Messages from Masters: Marion Cowings

by Ella Campbell

During the winter semester of 2012, Michigan State University’s jazz studies program was blessed to have a week-long residency with the master vocalist, Marion Cowings. Unknown to many, his lack of popularity is not telling of his charm, stage presence, and beautiful vocal styling: the day he left from his residency at MSU, he was New York bound for an engagement at Smalls. During the afternoon on a Monday, walking into the College of Music, he was unmistakable. Dressed in dark skinny jeans, clean canvas sneakers, a crisp button up shirt, navy vest, silk scarf, sport coat and unbelievable swag, one could only assume he was, “the vocalist that’s visiting.”

Later that night, he gave a masterclass to the jazz studies program. He opened by singing “Have You Met Miss Jones” with the faculty from Michigan State (Rodney Whitaker, bass; Randy Gelispie, drums; Reggie Thomas, piano; Diego Rivera, tenor sax). Immediately every-one’s breath was taken away by his power and versatility. He was singing to, and for, every one of us. He finely controlled his voice to be open, gesturing with his arms the same openness, and was conversational when the tune called for it. His communication with the audience was enchanting. His communication with the bandstand was equally as notable. In videos of Cowings, you can see his communication skills very clearly. He’ll hold up three fingers when he wants to tag the ending, counting down with each repeat, and he’ll cue every note in the final turn, including the cutoff. He gives the band specific directions before he counting off, and makes it very clear who he wants to solo — and when he wants them to stop.

After performing, he requested that a student group play. The student vocalist called “How High the Moon” and attempted to imitate Cowings’ commanding stage presence toward the audience and band. However, after four measures they were cut off by Cowings shouting “Disaster!” The vocalist hadn’t spoken loud enough for the entire rhythm section to hear what he wanted for the intro and key, so the bassist began playing different changes, in a different key, than the pianist. During round two, the vocalist made sure to give clear instructions to everyone that he wanted the last eight bars of the form to be the intro. Mr. Cowings supported this idea: many vocalists do not have perfect pitch, and by playing the last eight bars of the form as the intro, vocalists will be able to hear the melody in their heads before entering.

This way they can sing without having to be given a starting pitch (ex: vocalist turns to pianist and whispers, “can you give me an A?”), and then try to mentally hold on to that pitch while a different intro is going on, and then pray they are still hearing the pitch correctly in their head by the time they enter.

As far as being instrumentalists alongside vocalists, Mr. Cowings expressed that every song doesn’t call for “a science experiment saxophone solo.” We are playing the same song that a vocalist is singing, therefore we should play the song. As a saxophone soloist was getting fancy later during the masterclass, Cowings said “It’s not all about chasing Bird.” This struck many as: he may be right, perhaps fast rhythmic bop language is not appropriate for all tunes. However, one of the elder professors, who was around during the time Bird was hittin’, was taken aback by this statement. This is also understandable. Why not chase Bird? We were never there, we can never really understand what it is like to hear him play. But according to our elders, Bird is a wonderful musician to strive to embody and consistently chase, because we will never be able to catch him. Two schools of thought, both are valid interpretations, so take from that statement what means most to YOU, and be sure to play and accompany the message of the song.

While attempting to convey the message of words through our instruments, remember that voices are instruments too. Depending on how good of condition they’re in, if they’re warm, or cold, if the performer is in good health, etc., they will perform differently. Instrumentalists need to be prepared to hear and play our vocalists’ tunes in any key, and be able to transpose any interval while sight-reading. (Or just, any tunes, for that matter!) Instrumentalists also need to be sensitive to this fact, and that a half step does make that much of a difference. Think about how big of a difference it means on the saxophone. The lowest note on baritone sax is a concert Db. If an arranger writes for a pedal on a low B, it isn’t possible. The saxophone just doesn’t have enough buttons for that – it’s how the instrument works. So, wary instrumentalists, sometimes vocalists need to change the key they sing in every other night. It’s how their instrument works.

Aside from being a master of knowing exactly what he wants the structure of a song to be, and knowing exactly how to tell the band that, Cowings is also a master of captivating his audience. He had the second student vocalist, who called “Stella by Starlight,” attempt to say what the song meant to him in ten words or less. However, the student could barely think of ten words that the song meant to him. Cowings asked him who the song was about, and when the student answered “Stella,” he was wrong. Cowings meant who, personally, the vocalist was singing about.

Every song has to be about something, or someone, because you must “make them understand you. Relegate [songs] to an extremely personal level.” When playing tunes like “Stella” or “Have You Met Ms. Jones” the songs should not about “Stella” or “Ms. Jones” — none of us have met either of them! However, each one of us knows a sort of “Stella” or a “Ms. Jones”. Or, for the ladies who don’t “swing that way,” we know men who are “a great symphonic theme” who are real to us, “and not a dream.” Cowings not only challenges us to make every song mean something specific to our experience, but also to memorize the lyrics of each song we learn so that we can “play the words as if [we’re] singing.” We must be vulnerable when we play, and I think each of us knows this. I also think that knowing something is much different than embodying it and feeling it, in such fullness of spirit, that others can feel it too.

“You may say, ‘Oh gee. They’re gonna see my heart.’ You’re right. That’s what they paid to see.They want to go where we can take them. You have a gift to give. So give it.”

– Marion Cowings

Our next articles are going to be 10-Question interviews with Sput and Mike from Snarky Puppy as well as a review of their concert in Detroit!

Unfamiliar with Snarky Puppy? Check them out here!

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