Anita Wardell at Ilkley Jazz Festival 2018

Written by | Artists, Festivals, Interviews, News

Underneath the glass canopy and lantern roof of The Winter Gardens, Ilkley, the sounds of some of the best jazz artists in the UK reverberate in the space once reserved for genteel tea dances, civilised concerts and a little bawdy Music Hall. 

It’s the second year the festival has taken over this unique venue.  Rather than concert style, the audience sits informally at large round tables with white tablecloths and as the light dims above, glass candlelight’s provide a club like atmosphere.  It presents some challenges to the sound engineers at times, especially on the Saturday as bands perform for one hour, with a 30 minute turnaround before the next one,  yet the space envelops the audience in a comfortable warmth and as our headliner Ian Shaw said last year ‘It feels like a large dinner party.’  There’s friendliness to the place and I can honestly say it brings out the best in all of our performers.

I’ve been looking forward to tonight! The first headliner at The Winter Gardens Anita Wardell is one of our finest jazz singers, with her unique bebop style, unparalleled scat and vocalese expertise and her fine crew of musicians, Robin Aspland (piano), Jeremy Brown (Bass) and Steve Brown (Drums).

Having never met Anita before, it’s a joy to discover what a lovely, friendly down to earth lady she is.  I caught up with Anita after the show and asked her a few questions about her journey as a jazz singer.  So when did she actually start singing jazz?  ‘I started listening to jazz standards by watching old movie musicals on the telly, songs by Cole Porter, The Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein etc. Then started to learn them, I was about 12/13 at the time…my first gig was very scary, although I loved it at the same time.’

Being such a skilled jazz singer isn’t something that happens overnight and I ask if there is one thing in particular or many that helped her grow the most as a jazz singer?  ‘I’d say it’s many, in no particular order. Listening – immersing myself in the music/idiom and listening to everything I could lay my hands to help me understand the language I was trying to learn.  Practice – understanding by physically trying to copy/steal/mimic what the masters did.  Ear Training – Transcribing the phrasing, the style, the sound of the rhythm, and the lines of the instrumentalists – all of it!  Teachers – learning from great teachers, peers, talking to those who were much more experienced than myself (I was green).  On the job training – getting out there and working on the above on gigs, workshops, courses and such like.’

As well as studying the academics of jazz music, a jazz singer’s instrument is the voice, so I asked Anita what her vocal training consists of.  How does she take care of her voice and does she train every day?   ‘When I was younger, I studied some classical singing, but I was quite lax – I used to get up and sing without warming up and everything sounded fine…BUT…As I have got older I find I have to work my voice more.  I warm up now, with a straw to ensure I get good vocal cord/fold contact and that my breathing is intact. I want to keep my voice agile and make sure my range is smooth.  I work my voice and make sure I sing every day regardless of whether I have a gig or not.  It helps me keep my voice in the right place.  I also try not to shout or talk over noisy crowds – that’s the worst for me!’

Anita began the set with ‘My Shining Hour’ (Harold Arlen), going straight into the second chorus of scat, the two other jazz singers I’m sitting next to and myself glance at each other, feeling that frisson of excitement knowing that we’re in the hands of a master. No-one can do this better than she can.  Her scat ebbs and flows around the instruments, she is one of them, soaring across changes and in-between them, using her well-honed instrument to perfection.  But of course, this innate skill is something she has worked hard to achieve, winning approval and accolades from legends such as Mark Murphy and winning a BBC Jazz Award and Best Jazz Vocalist at The British Jazz Awards 2013.

Anita is well known for her incredible scat singing and vocalese, ‘Yes, I am mad about these styles!’ she says, ‘In the early years of listening to movie musicals, I heard a lot of ‘novelty songs’, most of them were fast words strung together which I thought were fun BUT as soon as I heard Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, I was hooked on the bebop approach and couldn’t get enough of it!’

I’m curious to know what attracted her to focus on these aspects?  ‘I think it was a mixture of the instrumental lines and the words together, which tells the complete story of the song.  It was so exciting to listen to! It sounded hard and I like to be challenged.’

So, who would she say is her greatest influences?  ‘I’m influenced by all the masters, I listened to so, so many that I can’t help but love them all for different reasons.  I admire all of them, the lifetime study they embarked on, the artistry of all the great singers and instrumentalists past and present.  My go to at the moment is Dexter Gordon – his lines are so singable!

Sitting listening to Anita and enjoying her and the band performing, I wonder if she gets time to see many gigs herself?  ‘I get out and see live music as much as I can, it’s important.  I find it inspiring and I learn so much, although it’s hard sometimes to turn off the analytical brain and just listen and enjoy music in the here and now.  I’m still working on this!’

I know that Anita is flying back to Adelaide in the morning and she has taken a position at the Adelaide University as a Jazz Voice lecturer…the university where she received her degree many years ago! Was she born and raised in Adelaide?  ‘Actually, I was born in Guildford, Surrey in the UK and then in the early 1970’s, at the age of 11, my parents decided we would all immigrate to Adelaide, Australia.  I was educated there and completed my degree in Jazz performance there.  I returned to the UK in 1989 and lived and worked there until recently.  I plan to come back twice a year to the UK for gigs and touring.  I’ll be back next in December 2018 for 6 weeks.  During this trip, I plan to record a new CD with the band and I’ll also be making a trip to Europe!’

How different is the Australian Jazz scene to the UK/London jazz scene I ask, ‘It’s not much different, the language is universal so that keeps it all connected.  There are some fabulous musicians here, world class.  Because Australia is vast and the cities hubs are further apart, you have to travel a bit further out when you’re on tour.  However, although England is small, travelling from London to the regional areas, because of traffic, can sometimes take longer than a 5-hour flight to Perth!’  I agree the travel can really take its toll and of course, at the other end there’s a show to do!

In fact, one of my big things, when I began this festival with my husband Mark, was making sure the artists have a really great experience, good accommodation, good food, so I’m keen to make sure she’s had a great time and does she enjoy performing outside of London,  ‘Ilkley Jazz festival this year was amazing!  It was the last date on my tour of the UK summer trip.  The band was on fire and I loved every minute.  Everybody looked after us so well, we received such a beautiful welcome there.  I always love performing outside of London; it’s a nice change for us as a band and lovely to meet new jazz lovers!’

Being such a well-respected, accomplished jazz singer and teacher, I have to ask what Anita’s advice would be to up and coming jazz singers and musicians?   ‘Prepare well and when you think you are well prepared…prepare more!  I’ve learnt over the years that there is always something I’ve forgotten, whether it be corrections on charts that I should have amended from the gig the night before, learning the changes more effectively and warming up for longer etc, etc!  Learn the songs correctly, with the right words and melodies.  Transcribe more, learn the language and vocabulary.  Listen to jazz and check everything out.  Learn more than one version of a tune.  Keep the essence of the music alive – the history.  Let’s not forget, this music/art form is precious!’

There are always discussions and debates about how to keep jazz music alive and I’d love to know what Anita’s thoughts are on the jazz scene today?  Are we heading in the right direction to keep jazz music alive and kicking does she think?   ‘I think we are producing exciting and creative singers and instrumentalists.  With all the resources that are at our fingertips today and if we all stay authentic and open, we can’t help but head in the right direction and keep this music alive and kicking.’

If I had to choose (and it’s difficult) but possibly my favourite song of the night was Anita’s ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal) in the second set, which included the often abandoned verse and really showed how Anita is not only an adept technical singer but can also deliver a ballad that stills the room and stirs the soul.  We’ll be seeing you too Anita and we recommend anyone who is a fan of great jazz singing to see you as well! Thank you, Anita and the band for such an incredible gig!

Check out Anita’s website for future live dates and current cd.

Text: Beverly Beirne

More info on Ilkley jazz festival

Photo credits: courtesy of Anita Wardell – and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s).




Last modified: April 25, 2020