Grammy-nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn arrives in Atlanta this weekend to perform at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Theatre on Saturday, January 27, as part of the Atlanta Jazz Festival’s new Emerging Jazz Icons series. ArtsATL caught up with the New York-based singer to chat about her music, her love of Betty Carter and what Atlanta jazz fans can expect at Saturday’s concert.
ArtsATL: I was surprised to learn that Jazzmeia Horn is your real given name. It just seems too perfect! How did you happen to come by that name?
Jazzmeia Horn: My grandmother gave me the name. She was a pianist, and in the 50s and 60s she wanted to be a professional musician, but because she’s a woman she wasn’t really given the opportunity. She had a child, my father. She chose the name Jazzmeia when I was born, passing on her legacy to me. It’s my destiny. She gave me that name, and now I’m living the dream.
ArtsATL: I was also curious to learn that when you were a kid, you weren’t really a jazz fan, that your interest in jazz was kind of a later development.
Horn: I didn’t appreciate it back then as much as I do now. I grew up listening to all kinds of music: R&B, folk, hip-hop, reggae, classical, bluegrass. But for whatever reason, jazz didn’t appeal to me until later. I started singing jazz when I was about 15 or 16. I was going to a performing arts school, and a teacher of mine said, “Your name is Jazzmeia. You should know about this music and where it comes from.” He gave me a couple CDs, and I picked up on it right away. I really enjoyed listening to people like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Fats Waller, Nancy Wilson, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Shirley Horn. I just became very interested mainly because of the storytelling skills that they had. I would hear the music, and it was as if I’d lived here before, as if I was here during that time, because it just spoke to me. Everything came together. I just got hooked.
ArtsATL: Can you tell us what you have planned for the Atlanta concert?
Horn: I’m looking forward to playing a lot of the songs from my album A Social Call. We’ll be playing “Tight,” which is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s a Betty Carter tune. It’s me paying tribute to Betty Carter because she really provoked a lot in me spiritually and musically. She really brought me out of my shell. She taught me that I can be myself. I’m really looking forward to showing who I am through my music.
ArtsATL: Like Betty Carter, you perform a lot of improvisational jazz. When you’re on stage and improvising, what goes through your mind? What are you thinking about? Or is it one of those Zen things where you try not to think about anything?
Horn: For me, when I’m improvising, it’s just a part of me. It’s my second language. Actually, I like to think of it as my first language because I understand more about how to improvise than I do about how to speak English, believe it or not! I started singing before I could talk. It’s a way of communicating without having to be tied down to words. I can use all types of sound and all types of rhythm, everything musical. All of my emotions can be let out. All of my thoughts can be let out without having to explain myself in an “English” way or in a “German” way or in any type of language way. It’s a different type of language. It’s a language of the soul and of the spirit, and it allows me to be free. I don’t really think about what I’m doing because I don’t have to. It just comes naturally.
ArtsATL: You have a pretty busy schedule after Atlanta, with lots of concert dates and a European tour ahead. Do you enjoy being on tour?
Horn: I do. I have two little girls, one and three. Whenever I’m on tour, I take a day to perform and the next day to relax. While I’m relaxing, we check out different museums, and we check out art galleries and children’s places like parks and playgrounds. I want to teach them about different cultures. When we went to China, we were able to go to Macau and learn about the culture, to see how the children communicate with their parents, how they create art and what type of art they create. It’s really fun, and I have a good time, so I really look forward to going on tour. I’m traveling the world doing what I love to do. It’s more like a hobby for me; it’s not like a job. It can be tedious scheduling things and putting things together and writing music and making sure the band gets paid. It’s strenuous work, but I love it. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to go on tour. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.