31-Year-Old Singer With Bix Link Wins Prestigious MacArthur Fellowship
Ten years ago, when Davenport jazz drummer Josh Duffee first performed with jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant in England, he knew he was in the presence of some kind of genius.
This week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation agreed, awarding the 31-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y. one of its 21 “genius grants.” The foundation – which “supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” — each year hands out the MacArthur Fellowship, a $625,000, no-strings-attached grant for individuals who have shown exceptional creativity in their work and the promise to do more.
“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” managing director Cecilia Conrad said in announcing the winners.
“They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.”
Salvant, then 23, was among several young jazz performers at the 2013 Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport. Duffee, a jazz drummer and teacher who for many years was music director of the fest, first accompanied the singer/composer in 2010 at the International Classic Jazz Party in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
“Her voice was absolutely breathtaking; she really had the talent,” he said Wednesday, thrilled to hear she won a MacArthur grant. “She always had very kind words about my playing. That was really nice to hear that from her. I’m so happy to hear she got that award.
“She’s had so many successes since 2010 – winning Grammys, being a torch bearer for the music, continuing the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday,” Duffee said.
“It’s very exciting when a young person is into the music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said. “She is an incredibly humble person.”
Salvant earned the five-year grant for using “manifold powers of interpretation to infuse jazz standards and original compositions with a vibrant, global, Black, feminist sensibility,” according to the MacArthur Foundation website at macfound.org.
The site describes her this way:
“Salvant’s nearly four-octave vocal range—from a bold, husky low register to clear high tones—animates her performances in a variety of configurations, from the spare duets for voice and piano featured on her album The Window (2018), to the instrumental trios on For One to Love (2015), to orchestral ensembles and her work with the all-female group Artemis.
“She locates her renditions of standards and new original compositions within a Black, feminist, global framework. In her fresh interpretations of lesser-known works, such as Josephine Baker’s “Si J’Étais Blanche” (If I Were White) and Bert Williams’s “Nobody,” Salvant demonstrates a deep psychological and emotional engagement with the lyrics, modulating her voice from sharp-edged wit to sorrow and heartbreak as she dissects the painful past in which these works were born.
“An as yet unrecorded piece, Ogresse (2018), is an ambitious long-form song cycle that showcases Salvant’s storytelling ability and theatricality. Salvant pairs her original lyrics for a cast of characters—all of which she sings—with an orchestral score that blends baroque elements with bluegrass and jazz. Based on oral fairy tales from the nineteenth century, the work centers around a female protagonist who falls in love but ultimately devours her lover, a narrative that explores the nature of power, freedom, and desire in a racialized, patriarchal world.
“Through her wide-ranging choices in musical material and her manifold powers of expression, Salvant is reaffirming the timelessness of jazz as an art form and demonstrating its continuing cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.”
“I always wanted to tell stories and delve into a character. And singing kind of allowed me to do that on my own terms,” Salvant says in a one-minute video on the site.
“I think out whole world is built on stories. That’s sort of how we organize ourselves as people,” she says. “For me, storytelling has been a way also to delve into some difficult topics – dark aspects of our culture and our history. I’m very interested in bridges, and how things connect to each other.
“This is why I’m interested in studying history, and how it relates to the present,” Salvant says. “I think at my best, my work brings some interrogation into the world.”
Born to French, Haitian parents
Salvant began studies in classical piano at the age of five, and began singing in the Miami Choral Society when she was eight. She developed an interest in classical voice and began studying with private instructors, and later with Edward Walker, vocal teacher at the University of Miami.
She has said: “I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where we listened to all kinds of music. We listened to Haitian, hip hop, soul, classical jazz, gospel and Cuban music, to name a few. When you have access to that as a child, it just opens up your world.”
In 2007, Salvant moved to Aix-en-Provence, France, to study law as well as classical and baroque voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory. It was in Aix-en-Provence, with reedist and teacher Jean-François Bonnel, that she studied improvisation, instrumental and vocal repertoire, and sang with her first band.
Salvant won first place in the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the jazz world’s most prestigious contest.
“She has poise, elegance, soul, humor, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace,” jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has said.
New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote: “Ms. McLorin Salvant has it all … If anyone can extend the lineage of the Big Three — Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald — it is this 23-year-old virtuoso.”
Holden listed some of her virtues: “Perfect pitch and enunciation, a playful sense of humor, a rich and varied tonal palette, a supple sense of swing, exquisite taste in songs and phrasing and a deep connection to lyrics.”
Duffee, who also was on the Bix Society board in 2013, said that he urged them to bring Salvant to perform in Davenport, where she sang at the RiverCenter.
“We have to get her before she gets so big,” he recalled Wednesday saying then. “She brought her piano player, and at their sets, the crowds weren’t the biggest, but the ones there, literally their jaws dropped, thinking ‘Why aren’t more people there?’”
Duffee said the same thing in 2013, remembering her 2010 England fest: “Our jaws just hit the ground, her voice coming out of this body was amazing,” he said, noting she pays tribute to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in a wide-ranging repertoire. “It’s very rare, she is so humble. She doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder; she just wants to sing.”
He stressed bringing younger performers to the Bix jazz fest, to attract younger audiences and maintain the passion for the art. Up-and-coming young players are “giving sincere appreciation to Bix, and respect, so you know this music is going to survive,” Duffee said then, noting that’s a main purpose for the festival — to preserve and promote the legacy of Davenport’s legendary cornet player, who himself died at 28 in 1931. “It’s a key to keeping this music going,” he said.
Salvant first won the Grammy in 2016 for Best Jazz Vocal Album, for her “For One to Love,” then snagged the same honors in 2018 (for “Dreams and Daggers”) and 2019 (for “The Window”).
She stays humble
In an Oct. 6 interview with Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, Salvant expressed surprise over the MacArthur, saying: “I’m fans of people who have won this. I idolize people who have won this.”
Indeed, some of the most innovative and revered figures in jazz have received MacArthur “genius grants,” as they’re popularly known, “meaning they hold an exclusive place in a distinctly American music,” Reich wrote, noting they previously honored jazz drummer Max Roach (1988), pianist Cecil Taylor (1991), multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton (1994), composer-instrumentalist George Lewis (2002) and pianists Reginald Robinson (2004), Jason Moran (2010) and Vijay Iyer (2013).
Notwithstanding Salvant’s three Grammy Awards and recent Doris Duke Artist Award (a $275,000 grant), she sees the MacArthur as saying more about her future. “I feel like this comes at a time when I’m rather young,” she said.
“I think it’s also like a push: Now you have to step it up. To me, it’s almost an acknowledgment of my potential more than anything else. I don’t see this as a celebration of a career. I see this as a confirmation: You have potential, we see something in you.”
“She’s just getting started,” Duffee said. “That’s what the neat thing is – it’s going to be really exciting to see where she goes. She’s made connections with all the A-list jazz connections. She’s known worldwide. I think the nice thing is, she is very humble, still down to earth. She hasn’t let fame, celebrity, get to her head. She’s as real as they come.”
Duffee also said he was thrilled to see himself briefly at the England jazz festival on TV, with the release of the March 2020 PBS documentary, “Singular,” about Salvant’s singular, sensational life story.
“I was brought up, thankfully, in a house where we listened to different kinds of music, and jazz was one of them,” she told the Chicago Tribune this week. “Bluegrass, classical, all kinds of vocal music, fado, Senegalese music, Cape Verdean music, American popular music of all kinds.”
Among them all, jazz held special allure as Salvant came of age, for a variety of reasons, Reich wrote.
“Its playfulness, its political aspects,” she said. “The fact that it is one of the underdogs in all music genres, the fact that it is a music that is totally misunderstood, disdained, representing such a small part of the (music) industry.
“As I got deeper into it, what I really loved was there was the mixture between folk music and approaches of classical music. It was like a multiracial music with all these different kinds of influences mixing together. With all these different ideologies. Some people say ‘this is jazz’ and ‘this is not.’ There’s something so dynamic and exciting about this.”
Salvant also creates animation, some of which is viewable on her website (www.cecilemclorinsalvant.com) under the banner of a project she calls Yolk. It’s a “cross-disciplinary performance space that I created, and that I’ve been envisioning for years,” says Salvant.
Over $471 million in grants
The current MacArthur Fellowship prize is $625,000, paid over five years in quarterly installments. This figure was increased from $500,000 in 2013 with the release of a review of the MacArthur Fellows Program. Since 1981, 942 people have been named MacArthur Fellows, ranging in age from 18 to 82. That means well over $471 million in grants have been given out in less than 30 years.
The award has been called “one of the most significant awards that is truly ‘no strings attached’.”
The program does not accept applications. Anonymous and confidential nominations are invited by the foundation and reviewed by an anonymous and confidential selection committee of about a dozen people. The committee reviews all nominees and recommends recipients to the president and board of directors.
Most new Fellows first learn of their nomination and award upon receiving a congratulatory phone call.
In 2006, one of the recipients was then-32-year-old playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose parents grew up in Davenport. The staggering diversity of recipients has included several poets, writers, journalists, artists, composers, dancers and other musicians.
You can see a complete profile of all the 2020 fellows at macfound.org/programs/fellows/.