I’m a Human Jukebox

As a newbie jazz singer, I’m well aware of how few songs I can perform in public. Now that I’m singing at jazz jams regularly – at least twice a week – I get asked by other musicians and audience members to sing certain songs. Most of the time I don’t know them.

About a week ago, a drummer asked me if I knew any Barbara Streisand tunes. Nope. Then later that night, a guy in the audience told me how much he enjoyed my singing and did I know any Broadway tunes, like from Les Miserables? Uh, nope.

Tonight I went to a jam, and a saxophone player asked me if I knew East of the Sun and West of the Moon, a tune I’ve heard so many times at jams but I have not learned. So, no. He was surprised, so I had to explain that I’ve only been singing in public since September. Then he said, oh, you’re still building your repertoire.

Ah yes, my repertoire. One of my important mentors talks to me about this all the time. You have to build your repertoire, he says to me, you have to learn more songs.

Yes, yes, I’m working on it!

I’m becoming a human jukebox one tune at a time.

The thing is, it is totally different to sing a song at home, or even within my practice sessions vs. performing it in public. First, as I’m learning a tune, I must learn the melody perfectly. Of course, I must also know all the lyrics and I must understand the rhythm of how the lyrics and melody are combined. Then, I need to ensure I’ve selected a good key for me so I can hit all the notes.

This seems obvious and maybe it even seems “easy” until you decide you are going to perform a song in front of a roomful of people. Then you’d better know exactly where you are going to take your breaths for each phrase, and you’ve got to know the lyrics and melody well enough to sing them even when you can’t hear yourself. There are many reasons why that can happen, like the band is too loud, the singer’s microphone is not turned up enough, the stage monitor is not loud enough (if you’re lucky enough to have a monitor), but if you know a song well enough, you’re singing the notes from your head and the notes in your head are in correct pitch.

So it actually takes me many weeks of practicing a song within my daily singing practice to even approach being able to sing it in public. There are certain songs, like The Very Thought of You, that have such a big range and require a lot of transitions between my head voice and my chest voice that I’m still unwilling to perform the song in public. I’ve been practicing that song privately since I began taking lessons in July, but I’m not ready yet. I’m not confident I can hit all the notes consistently.

When I look at the “play list” on my personal jukebox, it’s not very long. I’ve learned some basic standards that everybody at a jazz jam knows but now I’m starting to learn songs that I hope not everyone will know.

And why would I want to learn songs not everyone will know? Well, because a lot of what I hear at jazz jams is repetitious. At first I didn’t know most of the tunes, so it was all new to me. (The truth is I still don’t know a lot of tunes, especially if they are instrumental only…but anyhow…)

Now, when I go to a jazz jam, I know at least 75% of the songs presented … even if I don’t sing them myself (yet.) For example, I haven’t performed The Autumn Leaves or It Could Happen To You or Green Dolphin Street in public, but I’ve been practicing those tunes at home and yes, I’ve heard those tunes many times at jams. I know I should learn Route 66, but as a tune I think it’s clichΓ©, I don’t want to perform it when I know everybody and their sister can perform it anyway. (People tell me that about Bye Bye Blackbird, but I like that song and perform it anyway.)

So lately, even though I’m a newbie, I’m trying to find songs to add to my jukebox that are not as common at jazz jams. For example, I’ve never heard anyone perform the St. Louis Blues at a jam (yet) but I’m learning that one now. I want to be able to perform it.

It’s a classic tune. Louis Armstrong did it, as did Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday and many others. Some tunes, like St. Louis Blues, are more old fashioned, and I guess it’s probably why people don’t perform them as much. They’d rather sing Fly Me to the Moon, which is fine.

I’m keeping a list of all the songs I want to check out and eventually learn, and that list is already pretty long and growing constantly.

Thank goodness for an essential tool like YouTube, which can be used to quickly conduct research on a song. Within minutes you can listen to three or four different versions of the same tune by a variety of singers.

For singers that have been doing “the jazz thing” for a long time, their jukeboxes are chock-a-block full of songs. Some of those songs they perform regularly and others are gathering dust because no one put in the quarter and pressed those buttons. Still, with a little practice, they could get their groove back on those songs quickly.

But this human jukebox has a long way to go to have a decent selection. I guess one convenient fact of life is that at a jazz jam, it’s most typical for a singer to get up and sing two tunes.

Ah, but which two… that’s the thing. πŸ™‚




4 Responses

  1. Dear Ms. Deminski,

    Good to hear you’re branching out and becoming a singer as well as a writer. I’m thinking the two go hand in hand. Nice post. Hope you’re doing well. Happy Holidays.



    • Hi Doug!

      Long time no hear, it’s so nice to get your comment here on the blog! I hope you’re doing well on the mountain tops in Hawaii too. πŸ™‚

      I agree, singing and writing go hand in hand…I’m very attracted to certain songs because of some of the lyrics or turns of phrases. Singing is about telling the audience a story through song. I’m working hard on that aspect of my presentation.

      Happy holidays to you my friend!


  2. This is very inspiring. . So great to see. You are putting yourself OUT THERE!

    • Well thanks Patrick. πŸ™‚

      When I did my debut in mid-October, the people who I knew in the audience but who hadn’t seen me sing before kept saying two things to me (independently of each other – no one knew the others were telling me the same thing).

      First, they kept saying what I was doing took guts / courage. My take on that is, yes, it does take courage to get up and sing in front of an audience, but I’ve been working towards that very goal – and I just had to put myself out there and do it in order to achieve the goal.

      The next thing a lot of folks said was they found it inspiring. I appreciate that comment a lot because I hope I’m showing other people “around our age” that you can take on very new goals in your life and achieve something great, even if you haven’t done it before.

      Even I am sometimes pretty amazed at what I’ve accomplished with my singing. It’s a tremendously joyous activity for me, and brings me a lot of personal satisfaction. πŸ™‚

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