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Eastwood-born international jazz singer, teacher and composer.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
What year were you born Clare?
1968 so you're 46? Were you born and bred in Southend?
Yeah, Eastwood. Rochford Hospital.
When did you realise you had musical leanings?
I think really my Dad started playing very early Jazz. He didn’t really believe there was any Jazz after 1932 so I was reared on this, and I didn’t like it because he would drink a lot and it always had that melancholy kind of vibe going on in the house.
That’s what you associated with drink?
That’s what I associated with Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke.... you know.... and then when I started school, when I was 13, I got into playing the clarinet and Jazz was what I played, and then I began to love it.
So do you concentrate more on New Orleans and Chicago? Because it’s not something you associate with kind of big city Jazz is it, clarinet?
No I mean I just, I think, well I got very much into Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and …
Oh yeah of course, Chicago …
…....and all that stuff and I loved Fats Waller. That was one of my first albums, and I didn’t have a room of my own so I used to bang on my sister’s door to go and play the album.
Most people’s first record would be a pop record wouldn’t it, not a Fats Waller. [Laughs]
It was, and the second one was actually Hoagy Carmichael. I remember it was £4.35. which is a lot of money. I saved up, and down in Old Leigh was that guy.... do you remember that guy that used to have that record store all Jazz?
And I went, and I used to save up my money and go up to London and come back with records by the singer Helen Kane and those early, early twenties singers and really early singer.s I would just buy a load of albums and I’ve still got them all here.
Were you considered a bit of a freak at school?
I was a bit, yeah a bit different in that way I think, yeah. I like pop and I love music, I think the Jazz was what I was into.
So were you taught clarinet at school or did you have private lessons?
Actually I was taught the wrong way and then I had to relearn the embouchure. It was with a woman called Diane. I can’t remember her last name. Diane Biggs was her first name before she married and she went to a guy called Ron Meachum. Do you remember Ron?
And so yeah, I played with her and she kind of just.... we ran through some of the grades but we also just concentrated on Jazz standards and then I would sing them as well, so I really got into that.
Oh right, so did you have any intention to be singing at that age?
I always loved to sing and I think it was a much easier thing. I didn’t have to learn the instrument properly and stuff, so I was always into singing.
So when did you get into performing then?
I did 2 years from the age of 16. Southend Tech did this wonderful drama course and I really got in to it. I did quite a lot of playing, there was a guy on the course who is now an Actor and we used to get together and jam and we used to do stage shows and so I got into the singing a lot more then as well and was going to go …
Just Jazz singing?
All singing really. But I don’t think..... I mean people have always wanted to train my voice in the classical way because I think it naturally sits there and people always hear it and say “I want to train it”, but I was always very put off by that, that idea of training it in a style, because I have seen now as a Teacher myself sometimes the damage done when you produce the sound in one way and you find it very hard to produce it another way, and so I was just always a little put off by that idea of it being trained. There’s great things about training as long as it’s the good training. If it’s the wrong training when you’re young, that can be your make or break.
And you notice that even, like established.... like mega singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and people like that, when they try and do a Pop song. Pop...... it just doesn’t sound …
It’s very very difficult. I do think someone like Barbara Streisand breaks that rule. To me she does. I love the classical album because I like it sounding more natural, but she really does sing across the board. Of course you are what you sing, you are what you eat so, you know, if you sing a lot of Jazz it rubs off and you, you get that sound and that root in your singing, so it’s very difficult to be great at all different genres.
But there are a couple of singers I know that are very good at different styles. But not everyone can do it.
When you were at Southend College were you there part time?
No it was a full time 2 year course. And then from there you auditioned to go to the London drama schools and I got...... they came to see 'Cabaret', a show we were doing at Southend Tech, and from that I was given a grant to go to the London school but I couldn’t get into a London school. I tried all the main schools and so that’s kind of when I made a decision of what I was going to do. I decided to go more in the musical singing Jazz, the music route rather than the drama.
At that point had you been involved in the local Jazz community in any kind of way?
Not really. I remember when I was about 16 my first gig was at the Grand Hotel, Ron Meachum was playing piano and I was singing and that was my first gig really and there I didn’t really know a lot of what was going on. I wasn’t really hooked up.
You never went round the Kenny Baxter-route to all the different.... the Top Alex and all these kind of things?
I didn’t no. I did go to the Top Alex and I did go with my Dad to some things but I just, I did sit in at the Cliff Pavilion with some Trad bands but I never really...... then I moved away when I was 18 to New York, so I was sort of not around for quite a big time.
18 you went to New York? Right well that’s quite a remarkable thing to do at such a young age.
Yeah I had a dream. Because of all the albums I was listening to I really had this dream to go to New Orleans and I just wanted to go there and taste it and see what it was like. So I went to New York and I …
On your own?
Yeah but I had a sister that had moved out and she’s still there. I went previously to New York, I did some modelling for Laura Ashley and we went to New York when I was just turned 18, and then at the end of that year I moved out there. So I went there and yeah I just, I mean New York is just unbelievable, I mean it’s unbelievable.
So did you base..... because you said you wanted to go to New Orleans, did you base yourself in New York?
So I was in New York, but I was only there for just under a year but towards the end of that trip I lived with the Singer that I was studying with, Judy Niemack. She’s an amazing singer. She studied classically, but then she studied with Warren Marsh. She studied for 5 years everything a horn player would study so she has this amazing ability to improvise, I mean unbelievable improvising really. People just don’t take it as serious, they don’t study seriously like that, and now they do, but when I knew her she was quite new, you know, it was quite a new thing, so I lived with her for a couple of months and then I just decided to spend a month in New Orleans and then I came back to New York and came home.
New Orleans is a bit funky to say the least isn’t it.
Yeah, when I was there it was full of music and great, you know..... I was in the French quarter. It’s a dangerous place. I never really went outside of that quarter. In fact I hung out with a percussion player whose daughter was killed the year before in one of these projects, but there used to be a lot of 'black on black' stuff going on, the lighter skinned black people would get work and it was all very heavy yeah.
So, in that year that you were there did you get a great deal of studying done?
I did yeah, well it paved my way really for what I wanted to do, living with Judy hearing her singing Coltrane solos at 2 in the morning and, you know. kind of made me think “Gosh, this is what you can be doing, and this is what the voice can do” and so it really gave me a greater incite in to the world of Jazz, and watching somebody who was very successful as a Jazz singer what you need to do, what you need to do to get it together really. So for me that was quite..... you know.
You will find this an incredible statement and especially given what you were saying about Judy singing Coltrane solos, because I remember having a conversation with Pete Jacobson once and Pete said to me that as far as he’s concerned there’s no such thing as a Jazz singer you know because he didn’t really believe that singers could improvise in the same way that …
And I mean even Ella Fitzgerald used to sing more or less the same solo every time didn’t she. It was a kind of a worked out solo.
No I don’t think it was all worked out, and I can name another great singer who is still alive who is of Ella’s calibre because she’s a very very great pianist and is an unbelievable improviser, I mean there’s a lot, and in fact what I saw in New York was that they have a big underground scene and they have all these singers that are not heard of, they’re not signed. Cassandra Wilson was on the scene, she wasn’t signed she was with a Brooklyn label and then she got signed with Blue Note and everyone in Europe had heard of her, but she was on the scene there for years and years doing her thing, and there was a big underground scene of very Free music, very experimental, singers singing very instrumentally that now we have a little bit of it out, Jay Clayton comes over here, these singers that were around in the year that I was there, but we were not aware of that at all here, we were more listening to the crooning singers and not really the improvising singers. I mean Cleveland (Watkiss) was improvising a lot and doing a lot of stuff here but there wasn’t a lot else as far as I could see going on. But in New York you had the crooners, you had the cabaret circuit, you had the Jazz circuit, you had loads of circuits just for singers, so if you wanted an improvising singer you went and found an improvising singer. That thing of laying down the bass lines and then laying tracks was being done then by singers. It wasn’t something new.
Well Bobby McFerrin used to do all that didn’t he?
So you had your year in New York and New Orleans of course, and so did you come back to the UK with a kind of mission after that?
I came back with a whole stack of music because they had this fantastic library on 66th Street, The Lincoln Centre Library, and in it you can just get everything you want, anything sort of before 1920 you can go upstairs in the archives, so I just came back with a lifetime. I’ve still got songs that I haven’t sung from that. You know I just collected loads of stuff, brought loads of albums back, spent my time just listening to a load of music and getting repertoire and ideas, because its knowing where you want to be in the Jazz world isn’t it? What style you want to develop and all of that and being realistic with your voice, where it fits.
Yes because a lot of musicians get very unsettled don’t they unless they’re completely tunnel visioned about exactly what they want to do. The temptation is that just because you love all different styles of music doesn’t mean to say you’ve got to go and play all that, because you do lose your focus.
You do. I mean there are some singers and instrumentalists that are incredibly fortunate and they are very versatile they can play any style in any, you know...... I don’t know it’s always a good thing because sometimes you don’t actually perhaps develop your own sound, I mean some people have that problem don’t they, they can do anything and then they’re not sure what they really want to focus on. But I was never that talented so … [Laughs] so I never had that problem. [Laughs]
So OK, so you came back with all this music. You’re still playing through all these, so where did you go from there?
Then I thought “Gosh, what am I going to do?”, I need to study properly, you know, so then I auditioned for the Guild Hall. And you’re meant to have a degree and whatever, but I got through to do it and spent a year driving Pete Churchill mad with music charts, doing gigs and trying to get it all together.
How old were you at that point?
I was about 20. I think I missed the first year for the auditions, I ended up having to wait nearly a year and then I did it, so when I was 20 I think … It was only a year cours when I was there, that’s all they had, that was all that was on offer.
Yeah, not like now.
I know, they’re so lucky to have all this. It was 1 year and I did get into another performance course and I was thinking about doing that but then I got so addicted to wanting to gig that I moved away to Holland for 5 years and gigged there.
And they really take Jazz seriously over there don’t they.
They do. I was lucky I went there with this 1 day a week residency running this singer session in the Thorbecke Plein in the Heeren Van Aemstel. So I went there with that 1 day a week where I was making contacts, and I basically had to earn my living solely from just the gigs. They call them snubbles, little gigs around town. But I was fairly successful you know, managed to do it and hand to mouth existence really, and then …
A true artist.
A true artist exactly yeah, so it was great because Holland was right near Belgium, right near Germany you know and so you had all of that area you could work in.
So did you spread out into those other countries? Did you have an Agent or anything or …
No, I was really a hustler. I was just.... as much as I could, getting on the phone, going through. They had this system in Holland, well they had it when I was there, where there’s a fair amount of subsidy they give. They give a lot of subsidy to music that people don’t want to listen to, which is very funny because, you know, it’s a bit 'Double Dutch' but … no one wants to listen to it but anyway but …
Free Jazz is so massive out there isn’t it?
Yeah it’s massive. They really do put the money forward for that, and so I did quite a lot of touring just lining up all these different places around Holland. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I used to do 5 set gigs: I used to start at 11 at night and finish at 3, and it was smoking in those days so, I called them 'heats', you know, by the third heat you were like phew, fourth one and you couldn’t be musical after really the second set. It’s hard on the third set but you know you kept on rolling.... 5 sets. I can’t believe how I did It you know 4 and then 5 sometimes yeah.
And you were there under your own name?
Clare Foster, yeah.
Was it quite wide open what you were doing there or …
I got into, I mean I started going.... I wrote actually quite a lot of pieces. This is a very true story which I don’t know if you should put this in, but before I left for Holland I got Jason Rebello and Winston Clifford and Wayne Bachelor, and at Ronnie’s there was a great sound guy called Chris who got the greatest sound and he used to do wonderful demos, and I decided that before I would go to Holland I would make a demo with these guys, and what I did was I got Jason on the drums - he doesn’t play drums, and we switched all the guys round so they were not playing their instruments. And then I wailed all this 'Free' stuff and I sent this in with a Wayne Shorter track and I got into the Bimhuis, and once you’re in the Bimhuis then you’re in.
Are you? Okay.
Yeah, yeah so you know it’s a funny story because it was messing around. [Laughs]
Almost an 'emperor’s new clothes' thing isn’t there.
It is. Scary really.
Bloody hell, so you winged it there didn’t you. [Laughs]
...... and I wrote a lot of my own tunes, you know, different time signatures and different........ I was very limited harmonically because I hardly played, I just used to sit and have sounds and then ask a pianist if they could he tell me what that was and I would sing something, and then I would try to find something and then get a groove. It sounds really basic things but I was trying to make things, have some input into what I was doing because I didn’t really like just singing straight ahead, I like to have some arrangement or something that was a bit personalised or a few of my own things. So moving on..... I did the Bimhuis stuff and did a lot of major festivals and of course recorded my first album, which was CD of the month in Europe. It was even ahead of Shirley Horn. I mean who could be ahead of Shirley Horn? So I couldn’t believe it really, and that was an accident because Jean Toussaint was over playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival and at the time I wanted to make this album and I had had a mix of stuff - a few Wayne Shorter things, this and that, and I asked Jean if he would play on it and he said he would, and then when I gave it to these guys at Groove Records. The guy said “Oh why don’t you just do a whole album of Wayne Shorter stuff?”, so it was kind of a rush to get it together.
What, Groove Records in Soho?
Groove Records in Holland. Boudisque Records, then they called themselves Groove Records. So, so that kind of came about by someone suggesting to do that and then it kind of was the only thing at that time, only Wayne Shorter and vocal thing at that time.
Were the rest of the musicians on it Dutch musicians?
No, it was Wayne Batchelor. It was Dre Pallamarts from Belgium.I had met him in New York. He was living in New York, a very great drummer, very unique guy you know, and then it was the wonderful Bernardo Sasseti who I found out about 3 years ago died in a tragic accident. You know he played unbelievable stuff. So he was on it and a percussionist, Carlos Ulrechi I think his name was, and Toon Rose on sax, and you know for the little amount of gigs we did we didn’t really do any gigs. I think I got Dre a gig in Holland and I think he got a parking ticket for 350 Guilders and I had paid him a 100.[Laughs] It was one of those tragic, tragic things: you’re trying to get together with the band before you record all these really heavy pieces because the guys were so great you see they just played it down but it was like I wanted to sort of, you know …
So when you were in Holland you were obviously travelling around. You said Belgium and Germany etc so you were totally based there, you weren’t back here …
I was based there yeah and then I even did work in Singapore from there, so I was in Singapore quite a few times, months, 3 month stints.
Were you? Where in hotels or something?
It was a lovely Jazz club on Boat Quay where I could just sing Jazz you know, 6 nights a week and then I went to the Pan Pacific Hotel and sang Jazz there as well, so I wasn’t really forced to sing, I did it my way which was very nice.
Was that the same period of time that you were in Holland or was that after.
Yeah the same period of time. I would rent my..... because having an apartment in Holland is nearly impossible to find even when I was living there, so you kind of, if you went away you would always keep your place.
So where do we go from Holland?
So then from Holland we got tangled up in a relationship with a French Canadian clown, I mean he was a clown as well but, and then we went from there to Montreal but it’s, it’s pretty bleak there unless there’s the Jazz festival. It has about an 8 month winter there so we went to Toronto. I was there for a couple of years.
And what did you achieve in those few years?
I was 'Miss Hustle' on the phone, trying to get as many festivals, and there’s not, there was never, really many places to play as such. They had two big Jazz clubs there which have now closed, the Senator and I forget the name of the other place. They were beautiful places to play and the gigs I did were high quality, very good players out there, great guitarists. If you were looking for bass players and guitarists its full of great...... not loads of drummers and not loads of pianists. Actually it’s funny when I was there, as it's one of those cities where guitarists and bass players are in abundance. So I did some very nice gigs, very nice festivals and, yeah, that’s what I did.
What were you trying to achieve by going to Canada?
Well I was in a relationship with somebody who was wanting to go back and I thought “Well, I’ve never been there and I’ll try and make it work” so …
You certainly had a wanderlust didn’t you as well? You know you’re certainly not someone that’s anchored to an area.
No I’m not, I don’t know it was a bit of a fetish. I suppose wanting to visit and be in as many different places is exciting isn’t it, when you’re young especially. I came from the other side of the A127 in Eastwood where there’s nothing happening at all. So it was for me like “Get out and do something”, you know.
So where did you go from Canada?
And then from Canada I came back here. I did go over to America for a short stint. I can’t remember now..... oh I did record. I did when I was in Canada go to New York, I was working on a project with a guitarist called Ryo Kawasaki.
Oh did you? Wow.
So I was writing with him.
What a legend.
Yeah, he’s now living in Estonia. So that was an overlap actually and I was toying with the idea of going from Canada to New York but then I..... lots of personal things in the family happened and I kind of came back here and then went back to London and then back here again.
And what years are we talking about here?
We’re talking about...... well I was about 31 when I came back here, so its 15 years ago.
Because I remember you, because I remember you phoning me or sending me a letter or something.
Did I? What did I say?
If I knew of any opportunities or anything.
Yeah that’s right, and I got together with Pete Jacobson and it was very nice. We did an album and we did a lot of work and it was a very nice - three of us actually, Paul, me and him. It was a very nice trio and it’s a shame it got cut short.
I’m talking about the early 90's
'93 I moved to Holland and I came back from Holland in 90, I’m getting confused. From 91 to 96 I was in Amsterdam. And then from Amsterdam...... so 98, 98/99 I came back to England.
And did you live back here for a while in Southend?
In my parents’ house while I got my driving sorted. I drive but I’m not a good driver.
So really around /96 or so you were just..... this was just a base briefly.
Do you know I think, '98 I was back here. And that was the year that I recorded, that’s right, I came back here and then I went to New York and I did a stint of gigs with Ryo at the Knitting Factory and Birdland.
Oh did you? Blimey.
We did the album while I was in Canada I think, I’m a bit confused. Yeah than I returned to England in 1999 and then I went to London and then, yeah, in 2000 I was at Ronnie’s. That was the second time I was there.
What were you doing meanwhile though If you got back to London in 1999? There’s 2 years there.
1999 I was gigging around doing whatever gigs were around I think at that time and getting myself together, finding a place to live and all of that stuff. That was quite a thing actually because I had to move. I think I moved 3 or 4 times in the space of about a year.
Were you headlining at Ronnie’s?
Yeah I was supporting, well I think the first time I did it I was supporting the Vibes player what’s his name?
No, no the American Hammond organ player. Jimmy McGriff is it? It was Jimmy McGriff on one occasion and then it was Martin Taylor on another, and I don’t remember which order, that’s because I came over from Holland to do a gig at Ronnie’s for a week and then when I came back here in 2000 so that’s been how long it’s been since I’ve done something at Ronnie’s; well I mean we did a little appearance not that long ago but not much. Since then I’ve done various teaching and gigging in Finland, I do …
You started then to go to Finland.
Yeah in 2001. There was a little contact with a guy that was on the same course as me that runs the world music department, Jazz stuff, in Finland and then I recorded a Brazilian album in 2002 when I got together with Paul (Jayasinha). I got very much into Brazilian music in Holland because it was a place where Brazilians could come illegally and work. They didn’t have to, like in Belgium, walk around with a passport, they didn’t need to do that in Holland so I got into Brazilian music very much. I was in band, a Brazilian band, in Holland so when I came back here I wanted to start that. I’ll tell you what happened, I did a gig at Ronnie’s where I tried to do a Joao Bosco tune which was that Partido Alto rhythm and as good a drummer as he was he kept switching the samba beat around so when I would count it in its like riding a horse and I counted it in about 4 times and I thought “I am never doing Brazilian tunes like this with a Jazz band ever again”, and so I got a Brazilian band together and a Jazz band and I hardly overlap. Its only if it’s a Bossa Nova or something where their rhythm doesn’t have to be as strict.
Did you learn Portuguese?
I learnt to sing fairly well the pronunciation and I tried to learn it on many occasions but never..... I don’t speak it fluently, I just understand quite a bit.
And was it from being with Paul that you got into this? But of course sorry you just said …
No that’s right, no, I got into..... the first recording was when I was about 19 with Elis Regina singing Madelena actually. I thought this woman is unbelievable, and I even heard she was due to record an album with Wayne Shorter, you know, and they got in the studio in Rio and apparently they didn’t agree on things musically so they cancelled it and I though Oh gosh, two of my heroes”.
Wayne Shorter did do a Brazilian album.
He did, but that was with Milton Nascimento. No it was Elis singing, and she was a singer that could kind of do anything with her voice and she was very exciting. I mean she lived life on the edge you know. I just thought what a great album that would have been. So no, it was my early love of the Brazilian and then I was in this Brazilian band in a place called the Cannacall in Amsterdam, the sleaziest joint you would ever want to sing in in your life. And so then when I came back here I had this love of Brazilian music also you know. I’m a bit like you, I go a bit crazy on something and I want to collect every single thing that ever existed you know. I had my bike and I would strap my ghetto blaster to the back because it enabled me to put CD's in and tape and the guy that ran this club wouldn’t let me take the CD's home, not always, so I had to go in the club and sometimes take the stuff just to hear the music you know, it’s unbelievable.
You just wanted to keep immersing yourself in it all the time.
So you’ve met Paul and you’ve got your Jazz project and your Brazilian project.
Yeah, and then we did this album and we did a lot of gigs. I organised quite a lot of tours, the Jazz Service tours. In fact that album was the only album where we literally nearly sold all the copies within the first year or two because it’s just music that you........ Jazz people, there’s a Jazz crowd isn’t there, but with the Brazilian music it seems to open up a bigger crowd, there’s just a lot more people that will come to the gigs that seem to buy the CD's. That’s what I found anyway. And when I was offering my music I would offer the Jazz quintet or the Brazilian, so that was quite a good way of getting work also.
What names are they?
'Claridade' was the Brazilian band. Since then I've recorded several other albums, had a baby and toured around in Berlin a fair bit. I have a very nice trio there that I work with, that I can just go there with the music and it’s great.
And you’re still doing that now?
Yeah. We were there last year but it’s a Columbian drummer I know, a Brazilian bass player and a fantastic pianist. I can overlap and do my Brazilian and Jazz with them, which is lovely.
How long have you been back based in Essex?
About 12 years.
And what was the reason for basing yourself back down here?
I couldn’t afford to buy something I wanted in London, and we have a child … Kind of decides doesn’t it really?
So other than these projects, your Brazilian and your Jazz projects, are you involved in the Essex Jazz scene in any shape or form?
I don’t think I am Mark, no. I’m currently working on a new project with Paul which is Jazz, its World music, its Folk, its English songs, songs that are a 100, 120 years old that we have a whole album’s worth of stuff, and we plan to record it this year. But no, currently not really. I’m sort of a little bit off the scene as it were.
It’s amazing isn’t it really, because you’re an international artist.
I don’t mean it as a negative but sometimes I find the mentality down here very hard to crack and unless it’s......... it’s changed drastically even in the last 10 years. I mean for in stance, playing in a club with Pete Jacobson, this is an example, we’re playing fantastic arrangements, we’re playing all lovely stuff and someone comes up and says “Can you play something that’s more lively?”! And if you’d have seen Pete’s reaction, well can I tell you what he said? He said “What do you want? F**king Rock and Roll?” And, and so that was 12 years ago. [Laughs] And, so it’s a little bit disheartening I found, but it changed I know. It’s not the same.
Because I mean even people sitting down...... I mean the fact that you would have Jazz in restaurants like, I won’t mention the name of it....... there’s a venue locally where there is Jazz on a Sunday lunchtime but they don’t even tell you who the Jazz musicians are. It’s all about the roast dinner.
I know, it’s about the roast dinner and the ambience and the atmosphere.
So they’re not really listening. It’s quite staggering what you’ve achieved so far .
I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything really but I have achieved something I know.
So going forward what, are there any immediate projects that you want to fulfil?
This project, this English song project. Its beautiful songs arranged in a Jazz/World way, different influences. I’m trying to find myself, I’m still trying to find myself with the music. I’m still looking for myself and this is another step nearer to that.
It sounds like a very fulfilling project.
It will be a lot of work but it will be.