Photo of Kiki Ebsen on stage

by Myrna Daniels

The title of singer or vocalist is one of the hardest jobs around. First of all a lot of singers are dependent on a accompanist. That’s usually a pianist but not always. Additional sidemen need to be hired. Rehearsals are a must. The material has to be chosen and must fit the occasion. It isn’t the easiest job by any means.

In the “olden” days some singers had jobs that lasted for months, by traveling with well known big bands and smaller groups. The traveling could be rough with long stretches of highway ( or train tracks) between gigs. Meals were on the fly, the time between jobs could feel endless. All these musicians and singers did it because they enjoyed many aspects of it, they made great friendships on the road and this is what they could do to make a living. All things considered it was a great way to make a living.

As a reviewer I am invited by singers to attend their shows. I go out as much as I can, but I do miss a lot because my job was to get a jazz newspaper done and delivered around the L.A. area. I coordinated all the details to get it right. Now the paper is gone and we are online only. My work is slightly easier, most of the time. So, how do I pick a performer’s invite?

It’s just chance. A lot of the time, if I happen to have the time to go and hear a singer on a particular date I go. Most of the time I am rewarded by hearing someone new to me, who is backed by fine musicians. Some reviews are easy to write and since I’m not a musician, I don’t get “technical.” Singers and musicians know that a show must have variety, new songs and arrangements, a new take on familiar material.

I didn’t know who Kiki Ebsen was but I had the time so I went to hear her at Catalina’s one evening. It was a terrific multi-media experience and Ebsen was at her best, singing, talking about her father, the actor Buddy Ebsen, complete with film clips of his early career.

Photo of Kiki Ebsen on stage

It was a delightful evening and I certainly would be happy to see her perform again. I did learn that Ebsen has a rich background working with other musicians, traveling all over the country. On-the-road musicians and singers have to be good, more than just good. She’s worked with artists such as Al Jarreau (one of the greatest), James Ingram, Patti Austin, Peter Cetera and many others when they made appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman and so many others. She’s certainly paid her dues and then some.

On June 3, Ebsen will be part of a program at Pasadena City Hall, Centennial Square to celebrate Music Under the Stars with the Pasadena POPS at 7 pm. It is FREE.

Later in the month, June 17th Vitello’s E-Spot will present Kiki Ebsen’s Joni Mitchell Project with a quartet. See her ad elsewhere for details. Info/res (818) 769-0905 Highly recommended.

L.A. Jazz: When did you decide that you wanted to sing in public and make it a career for the future?

Kiki Ebsen: Probably in my late teens. I had been playing keyboards in bands for years but did not start singing until I was about 18 or 19, and even then, it was only background. A few years later when I started writing songs I naturally wanted to sing those songs in front of an audience.

L.A. Jazz: Did you begin with piano lessons? Not all singers can play the piano!

Photo of Jose James

Ebsen: Yes, I started playing piano when I was about three. My grandmother, mother (and her sisters) played classical piano. I had been listening to all kinds of music as a child, and I enjoyed improvising my own melodies as well as learning pieces by ear. This would become a struggle as I entered the world of structured music. Because I developed an ear for music early, and could learn songs quickly without music, I really had a hard time even wanting to read notes. It took a long time for me to develop that skill, but in the end, I learned because my work depended on both abilities.

L.A. Jazz: What has been the most rewarding aspect of that decision? What are the harder parts of having a career?

Ebsen: The most rewarding aspect of playing piano is that I spent three decades playing keyboards and singing on tour, on TV and on record with some of the greatest artists of our time, including Chicago, Al Jarreau, Boz Scaggs, Tracy Chapman, Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald. I suppose the hardest part is the time it takes you away from everything else. I travelled the world many times over, which leaves little time for developing close relationships. Ultimately you end up finding your family in the end, I suppose, through all the people that you meet. It’s not a "normal" life by any means, but it is exciting and I wouldn't have traded it for anything else.

L.A. Jazz: Who helps you with all the details? (Because a lot of cooperation has to happen to make all these things in your career go on.)

Ebsen: I have the most incredible team of talented people and musicians that help keep me on track and realize the vision for my shows. Promoting, conceptualizing, branding and practicing are all a part of it. I am very hands-on and talk to my team daily.

L.A. Jazz: Your show is so charming and nostalgic as you talk about your father and his life. What are some of your most favorite moments together?

Photo of Jose James

Ebsen: Thank you, this show is a joy to perform each time we present it! Thinking back to childhood, I loved it when Dad taught us all to sail when we were kids on Balboa Isle. Another early memory is when Dad took the time to teach me songs on the piano, and the first one I remember learning was "St. Louis Blues." After he came in from a long day of shooting, my mom would make him dinner and he never minded when I crawled up into the chair with him as he ate it. He'd always give me a bite of his steak and a swig of beer. In fact, a steak and a beer was what I wanted for my twelfth birthday, haha! There are so many memories of times spent together. Learning from him, early, things you might have to wait until you were older otherwise. We were doing target practice with his Colt 45 and driving dune buggies before we were ten years old.

L.A. Jazz: Did he encourage you to become a professional in some aspect of show business? How about your mom? How did she encourage you?

Ebsen: Both were very encouraging, however, dad wanted me to sing and play jazz, and my mother wanted me to do musical theatre and opera. I wanted to play rock and roll. That’s it! It was an issue (LOL). My dad would have us perform with him many times on stage singing, doing comedy, dancing, playing piano to his comedic routines.

My mother had a community children's theatre then later a rep theater. Naturally, my entire family was involved with every aspect of performing, from set painting to acting. It was somewhat required!

Clearly, the obvious move would to become an actor, but music seduced me. I just wanted to play in a band. When I got to college (Cal Arts) I tried out for the choir, and was quickly contacted by the Vocal Department, who told me that I was now majoring in Vocal Performance, and so I embarked on a classical voice degree. Ultimately, my first job out of college was on the road as a keyboardist and MIDI programmer for the Hall of Fame rock group "Chicago." In all of my time on and off the road, I’d also come to write and record six solo CDs. I stayed busy!

L.A. Jazz: You mentioned in your show that your Dad was fun to be with. What are some of those memories? I got the feeling that your Dad was around a lot. That would be unique because that doesn’t always happen in show business.

Photo of Jose James

Ebsen: We had him around a lot, especially when I was a child. He would play guitar and sing us to sleep with his self-penned bedtime stories. Those were amazing! We'd sail together. We spent a lot of time on our ranch where we lived mostly off the grid, chopping wood for the fireplace, our only heat in the winter. We stayed busy taking care of the ranch and the animals, fending off rattlesnakes, coyotes and brush fires. We learned a simpler way of life even though Hollywood was just a short distance away. I am grateful for that upbringing, as it gives me such a feeling of gratitude and appreciation for my life.

L.A. Jazz: What do you do to relax at the end of the day?

Ebsen: I play my piano, hike with my dogs, ride my horses, do yoga and I love to cook for my friends.

L.A. Jazz: What advice would you give to the thousands of young men and women starting out who seek a career in “show business”?

Ebsen: This is the advice my dad gave us when we were young: "Know your lines and be on time." He also had this Calvin Coolidge quote perma-plaqued for each of us. I still have mine in my office:

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

I'd also add: Do it because you'd do it anyway. Chasing money or fame is an empty goal. Find a way for your art to enrich someone’s life. Then watch what happens!

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by Gary Fukushima

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On the evening of November 7th, 2016, Tina Raymond went out for drinks with a few friends to a tavern in Toluca Lake. They were celebrating, for they had cast their votes for whom they thought was to become the first woman president of the United States. “I was sitting at Timmy Nolan’s (Tavern & Grill)”, Raymond recalled wistfully, “and I saw the numbers coming in, and then I just went home and went to bed.”

Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton had an immediate and profound effect on Raymond. “It felt very personal,” she said, describing her mood as “heartbreaking…this sort of melancholy, ‘we’re not there yet…wow America really hates women!’ That’s how I felt.”

Tina Raymond is a jazz drummer, classical percussionist, and a recent hire at Los Angeles City College, one of just a few women throughout the country to have a full-time faculty position in jazz.

Some of what she felt on that fateful election night can be heard in a tune from her upcoming trio album, Left, Right Left (Orenda Records). ‘Union Maid’ (by Woody Guthrie) is about a strong female union worker who fights for her rights in union meetings.

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“That song was written a long time ago,” said Raymond, who herself comes from a family of union supporters, with a sister and grandparents who are teachers and a father who is a labor attorney. She understands the struggle depicted in the song continues to have meaning today. “We’re still fighting, we’re still not equal, we’re still not there. I think it’s really sad.” The normally upbeat anthem is reimagined by Raymond as a tender waltz, its unspoken poignancy realized through the sensitive and eloquent pianism of Art Lande, the renowned musician whom Raymond met and became close to when she was a graduate student at CalArts and he was a visiting resident-artist there. Lande had called Raymond over the holidays to say hello, at a time when she was contemplating expressing her political views through her music.

The American author Barbara Kingsolver penned an essay in the Guardian a few weeks after the election, in which she exhorts her fellow creative types to “join the time-honored tradition of artists resisting government oppression through our work”. That passage struck a chord with Raymond. “I’m much more of a ‘I’m just gonna do my thing and lead by example, and stay quiet’ (type),” she explained. “I didn’t consider myself a political person until everything that was being decided was against what I believed in.” Yet, as she read Kingsolver’s words to her grandmother, a former English teacher whose eyesight is failing her, Raymond experienced an affinity with her family’s history of social activism, and a newfound desire to carry on the trend.

“So many of us are just writing how we feel on Facebook, and posting articles,” said Raymond, noting how the political venting on social media might help us feel better but do very little in the grand scheme of things. “More artists are wanting to do something but are nervous about how it would be perceived, not only by the public but also by their peers.” With the release of her politically-themed album, Raymond is attempting to go further in expressing her views and concerns about what is happening in our country right now. “I hope it makes some people,” she continued, “feel like I understand what they’re going through…and that it makes some artists a bit braver in putting how they feel (into their art).”

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So, when Lande called, Raymond asked him if he would be interested in making “a politically motivated record” with her. He agreed, with the caveat that the sentiment be not anti-American, and that they would record music with a positive message, with the viewpoint of trying to see our current political engagement as something that is healthy. What Lande wants is certainly a heavy lift in a time when the country has not been this divided politically since maybe the Civil War, or at least since the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s. Lande was a product of the sixties, coming into his professional career then by playing with some of the greatest musical revolutionaries of that era, artists like Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Kenny Wheeler and Charlie Haden. Raymond studied with Haden at CalArts, getting to witness first-hand lessons and stories from the legendary bassist who always looked to inform, challenge and unite people through his music, notably his historic Liberation Orchestra. “I think Charlie would have approved (of the album), at least conceptually!” Raymond said with a laugh. “He would tell stories about being arrested and how important he felt it was to stand up for what you believed in. I think it was Charlie who said how much music can really bring people together, because in order to enjoy a concert you have to sit next to someone who may not agree with you.” Raymond agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment, of music being important enough to bring people into the same space.

Left Right Left is an introspective album, open and textural, the spaciousness lightly colored by Raymond, Lande, and West Coast veteran bassist Putter Smith. The song selection was carefully researched and chosen by Raymond, and she decided on a mix of treatments of patriotic songs (Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful), well-known protest songs from the Vietnam War (If I Had a Hammer, Saigon Bride, Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Fiddle and the Drum), and a few original compositions by Smith. It should not be lost on the listener that Raymond included material written by Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, two musicians whose music helped to shape the protest movement of the late sixtes, and two musicians who also happen to be women.

About the election, Raymond recalled, “Especially as a woman, I was really proud to go and cast my vote for a female candidate, and so were a lot of my friends.” To Raymond and her friends, and undoubtedly many other women around the country, Clinton’s defeat was yet another reminder of the difficulties facing women to achieve equality, even in 2017. Raymond knows this as well as any woman, and probably more, for as a female jazz musician (and a drummer no less!), she is a strong and visible representative of an overwhelmingly small portion of the jazz community at large. “I never think of myself as a minority,” said a defiant Raymond. “That I’m called a female drummer implies I’m not the norm.” Yet she acknowledges there have been significant challenges in this regard ever since she took up the drum set. “I had a teacher (in college in the Midwest) who said “I don’t know how to teach you because you have ‘feminine energy’.” Of course there were many more teachers who were able to avoid such gross misogynistic gaffes, “…but then you’re out playing in bars, and there's cowboys coming in from Kentucky, and they put their foot on your floor tom, and everybody's watching you and they don't think you can play. Or you're setting up the drums, and they're like—oh, who's playing drums?” She chuckled, ironically. “I’m just setting these up for fun.”

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The move to California has helped in this regard. “This scene (in Los Angeles) is particularly inviting and warm and friendly, and understanding and respectful. That’s why I’m here.“ She continues, “There's quite a few young women who are playing their butts off, who have the confidence to come out and do really great things. I think there's more assimilation of men and women hanging out together in the clubs and not having it be a big deal.” Nevertheless, there are still little things that come up. Here’s a tip for bandleaders: Try to avoid introducing your female bandmate as “the lovely and talented” so-and-so, unless you plan on doing that for her male counterparts as well. This happens a lot to Raymond, yet she often bites her tongue. “If I allowed myself to get offended or worried about that stuff, I would just be mad all the time, so I just let it go.” She has adopted the mindset of working to see past the issues that divide us, issues of both gender and politics, in the spirit of Lande’s caveat. Raymond has witnessed female colleagues responding to instances of misogyny, where the pushback was unnecessarily vicious, in proportion to the original incident. “It's the same problem with politics, where everybody's yelling at each other, and calling each other out,” she said. “Where's your compassion? Where's your humanity? Why aren't you having empathy for what this person is experiencing and trying to see it from their perspective? I think we're all lacking in that…”

Still, being a ‘female teacher’ at a major college is quite an achievement, especially in jazz, were there are so few women educators at the collegiate level. Raymond could not recall a single female teacher in all of her jazz education, and postulates that perhaps this is the reason why there aren’t as many women jazz musicians. She doesn’t know if that theory is correct, “but I will say that every school that I've taught at where I taught percussion and/or jazz, as I'm there longer there are more and more women in the program. I don't know if that has a whole lot to do with me, but I definitely see female students interested in what I'm doing, especially high school students and young college students. They are looking to you as an example, and I am conscious of that.”

When asked if she had any advice for younger, aspiring female jazz musicians, Raymond had a quick answer. “Be fearless!” she exclaimed. Then came the qualifier, which itself underscored the dilemma of today’s modern woman. “Be fearless but be careful. That’s so shitty,” she conceded, for some reason. “Set boundaries for yourself for what you're willing to be told, and when someone crosses a line, find a way to express to them that they're being inappropriate. But have enough trust in yourself that what you have to say is valid, and where you are in your journey of learning to play music is valid.”

The release of Tina Raymond’s new album is certainly a validation of her own considerable strengths as a drummer, musician and bandleader. And it also points to her newfound courage, to express without apology her views of the world, as she also embraces her identity as both an influential jazz musician and educator, and as a woman. The latter thing is certainly important as one of the central issues of our time, yet Raymond is at the forefront of working toward a future where one day it won’t be a big deal at all. Perhaps at that point there will also be a female in the White House, as the leader of the free world, who won’t have to respond to criticisms of not smiling enough. At the end of the interview, Raymond recalled one last anecdote, about a beloved teacher of hers who used to tease her about how she never smiled in any of her photos on the internet. “He wrote me (recently) and said ‘I really should stop that, it’s kind of sexist, isn’t it?’” She didn’t take offense then, but now slyly noted:

“No one was going to tell Miles Davis he needed to smile on the bandstand.”

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Tina Raymond, Art Lande and Putter Smith will be performing at Bluewhale this Thursday, celebrating the release of their new album, Left Right Left.