“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”
Reviews from two very different publications say it best about the emergence on the contemporary jazz scene of vocalist Gregory Generet. The Journal of the New Jersey Jazz Society writes: “The arrival of a good new male vocalist these days has become something of a rarity. It is good, therefore, to hip you to (re)generat-ion (Monsieur/Mosaic Records), a first release from Gregory Generet. Cabaret Scenes, the magazine of The Cabaret Foundation, Ltd., echoes: “There’s little sexier than virtuoso talent suited up like gentlemen, erupting into sumptuous, sensual, gut-wrenching jazz. Charismatic Gregory Generet and his band make the kind of joyful noise that soars. Every artist on stage is a source of power, invention and juice.” Critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times echoes: “A voice that’s so sultry you might get burned.”
Since leaving his 25 year career as a high profile post production editor for CBS in 2007, the three time Emmy Award winner has been a nonstop presence on the jazz scene in New York City, performing sold out shows at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center and frequently gigging at renowned hotspots like Joe’s Pub, The Highline Ballroom, The Kitano, Feinsteins at the Lowes Regency and Smoke Jazz Club—where he is currently in residence. He has performed over the years with such greats as Wycliffe Gordon, Branford Marsalis, Mike Renzi, Bucky Pizzarelli, Victor Goines, Kenny Werner, Sherman Irby and Billy Stretch, among others.
JazzMonthly: I know that you started performing jazz while working as a successful, award winning post production editor. Tell me about that career and how and when you started performing jazz?
GG: I had been singing R&B most of my life but got turned onto jazz at Graham Junior College in Boston when my next door dorm neighbor played Bill Evans for me. I came back to New York after college and was hired by ABC within two weeks. I later started at CBS as a videotape operations tech and sometime editor before working my way up. I had a few hours between my report time of 11 and when I actually started working at 4 a.m. and I would spend those hours downtown at clubs. I got to know people and started sitting in a little. It was always a dream of mine to sing onstage, so eventually becoming a jazz singer was something of a dream deferred. My parents were Southerners and my mother used to say, you can sing for God but you need a job. But I kept going with what I loved. My first professional gig was in 1996, a children’s hospital benefit at Birdland on 44th Street through the Harlem Jazz Foundation. I got the gig from a woman my wife knew and she hired me without hearing me! I was on the bill with Jimmy Heath, Milt Jackson and Frank Foster. I started getting work after that via word of mouth, doing small gigs and corporate work for big companies like Clairol and Maybelline. It was a good start.
JazzMonthly: Tell me about your musical background. Where are you from originally and when did you first start singing? Who would you say your greatest musical influences are?
GG: I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I was always singing for my parents and their friends who would come over, plus I sang in church choirs through my teen years. I came later to jazz. Early on, it was all about Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and James Brown. I latched onto R&B because of radio station WBLS which also played a little jazz. I knew I would pursue jazz when I met some people from a club called Paulsen’s in NYC and got on a bill singing R&B covers. The night went well, but I hated it because I felt like I was hiding behind the songs. Even earlier though, I think it was coming across the great John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman album. I heard it and it changed my life. I realized the importance of storytelling, how to look at a lyric and interpret it so that it made sense to me. It’s not just singing in a pretty voice, you have to live it and connect your experiences with the song.
JazzMonthly: What are the advantages and disadvantages about pursuing jazz as a full time career in middle age?
There are a lot of challenges. You really have to believe in what you are doing and not look at the monetary aspect of it because it’s hard to make money and it’s not easy to get people to believe in you when you’re older. I started out at 47 or 48, so I had to give club owners the impression that I had been doing this all my life, which was true, and I always dressed and presented myself well when I met them so they would think, of course this guy is in the business a long time. By doing more and more gigs, I built a strong reputation among New York musicians, which helped a lot. These “hitters” would put in a good word for me and acknowledge what I was capable of to those who would listen. On the positive side, emotionally, I’m bringing more life experience to the table, approaching the music and the business with having a successful professional life that I have lived. That includes making what I call “young man” mistakes, which I wouldn’t make again no matter what course I was pursuing. I’m also mature in the way I talk about the music and how I feel about what I’m hearing and singing. Once that conversation with a prospective employer is in full swing, I’m in the position where I have the ability to accept the job or not. Being a mature adult can set me apart from the many younger singers who want that gig.
JazzMonthly: Tell me about your jazz career before deciding to record your debut album (re)generet-ion.
GG: Mostly a lot of live shows, and I was definitely building momentum when 9/11 happened and changed everything for so many musicians here. When that dry spell continued into the mid 2000s, I threw myself into my TV work and decided to start from scratch. I began playing everywhere from Dizzy’s to one nighters at local restaurants. The idea was always and continues to be making a living as a singer.
JazzMonthly: Aside from being a clever pun on your name, what does the album title mean to you and how does it reflect your artistic vision? How do you feel the recording reflects who you are as an artist and person?
GG: It reflects my attempt to approach songs in different ways from what I am hearing other singers do these days, plus my desire to attach that style to songs that are not part of the typical Great American Songbook canon. I like to bring songs like “Moondance” into that structure. I remain faithful to the guts of the piece but enjoy the idea of bringing a new audience to the song. I take contemporary songwriting and give it the flavoring of jazz. I didn’t want to be another guy doing Sinatra songs, so I chose songs for the album that aren’t overly covered. I feel the album reflects my diversity as well as my desire to be artistically strong but also appealing to the listener. Sometimes jazz artists forget to give their audiences enough credit or the ability to be taken off the hook. One of the things I love about Smoke’s is that there’s an international audience there, some of whom have read about me and come to see me based on that. At the end of my show, I want them to leave with a genuine smile on their face. I love it when they say, “I had no idea who you were, but I had a great evening.” There has to be a bridge between you and the listener.
JazzMonthly: What do you feel you are communicating to the first time listener?
GG: It’s not just about having them say I have a pretty voice, it’s about me touching something in them that makes them feel good that night. That’s what (re)generet-ion means to me. I strive to be a great entertainer because guys like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat Cole have always been inspirations to me. They allowed you to visualize the story they were telling. Johnny Hartman and Shirley Horn also had that gift. It’s all about that beautiful connection between artist and audience.
JazzMonthly: The name of your label is Monsieur. How did you get that nickname?
GG: My wife Tamara and I started dating in 1991 while she was studying in New York at a French Institute, immersing herself in the culture and language. When I took my first trip abroad to the ’92 Winter Olympics in Albertville, I called her from there, we would talk in conversational French. She kept telling her friends my name was “Monsieur” and it stuck.
JazzMonthly: The liner notes by Brian Keith Jackson say something interesting: that you put together a list of songs that you had performed many times live, but that when you hit the studio, except for “Moondance,” you chose songs you had never performed before. Why did you make this decision and are you happy you did it this way?
GG: I am very happy with that. I listened to the masters around me, the guys who own Nola Recording, Jim Czak and John Post. They’ve done jazz for a lot of big names and they had some great advice: keep going back to the melody and stop trying to sing jazz. Let the band play jazz, just sing the song and the story will come across, and the band will support you. I took the same approach to choosing the material, including picking which songs from my original list would come out. A lot of these tunes just meant something to me over the time when I was getting ready to record. I thought it would also be good to do “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” and “Stolen Moments,” because I had never tried to tackle them. There was no overriding theme, but with the exception of “Stolen Moments,” they are all about love. I was simply looking to make the album listenable.
JazzMonthly: Was it scary leaving the security of a successful career to do jazz?
GG: Yes and it still is. But there’s a reason it made sense. In 1995, I was diagnosed with an inflammatory autoimmune illness called sarcoidosis and while I was deathly ill, I realized I didn’t want to have any more regrets in my life – so that’s when I did that first benefit concert. Some years later I had hernia surgery and nearly bled to death from a nicked artery. I felt like I had landed on another planet and didn’t want to be there. I told Tamara I didn’t know what I was going to do. And she said, “I know what you’re going to do, you’re gonna go sing.” I had become more reflective about my life through these experiences, and woke up, realizing I don’t want to regret anything. One of the most exciting things for me is realizing I can still be a sponge even as I get older because there is so much to learn about jazz, performing and of course, the new ways in which music is consumed, and yes, social media. What keeps me inspired is that somewhere in my mind and heart I know there will always be a place I can perform, whether in the U.S. or abroad, and have the opportunity to share my love of music with people. I never want to stop.
isit artist website at: www.gregorygeneret.com
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