Brianna Thomas is one of the leading figures in New York’s current vocal jazz renaissance, a powerful and nuanced voice that embraces the modern without ever sounding anything less than timeless. She can exert exquisite control throughout a song, then let raw emotion peek through with a ragged breath, a sharply released phrase, or a near-endless decrescendo. Thomas can regularly be seen at jazz clubs across the city, but her next big show is on April 12 at the Greenwich House Music School’s annual benefit as part of its Uncharted music series.
We chatted with the vocal powerhouse about her musical start in Peoria, Illinois (she was inducted into the city’s African-American Hall of Fame at age 13!), and how jazz is like a sponge.
What Should We Do?!: When did you first realize singing was going to be your vocation?
Brianna Thomas: I sang “What a Wonderful World” onstage for the first time when I was 6 years old with my father. He was a drummer and singer with the Soul Survivors and Dave & The Dynamics where I grew up, in Peoria, Illinois. I grew up around music, hearing his band perform and practice. He was my biggest influence and first music teacher. My father tried to give me drum lessons, but I wasn’t interested in learning what an eighth note was; I just wanted to make noise! My mom said that in the beginning I always went to his performances just because they couldn’t find a babysitter. I’d be the little one in the back, toddling around the club. But once my father put me on that stage, I stayed there. By the time I was 8, I was starting to gig for banquets, meeting halls, church gatherings, Democratic Party meetings, all around town.
WSWD: Sounds like there were a lot of opportunities for a young vocalist to practice.
Thomas: There were some amazing musicians in Peoria. It was part of the old Chitlin’ Circuit, so Ike and Tina Turner would come through, and my father would play drums for them. He was the first person to teach me how to harmonize and was always on me about my microphone technique. Anytime a sound guy tells me he likes my microphone technique, I let him know: You can thank my dad for that.
With the money from those first shows, I bought a headset and some cassette tapes. I fell in love with Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, Whitney Houston, and Vanessa Williams. We had this big octagon mirror in the house that I’d practice in front of. I was mostly singing pop songs and whatever my father was playing until I was 12. A teacher of mine helped me audition my way into a guest vocalist spot with an elite high school jazz band directed by one of my mentors, Mary Jo Papich. When I was old enough, I entered Roosevelt Magnet School, the same school my father went to. In high school, I played saxophone and flute in the big band, but I learned quickly that singing was going to be the way I could express myself most fully.
WSWD: How did playing with a big band influence you?
Thomas: With a smaller band, you can experiment. But with a big band, those charts don’t change. That doesn’t mean you can’t shape a melody within those confines. See, if a big band chart is in place, your job as a vocalist isn’t just to present the melody, it’s to avoid covering up the intricacies of the machine that’s working behind you. They’re divided by sections, and each section has parts, and the way that they all layer, you can hear how they lean on each other to create a grander masterpiece. Listening to big band will teach you how to really listen to music. You have to know when to sing and when to shut up. Plus, it teaches you how to swing like nobody’s business. So it’s not that a big band is better than a quartet; it just sharpens your ears in different ways.
WSWD: Tell us about your current band.
Thomas: I love my band to death; the members come from all walks of life and all over the United States. My piano player is from New Orleans, my bassist is from Ohio, my guitarist is from Chicago. I work with two different drummers, one from California and one from Miami. The reason I think about them according to region is because those places match specific sounds. You know, it’s not just New Orleans that has a musical fingerprint. Having that blend of sources, everything they bring to the table, gives us a sound palette to choose from that can embrace the American tradition. Those commonalities and individual, unique flavors all combine to make this gumbo of sound, and it’s delicious.
WSWD: How is jazz still relevant to a modern audience?
Thomas: Jazz is like a sponge; it has a way of picking up influences and traveling. Jazz is current and meaningful because it adapts more than any other music in our country’s history. Just like Sonny Rollins said, jazz absorbs the modern culture and it’s still jazz.
WSWD: Even as old as it is?
Thomas: Just because a thing is old doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. Jazz came out of the blues, but there are still lessons for a jazz musician in that earlier music. Look at a 12-bar blues. It seems like a simple thing. But think about it: There’s all that space. You have to figure out where to fit in, where to get in, and what story to tell. Once you learn how to use that copious amount of space to say what you want to say, that’s the trick.
WSWD: How do you approach a song that’s been sung by so many great voices before you?
Thomas: Some of these standards just about sing themselves. What I’ve learned is that it’s what the artist brings that makes the song matter. The way that you interpret it is what makes people want to hear you sing it. They’ve already heard Ella [Fitzgerald]; they’ve already heard Sarah [Vaughn]; what can you do with it?
WSWD: Which great artists do you look to for inspiration?
Thomas: I love vocalists who are beyond category. As far as singers from past generations, Dianne Reeves has been my favorite since I was 12. To me, she embodies jazz. “Jazz” is a small word with a big meaning: It offers what was, what is, and what can be. She is all of that. Dianne does an amazing arrangement of “The Twelfth of Never,” which is an old pop song, [sung by] Johnny Mathis as well as Donny Osmond. She kills it. I love the standards, of course, but it’s just so telling to me that when she takes music from different genres, from wherever she hears it, she makes it hers. That’s the same reason I love Nina Simone and Shirley Horn and Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Ella has an album, These Are the Blues; I think it’s her only blues album, but I swear if that were all you ever heard of her, surely you would call Ella Fitzgerald a blues singer through and through. Dianne does that too; she’ll take a Carole King song and just own it, then do the same with a jazz standard. She tears it up from the floor up.
Brianna Thomas’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Place to take out-of-town guests?
Harlem. It’s got a rich history and a wide variety of food, cultures, music, shopping, and museums all mostly within walking distance. It offers some of the best parts of anything and everything one can find in the city.
I love going to the American Legion in Harlem; it reminds me of home.
Catch Brianna Thomas at the Greenwich House Music School’s annual benefit; we’ll save you a seat. You can read about more inspiring New Yorkers in our People Who Make NY Special column.