Carla Cook is part of a new generation of jazz singers who draw on an eclectic range of genres for material. A Carla Cook set might include anything from jazz standards to 1970s rock, African-American gospel, Brazilian bossa nova, or the Motown pop of her native Detroit. Yet whatever type of music Cook might choose to build upon, she infuses it with the musical rigor, excitement, and skill of true jazz. After scoring a Grammy Award nomination for her first album, 1999's It's All About Love, Cook toured internationally and won recognition as a rising star of the genre.
Born around 1962 and a native of Detroit's west side, Cook grew up surrounded by various kinds of music. Motown ruled the charts when she was a child, and, as she told Chicago Public Radio interviewer Richard Steele, "we didn't think of it as some big craze; it was just local music." But Cook's eight-years-older brother, who controlled the family radio and record player, favored jazz by Wes Montgomery. The music rubbed off on Cook, and her jazz instincts were strengthened by a friend at Cass Tech high school, violinist Regina Carter. Finally there was St. John's Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where Cook sang in the choir and was encouraged to develop her musical talents by choir director Gussie A. Dickey.
At that CME church, Cook "didn't come up singing the Aretha type of gospel" (as she told Deardra Shuler of the Black World Today website) but was exposed to a variety of music, including classical. When she was six, the Angelic Choir of which she was a member offered the church its own interpretation of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. In high school and then in college at Northeastern University in Boston, Cook took lessons not only in voice but also on piano and string bass. "I learned European classical music because it's important to learn technique," she told Shuler. Thinking strongly about a musical career and already leading jazz groups of her own at Northeastern, she nevertheless majored in speech communication and after graduation took a job editing corporate newsletters.
Cook sang in clubs in the evening and continued to broaden her musical horizons. A 1987 trip to West Africa with a mixed group of musicians and church missionaries left her powerfully impressed with the enthusiasm of a Senegalese choir she encountered. In 1990 Cook moved to New York City and immersed herself in music more seriously. Still holding a day job as an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Brooklyn, Cook and a group of like-minded musicians cut a demo CD around 1992. In 1993, when the chance came to teach jazz vocals, she took it—even though it meant relocating temporarily to Basel, Switzerland, and Freiburg, Germany. For Cook the biggest challenge wasn't the German language, in which she was functionally literate, but the quickness at a piano keyboard that teaching required. The experience, Cook told Steele, "made me grow in ways that I wouldn't have if I hadn't been under the gun."
After she returned to New York, Cook's career picked up to a point where she was able to devote herself to jazz full-time. Her stage presence helped launch her recording career after St. Louis executive Richard McDonnell, a jazz lover, heard her perform in New York in the late 1990s and contacted her after he decided to launch his MaxJazz label. Cook's debut album, It's All About Love, was released in 1999. Newcomer Cook was as surprised as everyone else when the album garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Performance the following spring.
It's All About Love fit into contemporary jazz trends in some ways. Cook was eclectic in her choice of material. Like the successful jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, she rejected purist jazz approaches in favor of reconnecting with songs that were widely known among her audiences. It's All About Love contained versions of rocker Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," crooner Frank Sinatra's "September Song," Motown innovator Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," Brazilian progressive Milton Nascimento's "Salt Song" (which she sang in its original Portuguese), and a variety of other material, including two Cook originals. Cook didn't just follow a trend, however; her treatments of these songs were distinctive. The arrangements on the album allowed Cook to interact with her instrumentalists in unusual ways; "September Song" reunited Cook with guest violinist Regina Carter, her former classmate.
Cook occasionally did the arrangements herself, but she told Matthew Bahl of allaboutjazz.com, "most of the time, I have a few ideas about what I want to do, and I usually know who I'd like to have arrange the song based on those ideas." The freshness of Cook's arrangements was once again in evidence on her sophomore release, Dem Bones (2001), whose title track relied on a sort of musical-textural pun: Cook's voice was woven into a group of three trombones (or 'bones). The album also included Cook's rendition of the Bobbie Gentry country-rock standard "Ode to Billie Joe." Cook's concerts as she toured in support of Dem Bones received consistent critical acclaim; Michael Renner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praised the "noticeable honesty, some would call it an organic quality, in her approach; we sense that she doesn't sing according to commercial expectations or pander to the style-of-the-month method of marketing."
Following up Dem Bones with Simply Natural in late 2002, Cook continued along the same road, with her own arrangement of Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair," a little-known Duke Ellington composition called "Tulip or Turnip," and a title track of her own composition. She told Bahl that her biggest challenge as a writer was "the completion of a song. I have lots of verses, hooks, and partial melodies. Often, if it doesn't come to me all at once, it never will." Outside of performing, Cook, who was single, was active as a voice teacher; she warned students away from jazz if they had dreams of stardom. If they felt chosen to sing jazz, however, she advised them to study the music of jazz greats, both instrumental and vocal, and to learn to play an instrument even if singing was most important to them.
Cook stayed out of the recording studio for several years after Simply Natural, but she seemed to be constantly enriching her stylistic brew. Shuler described a 2005 Cook concert in Manhattan as having "a nice blend of jazz, scat, R&B, gospel, calypso, and blues," with Cook also taking on the difficult challenge of covering the Aretha Franklin song "How I Got Over." Cook prepared to resume her international traveler ways that year with a tour of Central Asia, and observers interested in new developments in jazz vocals were waiting to hear how she would weave this new strand of her life into her thoroughly contemporary music.
It's All About Love, MaxJazz, 1999.
Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2001.
Simply Natural, MaxJazz, 2002.
For the Record …
Born c. 1962 in Detroit, MI. Education: Northeastern University, Boston, MA; degree in speech communication.
Worked as editor of corporate newsletter, late 1980s; worked as social studies teacher, Brooklyn, NY, early 1990s; taught jazz singing in Basel, Switzerland, and Freiburg, Germany, 1993–94; began performing full-time, 1994; released debut album, It's All About Love, 1999; released Dem Bones, 2001; released Simply Natural, 2002; toured Central Asia, 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Maxjazz, 115 West Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO 63119. Website—Carla Cook Official Website: http://www.carlacook.com.
Boston Globe, August 10, 2000, Calendar section, p. 8.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 8, 2001, p. 38.
Detroit Free Press, February 6, 2000.
New York Times, April 4, 2002, p. B3.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 6, 1999, p. E4; May 7, 2001, p. E3; May 10, 2002, p. E2.
Time, October 14, 2002, p. 84.
Washington Post, November 10, 1999, p. C5.
"A Casual Conversation with Carla Cook," All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/ccook2002.htm (September 1, 2005).
"Carla Cook," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 1, 2005).
"Carla Cook: Jazz Is Her Signature," The Black World Today, http://www.tbwt.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=513&itemid=40 (September 1, 2005).
Carla Cook Official Website, http://www.carlacook.com (September 1, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Cook (by Richard Steele) broadcast on WBEZ radio, Chicago, April 12, 2000.
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