graduate doctorate on keeping jazz alive, the rebirth of black protest music


Kim Nalley obtained a doctorate in May 2021. in history. In her thesis, “GI Jazz,” she views African Americans as jazz artists, as well as occupiers, in post-WWII Germany.

Kim Nalley, who just received a doctorate. in UC Berkeley history, has been singing jazz since the age of 14. “Before I had kids, I used to describe my life as an advertisement: when I was on stage, that was when life started, and the rest of my life was a commercial.” ( Photo by Ruth Kaiser)

I grew up in New England in the tri-state area during the height of the crack epidemic. I moved around a lot. I have really had a difficult life. You know, not eating at the end of the month or having no lights, gas or hot water – these are the kind of routine things I grew up with.

Everyone in my family could sing or play music. It was not a question of lessons. It was like, “Do you want to play the piano? There is a piano to play. “Do you want to play the guitar?” You are just playing. “Do you want to sing? Singing. ”Christmas carols were always at least in three parts. I was never considered the best. No one thought much of my song.

Kim Nalley as a baby with a stuffed animal

Nalley grew up in New England in a musical family. “Christmas carols were always at least three-part,” she says. (Photo courtesy of Kim Nalley)

As a black woman there were limited opportunities for what people wanted me to do. I lined up for a bunch of auditions where I wasn’t black enough on stage to get the black parts, and I wasn’t white enough to get the token white girlfriend part.

I quickly discovered that in jazz you could sing whatever you wanted to sing, you could sing whatever key you wanted to sing, and you could sing whatever song you wanted to sing. It gave me that freedom that classical music didn’t have, that musical theater doesn’t. He offered that democracy within the band so that everyone would sound good and everyone would say their song. I really liked it.

Before I had kids, I used to describe my life as an advertisement: when I was on stage, that was when life began, and the rest of my life was an advertisement. I love to sing. It makes me feel good. The older I get, the more generous I become. I’m at an age where most people are younger than me, so I am expected to guide them the way older people are.

I lost so many wonderful people last year. And in part, as a jazz musician, when you’re 20 and your best friends are 40 and 50, that’s to be expected. But it was just a very difficult year. We have lost some of the greatest jazz musicians who ever walked the earth. And I just try to think and remember everything they taught me so that I can pass it on to the next generation.

Nalley sang “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” by Nina Simone in 2012.

These things are very, very important to me. Things like starting a song in a certain key, then changing the key for the singer, then changing the key for a screaming chorus. Things like that are a bit lost on musicians today.

I have always admired Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. In fact, I love Dinah Washington so much that I can’t even listen to her because then I’ll try to be like her, because she’s so amazing. Oh my God. I love him so much. I’ve always loved Dianne Reeves, without a doubt, because she’s not stuck in a style. She doesn’t treat jazz like a museum piece.

I also really like what people are doing right now. My big crush is on Camille Thurman. She is still in her twenties. She plays the saxophone and also performs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Sometimes I say, “Why am I singing? I might as well quit because she has it all.

As a singer, you are expected to act, to a certain extent. You are expected to make the audience feel a certain way. It doesn’t matter if you look a certain way, or if you are emotional in a certain way, but if the audience doesn’t feel a certain way, then as a singer you haven’t done your job.

When it comes to the audience, I think about where I want people to be at any given time. Now that I have owned a club – I owned Jazz at Pearls in San Francisco from 2003 to 2008 – I have a different take on it. So there is an instrumental for the group to warm up. Then there is a beginning – something that I sing easily and that makes me happy.

Read the transcript.

And then, at some point, it takes a tour de force, which would be the highlight of the evening. You need an emotional song. I need a song that puts us all on the same side, so they can sit down and think. And then Duke Elington. You must have a Duke Ellington inside. And you need a closer. I need to make a setlist that day, and even then it might change because something might happen between morning and evening. Having this flexibility is very important to me.

I just think jazz means great musicality. Jazz has infiltrated the fabric of popular music. But I don’t think there are as many songs as good as the ones back then. I want to feel more complex emotions from my music. If I have to sing lyrics, I have to believe the lyrics.

One of my albums that I really like is The blues people. When I did, I was very influenced by Amiri Baraka. Dr. Waldo Martin of the UC Berkeley History Department wrote the cover notes. At the time, it was very controversial. I was talking about the experience of blacks in the United States. One of the songs I wrote was called “Big Hooded Black Man,” which was about Trayvon Martin. When I wrote it in 2012, people weren’t ready for it.

Nalley wrote the song “Big Hooded Black Man” in 2012 about the murder of Trayvon Martin. “When I wrote it people weren’t ready for it,” Nalley said.

Now it’s been almost 10 years since Trayvon Martin died and a year since we saw the horrific video of the death of George Floyd. During this past year, Blues people has experienced a certain renaissance. There is more awareness of the breed, there has been more dialogue about the race this year. And there have also been more lists of essential black protest music – Blues people was on one of Oprah Winfrey’s lists. I’m so glad it’s finally happening somewhere and people are listening to what I’m trying to say.

And it’s also a lesson in protest music: that the people we idolize for making these wonderful protest songs weren’t popular back then. They were vilified. When Nina Simone did “Mississippi GoddamThey broke the albums and sent them back to the label.

I think it’s pretty clear now, people agree, that there is no reason Trayvon Martin was dead, but when I played “Big Hooded Black Man” some people came out. . Some people have tried to get me kicked out of concerts or to stop being hired. People would say, “I came here to have a good time.” It’s like, “It’s a song. I treat my whole life being black. I’m so sorry you had to deal with two minutes and 30 seconds of discomfort. Sorry.”


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