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Five Questions for Jazz Vocalist Shumani Massa

OPB | Feb. 25, 2013 7:15 a.m. | Updated: April 2, 2013 10:03 a.m.

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Jazz vocalist Shumani Massa

Jazz vocalist Shumani Massa

Shumani Massa, Lincoln High School senior and vocalist for the Portland school’s award-winning jazz group Ensemble One, says music is in her genes — her grandfather was the head trumpeter for Louis Prima. Recently, Shumani spoke with KMHD‘s Deborah DeMoss Smith about jazz in her life.

1. How did you decide to get involved in jazz?
It wasn’t actually my decision since I didn’t sing jazz until this year. Last year I was in Lincoln’s production of Company by Stephen Sondheim, and Mr. Barnes [my jazz teacher] was conducting the pit and he heard me there, so he asked me if I wanted to sing. That’s how I got started in this, because I didn’t really have any practice in it before, but it fit really well with my voice. I’ve been singing my entire life in choirs. I’ve also been in a capella groups for three years and those are really different types of music.

2. You speak the language of jazz; how does that language speak to you?
I think it’s kind of unique because there are only about 30 kids in our Lincoln jazz class and most kids I know really don’t listen to jazz that often. They might hear it on the radio once in awhile, but usually they’re listening to more popular music — so it’s nice when we have school assemblies or something and the jazz band will perform. I’ll sing and it really gets people excited. They see me out there. They know me. They hear the music and they’re like, “Wow, this is really cool; we really like this.” It’s really a fun way of bringing people together.

3. What song would you sing for someone who wasn’t familiar with jazz?
One of the ones we do a lot is “Autumn Leaves” because it’s a standard a lot of people know and even if you don’t, it’s a really beautiful song — so everybody responds well to it. We added a really interesting intro and outro to it that makes it a lot more dynamic, so people really like that part.

4. You go for a walk and somehow stumble upon Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Cassandra Wilson — which one would you choose to sit down and learn from?
Probably Ella Fitzgerald. I do a number of her songs. She’s incredible, just the things she does with her voice. I try to mimic that. She’s amazing. She does these pretty cool riffs where she moves, like she has this incredible agility with her voice where she can move from note to note — and sound incredible! It takes a lot of practice from me. I have to go over it at least 10 times to really get it in my head, to be able to do it, but she always sounds flawless every time. That’s the wonderful thing about it, though, because even if she was to make even a tiny mistake it doesn’t really matter because it just fixes itself. It sounds really good. Jazz is about improvisation and making some mistakes, but learning from it. She always ends up sounding great.

5. What tunes would you perform at the White House for the President and his family?
I don’t know what he likes to hear. I know he likes Beyonce, who I also like — but that’s not exactly jazz. So, some of the ones we’ve been doing lately with the big band: “Willow Weep for Me,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” — I love that song.

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