PROF. CHRIS NORRIS HAS A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES
A jazz critic, interviewed on National Public Radio a few days ago, said he detected a rising interest in the roots of American jazz--early Louis Armstrong and his New Orleans colleagues, the traditional songs and styles that led on to everything else.
You don’t have to look far for confirmation. The annual traditional jazz festival in Sacramento over Memorial Day weekend will as usual attract a hundred bands or more, and tens of thousands of visitors. There’ll be a third annual trad jazz festival in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend.
And on this Sunday afternoon--as on most Sunday afternoons--a standing-room-only crowd will gather at The Depot in San Juan Capistrano to hear Dick Shooshan’s Golden Eagle Jazz Band and its remarkable blues-singing vocalist Chris Norris. The band performs at other venues, and will be at the Sacramento and Los Angeles festivals, but The Depot has been its home base since 1977 and Norris has been singing with the group since 1982.
I’m not sure there’s a pattern in the lives of blues singers, but if there is one, Norris almost certainly doesn’t fit it.
She is a sensationally fine blues singer, carrying forward the spirit of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who are her idols and the sources of most of her songs. More than half her repertoire was written by women.
She is also an academic, Dr. Chris Norris it is, who teaches freshman composition, women’s studies and a Great Books curriculum at UC San Diego at La Jolla.
On a recent Sunday, she had to hurry home after the performance at The Depot to prepare her notes for a Monday morning lecture on Plato’s “Republic.” There may be another blues singer leading a comparable double career, but she, or he, is not known to me.
Norris’ voice is strong but plaintive, deep and dark. The blues notes bend and slide in the way you have to hear and feel but can’t really learn or read from music manuscripts. (You think of Armstrong’s remark that if you have to ask what jazz is, you’re never going to know.)
The ancient words of loss and betrayal and loneliness still carry overtones of the urgency and pain in which they were composed, in a different place, in a different world, out of a different kind of life experience. In the small world of present-day blues singers, Norris is one of the best.
“You can’t believe how naked and vulnerable I feel when I’m singing,” Norris says. “It’s all about love and loss and you can’t fake it; you can’t pretend it’s acting.”
She is 32, and the average age of her Sunday afternoon audiences is probably older than that, although she says she finds more young people responding to those old melancholy anthems. A tall and elegant brunette, she suggests the concert stage and not the gin mill, yet the singing is passionate rather than studied.
She’s from Tacoma (not exactly blues country), from an extended Italian family on her mother’s side, with a different musical tradition. She studied opera--soprano--for several years from her teens into her young 20s and briefly considered medical school until literature, at the University of Washington, caught her interest.
It was a friend’s record collection, well-seasoned with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sides, that introduced her to the blues and changed her life, or part of it.
“I’d tried singing big band stuff, and hated it,” Norris says. “And I hated the pop stuff, too.” There wasn’t room for improvisation, and part of the attraction of the blues is the possibility for going free-form.
“No performances are ever quite the same. Once in a while you can even sing yourself into a corner, and have to wiggle your way out.”
She learns the old songs from records in the first instance. “The sheet music is almost always wrong,” she says. She listens, let’s say, to Ma Rainey’s “Titanic Man Blues” or “Misery Blues” or Bessie Smith’s “Young Woman’s Blues” until the song is part of her. “Then I put the record away and don’t listen any more.” What happens then is Chris Norris singing a Ma Rainey song, which is a world away from imitating a Rainey record.
“I’ve learned a lot about lyrics that you can’t learn from listening to the words. You listen to the instrument, the reeds especially. Not many singers know how to sing blue notes; I don’t know how I hear them, but I do.”
The teacher and the blues singer do link arms, metaphorically speaking. “There’s a recombinative quality to the music that is wonderful,” she says.
She is also a fiercely enthusiastic teacher, concerned about the importance of giving a taste of the humanities to a student body preponderantly bound for the sciences. “It’s obviously very important to humanize the scientists,” she says. Next term, in the Great Books program, she’ll be covering the interesting territory from Virgil to Dante.
It sounds a far cry from Virgil to Ma Rainey, but it’s all heartfelt human experience and, as you might say, Dante and Bessie Smith both knew how bad things could be, and how powerfully they could be expressed.