Renowned young jazz singer returns home to Miami-Dade

Cécile McLorin Salvant
Cécile McLorin Salvant

.Pinecrest-raised singer Cécile McLorin Salvant has been hailed as the next great female jazz singer, an heiress to the mantle of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Critics have rhapsodized about her voice, her soulful performances, her originality. Yet when Salvant — whose second recording, For One to Love, won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in February — was going to Coral Reef Senior High, music wasn’t even at the top of her list of potential occupations.

“I did want to be a singer, but I wanted to be a lot of other things,” says Salvant, who returns to her home turf on Saturday to perform at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. “I had this long list of careers. I wanted to be a writer, and a professor of English or history. I wanted to write plays.”

Although she studied piano and sang with the Miami Choral Society children’s choir from the time she was a young girl, Salvant was also the academically accomplished, bilingual daughter of a Haitian physician and a French Guadeloupean mother who founded the French American School in Miami.

She didn’t discover her true calling until she was in law school in France, where an eccentric but inspiring teacher at the conservatory where she was studying on the side awakened her passion for music.

“I chose jazz, but I could have gone many ways,” Salvant says. “Pop is very seductive, but . . . I was interested in theater and drama. I wanted to be able to express deeper things than ‘I want to look good for my man tonight.’ 

In 2010, the unknown jazz newcomer won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for her debut album, WomanChild, which garnered a Grammy nomination and a host of other honors. Since then, jazz musician and educator Wynton Marsalis and critics from The New York Times, NPR and many other outlets have raved about her.

Now Salvant is thrilled to return for what will be her fourth concert in Miami.

“I’d been singing professionally for years before I felt like I had a place singing in Miami,” she says. “So it feels really good to connect with my hometown.”

Salvant credits her parents and her multicultural upbringing with opening her up to music beyond the hits that enraptured her teenage friends.

“I was really lucky to be brought up in a house where we listened to all kinds of genres and eras of music with no preconceived notions,” she says. “From Cesária Évora to Appalachian music to French music to R&B. Classical music and jazz was part of it but not the only music we listened to at home. That was really important to me. I feel that’s a parent’s role, to say listen to all these different kinds of music, explore all these different cultures.”

She has brought the same dedication to music that she gave to her academic studies, as well as a rare degree of integrity — something she plans to emphasize when she speaks to a group of music students from the Robert Morgan Educational Center at the SMDCAC.

“They need to do it for the music itself and always be in service to the music,” says Salvant, who has begun to write and record her own songs. “There’s nothing worse than a self-serving artist making it about how great they sound and how they can advance their career.”

“Another thing I talk about is how important it is to actually work, to do a lot of research and practice. It will be lonely and not easy, and not all of them will have the stamina and will to do it. You have to put a lot of work in if you want the luxury of doing what you want to do . . . and not just hope your life will be all fun and you’ll have your dream job.”

But Salvant’s discipline is balanced by her imagination and playfulness. Among the many qualities that have charmed audiences and music critics is the creative, dramatic flair she brings to her performances, and the humorous touch she gives to unexpected, sometimes old-fashioned songs like Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.

“It’s about having a good time, pretty and light and funny and sweet,” Salvant says. As much as she’s dedicated to jazz, Salvant confesses to a lingering love for pop music — which has appealed to her since she was a teenager at Coral Reef.

“I knew all the hits and what was in and not in,” she says. “It’s fun and of our time, and as a teenager it’s wonderful to feel like you’re enjoying the latest trend. I still love it today, though I have reservations.”

She’s also a fan of Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna and Drake’s Hotline Bling.

“I’ll be walking down the street and catch myself singing these songs,” she says. “This is a little embarrassing. I was in the supermarket and this song came on and I was singing along and I was like ‘who is this?’ and I realized it’s Justin Bieber. I was really conflicted.”

If You Go

What: Cécile McLorin Salvant in concert

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 Southwest 211th St., Cutler Bay

Info: $30 to $55, smdcac.org or 305-573-5300