An interview with jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Camille Thurman

click to enlarge Camille Thurman
Camille Thurman

By Kaylee Brewster

Inland 360

It is said that practice makes perfect, so for Camille Thurman, who is a vocalist and instrumentalist, it’s double the work and double the reward.

Thurman’s love of jazz developed when she was growing up in New York City and her mother was working on a master’s degree researching the St. Albans community in Queens, where they lived.

“She made her educational experience my experience,” Thurman said.

Many jazz artists lived in the community in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton, namesake for the University of Idaho jazz festival where Thurman will be performing in a live online broadcast at 5 p.m. Saturday.

At first Thurman kept her singing a secret. She would sing around the house, often to music by Sarah Vaughan. As she did this, Thurman developed an ear.

“I didn’t intend to sing,” said Thurman. “It came organically, naturally.”

However, she doesn’t solely rely on her voice for music, she also plays the saxophone, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo. When people saw her performing an instrument they would assume that, because she was a woman, she was also a vocalist, she said. She wanted to be respected the same level as men who weren’t asked if they were a vocalist in addition to playing an instrument.

Later she found mentors who encouraged her to do both. They listed musicians like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong and Vaughan who played and sang.

“There’s worth and beauty in accepting who you are 100 percent,” said Thurman. “There’s nothing wrong with being unique.”

Thurman decided that if she was going to play and sing, she was going to master the techniques of both.

“I wanted to be respected for putting time into both instruments.”

Despite the fact her career has only begun — she released her first album in 2014, followed by others in 2017 and 2018 — she’s noticed changes in the jazz scene.

When she first started attending jazz sessions in New York City, it wasn’t uncommon to see a famous face stop by, like Russell Malone, Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton.

“You’d never know who’d come through the door,” she said.

During these visits, the younger musicians knew “when an elder was there to let them have a set and listen.” With the rise of social media, the focus is often on building their own images, rather than stopping to listen and learn.

Thurman has seen another change: more women.

While there were some women in jazz when Thurman started, like Virginia Mayhew, Mimi Jones and Tia Fuller, she didn’t see many women around her age. Now she sees more women in college programs and at jazz sessions. Thurman has a mentorship program for young women called Haven Hang featuring videos of conversations she has with other women who are musicians, vocalists and band leaders.

“It’s young women musicians asking questions I was asking too at that age,” said Thurman. “I’m a big advocate for making safe spaces to learn and having representation available.” New episodes will air in March and can be found on Thurman’s website, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube pages.

The other change Thurman has dealt with is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been a struggle for many musicians, including her.

“The first thing is playing together. This music is communal, that's the first blow. These are people’s livelihoods, that's another big blow,” said Thurman. “To see your calendar wiped clean night overnight, it’s hard to grapple. The difference between being a working artist and working a job is that, at a job, you have your paycheck every two weeks. A working artist, it’s performance by performance. It’s a nightmare for many, many people.”

Despite the hardship, Thurman has found some positives in how the music community has come together to support one another. She has developed new skills during the pandemic, like teaching. While Thurman taught before, teaching virtually required a new and different set of techniques.

Performing virtually is also a challenge. It’s a balancing act of performing, recording and editing video for the performances, she said.

“The energy you feel when you perform you now have to create that yourself,” said Thurman. “When you don’t (have an audience) you’re really just taking a shot in the dark. You have to look within.”

It all comes with practice, she said.

“You’re not practicing for the show. You’re practicing because you love it and the process of learning,” said Thurman. “Being a musician is a constant state of practicing. Like being a mad scientist, you’re a mad musician.”

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