Patti LaBelle Headlines the Eclectic Burlington Discover Jazz Festival | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Patti LaBelle Headlines the Eclectic Burlington Discover Jazz Festival


Published May 29, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Patti Labelle Performing At The Forum In Los Angeles - COURTESY OF ANDY KEILEN/FORUM PHOTOS
  • Courtesy Of Andy Keilen/forum Photos
  • Patti Labelle Performing At The Forum In Los Angeles

Recent generations of Vermont musicians who grew up playing in their school jazz orchestras likely share a formative experience: performing on Church Street during the annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. A primary mission of the fest is instilling a love of jazz in the community, so the phrase "Get 'em while they're young" aptly applies here. Or, as the late, great Whitney Houston once sang, "I believe the children are our future."

Still, the daily performances by school bands, if key to the festival's longevity, represent but a tiny fraction of its massive lineup. Now in its 36th year, the sprawling summit of all things jazz, swing, funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rock, African fusion and bluegrass is unmatched locally in the number of artists involved and places to see them. From the grand Flynn MainStage to smaller venues such as chic speakeasy Deli 126 to street corners and city parks, Burlington crackles with energy during the 10-day musical melting pot.

This year's celebration runs from Friday, May 31, through Sunday, June 9, and features some heavy-hitting, pan-genre headliners: R&B icon Patti LaBelle, jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Beach Boys cofounder Brian Wilson, soul ensemble St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Jamaican ska/rocksteady legends Toots & the Maytals, and former Beyoncé saxophonist and BDJF artist-in-residence Tia Fuller. And those are just six of the scores of artists waiting to be, ahem, discovered.

The following selections represent household names and hometown heroes alike — a cross section of what makes Burlington's annual jazz fest so special.

On Her Own

The many faces of superwoman Patti LaBelle
Patti LaBelle (right) performing with Labelle in 1974 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Patti LaBelle (right) performing with Labelle in 1974

Even if you've never taken a single French lesson, you likely know the phrase "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" and what it means. That's because the salacious invitation — which translates to "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" — is the hook for one of the most enduring hits of the 1970s: "Lady Marmalade." The track launched the powerhouse funk-soul group Labelle to international fame, though several other versions of the group preceded it. Its most famous member? The incomparable vocalist Patti LaBelle.

Born Patricia Louise Holte in a working-class area of Philadelphia, the singer got her start in the early 1960s with girl group the Blue Belles, which would eventually be known as Labelle. From its early saccharine doo-wop ditties to the pre-disco funk splendor of the band's breakthrough 1974 album Nightbirds, Labelle launched its namesake to stardom.

As often happens in the music world, LaBelle eventually decided to strike out on her own and dropped her debut, self-titled solo album in 1977. She continued to crank out records, working with legendary producers including David Rubinson, Burt Bacharach and Prince. She landed her first No. 1 album with 1986's Winner in You. LaBelle scored her first No. 1 song with that album's lead single, "On My Own." It's a devastating, emotionally raw duet with iconic yacht-rocker Michael McDonald.

With 19 studio albums under her belt, LaBelle is one of the most accomplished American vocalists of all time. But her talents don't end in the recording booth. She's starred in Broadway shows, including the Fela Kuti biographical musical Fela! And she's appeared in films such as Idlewild and the TV shows "American Horror Story" and "Star."

LaBelle is also the author of a number of books, including her 1996 tell-all memoir, Don't Block the Blessings, which details the intense highs and lows of her life in showbiz. Foodies might know LaBelle from her best-selling cookbooks — or her line of frozen foods sold by Walmart.

Fun fact: After YouTuber James Wright's emphatic review of the chef's mass-market sweet potato pie went viral, the discount chain completely sold out of the product. Nearly overnight, a black market emerged on websites such as eBay and Craigslist for the dessert, often selling for multiple times the retail price of just under $4.

Throughout her 50-plus years in the limelight, LaBelle has achieved more than most could ever dream of — including an intimate performance at the White House for then-president Barack Obama in 2014.

LaBelle headlines the BDJF on Sunday, June 2, at the Flynn MainStage. Appropriately, her most recent album, 2017's Bel Hommage, is a collection of jazz standards. The singer spoke with Seven Days in advance of her festival appearance.

SEVEN DAYS: I want to start off by wishing you a happy birthday!

PATTI LABELLE: Thank you! I need that.

SD: You just turned 75 on Friday, May 25.

PL: Yes, 75 is fabulous.

SD: I bet! So, after releasing a record at least every few years for decades, you took a fairly large gap between 2007's Miss Patti's Christmas and 2017's Bel Hommage. Why such a long pause, and why return with an album of jazz standards?

PL: There were no good projects coming to me, no music that I wanted to sing. And my ex-husband had been begging me for a jazz album. We were married for 40 years, and he begged me every year. And I said, "Heck, no. I'm not gonna disrespect Nina Simone, Gloria Lynne and all these wonderful people." Because I didn't think I would do them any justice. The songs that are done well, don't touch 'em. If you can't fix it, it ain't broke.

Then I gave in, and I said, "OK, I'm just gonna put my spin on it." It's not that I didn't want to [make a record], it's just that I wasn't hearing anything that I wanted to do. So that brought me into the ears of folks I guess thought I might have given up. So I'm glad I did it.

SD: In 1991, you, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight teamed up to cover Karyn White's slow jam "Superwoman," which is about respect for women in domestic life. Here we are now, nearly 30 years later in a post-#MeToo world, and things don't seem to have gotten any better. What do you think a new version of "Superwoman" would focus on besides domesticity?

PL: Of course we're superwomen because we're going through that #MeToo moment. We're still going through it. And we're all superwomen because we do what we do so well, and we do a lot of stuff undercover that people don't know we're stressed from.

And so many people, like the McDonald's employees speaking about sexual harassment — a superwoman works every day.

SD: So you're saying it would move beyond home life? Because the song is from the point of view of a wife singing to her husband.

PL: Now [the song applies to] every aspect of your job, your life. It's like, we have to make that money for our families and have to take a bunch of unnecessary harassment to make that dollar. That "Superwoman" song is forever, for every situation that women deal with.

SD: I was watching an interview from 1986, and you were asked about the slow creep of sex appeal into your former group, the Blue Belles, and other girl groups of the era. You made it sound like you had considerable control over the way you presented yourselves. Is that true? Have you always been in charge of your image? You said you and your bandmates were going out to Woolworth to buy your dresses and everything.

PL: Oh, guess what? I still am. I'm not going to Woolworth, but I'm my own stylist. I tell my makeup artist what makeup I want on my face, what kind of part — the left or right side — I want in my hair, how high a pump I'm gonna wear. I'm my superwoman.

When people say, "She should give me credit for that outfit," first of all, you didn't buy it. I purchased it through you. When people say, "I made her; I made that outfit," it bothers me, because we're all capable of styling our own selves. We know what we look good in. Nobody tells Patti what she's gonna do or what she's gonna wear. No one's gonna tell me how to put my hair up or down. You know, I've been crazy-hair girl for a long time.

SD: Yes, I've been looking at a lot of pictures lately.

PL: Everything you see is what Sarah [Dash] wanted, and what Nona [Hendryx] wanted, and what Patti wanted while we were Labelle. We had the greatest stylist, Larry LeGaspi. He's no longer here. But we told him how we wanted to look. And it all works when you have control of yourself. Don't let anybody control your hair. Don't do it!

I have this great hair stylist now, David Lamar. He's phenomenal. So I let him give me ideas. I look at him and say, "What do we want this week?" And he'll blow it out and make it exactly like I want it. And he makes the wigs, so I'm blessed with a great hair stylist and makeup artist. [They] don't tell me what they want me to wear — I tell them.

SD: What are some universal truths to working in the entertainment industry that never change?

PL: That I still have to work harder than the white lady. That's here forever. It's not gonna change. And guess what? I can deal with it, because I'm still gonna give you 125, 150 percent of me. I know that Kelly Clarkson might work that hard, or Barbra Streisand, and they'll get to the finish line before I will. Or Celine Dion. It's gonna be that way forever, I do believe. And I'm happy. I'm dealing with it. I've dealt with it all my music life. It's real. But it doesn't bother me, because I know that's the way the world is. They'll listen to someone else before they will me [sing] the same song, because they're a different color. You know what I mean?

SD: Is there anything you think is better now because of technological advancements or social media's influence?

PL: I don't know. I mean, I'm not a social media girl. Of course, I'm on social media. All I can say is I just record with headphones in a booth and do my best to sing the song properly, hoping that it's a hit. And if it's not, it'll bubble under for as long as I live, and I did it my way. That's corny for me to say.

SD: Hey, sometimes the truth is corny.

PL: It is. I'm 75, and I know when I'm 80 it's still gonna be the same way for white artists and black artists. You're gonna be a black artist, and you're gonna bubble under and try your hardest to reach that level that they are. But you'll never get anything under 150 percent from me, whenever I do what I do.

SD: I understand that you still like to cook big family meals.

PL: Oh, every day.

  • Courtesy Of Derek Blanks
  • Patti LaBelle

SD: How do you deal with mass food prep in an age when food allergies and self-imposed dietary restrictions are so common?

PL: Well, I'm gonna cook something for my birthday for about 20, 30 people. What do I do? I know my grandbaby cannot have peanut butter. I know there are some people who don't eat pork. I'll have something for everybody. It's so easy. I just say, "What can't you eat?" And they'll tell me, and then I'll make what they can eat. When people say that's hard, they're full of crap. It ain't hard at all.

SD: Do you ever get any alone time? Do you like being alone?

PL: I love being alone.

SD: What's your favorite thing to do when no one else is around?

PL: Play with my little Mr. Cuddles, my 9-year-old shih tzu.

SD: Awww!

PL: And watch the [Investigation Discovery] channel and CNN. That's my fun. And go and cook something just for me, maybe. Because when I cook with people in the house, I'm gonna say, "Do you want some?" But I don't want to give them some of certain things, but they all want some. I like to be alone, cooking for myself, playing with Cuddles and watching CNN.

SD: At this point in your life, you've kind of done everything. You've packed arenas, performed on Broadway, starred in movies and TV, and published books. Is there any kind of performing that you've never done but always wanted to?

PL: Hmm, that's interesting. No. I've done as much as I can that I wanna do — like the country music with Travis Tritt [and] the Oak Ridge Boys, and with the lead singer of Chicago, and Michael Bolton. I've sung with so many different types of people. I just do it all. Michael McDonald, of course. There's nothing that I need to do that I haven't done already.

SD: Any people you've always wanted to collaborate with that you haven't yet?

PL: Well, Aretha [Franklin] and I talked about it before she passed. We had planned to do something. But, of course, it didn't happen. There's nobody on my singing bucket list.

SD: What an amazing thing, though!

PL: Ariana Grande and I talked about doing something together. I love that little girl. I'm gonna possibly do something [with her].

SD: I'll just tell you right now, that will be a hit.

PL: Oh, yeah. She's like my little daughter anyway, so we're gonna do something.

SD: You've always talked about being a Gemini and how that manifests in your personality. Have you always felt that way, or was it something you grew into?

PL: I've always been a true Gemini with 18 personalities, at least. I'll say something to my assistant — right now, when I get off the phone — and then in 20 minutes I'll say, "No, I don't want to do that." And then she'll say, "Are you sure?" And then an hour later I've changed my mind. So I am the original Gemini. I change my mind all the time. And thank God I got a mind to change.

Talking Shop

Meet BDJF artist-in-residence Tia Fuller
  • Courtesy Of Jerris Madison
  • Tia Fuller

Aside from providing a 10-day smorgasbord of entertainment, the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival also advocates for education and community involvement. That's why an artist-in-residence is part of the lineup.

This year, Berklee College of Music professor of ensembles Tia Fuller has that distinction. The Boston-based saxophonist is perhaps best known as a member of Beyoncé's band during the mid to late aughts. But others may know her for her latest album, Diamond Cut, which was nominated for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in the 2019 Grammy Awards.

In addition to her back-to-back concerts on Saturday, June 8, at the FlynnSpace, the instrumentalist will lead several presentations and workshops. For instance, Fuller joins Reuben Jackson, the former host of Vermont Public Radio's "Friday Night Jazz," for a meet-the-artist Q&A earlier in the day at the FlynnSpace.

On Thursday, June 6, Fuller will present a multimedia lecture regarding the history of women in jazz from the early 1900s through present day. She'll look at the socioeconomic factors that have affected women's ability to rise within the genre.

Fuller demonstrates her commitment to the equitable treatment of female musicians through her involvement in the We Have Voice collective. In response to sexism and other forms of harassment, the group of like-minded players drafted a code of conduct for schools and organizations to sign on to, pledging commitment to fair treatment and equality.

"If an individual feels like they're in a situation that isn't equitable, or if they feel uncomfortable, they can go to the code of conduct that the organization has endorsed to hold [it] accountable," Fuller tells Seven Days.

Also on June 8, Fuller will lead a workshop geared toward early learners called "Variations on a Lullaby." She'll introduce youngsters to foundational musical concepts such as rhythm and time signatures.

Fuller believes that fostering a sense of spontaneity at an early age is crucial for potential young musicians — girls in particular. She says that a certain kind of impetuousness, while common in the way boys are encouraged to play and explore their world, isn't necessarily true of girls' experience. Exposure and visibility are two of the best ways to start breaking down such social confines.

"It's helpful for young women to see people who look like them playing nontraditional instruments," says Fuller. "That's something I saw a couple of times when I was younger. It was helpful to see even just [one] woman up there playing her behind off. It made it more tangible for me."

Horn o' Plenty

James Harvey makes the most of a second chance
  • Courtesy Of Luke Awtry
  • James Harvey

"I'm usually not that excited about the BDJF, but this year is different," Burlington jazz icon James Harvey writes in an email to Seven Days. That's because, this season, the multi-instrumentalist is returning to his first love: the trombone. You can see what all the fuss is about during Harvey's run of BDJF shows: Saturday, June 1, at Radio Bean; Tuesday, June 4, at Red Square; and a special appearance as part of the tribute to funk icon John "Papa" Gros on Wednesday, June 5, at Nectar's.

Folks who've seen the Vermont native play over the last decade or so — with his former project the H-Mob and as a member of Phish's Big Country Horns and other combos — might think of him as a pianist. And he certainly is. But the trombone, which Harvey describes as "the most cussed fucking mule of an instrument you could imagine," was his main squeeze for much of his life. That came to an abrupt end when his public struggles with drug addiction claimed his teeth. Though he acquired a set of artificial ones, his false chompers affected his embouchure, rendering him unable to play.

Harvey describes it as the "biggest breakup of my life."

About three years ago, he had what would turn out to be a prophetic dream in which he was playing his horn.

"It's the corniest thing in the world," he says. "I woke up and thought, Fuck, I kinda miss that."

Serendipitously, Harvey encountered Burlington-based dentist Randall Miller, who informed the trombonist that he could construct dentures that would allow the jazz man to reunite with the brass. A successful GoFundMe campaign afforded Harvey the funds for a second chance.

"Teeth are very important when it comes to a wind instrument," says Miller. A musician himself, the dentist plays bass in his family band, the Miller Trio, and performed with the late Big Joe Burrell. Miller studied major removable prosthodontics at State University of New York at Buffalo, specializing in embouchure dentures.

"You have to make a denture that you can bite on and still have an opening for air," Miller continues. That differs from standard dentures, which make a closed seal.

Because Harvey was essentially operating with a new mouth, he had to completely relearn his technique.

"It's taken me [two and a half years] to really get back on the horse," explains Harvey. The trombonist did play his horn at last year's festival but says he was just dipping his toes in the water. "It was a lot tougher than I thought it was gonna be," he admits, adding that he considers this year's BDJF his official return to the instrument.

"I'm at about 60 percent," he says. "[But] I can still get my sound."

Here and Now

The secret language of Burlington's Birdcode
Amber deLaurentis and Tom Cleary - COURTESY OF BRIAN JENKINS
  • Courtesy Of Brian Jenkins
  • Amber deLaurentis and Tom Cleary

While watching the 2014 Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, University of Vermont jazz instructors Tom Cleary and Amber deLaurentis saw a connection between the 20th-century computer scientist and jazz icon Charlie Parker. The married couple is the backbone of local jazz combo Birdcode, whose name refers back to Parker — or "Bird," as he's known in hepcat circles.

"The way that [Turing] was listening to the encoded German transmissions has something in common with the way that jazz players listen to Charlie Parker," says Cleary, a pianist. He describes the saxophonist's music as having "bits of language that you start to notice being repeated."

"It's a language, this improvising that we do," says Cleary.

"There's vocabulary to it, and we're always building our vocabulary," adds deLaurentis, the group's vocalist.

Flexing their lexicon is the core of Birdcode's new album, You Are Here. The nine-track collection is heavy on vocals, both lyrical and non-lyrical — aka scat singing. The group, which also features drummer Caleb Bronz and bassist Justin Dunn, presents its latest works throughout BDJF. Birdcode's performance on Thursday, June 6, at the Light Club Lamp Shop is the formal album release show.

"There are these standard tunes that everybody plays, and then there's this search going on of, 'Where's the new material gonna come from?'" says Cleary. "One way we've addressed that is to use some of the standard forms and add our own melodies."

"We like to experiment," says deLaurentis.

Without getting too technical, much of this experimentation comes out in the way the group approaches solos. Cleary and deLaurentis prefer a conversational style, with quickly traded solos. This challenges the common method of what they describe as "a series of monologues."

For instance, Cleary's original "Everybody's Inside Blues" begins with a group improvisation.

"And then it kind of morphs into one person improvising, and we never know who it's gonna be," says deLaurentis.

Between mostly original tunes, the group drops in some noteworthy covers on the Colin McCaffrey-produced album. Traditional 19th-century folk tune "Wayfaring Stranger" becomes a brisk, sparkling ballad. And the band transforms Paul McCartney and Wings' "Let 'Em In" from a bouncy piano stomper into a buttery, shuffling jaunt.

On a bittersweet note, the album also includes a reworking of late jazz artist Dan Skea's tune "Indigo Bunting." Skea, known for leading the Dan Skea Quartet as well as playing alongside Wayne Newton, died on May 13 from undisclosed health complications.

"We're really proud to be commemorating him and his work," says Cleary.

He and deLaurentis are currently sitting on another album, Innocent Road, to be released later this year under deLaurentis' name. Described as more of a rock outing, it features collaborations with lyricist Sarah Blue as well as area players including George Voland, Rich Steel and other members of the Vermont Jazz Ensemble and Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

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