Lining where he and jazz pianist Bill Charlap, and on some tracks a trio, record some of the signatures from Kern’s formidable songbook. Bennett is at his best navigating the tricky melodies, complex harmonies, and unusual modulations of songs like “All the Things you Are,” and capturing the essence lighter fare like “I Won’t Dance” and the wistful “Yesterdays.” His vocal flexibility and interpretive focus yield some of his strongest, most jazz-oriented performances ever.


Voice + Bass: On Just You Just Me vocalist Karen Marguth and bassist Kevin Hill build from the promise of previous efforts and tackle classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” “I Got it Bad,”  and “Imagination” perfectly capturing their melodic and rhythmic contours, and emotional essence in the sparsest of settings. She makes her greatest impact on her scat-laden rendition of the title track, a surprisingly blues-y and quite humorous rapid fire “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Taught Me,”  and fresh songs like her loping version of Phoebe Snow’s “Harpo’s Blues” and the charming Johnny Mercer tune “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood.” Other inspired choices include takes on Nellie Lutcher and Rickie Lee Jones. Marguth is quite assured in a variety of modes, and she and Hill have faultless chemistry. 


Most Memorable concerts:

Angelique Kidjo (May 15, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): She sings, she dances, she inspires, she soars: the ageless Kidjo, an eclectic writer and performer originally from Benin, can galvanize a whole room with her energy and simultaneously make everyone in her audience feel welcome and loved. Kidjo and her band, with whom she has delicious chemistry, delivered an eclectic multi-lingual program of riveting pop music.

 Gregory Porter (February 20, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): Porter is the most exciting male singer in vocal jazz. He is one with his instrument which he uses with astonishing force and finesse. Running through his relatively small but deeply personal repertoire he stuns on his rendition of Oscar Brown’s “Work Song” and brings you deeply into his soul on personal anthems like “Painted on Canvas” and “Musical Genocide.”

 Best live TV performances:

Alabama Shakes “Don’t Wanna Fight,” on Saturday Night Live (3/1/15): 

 Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” on Saturday Night Live (11/23/14):


BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:

 Essay collection: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

 Coates blends an epistolary format with autobiography to address his teenaged son. Coates details an American pathology that consistently renders black bodies vulnerable to exploitation and violence ranging from 17th century enslavement to current struggles against police brutality. Boldly defying our predilection for optimistic endings, especially regarding cultural divides, his outlook is jaded, cautious, and bracing.


Film: 99 Homes (directed by Ramin Bahrani)

 In this narrative films set in Orlando circa 2010 construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home and the real estate vulture who savors this moment is Rick Carver (played with delicious contempt by Michael Hannon), a hard boiled, unsentimental agent who uses the mortgage crisis to his advantage, acquiring properties from evictees and exploiting abandoned properties for wealth. The desperate and jobless Dennis ends up working for Carver making quick cash through performing various duties but questioning the moral price of his newfound fortune. Bahrani’s story balances the topical with the philosophical depicting the roots of the mortgage crisis and the perverse range of moral pathways crises engender in even the best of men.


Memoir: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)

 Jefferson delves into her personal history growing up in an upper middle class family in Chicago in the late 1940s to illuminate larger questions that haunt the black elite. While tacitly acknowledging the hard work and good fortune of many enterprising African-Americans Negroland frequently asks readers to consider how colorism and classism shaped the ascent of many blacks who gained some modicum social acceptance, and depicts the emotional toll the pressure for respectability has had on the mental wellness and self-esteem of generations.  

 Novel(s): Loving Day by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau); The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux)

 In these hilarious, searing, and clever satires Beatty and Johnson create fictional worlds whose inventive humor is based in poignant realities about navigations of racial identity in the U.S. Johnson’s depiction of a half Irish-half African American man returning home to Philly to a rundown mansion purchased by his late father and discovering a daughter he never knew in Philadelphia is a fertile playground laced with characters and scenarios that raise lingering questions about the construction of race and the perils and pitfalls of racial authenticity. Beatty’s depiction of a fictional all-black community in L.A. is narrated by a young man raised by a radical intellectual, killed by police, who proposes a radical idea to bring back segregation. Beneath Beatty’s brilliant wordplay and often absurdist scenes lie some illuminating truths about embodiments of race in 21st century U.S. life.  



2015 R.I.Ps


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Ornette Coleman (jazz musician)

Andrae Crouch (gospel musician)

Lesley Gore (pop musician)

B.B. King (blues musician)

Ben E. King (R&B musician)

Mary Murphy (jazz singer)

Percy Sledge (R&B musician)

Clark Terry (jazz musician)

Allen Toussaint (pop/rock/R&B musician)