Respected Jazz singer Sharron McLeod is renowned for her sumptuous, evocative vocal. A favourite in Canada at Toronto’s prestigious annual Downtown Jazz Festival, she has also been a consultant to it’s community outreach of the jazz community. Now based in Nice, France, she has shared the stage with renowned musicians such as Jane Bunnett, Archie Alleyne, Kevin Barrett, Frank Falco, Bill McBirnie, Jackie Richardson, Salome Bey, Yoron Israel, Jimmy Lovelace, God Webster, Dwayne Burno, Rodney Kendrick, Elliott Levin, Tyler Mitchell, Mike Gerber, and many more.
McLeod was born in Toronto, Canada April 1, 1962 to Jamaican parents Madge Barbara Rutty McLeod and Vincent Clive McLeod, who emigrated to Canada in 1958. Trained as a classical flutist initially, Sharron’s focus naturally evolved to encompass jazz.
Her musical education began in 1968 at Jesse Ketchum Public elementary school with the recorder. From 1976 to 1981, McLeod studied the flute and trombone at Jarvis Collegiate Institute and graduated in 1981. Her early music training included studies Doug Stewart (York Winds, Canadian Opera Company), Erindale College University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Toronto.
As her interest in jazz grew she left the conservatory which didn’t have a jazz department at the time and started performing in a jazz duo with acoustic bass, while learning more about jazz on the stage and continuing private studies in voice, ear training and piano privately with Liz Naylor, Jay Clayton, Theodore Gentry and Ali Garrison, Art Levine and Don Naduriak.
In the 1990s, McLeod studied vocal with Abbey Lincoln in New York and Theodore Gentry in Toronto. She also participated in the Jazz Workshop in Banff Alberta with Rufus Reid, Mark Ledford, Steve Coleman and Abraham Adzenyah.
In 2001 and 2003, McLeod was composer/arranger for productions of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God’ by Djanet Sears.
McLeod wrote the autobiographical piece ‘The Merry Dancer’, a one-woman show about living in New York and her relationship with jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. The piece was workshopped first in 2004 with George Koller as part of bcurrent’s rock/paper/sistahs festival of original theatre written by women, and then in 2005 at the Trane Studio with the Sharron McLeod Fauxtet including Eric Boucher on keyboards, George Koller on bass and Mark Hundevad on the drums.
As a broadcaster she has hosted her own jazz and open format programs, Face The Music and Dat Dere (with Chloe Onari and Gary Topp) at CKLN 88.1FM, Epistrophe at FLOW 93.5FM and has contributed as a freelance jazz columnist for CBC Toronto at Metro Morning and Here and Now, CBC’s Ontario Today and CBC’s flagship show Sounds Like Canada.
After moving from Toronto to Nice, France in 2015, Sharron is reforming her ‘Fauxtet’ ensemble -bringing her own unique sound to the Riviera.
“…dark, direct and enchanting”.
Greg Tate Author journalist, bandleader
in conversation with Clifton Joseph, poet-at-large
*Originally published in the Caribbean Camera, May 2011
Clifton Joseph: Sharron, one word: radio! It has figured prominently in your jazz/oeuvre & you’ve spent years in the trenches of its frequencies in various capacities, from CKLN, the CBC, to FLOW. Here are some radio questions, then: How & why did you get into radio?
Sharron McLeod: I got into radio quite by accident. I did a show of women in jazz on CKLN in 1990 for IWD and at the end of that show they offered me a show.
Clifton Joseph: What’s the importance of radio to jazz?
Sharron McLeod: That’s hard to answer since radio has almost left the building altogether. Of course, it’s important. It’s programmed like classical music per se on stations like NPR and CBC, because it is appreciated by an older audience, generally. Commercial radio doesn’t address it though and I think that’s a shame. There’s much that could be done there.
Clifton Joseph: What was it like in those heady/days at FLOW?
Sharron McLeod: FLOW was mostly a positive experience, especially upon reflection. It was amazing to learn just how open an audience could be, especially at a commercial radio station.
It was challenging to program longer pieces of music but it was great for reaching an intergenerational audience. I heard from a listener that he, his father and his grandfather listened to the show together and they loved it. That was the time I played “Concierto de Aranjuez” from Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and it’s over 16 minutes long.
Clifton Joseph: How did your “Epistrophe” show come about, its approach and what eventually happened?
Sharron McLeod: Quite by chance. I knew someone who knew Farley Flex was looking for someone to program jazz at the station. He was very supportive, especially about keeping the music real. The first thing I said to him was, “Please don’t make me play Kenny G.” He laughed and I never had to.
Clifton Joseph: What’s the present state of (Toronto) jazz/radio? You still wanna do jazz/radio?
Sharron McLeod: Jazz radio is still happening in Toronto and there are a few good shows and good programmers. But I find that many programmers aren’t very current. They still have their particular mindset of what jazz is, a kind of tunnel vision. And while I may even like some of those shows, it doesn’t really present how jazz is expanding upon what it is. I would say that is true of the USA too and perhaps more so. And yes I would love to do radio again and address those issues I mentioned above.
Clifton Joseph: You and the theatre…..with Djanet Sears play and your/own playwrighting and next/phases.
Sharron McLeod: I did some workshops for Djanet Sears’ play The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God… and it was a great learning experience. As a singer it isn’t too much of a stretch for me. You need to be believable as a singer or an actor. I was proud to choose and arrange some songs that remained in the final production. The theatre process is a lot like music only music is freer, so after I’ve done theatre I LOVE to get to the bandstand again…and REALLY play! As for my own playwriting, it takes a LONG time to write a play! So I feel it’s being written as I live. The Abbey Lincoln Tribute is a part of that process and I am seeing what it will develop into.
Clifton Joseph: You and jazz: what are some of your earliest memories/of/jazz? What really swayed you to jazz?
Sharron McLeod: The sound of a saxophone is my earliest memory of jazz and what drew me to it.
Clifton Joseph: Where do Betty Carter and abbey/Lincoln fit into your idea of music that’s “Where do Betty Carter and Abbey/Lincoln fit into your idea of music that’s “inspired, free, experimental”?
Sharron McLeod: They fit right smack in the middle of my idea of music that is free and experimental. They are risk-takers. They are nothing less than courageous in their approach and execution of their music in so many ways. (Lyrical content and sentiment for Abbey. And lack of lyrical content for Betty. LOL) Abbey developed into such a great composer and interpreter. Betty not so much a composer but what an improviser, arranger and interpreter! She could make a tune a terrifying experience. I think that is so awesome.
Clifton Joseph: How have the lessons/in/jazz, writings, teachings, tutorings you’ve done helped your/own performances and interpretations and understanding(s)/of/jazz’s essence and expressive idiom?
Sharron McLeod: I feel the most on top of my game when I teach and perform and study. They are different facets of the same thing. I love when something clicks for the student. When I teach I play the piano. When I teach I learn what works for the student. It might work for me it might not. It may work for someone else. When I study I work on other genres of music like classical arias, new music, etc and apply those explorations to the tunes I choose to perform/learn etc. I take what I can use and use it. And those processes aren’t complete until I take that to the stage.
Clifton Joseph: Explain your connection to, mentorship with and enduring jazz legacy of Abbey Lincoln?
Sharron McLeod: The idea I had was to get a grant to study with her, but that didn’t work. Aminata was very protective of her time and space, but I later met her here in Toronto through Chloe Onari. I ended up studying from her anyway, even if it wasn’t formal. She told me that she wanted to help me become a great singer. We hung out a lot and did crafts together. Sometimes I would sing something she wrote and she would play the piano. I spoke to her about her recordings and listened to Monk and Mingus and she appreciated where I was coming from as a young singer. We listened to singers like Edith Piaf and Jessey Norman together. When I went to NYC I did things for her like sound checks and errands for her. I observed her in how she interacted with her band and did business. I talked to her about musicians she worked with from the Straight Ahead sessions and her thoughts on Billie, Betty, Shirley Horn and Eartha Kitt. I observed how she interacted with them, which could be quite humorous at times. I hung out in her dressing room and she would give me use of her limo sometimes. Sometimes she didn’t have a dressing room and she would have a lot of people hanging out “in the motor car” as she would say. So while I learned so much from observation and interaction, it was on her terms. And I definitely took what I could get from it. But she was very generous nonetheless. (I also found out later that Abbey’s best friend is an aunt of mine who was also a singer back in Jamaica. That’s another story we can save for another time.)
Clifton Joseph: Describe your style of jazz/vocalese, please, especially in relation to Billie Holiday’s “sing/&/swing”/style?
Sharron McLeod: I would say that it is griot style is there is such a thing. I think of Billie and Abbey as griots. I don’t think of Betty that way even though she composes and that’s ok. I like to write and perform my own songs as well as songs written by my peers and by jazz composers and the American Songbook, of course. I think interpretation is a part of what I do. Swinging/grooving is always a priority, but I like other grooves than just swing. I find more often that the America songbook doesn’t express all the things that occur in life in the 21st century. Scatting(improvisation) is something I don’t do very often because I want it to be authentic and real, so I do it when I’m moved to.
Clifton Joseph: What do you say of cats like ken/skinner-&/such that have “backed/you/up”/etc?…how has your work with chorals showed itself in your vocals?
Sharron McLeod: Toronto has a lot of great musicians. So does NYC. I like to work with folks who are compatible with me and the other musicians I work with. What’s most important to me is that we respect each other as people so that we can trust each other in the music. Then we can go far. The music can go far. My choral work with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and Vespera was great for learning some very hip music I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to sing. I was trying to shake myself up and get out of the box I felt I was in at that time.
Clifton Joseph: What’s been your relationship to bcurrent?
Sharron McLeod: I wrote a piece called the Merry Dancer in 2003 that is a more formal type of ‘play’ that I workshopped/performed with George Koller in 2003 and that was my first interaction with bcurrent. I did do a revised edit in 2004 with my fauxtet/band at the Trane Studio.
Clifton Joseph: How do you see your participation in this pivotal 10 th celebration of rock/paper/sistaz’s Festival?
Sharron McLeod: I want to work on this Abbey tribute/piece that is about bringing drama to the bandstand. Not in the form of a play but about making music a more visceral experience so that the audience is more engaged than it would be in musical performance.
Clifton Joseph: How would you describe the work that b current is doing?
Sharron McLeod: I think what ahdri zhina mandiela and bcurrent is doing is kind of jazz like in how she brings writers/performers/directors together, to have access to each other and their skills and I’m thrilled to be a part of the process. It’s a great learning experience for me and I’m sure for others too, in collaboration and the process of what goes into making performance art.
Clifton Joseph: What’s your “set”, approach, vocal/stance and anticipation of your performance for the Festival?
Sharron McLeod: Well the Abbey Lincoln Tribute is a challenge to do, but a wonderful one. Abbey was a thinker and it’s great to expose her compositions to audiences and selections from the We Insist! Freedom Now Suite which is someone of the most dramatic and courageous music I know of. So I am excited about that. I’ve also been asked to participate in Nicole Brooks’ piece called Obeah Opera. Just that name sparks my curiosity as to what it is and what it sounds like! So my stance is to be as open as I can be and to put my skills to good use for the director and her purpose