Over the summer I received a sweet e-mail from Meredith d'Ambrosio thanking me for including her in a roundup of superb vocal versions of Bill Evans songs. You may not be familiar with the vocalist, but what's about to happen to you happened to me in the mid-1990s. Back then, a friend gave me a copy of It's Your Dance with a warning: "You're going to listen to this and feel as if you've known this singer all your life." When I put on Giant Steps and The Underdog from the album, I was indeed swept away. Meredith's hip sensitivity and breezy intensity was unlike anything I had heard, except maybe for Irene Kral's albums from the 1970s with pianist Alan Broadbent.
Fourteen years later, my love for Meredith's knowing voice is still raging. If you have a heart, it's impossible not to be overcome by her phrasing, song choices and piano playing. Her voice is so pure and unfettered it's as if she's channeling the spring rain, summer shadows and autumn mist. What you hear is enormous intelligence and a childlike abandon, which is likely why John Coltrane asked her to tour with him in the early 1960s. What you're actually hearing is a complete artist: Meredith not only is a singer with unparalleled gifts but also a fine painter, a lyricist, a composer and a jazz pianist. And she excels at each. [Pictured: Eastern Point Light (Cape Ann), 2009, oil on canvas by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Meredith, 68, one of jazz's best-kept secrets, the legendary singer talks candidly about her early upbringing in Boston, her early singing talents, her mother and father's fights, and leaving home for art school at age 17:
Meredith d’Ambrosio: I grew up in Boston. I have two brothers and a sister. One brother and my sister are quite a bit younger than I am. My mother had them late in life. My mother was a pianist-singer whose voice was similar to Lee Wiley’s. She performed around Boston using the stage name Sherry Linden. Her real name was Sarah Kleiman. She was the last of the red-hot mamas, a performer who sang songs by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Berlin, Coward and others. She also performed risqué material.
JW: Sounds like she was quite a character.
Md’A: She was. Her romantic style of singing would often bring tears to people's eyes. As for my father, he had been a small-band radio singer. Later, using his own formulas, he created a refinishing and re-upholstery business. I remember my early childhood in the 1940s vividly. I was a terrible tomboy. Those are the years I remember most fondly.
JW: Why? Were your teenage years unhappy?
Md’A: Very messy. My mother and father didn’t get along, and neither gave me much encouragement. My father was a womanizer and it broke my mother’s heart. She resented him terribly for it. My father's issues probably stem from his rough start in life.
JW: What happened?
Md’A: He was born out of wedlock in Boston to a Russian mother and a merchant seaman from Florence, Italy. His mother gave him up to the care of the state when he was five. After years bouncing around foster homes, orphanages and farms, he was sent at age 14 to live at the home of a family on Cape Cod. But just as the family was ready to adopt him, his mother surfaced and blocked the adoption. Up until then my father thought she was dead.
JW: Did his mother take him away?
Md’A: Yes. She took him to live with her in the Beacon Hill section of Boston, where it turned out she was the town madam who ran her business out of a four- story townhouse. Just before she took my father back to Boston, though, she married a man whose last name was d’Ambrosio.
JW: When did you know you could sing?
Md’A: When I was six years old, I was harmonizing along with my mother’s large collection of swing records. I then studied classical piano and art from that point forward. My classical training lasted up to age 11. Then I went to Boston’s Schillinger House of Music [pictured], which later changed its name to Berklee School and then moved to become the Berklee College of Music.
JW: Which singers moved you most as a kid?
Md’A: Dick Haymes [pictured] and Peggy Lee. My mother had a collection of 12-inch swing records that had to be played on a Victrola. I thought Haymes had the best phrasing of them all and the most romantic voice.
JW: Did you have formal voice training?
Md’A: No, my father wouldn’t allow it. He was a bass baritone and had been classically trained at the New England Conservatory of Music. When he heard me singing and harmonizing along with my mother’s records at age 11, he decided voice training would be bad for me. He didn’t want my voice to be spoiled with formal instruction, though he had a hand in coaching me to understand how to breathe and shade.
JW: What did you sound like?
Md’D: I had a style back then, a voice that no one else sounded like. Back then I was a mezzo-soprano—the same range as my mother's. My father was afraid that I would wind up trying to sound like other singers if I had formal training. Much later I became a tenor, the same range as a cello or flugelhorn.
JW: Did painting and visual art play a more important role in your youth than singing and playing piano?
Md’A: Yes, and it still does. When I was 5 years old, in kindergarten, I drew a picture of a face that I thought was in perfect proportion. I immediately sensed I had an advanced talent. So my mother bought me an easel, and a year later I started taking formal art instruction. After school, I’d take piano and ballet lessons. And each Saturday I’d go for additional art lessons at the Rutledge School of Music and then Hebrew School. I had no time to play on the streets. It was a grueling schedule. [Pictured: Quarter to Three, 1986, watercolor, Meredith d'Ambrosio]
JW: Was your family well off?
Md’A: Actually no. When I was 13 years old, I got my social security card and had to go to work over the summer at a hearing-aid and transistor parts factory. The check was used to help my family make ends meet. By then my mother had two more children in addition to my brother Jerry, who was born three years after I was.
JW: Why did your mother have two more children so many years later?
Md'A: She later confessed to me that she had had my brother Stanley and my sister Elaine later in her life to keep my father from straying. So I had to help take care of them, since my mother was in her forties and had had nervous breakdowns with both births. The newborns were exhausting and stressful for her.
JW: You must have been gratified to get out of the house when it was time for college.
Md’A: It was liberating. When I was 17 years old, I won a scholarship to the Boston Museum School, which was at the time considered the second best fine arts college in the country after the Chicago Art Institute. By then, I was living a pretty bohemian life, which angered my mother to no end, since she was rather traditional. [Pictured: Debut of Spring, 1996, watercolor, by Meredith d'Ambrosio]
Tomorrow, Meredith starts college, falls deeply in love, is jilted and fights bitterly with her mother. The singer also reflects on the influence of Horace Silver's records in the 1950s, and singing with Maynard Ferguson's big band in Boston.
JazzWax tracks: Meredith has recorded 15 albums. Her first was Lost in His Arms (1978). She accompanied herself on piano on some tracks and was joined on others by Ray Santisi (piano), Norman Coles (guitar), Chris Rathbun (bass) and an unknown drummer. The album is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. It's available on CD for a small fortune here.
Art exhibit and performance: If you're in Miami next Thursday (September 24th), get over to the gallery at radio station WDNA (88.9 FM) to see the opening of Meredith's latest exhibit of 35 watercolors and oil paintings. You'll also get to hear a rare performance by Meredith accompanied by pianist Patti Wicks. For more information and ticket prices, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here, Meredith turns Alec Wilder's Rain, Rain (Don't Go 'Way) from her 1981 release, Another Time, into a gorgeous work of art. The tasteful piano? That's Meredith accompanying herself...