Happy Birthday Frank Sinatra, but Let’s Not Forget Joe Williams!!!

Today, December 12, is the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth. It’s hard to miss, my social media is overrun with #FrankSinatra posts, and there have been innumerable TV specials commemorating the special day, not limited to the #Sinatra100 Special which included Trisha Yearwood and Nick Jonas belting out the American Songbook. Even I participated in a salute to Sinatra at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank NJ last week, where a cast of singers, including Deana Martain and Joe Piscopo, gathered to pay homage to the legendary singer.

And I’m on board with all of that. I love Sinatra at the Sands, I love Sinatra and Jobim, I love his hits on Capitol Records. If my iPod is on shuffle, you’re going to hear some Sinatra. I like Sinatra. Period.

But, nonetheless, a few things stick in my craw. Last week, while we were performing at The Count Basie Theater, I kept thinking: Here we are, celebrating Frank Sinatra, featuring dozens of singers who claim him as a hero, an inspiration, even a deity. He is the pride of New Jersey. And yet… We are in the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank New Jersey, Count Basie’s hometown, and where is the concert featuring dozens of pianists who claim Basie as their hero, their inspiration? Why does New Jersey not jump up and down to claim him as a favorite son? Half of the songs performed on the Sinatra tribute concert were from recordings where Sinatra performed with Count Basie, but yet Basie’s music nor his band were never mentioned. Why celebrate one and not the other? Surely New Jersey, and America too, has enough love to share with both?

And then today, December 12, Frank Sinatra’s birthday. The centennial birthday, nonetheless. It’s a big deal. I understand that we, as a people, as a culture, want to celebrate this man and his music. But, you know who else was born on this day in 1918? Joe Williams. And what I don’t understand, is why we as a people, as a culture, don’t want to celebrate HIS music, too. I have not seen a single social media post about him today, much less a tribute concert honoring his legacy.

Joe Williams was one of the greatest singers to ever walk this earth. He had a beautiful voice, and if you ever heard him in person, you know it was even more beautiful than on recordings. He swung, HARD. He made you feel tremendously, wonderfully good, every single time he opened his mouth.

joe williams

I was fortunate enough to see Joe Williams a few times when I was a little girl before he passed in 1999. The first time was at the Ravinia Jazz Festival in Chicago. I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I was SUCH a fan; I knew every word to his “Live at Birdland” recording. Our family friend, Clark Terry, introduced us backstage, but it wasn’t until my family and I ran into him in the hotel elevator that I had to truly interact with him. My parents began telling Joe what a fan I was, how I knew his recordings, and how I wanted to be a singer. I was petrified. We stepped off the elevator, and my mother said, “Champian, sing for him!” I couldn’t move at all, much less sing, so I remained silent. Joe bent down on one knee so he was eye level with me (he was a very tall man), and I’ll never forget his face and his eyes so close to mine, just looking at me and waiting. I couldn’t do anything. He must have thought we were all crazy! Finally he stood back up and said goodnight to us, and I remained, frozen to that spot in the hallway, unable to move. When I saw him enter his hotel room and close the door I burst into tears. Embarrassed and ashamed, I was inconsolable.

Later that year, I saw Joe again. This time we were on the Jazz Cruise (again with Clark Terry) and I was determined to make a better impression. He remembered me and was very friendly towards me, even though I’m sure he remembered that bizarre interaction in Chicago. On the very last evening, he sat in with DIVA and sang “Alright, Okay, You Win”, and he asked me to join him on stage. Finally over my fear, I was able to get up sing with him. That duet was one of the most fun moments of my life.

So, you see, Joe Williams means a great deal to me. And though I love Frank Sinatra as much as the next red-blooded girl, Joe Williams will always have my heart.

Amidst all the celebrating of Frank Sinatra today, let’s take a moment to honor this man and his music too! Happy Birthday Joe Williams!

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Letters to Dinah: A Tribute to the Late Great Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues, is my first true love in terms of Jazz singing. Discovering her album, “For Those in Love”, absolutely changed my life.  When I was little I would listen to her and her alone; until I had completely absorbed nearly all her music, from her early blues recordings, her straight ahead Jazz albums, her early R&b hits, and her crossover pop recordings of the early 1960’s. I loved them all. As I became more infatuated with her music, I began to learn more about her career and personal life, asking friends of mine who knew her (Clark Terry, Junior Mance, etc) and reading what books I could find. Learning more about her, I became more and more in love with her music.

In the 20 years of her recording career and with her unprecedented cross-genre hits, she became one of the most commercially successful female black performers of her generation, all while never changing the artistic approach to her music. You’ve probably heard her renditions of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “Unforgettable,” and “Evil Gal Blues” (her first hit, from 1943); and you’re likely to hear her music on the TV and in movies even today. Besides winning a Grammy in 1959 for her recording of “What a Difference a Day Makes”, she was awarded 3 posthumous Grammy’s (1998, 1999, and 2001) and inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1993.

She has long been my hero, the voice I turn to when I’m happy and when I’m sad and so I am very pleased to announce my  new project, “Letters to Dinah”, a new show which features songs she has taught me to love. You’ll hear some blues, some standards, some country, and some R&B too. I hope you’ll join me in this celebration of Jazz and Black American Music, by following along here on the blog and by attending a show:

The International Premiere of the show will be in Israel as part of the Hot Jazz Series (February / Details here) and the US Premiere will be at WNYC’s The Greene Space (February 18), where you can attend the show or watch via the live broadcast. (Details here) More concert dates to be announced soon.

Right now, I am picking out songs for the show! Which ones should I include? “Salty Papa Blues”? “TV is the Thing This Year”? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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“Change Partners” CD Release Party & Dedication to Frank Wess

Thanks to everyone who came to Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola last week to celebrate the release of my new album, Change Partners. It was so nice to see so many friendly faces in the audience; I am so flattered that so many of you traveled so far to attend the party.

As you can see in the pictures below, the backdrop for the stage is a beautiful view overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park. It was really something to watch the full moon appear on the horizon and continue to rise throughout the entire evening of our performance! I loved being able to play some selections from the record and to talk a little bit about each tune, especially Frank Wess’ composition “You Made a Good Move” (the opening track for the CD).

I know some people will find it odd that I chose an instrumental to be the first song on the album, so I want to tell you a little bit about it. This tune was written by the great Jazz saxophonist Frank Wess, who was also an Oklahoman, like me. Frank was one of the first people I met when I moved to NYC, and we became friends and eventually neighbors. I heard him play this tune a million times, and to me it represents the legacy of his music and his contribution to the legacy of Oklahoma Jazz. It’s the kind of tune that puts everyone in a good mood: it’s swinging, bluesy, and in the “people’s key” of F (haha). Frank passed away last year and I wanted very much to honor him on this record, though I didn’t want to call it a “tribute album” or anything like that. I just want my music to show that I loved him and his music, and I hope to be a continuation of his legacy.

Here are some great pictures from that night, and if you want to share your own here or via other social media sites, please do! Use the hashtag #ChangePartners so I can see them!

Thanks for reading!!!

(In case you’re wondering why you can’t find it on iTunes or amazon: the official international release date of Change Partners is October 28, but if you want a copy right now you can order an autographed copy via my new website –> www.champian.net/shop)

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My Time with Clark Terry: The Clark Terry Institute of Jazz Studies

I first met Clark Terry when I was 6 months old. I met him because my father, Stephen Fulton, and he had been friends since the late 1970’s. It would take me a long time to understand he was famous, in my childhood he was simply like my Grandfather. I drew him pictures for his birthday and holidays, spoke to him on the phone (probably to talk about Barbies). He would let me play with his charm necklace (which had a wheel of cheese charm that he was always trying to convince me was Pacman) and then give me treats from Europe and sometimes money to buy Mommy and Daddy a present as a surprise. I understood he was important, successful, even wealthy – but it was many years later, as I started to become a Jazz musician myself, that I would understand how significant he was in the music.

Little Champian and CT.

Little Champian and CT.

In 1994, my family and I moved to LeMars Iowa so my father could become the director of the Clark Terry International Institute of Jazz Studies. Jazz Education was always an important part of Clark’s career, he taught all over the world, but this was the first and only time he would have his own Institute that would teach the music as he wanted it taught. As the Artistic Director he helped design the curriculum by choosing the tunes the students would learn, the solos they would study to learn theory, (such as Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul”) and by insisting that the “visiting artist series” be a required course for credit.  He chose my father, Stephen Fulton, as the director; the other faculty included Cliff McMurray (drums), Mark Nelms (bass), Morris Nelms (piano), and David “Bull” Stewart (saxophones). The institute would stay open only until 1997, when the university (Westmar University) would begin to go bankrupt and eventually close its doors.

I was 8 years old at the time the institute opened, and just beginning to become seriously interested in being a Jazz musician. Those 3 or so years were truly an idyllic time for me, to be totally surrounded by the study of Jazz. Clark visited the campus a few times during each semester to teach classes, private lessons, and also to perform in a concert with the students, and he also sent his friends like Red Holloway and Butch Miles as “visiting artists” to give clinics to the students while he was away.

Many of the people who taught me lessons, both faculty and students, were kind and generous with their time, but only a few truly took the time to treat me seriously as an aspiring musician. Clark was one of them, Red Holloway another (and of course, my father). Once Clark realized I was serious, there were no holds barred when it came to my musical education. Often we see him smiling and being encouraging, and he often was, but he was also extremely serious and wasn’t afraid to show it. There’s no crying in baseball and no crying in Jazz either, and I learned to take my lumps early on.

It was during that time that I first performed with Clark in public, and it was also during those years that Clark gave me my first paying gig. I had formed a band, “The Little Jazz Quintet” (we were all under the age of 12), and we played mostly Clark’s original tunes as well as some standards. We were young, but we worked hard, and Clark hired us to play his 75th Birthday Party. The party was at my family’s house, and we played a set towards the beginning of the party. Afterwards Clark paid me and explained how to pay my musicians, so that I would be a good bandleader. He counted the money ($50 bills) out on top of my Barbie playhouse.

There are so many stories from this time, and I want to share more of them with you, but for now I will close with some pictures. And please, feel free to comment (especially if you were at the Institute), and share this with your friends! Clark Terry is an extraordinary musician who should be loved, cherished, and thought of often.

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Sneak Peek of “Change Partners”!

It’s 2 weeks until my official CD Release Concert / Party at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in New York City. Have you made your reservations yet?

The many boxes of Change Partners arrived last week, and I have to say – I am pretty excited. There are many stages to making a new CD: planning, rehearsing, recording, mixing, designing, etc., but no matter what, I never feel like the CD is actually happening until I have the final product in my hands. The real product makes it OFFICIAL: I have a new CD.

Since it’s really really really official, I think you should hear it! So I made you a video, complete with pictures from my recent tours, and a 3 minute excerpt of the title track.

Please like, comment, share, and if you REALLY like it, click over to champian.net where you can order your copy (and get a signed copy before everyone else, because you deserve it for reading my blog).

Thank you!!!

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