‘We aim to send everyone home toe-tapping and feeling lighter’

CLAIRE MARTIN Picture: Kenny McCracken

This Sunday evening, June 25, renowned jazz singer Claire Martin performs with the BBC Big Band at Benenden School’s stunning new events venue, Hemsted Park. Eileen Leahy caught up with the award-winning artist to discover how she got into the wonderful world of jazz and what the audience will love most about this very special concert…


So Claire, let’s start at the beginning. Why and when did you get into performing jazz?

I started singing jazz standards at my first professional job as the lead singer in a band at a holiday hotel in Bournemouth back in the 1980s. I sang for ballroom dancers and most of the songs were from the Great American Songbook. I was very familiar with this musical repertoire as I was raised by jazz-loving parents, so I guess you could say that I sort of fell into it really…


Who were your key musical and artistic influences growing up?

My mum loves Ella Fitzgerald and she definitely passed that passion on to me. Then in my early twenties I got into other jazz singers, listening to artists such as Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day and Betty Carter primarily. Later I discovered artists like Carmen McRae and Shirley Horn who became, and remain, my two favourite jazz vocalists. I constantly go back to these great artists for inspiration.


You were only 19 when you started your career. Was it a challenge to launch yourself on the circuit at such a young age?

Not really as I was just amazed I was singing in a band and getting paid for it whilst living away from home and really having a great time! I could hardly believe it was ‘work’. To be honest, it was harder to restart my career when I came back from being away on the QE2 for 18 months where I sang in the piano bar. Afterwards, I moved back to my parents’ house in London and had to waitress and try to form my own band from scratch. Keeping yourself going and motivated as a freelance musician is a lifelong challenge but at such a young age I didn’t really notice it too much. I certainly do now though!


From a young age you say you wanted to perform at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s. You achieved that at just 21. What is it about that club you love so much?

It was a dream come true to sing on that stage and have my first real landmark career achievement. All the jazz greats have graced that stage and to walk out – after a nudge from Ronnie Scott himself as I was very nervous – and stand where all your heroes have played is totally humbling and thrilling. It’s the best jazz club in the world for my money.


What other jazz clubs or music venues have you enjoyed performing in?

I loved working at Dizzy’s Club in New York which is part of the Lincoln Center complex. It has glass windows all around so you can see the sprawling lights of Manhattan at night as you sing – it really is quite the backdrop. I loved singing at the Algonquin Hotel, which is also in New York, with my then-partner Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. It was very glamorous and they put us up in the hotel when we played there. Sadly that room no longer exists, which is a crying shame. I also love singing outdoors during the summer festival season, too!


Is there anywhere on your wish list you would still like to perform?

I have ticked off quite a few destinations but would still absolutely love to sing at festivals in the Caribbean and also some European destinations like Croatia, which I’ve yet to visit. As you can imagine, there are many jazz artists vying for the same gigs so I’m just happy to see what comes along.


And who would you most like to perform with?

I would love to sing with guitarist Pat Metheny who is one of my absolute favourite jazz musicians. I’d also love to sing with bassist Christian McBride who is another jazz hero and is playing such an important role in keeping jazz relevant and refreshed.


What is your favourite era of music?

I love jazz from the 1950s the most. I think it’s because this is when jazz really came into its own as popular music – and all the singers I absolutely idolise were, in my opinion, in their best vocal form. The swinging Sinatra albums from that decade are timeless masterpieces.


You have won numerous awards for your singing, and been declared as one of the best jazz singers in the world today. How does that make you feel?

It’s a very flattering statement and one I always slightly blush at because that was one critic’s statement and whilst I am very pleased he felt that way, there are a lot of brilliant jazz singers out there. I guess I always strive to become a better musician and artist. Awards are lovely to receive, and I was very proud to take my husband and parents to Buckingham Palace in 2011 to receive my OBE for Services to Jazz from the now King Charles.


Can you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming concert at Hemsted Park with the BBC Big Band?

The show will be a celebration of the great big band singers and will include songs made famous by the likes of Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan and the ‘First Lady of Jazz’, Ella Fitzgerald. We doff our cap to the great arrangers of that particular musical era referencing people like Nelson Riddle and Oliver Nelson. We will however also include more current arrangements from the conductor Barry Forgie, who for me is a true national treasure.


What do you enjoy about performing with this legendary orchestra?

The BBC Big Band are the best of the best. To sing with this juggernaut of sound is always a complete joy and we have great fun getting together and playing our part in keeping this genre of music alive. To hear a big band live is an incredible experience and totally lifts the spirits! To sing with these players on a fairly regular basis is a huge honour that I never take for granted. The musicians are brilliant soloists, readers, section players and all-round good people. I’ve had the good fortune of singing with big bands all around the world and will vouch that the BBC Big band are absolutely world class.


What do you think audiences will enjoy most about the show?

I think the excitement of hearing a big band never wanes and anyone new to this will feel the impact I’m sure. The songs we have chosen are classics and so I think many of the audience members will be familiar with the material, which is always a good connection. We aim to send everyone home toe-tapping and feeling lighter!

To book tickets for the Claire Martin and BBC Big Band show in Centenary Hall, Hemsted Park on June 25 at 7pm (priced from £22-£33) visit: hemstedpark.com

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