Hometown: New Jersey
Web site: http://www.jeaniebryson.com
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Gentle-hearted, angelic-voiced jazz chanteuse Jeanie Bryson is in the enviable position of having the best of both worlds: her songwriter mother’s melodic instincts and her father’s magnetic appeal on stage.
Small wonder given her musical pedigree: her father is legendary horn player and bandleader John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, one of the founders (along with saxophonist Charlie Parker) of modern jazz, and her mother is songwriter Connie Bryson, who’s collaborated with the likes of Doc Pomus and Ruth Bachelor.
"My father was this larger-than-life entertainer, and my mother always taught me to be true to the melody," Bryson says. "I really learned from both of them. Imagine, you’re a little girl in the audience at Carnegie Hall and knowing that the bandleader on stage is your father. It had a profound effect on me, and it really guided me into this life-long path of being a musician."
Similar to gifted artists such as Natalie Cole and Norah Jones, Bryson has been widely praised as a singer in her own right. Her performances include both timeless standards and finely crafted originals, her sparkling interpretive skills always validating the music’s classic qualities.
"I think you have to choose songs that speak to you," Bryson says. "I’m hoping they speak to others, too, and that they’ll come along with me on my very personal journey."
Bryson’s silky, sexy, slightly vulnerable vocal delivery deliciously and delicately invites listeners to focus on her performance. Watching Bryson’s relaxed-yet-playful delivery and stage presence, one would be hard-pressed to resist her powers of vocal persuasion.
"One time my dad brought Stan Getz to hear me sing," Bryson says. "After the first set, he leaned over to Stan and said, ‘She sounds just like me.’ Stan laughed and said, ‘No, she doesn’t, man, she sounds like Miles.’ My father laughed and laughed at that one. I think what Stan meant was that I tend to stick to the melody without improvising excessively. Miles was known for his sound and his phrasing. He played with the time. He even said that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves."
The New York Times once observed: "It is odd to say that a singer doesn’t sing much and to mean it as a compliment, but Jeanie Bryson … has formed her style by omission … And the effect is intimacy."
Now, Bryson embarks on perhaps her greatest artistic statement to date -- the concert program The Dizzy Songbook. Bryson pays tribute to Dizzy in a way that would have made the iconic bandleader proud.
"I have a wonderful legacy to live up to," Bryson says. "I've found a way to present my father’s music from my unique point of view. For instance, I sing ‘A Night in Tunisia ’ – one of Dizzy’s best-loved compositions -- as a sultry bolero throughout instead of switching to swing at the bridge, as is traditionally done. Jobim’s ‘Chega De Saudade’, which Dizzy always played at a very brisk tempo, I do as a slow Bossa nova in the original Portuguese. To me, these are subtle but important changes that pay homage to my father while highlighting my own identity as an artist."
The New Jersey resident set out on her musical path as a piano player early in her life. After taking lessons she soon turned her musical focus to the flute (having even appeared in her high school marching band).
"I wasn’t singing in public back then, except for a few talent shows and high school musicals – I was Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz," Bryson says. "I was actually really into a diversity of artists and genres back then, from The Allman Brothers Band, Seals & Crofts, Sly and the Family Stone and the multitude of jazz artists, from Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington, and, of course, Carmen McRae."
After being accepted to college at the tender age of 16 (Bryson was an advanced student), and switching majors (from political science to anthropology), Bryson began attending Livingston College at Rutgers University in New Jersey where she minored in ethnomusicology. Though she was still not totally comfortable singing and performing jazz in public, Bryson eventually overcame her shyness.
"I had conquered my fear by simply performing in front of people," says Bryson. "The more and more I sang for audiences, the more comfortable I became."
Bryson’s first professional musical partner was her mother (a partnership that lasted two years before Connie gave her daughter some words of wisdom). "My mother said, ‘It’s time for you to find a better piano player," Bryson says. "So, I started working with some of the musicians that I went to school with."
Today, Bryson has four solo recordings to her credit: Deja Blue for the Koch label, and three CD’s for Telarc Jazz: Tonight I Need You So, Some Cats Know: Jeanie Bryson Sings the Songs of Peggy Lee, and I Love Being Here With You. She’s also recorded with the famed Metropole Orchestra in Holland (the world’s largest professional pop and jazz orchestra), appeared on The Tonight Show, performed in over 20 countries and recorded and gigged with such artists as Terence Blanchard, Grover Washington Jr., Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell, Don Sebesky, Kenny Barron, and Christian McBride, to name just a few. And, in 2007, she was selected as the Guinness Jazz Festival’s jazz ambassador – happily following in her father’s footsteps.
"Like her father … [Bryson] has an ebullient spirit and warmth that captivates an audience," read the Guinness Jazz Festival brochure. "Jeanie continues to spread Dizzy’s inspirational musical message to the community-at-large. [She’s] a first-class jazz ambassador armed with the perfect pedigree."
"I think simple and pure enjoyment of the music translates to an audience," Bryson says. "All of the singers I admire – from Shirley Horn to Billie Holiday – used their voices as instruments and excelled at interpretation."
With each successive release and live performance, Bryson becomes even more aware of the healing power of music. "My father had this incredible ability to make people feel good, and it’s because of him that I wanted to become a musician in the first place," says Bryson. "If I can reach people through my music, I’d not only be true to my father’s legacy, but to myself."
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