Fresh Air Intervews: Jazz Singer Stephanie Nakasian, Paying Tribute To Billie Holiday Nakasian left Wall Street to pursue her dream of becoming a professional jazz singer. The alto, who has recorded seven albums, including tributes to June Christy and Billie Holiday, describes her path from investment banking to touring internationally with Jon Hendricks and Company.

Stephanie Nakasian: Paying Tribute To Billie Holiday

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I hadn't heard the singer Stephanie Nakasian until the release of her latest CD "Billie Remembered," a tribute to Billie Holiday. I liked it so much we invited Nakasian on the show. The album features songs Holiday recorded in the mid-1930s, like "These Foolish Things," "I Cried for You," "I Wished on the Moon," and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Nakasian paid tribute to singer June Christy on her album "Lullaby in Rhythm."

Stephanie Nakasian teaches jazz, voice and vocal jazz improvisation at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and is the author of an instructional book on jazz singing called "It's Not on the Page." She's performed several times on the public radio series "Riverwalk Jazz." On her new album "Billie Remembered," her husband Hod O'Brien is featured on piano.

Let's start with the opening track, "No Regrets."

(Soundbite of song, "No Regrets")

Ms. STEPHANIE NAKASIAN (Jazz vocalist, Voice Teacher): (Singing) No regrets, although our love affair has gone astray. No regrets. I know I'll always care though you're away. So now our happy romance ended suddenly. Still in my heart you'll be forever mine. No regrets, because somebody new looks good to you. No regrets, sweetheart no matter what you say or do. I know our love will linger when the other love forgets. So I say goodbye with no regrets.

GROSS: That's Stephanie Nakasian from her new CD "Billie Remembered: The Classic Songs of Billie Holiday." Stephanie Nakasian, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Listening closely to Billie Holiday from the mid-1930s in preparation for your CD, what did you really pick up from her singing? And feel free to demonstrate that for us, to illustrate that for us.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, in the beginning I tried to actually do what she was doing and she sings very much from the throat, which is not really that safe, so if I really dig down...

(Soundbite of singing)

Did I remember...

It kind of felt like I was straining my voice, so I didn't really want to be too harsh with it. I wanted to protect my voice and not sing harshly, so I tried to get that soulful and immediate feeling without contriving it and without hurting myself. So I kind of...

(Soundbite of singing)

Did I remember...

You know, try to be in the middle somewhere and get the essence of the feeling and the passion without making it sound corny or phony.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your Billie Holiday CD. So I think I'll go with "I Wished on the Moon." Tell me what you like about this song.

Ms. NAKASIAN: I loved this middle tempo feeling. That's how relaxed it is and how gently moving it is. And it's a very hard tempo to get young singers to and instrumentalists for that matter, to get. It's easier to do really fast and really slow and bossa nova's not too bad, although, our phrasing is difficult in America to get the Latin feeling. But "Wished on the Moon" is that really nice...

(Soundbite of singing)

Wished on the moon...

And you kind of have to feel this gentle pulsing behind you. I always tell my students, kind of like that squid the way the squid moves. It kind of propels itself through the water gently. She has this gentle propulsion.

GROSS: Okay. So this is my guest Stephanie Nakasian. And I should say, you know, one of the things that makes this CD so enjoyable is the musicians on it. I mean, you sound great and you have great musicians on it, including your husband Hod O'Brien at the piano, Randy Sandke on trumpet, Harry Allen on tenor saxophone, Marty Grosz on guitar.

So, this Stephanie Nakasian singing "I Wished on the Moon" from her CD "Billie Remembered: The Classic Songs of Billie Holiday."

Ms. NAKASIAN: (Singing) I wished on the moon for something I never knew. I wished on the moon for more than I ever knew. A sweeter rose, a softer sky on an April day that would not dance away. I begged of a star to throw me a beam or two. Wished on a star and asked for a dream or two. I looked for every loveliness, it all came true. I wished on the moon for you.

GROSS: That's Stephanie Nakasian from her new CD "Billie Remembered: The Classic Songs of Billie Holiday." You've also done songs paying tribute to June Christy.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Performing songs that she did, and to Lee Wiley, performing songs that Lee Wiley did. And then you have an album called "Thrush Hour" in which you sing in the manner of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln. Are you a mimic? I mean, can you do other people's voices? I'm not, you know...

Ms. NAKASIAN: I'd rather not be thought as a mimic because that's not the goal.

GROSS: No, I realize that but are you capable of doing that? Are you capable of doing that?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh yeah. Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You really want to hear it? No, not really.

GROSS: Yeah. No. No. Show me what you can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: No, I mean everything - if you do the Sarah Vaughn and you take it to I mean, she actually mimicked herself in her later years, too. But, you know, if you do...

GROSS: I agree with you.

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: I mean, you could really kind of mimic it to the point where it's almost kind of comedic. And I really respect these women and these artists so much. The point was to really get - infuse my own voice with the great foundation people, whether it's Louis Armstrong or Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster or any of these ladies great ladies of jazz.

GROSS: What did you learn from the couple of years you spent on the road with John Hendricks, who is must famous I think as a former member of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the vocal group?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh, so much. He just standing next to him, singing "Jumping At the Woodside" my first week with him, my job was just to go...

(Singing) ...jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. Jump, jump, jump, jump, jump.

And in the beginning, I said this is ridicules. This is one note. And then I finally realized I'm really learning how to place the rhythm in these nice, punctuated kind of - I call them flick, like flicking a note without it being harsh and heavy. And just - I just stood next to him and sang that line with him, and in doing that, I kind of got it. And so he taught by example, and also taught me to be more like a horn.

GROSS: What does that mean?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, when John sings his...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: There's all these like bends, as you were saying with Billie Holiday, you know. It's not...

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: There's a...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You know, there's a lot of bends and turns the way a saxophone or a trumpet or a trombone would do. And then so just by singing with him, I think I became more like a horn, as if I was on the road with a big band.

GROSS: Was it comfortable, too, to start off on stage as more of a backup singer than being out there on your own?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Oh, it was a great apprenticeship. It's the perfect way to do it. As a matter of fact, all the great singers started off in the bands, so they had their little script that they were supposed to do. And while they were on the road, you know, a hundred days a year or more, they would be listening to the riffs of the band and they'd be listening to the bass and they'd be listening - so they'd hear these...

(Soundbite of scatting)

Ms. NAKASIAN: They'd hear those shakes and those little fall offs and the way the horns are, and so they became horns. And I think that that's kind of missing these days, because we don't have as much opportunity to be, you know, be band singers.

GROSS: The only thing I object to about the idea of a singer should be like a horn is that a singer has a gift that instrumentalists don't have, which is language, words, lyrics. And I think the lyrics are so important when you sing to really kind of communicate the feeling of the lyrics and meaning of the words.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The sound of the words, which you do.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Yeah. I agree. Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: Thank you. I think it's a juggling game between the lyric and the music always, and rhythm. And what the horn feeling allows you to do is to bend a note once in a while. So, on the piano, it would be just a note.

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You know? And once you're allowed to bend it a little bit, you can have all these. Of course, the bending of the notes that the horns did was really emulating the singer, because the singer in the blues would always bend the notes. So, you know, Louis Armstrong was listening to opera music, and so I really think it came from the singer first and then through the instrumentalist, and then back to the singer again. But I agree with you. It really about what do the words bring out in your feelings and then how can you best express those?

GROSS: My guest is Stephanie Nakasian. Her new album is called "Billie Remembered."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer Stephanie Nakasian. Her new album, "Billie Remembered," is a tribute to Billie Holiday, featuring songs Holiday recorded in the mid-1930s. Before Nakasian had a singing career, she worked on Wall Street at the New York Stock Exchange. She has an MBA in finance from Northwestern.

After leaving Wall Street, you decided to take some singing lessons.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I started singing first, and then I realized I should take singing lessons. I had done - I started getting work, and I had - there was about an eight or nine-month period when I was trying trade futures on the Futures Exchange and I was trying to hang out until three in the morning, and that was definitely not working.

And I had to decide between the two for awhile. So I decided to try it for five years and really devote my life to learning about the music and studying and learning the solos and learning the instrumentalists. And then if after five years no one's hiring me and no one - it really isn't happening, I'd go back to my business career, which I enjoyed and it was fun and I was successful with. I just, you know, it was very hard to try to split them and do both.

GROSS: So when you decided to learn more about singing and take singing lessons, what are some of the things you learned about your voice that you didn't know before and how to use your voice?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I had a wonderful teacher. I was really skeptical about taking voice lessons because I'd seen a lot of singers who got very wrapped up in the technical aspect and got kind of uptight about it, and I didn't want any of that technical inhibition. So I found a wonderful teacher in New York, Joe Scott, who's not around anymore. But he was so inspirational, and he taught everybody from the road shows, rock group to soap opera stars, to opera singers to, you know, and he was wonderful. And he basically was like a little - he was like a guru, almost, to me.

He would just encourage me to free up my voice and keep connected with vowels and opening the throat and relaxing, and didn't put a lot of ideas in my head about how to do it. It was much more about staying open and relaxed so that I could sing, and not getting in the way.

GROSS: What was the key for you in learning how to really relax your throat and sing openly?

Ms. NAKASIAN: The visualization I used for my students - and this is coming free of charge - is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: drop your jaw, and that opens your - that's what all choir teachers tell their students. You drop your jaw nice and relaxed, and then you have to open the back gate, which is your yawn. When you yawn...

(Soundbite of yawning)

Ms. NAKASIAN: ...your tongue goes down and the tongue has to go down in order for the throat to be open. So when those gates are open, usually the voice comes flying out. You don't really have to push it out. When it gets tight in the jaw, when the tongue comes pulling up like it does in some - you know, some of the R&B music is very dangerous, because they sing...

(Singing) Hey, baby.

You know, it gets - the tongue comes up. So we try to watch that tongue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NAKASIAN: It's the strongest set of muscles in the body, so we have to be careful with the tongue. But it should lie down. And when you think of a yawn...

(Soundbite of yawning)

Ms. NAKASIAN: ...even if you just visualize it, the body kind of responds. So visualization works really well.

GROSS: Of course, you don't speak while you're yawning, so it's almost counterintuitive because nothing else happens when you yawn.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, we practice on ah...

(Soundbite of vocalizing)

Ms. NAKASIAN: You practice with that, so you can feel how open and free and great that is. Then we try other vowels with the same openness. And then you sneak those consonants in, which we need for annunciation and for rhythm, and we try not to disturb that beautiful, open, flowing nature of the voice. So it's a juggling act between the consonants, which are in the front and the, you know, the open throat. But every singer has to have that open throat, otherwise, you start grabbing, and it's dangerous.

GROSS: Is it sometimes challenging to maintain a relaxed style of singing and a relaxed throat when you're really nervous about the concert you're about to give?

Ms. NAKASIAN: Of course. Life is not relaxed. When I say to my students, oh, you must just relax and let go and don't think so hard and don't try so hard. You know, they're like, you know, they're what's - what is this? I have to, you know, I have to do my emails and I have do my BlackBerry and I'm doing - no, it's not part of our way of being, so we have to work on that. So I know I have to work on breathing and relaxing and trusting that it's going to be okay. Now, there is an element of tension that's very good for a performance.

I'll never forget. I had one performance where I actually was - felt very relaxed and cool, and I didn't really do a very good job. So you have to have a little bit of up feeling, adrenaline to get you through. On the other hand, if it's tight, just like an athlete - I do a lot of comparisons to athletes - you can't exercise on tight muscles. You get injured, and that's basically what the voice is. It's a bunch of muscles.

GROSS: Everything that we've played has been you paying tribute to another singer. So I thought I'd play a song in which you're just not paying tribute to anybody else. You're just being you. And this is from a recent album. It's from last year. The album is called "If I Ruled the World." And the song I want to play is "Too Many Tears." It's a Harry Warren/Al Dubin song. And why don't you say a few words about being yourself on this completely, and also about why you chose the song.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Well, I appreciate you playing that, because I don't want to be known as a tribute singer. I think that that's just something, as I said, it really came out of my being a teacher more than anything. But I've done many, many CD's that I felt that the songs were unusual. I didn't want to do, necessarily, standards, although I did do one recording in Japan that was all standards that I - turned out to be enjoyable to me. I thought I would not enjoy it as much, but it was great. And I wanted to find sings that were passionate, because that's what it's all about. And this song is bluesy and deep and has those bending moments, and just kind of spoke to me at that point.

GROSS: Well, it's quite good.

Stephanie Nakasian, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. NAKASIAN: Thank you, Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Many Tears")

Ms. NAKASIAN: (Singing) Too many tears. Each night, I go to bed. I lie awake and shed too many tears. Your memory is bringing me too many tears. Too many years...

GROSS: Stephanie Nakasian's latest album is a tribute to Billie Holiday, called "Billie Remembered." If you wish you could sing a Billie Holiday song with a band as good as Nakasian's, you're in luck. She recorded a music-minus-one version of her album, which features the original tracks with her singing followed by just the instrumental tracks so that you can provide the vocals.

On our Web site, you can hear her sing "No Regrets," then play the instrumental version and sing along. That's at

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