Marcya Daneille smiles during an interview.

Improvisation and appreciation: a Q&A with jazz vocalist Marcya Daneille

April 22, 2024 Tawny Morrison Leave a Comment

PBS Wisconsin Education’s Re/sound: Songs of Wisconsin is a media resource collection for learners in grades 4-8 featuring musical culture-bearers across Wisconsin. Produced in collaboration with Wisconsin School Music Association, the collection was sparked by feedback from Wisconsin music teachers who saw a need for more diverse representation in music education.

Milwaukee-based jazz vocalist Marcya Daneille joined the Re/sound collection in the fall of 2023. Her interview and her performance of “My Funny Valentine” provide a great introduction to jazz and the importance of understanding the history of the music we consume.

For Jazz Appreciation Month in April, PBS Wisconsin Education reconnected with Daneille to learn more about her experience and insight into the genre.

PBS Wisconsin Education: What was your experience working on Re/Sound: Songs of Wisconsin?

Daneille: You know, the irony is that the assumption is that performers have this immediate comfort level with being in front of cameras and people and all of that. But prior to doing it, I was just like, I’ll be on camera! How’s this going to work? The result was all of the preparatory stuff before, trying to visualize being calm and working on angles and all of that.

The actual filming was really great. The team from PBS Wisconsin was super organized. I felt comfortable right away, and when we did the recorded performance piece, it was just a wonderful experience. After you finish being intimidated by the cameras, then you learn that the cameras are your friends. They just don’t speak back.

It was an honor to have been selected, and it was really cool to be able to share a little bit of myself and my journey specifically into jazz, and know that it was going to be shared on this platform.

PBS Wisconsin Education: In your Re/sound interview, you spoke about how you enjoy the element of improvisation when performing jazz standards. Can you share about when you began learning how to improvise?

Daneille: The only conscientious decision that I made about improvisation was that I was going to allow myself to do it when I felt comfortable and when I felt it was something that was organic.

As I started having those moments more and more frequently, I started to think more strategically about the process of improvisation. I listened a lot to the instruments in different settings, whether duo, trio or quartet. I wanted to have a more thorough understanding of their role, just as you have different roles in a play.

I was very attracted to the idea of being able to take what was internal and share that externally without having to describe it verbatim, the way that you would in a non-musical conversation.

Sometimes the pianist may play something and they may repeat it, so that says to me musically, they’ve started a conversation and they want me to pick it up from here. This is how I allow the other members of the band to inform what I do. Sometimes it’s a pattern that the drummer plays that will inform my rhythmic construction of a particular phrase.

I think the most important thing for me in my improvisational journey was to get to a point of full acceptance of what I do, balanced with a healthy dose of feedback. Whether it’s audience response or bandmate response.

PBS Wisconsin Education: You describe your music as “classically trained, jazz-influenced and soul-inspired.” How do those parts come together when you’re performing?

Daneille: The idea for that tagline was implanted long before I arrived at what I would call my most consistent space as a jazz singer.

One way of being able to advance those particular characteristics is carefully choosing who I work with. I have the benefit of being able to access a number of musicians here in the Milwaukee area who embody particular elements that I find very appealing.

You know, there is a way to approach what we would consider non-jazz tunes. Pop music, soul, rock, top 40. There’s a way to allow the interpretation of them to be informed by or influenced by jazz. If you come to one of my shows, you’re going to hear Motown, you might hear the Rolling Stones. I have a very eclectic repertoire, but everything that I sing is something that I understand. I do it my way.

What’s my way? My way involves phrasing. Being able to implement good phrasing is the difference between just preaching at an audience and bringing them in with your breaths, your pauses, where you rush forward, where you fall back. Those are the kinds of things I think that help keep an audience engaged and feeling almost like they were part of your creative process.

PBS Wisconsin Education: You got into singing around middle school. What advice would you give young people who are just starting their musical journey?

Daneille: Take advantage of the resources that you have right at your fingertips. This is one of many reasons why good school music programs are important. Everyone doesn’t have the personal resources to invest in private lessons.

Take advantage and pay attention to what you’re getting from your school music teachers and express the interest to them, because very often, you will find that if you show just a little bit of extra interest, you’ll get a lot of extra information. If you don’t know what questions to ask, share how you feel about it. “Hey, Mrs. Smith, I really love singing.” That opens up a conversation.

And if you have the internet, start digging around, look for information. Start looking at college programs when you are young because many of them have pre-college programs. There are community organizations where you can go, after-school programs and things like that.

My other broad heading would be: Be realistic. I don’t mean limit yourself. I mean try to make decisions about your pursuit of music in a way that you will be able to thrive as a human. Period. You know, the pursuit of a serious music career doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It may be a little tougher, but make sure that you set yourself up in a way that you can survive first as a human being, that you have finances that you can use to continue to develop yourself as whatever type of music professional it is that you want to be.

PBS Wisconsin Education: Is there anything else you want people to know about jazz music?

Daneille: I would like for people to continue to remember that it was born out of cultural experiences within the African American community. Period. At a point, it’s not just enough to pick up a book and say, Coltrane did this, Ella Fitzgerald did that, but you should have a hunger to learn more about the culture that informs this art form that you profess to love. This is not about the exclusion of the contributions of any other culture to jazz. But I don’t want to see it watered down.

When I started out in classical music, I knew from a pretty early age that it was going to be important for me to go to one of the points of origin for classical music. So I went to Italy and studied there. That sort of experience is invaluable. When I wanted to be an opera singer, could I have done that without having that type of experience? Absolutely. But having had that experience informed me at a higher level and gave me a different sort of respect.

I think that if we could see more diversity in terms of people who are willing to look a little closer at African American culture as they pursue their jazz careers, that would also go a long way in making sure that the art form remains respected, you know, considered as a high art form. And it opens up the kind of conversations that ultimately would really benefit mankind.

View Marcya Daneille’s feature in the Re/sound: Songs of Wisconsin collection, and discover other musical culture-bearers from around the state.

1 thought on “Improvisation and appreciation: a Q&A with jazz vocalist Marcya Daneille”

  • Sarah Litzer says:

    Beautiful, beautiful! What a wonderfully deep, yet simple interpretation of Funny Valentine: the song showcases Marcya’s clear, unforced vocal delivery, allowing the textual message to transcend the musical notes.
    What a wonderful example of how “classical” training enables a musician to perform in any genre with excellence – Bravo to PBS Wisconsin (Music) Education

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