Carolyn Lee Jones: Songs from My Mother’s Piano Bench
By Susan Frances
Multiple factors go into an artist’s drive to pursue making music and performing professionally. For vocalist Carolyn Lee Jones, she reveals how her parents were a prominent driving force in her life, planting the seeds in her heart and mind to becoming a professional musician. Though Jones began her adult life earning a living as a Buyer for upscale retailers, she never completely foresaked her desire to sing.
She recollects, “I launched my full-time singing career as a solo artist and bandleader in October 2008. Prior to this, I had followed my other passion, which was retailing, where I traveled the world as a Buyer for luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus.”
“I’ve been singing since I was a little girl,” she prides, “and was always active in my school choirs, show choirs, etc.”
“My mother was a pianist,” she supplies, “and her music was from what we call now the Great American Songbook, which was actually her pop music of that era.”
She recounts, “My friends in high school and college were usually musical. My father sang tenor and, as I mentioned, my mother was a pianist. So I pretty much began as a live performer/vocalist/bandleader.”
“The great thing about my mom,” she singles out, “was she also loved some of my era’s pop music. But listening to my mom’s piano playing and music got me hooked on the jazz standards. So when she passed away, I got all of her original sheet music, which also inspired my first cabaret jazz show here in Dallas.” She refers to the show as “Songs from My Mother’s Piano Bench.”
Jones found a larger purpose than merely making a living as a Buyer from that moment on. The songs she has covered on her recordings are often melodies that she remembers her mother playing or songs that she could imagine her mother playing on the piano. Frequently, that became the threshold test deciding which songs she would record. Her debut release, Bon Appetite!, introduced audiences to the vocalist inside her, eager to be heard.
“Always loving music,” she predicates, “I took the leap in 2008!” Dating was the turning point in her life when she pursued becoming a professional singer.
“In 2000, I had decided that I was truly going to pursue a 2nd career in music but still keep the day job a while longer,” she determined. “I threw myself a ‘landmark’ birthday party for 80 people and sang with a live 6-piece band for the first time. Julie Bonk, who had been Norah Jones’ piano teacher here in Dallas, was my band leader!”
“The hook was set,” she extracts, “when I heard that first applause, and I started studying voice in earnest. I took some piano and music theory. I also had two terrific classical voice instructors over a 10-year period.”
“As I continued to travel the world in my day job as a retailer,” she chronicles, “I met a woman in New York City named Trudi Mann who took me under her wing and mentored me about the world of cabaret and jazz. She was hosting open mics in New York City, and we just hit it off. She introduced me to many of the supper club cabaret jazz booking agents at the time. I then booked and produced my own show events once or twice a year for my business associates in NYC. This was a great experience, and I met many wonderful musicians. 3 of whom played on my first CD Bon Appetit!”
Jones discloses what inspired her to make Bon Appetit! “Knowing that I was going to go full-time music sometime very soon, I had been studying at a music school for a few years and met Mike Finkle, a pianist/instructor there who was originally from the New York area. His father was an executive at NBC and did a lot of their recording sessions at M+ I Studios in New York City. Mike introduced me to the owners, and I booked the session.”
“The title track ‘Bon Appetit’ was a song I had heard from a wonderful singer out of North Carolina named Beth Chorneau, and that song really resonated with me,” she declares. “I believe it has only been recorded twice! I flew out and met the composer who is a jazz pianist in North Carolina.”
Pianist Bob Dorough worked with Jones on the recording, whom she describes, “Working with Bob Dorough for my first time out was such a thrill! He played piano on and made the arrangement for our duet on ‘Devil May Care.'” The cheery romper, written by Dorough for his 1956 recording by the same title, demonstrates the duo’s natural synchronicity and witty rapport. Their lively exchange elicits a smile on the listener’s face.
“Bob was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” she compliments, “and so VERY HIP! He came be-boppin’ into the studio at the age of 82 with his ponytail and a big grin. I learned so much from that experience. I was still really green. For that 1st album, I chose songs that I loved to sing and had a special meaning to me. The lyrics are where it’s at! 14 songs is a lot for a first album, but I never can do things halfway,” she espouses and adds, “LOL!”
For her follow-up release, My Romance – The New Collection, she worked with Paris Rutherford, who is presently retired from the University of North Texas. She explains how she came to meet and work with Rutherford. “In 2010, I met Paris Rutherford when a friend suggested that I call him for an interview to be a part of an a cappella group called The New Collection. Paris had recently retired from UNT (University of North Texas) as Professor Emeritus of Vocal Jazz Studies and had just begun this new group.”
She furnishes, “We recorded My Romance as a 32 voice a cappella group here in Dallas. I was introduced to the recording studio and engineer, who I now use for all of my CD releases. The group disbanded in 2015 with one more recording.”
In 2016, Jones took a turn in her repertoire and covered a collection of classic pop tunes on her recording A Long White Room, moving outside of jazz standards. She articulates, “I’ve incorporated ‘Vintage Pop’ with a jazz sensibility into all of my jazz albums and wanted to really devote one album to just pop-jazz.”
“I think I was way ahead of the trend!,” she regards. “Singers like Nancy Wilson, who sang all genres, always appealed to me. In A Long White Room, the title track, I came upon from one of my ardent jazz fans who thought it would suit me. It had only been recorded twice before, once by Wilson! I like finding little gems that are not well known regardless of the genre but these songs on the CD are all songs that I had been singing for a long time.”
“Again, Bob Dorough came back into the picture,” she draws attention to the tune he worked on, “with ‘Give A Damn,’ originally recorded by his group Spanky and Our Gang.” The springy rhythm in the arrangement wields a homespun, country-folk flare as Jones’s vocals nestle comfortably alongside the bopping grooves.
“Overall, for this album,” she discerns about In A Long White Room, “I didn’t stray too far away from the original compositions but just enough to make them my own.”
“Tainted Love,” another track on In A Long White Room, is a strong example of Jones’s observation, aiming to just stray enough from the original tune to make it her own. Written by Ed Cobb, the song was an international hit for British pop group Soft Cell in 1981. She highlights about the track, “It is a staple in my live repertoire and one of my most straight-ahead arrangements.”
She recalls how the song came onto the recording, “I was with Julie Bonk one day and just started singing the groove to her that I was looking for, and together she mapped out the chart. The vocal part really took shape when I recorded it live in the studio with the New York City musicians: Wells Hanley (on) piano, Saadi Zain (on) bass, Jacob Melchior (on) drums. It’s also on my 1st album Bon Appetit! I had it remastered for the White Room CD.”
For her 2019 release, Close Your Eyes, Jones recruited a new accompaniment that consisted of pianist Brad Williams, pianist Sergio Pamies, and composer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Pierce. She provides, “I met Brad Williams at a jam session in Dallas in 2008. He is a stellar pianist and my main accompanist and musical partner.”
“Through Brad,” she continues, “I met Sergio Pamies, finishing his doctorate at University of North Texas, and David Pierce, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist.”
“Between the three of them,” she enthuses, “the arrangements really came to life. Sergio, with his background being from Spain, added so much to the Latin grooves. Brad has such a beautiful, elegant approach to the music, and David does a lot of bigger band arranging. There is no comparison to being in an a cappella group versus a quartet,” she remarks, comparing her experience of recording Close Your Eyes to working with Rutherford on My Romance. “Two totally different ways of approaching music,” she purports.
“I had the opportunity to perform a solo piece with My Romance – The New Collection and our Richardson Symphony, which again,” she asserts, “was a totally unique musical experience having a full orchestra backing you along with 24 voices!”
Jones took another turn in her repertoire in 2021 by releasing her Christmas album entitled Christmas Time Is Here. She reflects on the events that led to the recording coming to fruition, “The pandemic has been hard on everyone and especially the arts! I thought about making a Christmas album for months during 2020 and just couldn’t get it together, so I dropped it. Then in May of this year (2021), the lightbulb went on one day, and within 4 weeks, I had the songs all picked out and sent off to Brad (Williams) and Dave (Pierce) for arranging. They matched my vision to each song completely,” she beams.
“Again,” she assesses, “I wanted some little-known gems, some classics from my mom’s piano bench, smooth jazz, and some Latin grooves. Pierce added a string section to two songs that really enhanced the sound. I’m really happy with the overall production. We recorded the first two weeks of August and had it out and finished by Sept 1st. I wanted to give people a nice variety of music to listen too. It would be great if people would listen to it from top to bottom, but each song has to stand on its own!”
Covering tunes from jazz standards to classic pop, Jones muses how she has grown as a singer and leader. “Every day and every gig is a new learning experience,” she ascertains. “Some better than others!! I’m always pushing myself to the next level musically and like to surround myself with musicians who I can continue to learn from. Also, being the band leader has given me a lot of experience. Vocally, I think I’ve found my style and my sound. I already have my next two albums planned. My desire now is to take my music on the road!”
Preparing for live shows is a different discipline from recording in the studio in Jones’s view as she considers, “I’m always having to have two or three arrangements for each song so that I can sing in any situation. From a piano duo up to a small big band. Some songs, not very many, just don’t sound right without the full accompaniments. When I perform live, there are no do-overs! It’s all or nothing at all as the song goes. I also perform my own cabaret ‘themed’ shows with a duo or trio, which requires a different approach as well.”
When she isn’t working on her music, Carolyn Lee Jones attests, “I love to cook! I’ve won a few blue ribbons at our State Fair with my famous Jalapeño Kicky Relish and Jams.”
“My husband has a great big organic garden in our backyard,” she shares, “so he grows it, and I can (use) it. I thought about a small catering business but just can’t juggle that and the music too right now. We love to entertain and cook for our friends, and they too love to cook, so it’s fun.”
“I’m still a retailer at heart,” she confesses, “and my niece just opened a store in Wilmington, North Carolina, so I’ll go work at her store for a few days before Christmas and also sing a few tunes from the new CD Christmas Time Is Here to kick off her Christmas season at the store. I’ve also been a hospice volunteer for 16 years for the Visiting Nurse Association/VNA, which has allowed me to give something of myself and help people in their transition from this earth.”
Songs from her mother’s piano bench have kept Carolyn Lee Jones motivated, inspiring her to take new turns along her course to be a professional singer and solo artist. Everything about Jones’s life links to music, leading her back to prodding the vocalist inside to be heard. Her voice moves audiences, affecting them to feel the human emotions of joy, sorrow, and peace. All stemming from the seeds that her parents planted in her heart and mind at the start of her life. Songs from her mother’s piano bench are a recurring theme in Jones’s repertoire, driving her to continue along the path to being a professional solo artist.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.