Cool Yule Christmas show. A big hit artist on the jazz/cabaret scene in Chicago, Saloff is considered one of the greatest song interpreters of Ella Fitzgerald. In our talk, she discusses her roots and her love of music.
Tell me about your background. Where were you born?
I was born outside of Philadelphia. My father's first jewelry business was in South Phillie, but eventually we moved to New Jersey where I grew up. I lived in New York City most of my adult life, then I moved to Chicago and fell in love with it and have been here ever since.
You are the talk of the town there. Chicago has the reputation as being the 'it' town for the music business. What special meaning does it hold for you?
Well, I'll tell you what happened. Living and working in New York I really worked as a musical theatre actress, and it was such a struggle just to live there. Then when I started to work in the night club business...so many people and so few gigs that developing as an artist was a real challenge. When I was offered a long-term engagement... to come to a club that was partly owned by Bobby Short, the Gold Star Sardine Bar, I took it, and I really worked like a crazy person. The bar is no more, but it was an incredible opportunity, one that I never would have had in New York City. Bobby (Short) was wonderful to me; we actually did a big benefit together one time. I just adore this city. There are so many creative opportunities for not only musicians but actors and comedians especially. It's just a very active entertainment town.
Let's talk about The Roar of the Butterfly, the one-woman play you performed here at the old Celebration Theatre a couple of years back. You were just sensational in that. The way you incorporated all of the characters into the story and backed it up with your original musical score. I was disappointed that you didn't have a bigger audience.
I was too... you know, but any place you're unknown...
Is that the reason you stayed away from LA when you've toured your acts elsewhere?
Absolutely, yeah. We couldn't get a venue that was appropriate. And the play (Roar) did get produced here in Chicago the following year, but I haven't done it for a year now. I'm not sure what I will do with it later, but I don't want to have to produce it again. If I found an outside producer that wanted to do it, I would certainly do it again.
How did Roar originate?
It was a long process. I started writing it years ago. It had another title; it didn't have original music; I wasn't even writing songs at that point. And it was sort of autobiographical. Then I put it away and 2008 was when I started to revamp it. I decided to write a whole original score. I added more characters, and it developed that it wasn't my story, that it was the story of Butterfly. One thing led to another. And there you go...
Did you grow up in a musical environment?
Not really, no. (she laughs) There are no artists in my family. They were retailers that were mystified; they didn't know what to make of me...
But did you listen to Broadway and pop albums growing up?
Oh, yes. They used to take me to musicals and they really loved big band music. My dad had Billie Holiday albums that I used to sneak away to listen to and pretend that I was listening to pop music, but I never thought the music of my generation did anything for me. I have always loved musical theatre and classic jazz. That's been my great love.
Who are your mentors? Your favorite artists?
My influences really were: Ella Fitzgerald, of course, was a huge influence; Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Hartman...Art Murphy...and Rosemary Clooney...and of course, Frank Sinatra. It's a whole mish mosh of influences. Also, there are instrumentalists that I love to listen to as well.
Do you credit your love of jazz to your parents' love of the big band era?
It had a lot to do with it, yeah. It just moved me. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald on television when I was a little kid, and she was scat singing... I remember thinking "I don't know what that lady is doing but it's amazing!" I was just blown away by her. I absolutely adored her.
Before I get to "When You See Me", which I think is a fantastic new song...
Oh, thank you. By the way I will be performing that at Rockwell. A holiday show with a song about loving each other is perfect.
Great... we'll come back to the song. How would you compare today's music to that of yesteryear?
It's such a wide range of popular music now. The super, super Top 10 popular stuff, it has the same effect on me as the stuff that was out when I was a kid. I really don't feel connected to it, or like it...it sounds like a lot of yelling. I think there's a lot of vocal technique that is loud and louder. No dynamic range...it's just all people screaming. It's one dimensional...I think it's formulated. Then, there are some independent artists that are writing beautiful things that you don't get to hear enough of. Thank God for the internet to be exposed to some really beautiful sensitive stuff. As far as my taste is concerned, jazz in particular is very, very emoting... of what is part of our humanity. It's a style of music that is so expressive. It has dynamic range, but most of all, it's spirit driven. That are poems in that; there's storytelling. You know what they're saying. In a lot of pop rock, I have a problem with the diction. I can't understand what they're saying. It doesn't mean anything to me. So much musical theatre stuff that has become popular music, that became standards, had such a long shelf life...I mean new artists are still doing these songs. Pop artists are doing old standards. They were written 70 years ago and sound as fresh as the day they were written. You're refreshing the style, which is what I love to do in performance. To put a fresh turn on something! It needs to have a life now. I don't think it needs to be necessarily performed in the way it was originally done. That's what really is great about timeless music.
This has a really crazy story. I broke my leg this summer. I was laid up for 10 weeks. It's totally healed now; I'm very happy I can wear high heels again. (we laugh) That was the part that was really breaking my heart. I was in bed and was talking to David Bloom, who owns the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago. I've taught there for many years. He's a colleague of mine and a champion of what I do. He was talking about Trayvon Martin. He said, "What if you wrote a song about that?" I thought "You're crazy!" I hung up, I started to think about it, and then I started writing and I couldn't stop. It just kept coming. It's part of the process I go through when I write something. Before you knew it, it was finished and David wanted to produce it. We talked about how it was going to be performed. We were definitely going to record it. It started with just piano and then we had all sorts of other ideas. Then another singer/friend Jewel Tancy got involved, and David suggested the whole hip hop style. We hired all those fantastic hip hop guys and recorded the whole thing in two hours.
When I listened to the song, I thought the elements of the Trayvon Martin case kind of blended well with that hip kind of style.
Yeah. And Max Hornung, who was a student of mine, is 19 years old, just starting college and wrote a really short rap to open it. It all turned out to be one of those crazy miracles.
Do you teach voice?
Yeah, but not traditionally. I actually teach jazz style and performance, but it's not a typical technique class with people doing scales. It's about using the voice you have. I work with people that have incredible instruments, some of them are classically trained, and they want to learn how to sing jazz or to sing in a more popular tone. I work with them on style. And then I have some that want to do it for their own head. I work with the instrument that they have. I teach them how to embrace what your own style is. I'm a style coach. We learn by imitation, but are afraid to break the imitating. Find your own voice!
What can you add about December 3 at the Rockwell? You're doing your Cool Yule songs for Christmas and the new song...care to say anything else?
Come to this celebration at Rockwell! You'll have a blast! I promise you a good time. Meow!
Spider Saloff is phenomenal. You do not want to miss her on the 3rd of December! In the meantime, check out Spider's American Songbook Preservation Network, a small non-profit organization based in Chicago which funds recording projects for artists... and her website: