Music & Nightlife

Jazz Roots’ international singing star has her own roots in Miami

Miami-Dade-born Cécile McLorin Salvant exploded onto the jazz scene in 2010 when she won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
Miami-Dade-born Cécile McLorin Salvant exploded onto the jazz scene in 2010 when she won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Had the interview been for a solo performance by Cécile McLorin Salvant, the two-time Grammy Award-winning jazz singer (three times nominated) might have been more inclined to talk about herself.

Yet, being a consummate musician, Salvant allows the conversation to only sometimes include answers about her own ascent to jazz celebrity. The Miami-Dade native, age 29, wants it known that when she performs in her hometown on Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, she’ll be playing with Artemis, a collective featuring six other female musicians who are jazz stars in their own right.

Renée Rosnes, piano and musical director, started the collective, naming it after the daughter of Zeus, the Greek goddess of the hunt and wilderness, childbirth and chastity. Artemis, the band, has Salvant as vocalist, plus clarinetist Anat Cohen, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer-percussionist Allison Miller.

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Cécile McLorin Salvant has been compared to female jazz greats including Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Josephine Baker. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

When probed about the novelty of an all female jazz band, Salvant suggests maybe taking the idea in a different direction.

Yes, she agrees, it is all women making music, but philosophically Salvant asks, “When you’re playing music with people, where does the personality end and the gender begin?” She does agree in some way that to make the point is valid. “Don’t get me wrong. I think the optics are useful today, because it is still a rare thing.”

Salvant’s approach to her music is a lot like the interview: clever, thoughtful, winsome and unexpected. She credits growing up in Pinecrest with giving her the gift of curiosity.

“Being around immigrants and other cultures made me want to know more about the world,” she says. Her mother, Lena McLorin Salvant, founder of the French-American School in Miami, is French Guadeloupean; her father, Alix, a physician, was born in Haiti.

“My father had a nice singing voice and he took piano lessons when he was young, but I don’t really have musicians in my family.” There was always music, however, playing in the house, from French music to classical to blues, she recalls.

She’s been compared to female jazz greats including Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Josephine Baker, but Salvant didn’t have aspirations to be compared to any of them.

She says that when she was 13, she wanted to be a classical singer. After graduating from Coral Reef High School, she wanted to have a “sabbatical year.” Not one to take a break from anything, she moved to France and enrolled at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory of Music in Aix-en-Provence.

“I went to a conservatory and a political science prep school at the same time.” Music won out over law school, and jazz over classical, when she “met all these people who were passionate about jazz. That’s what changed my trajectory.”

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Cécile McLorin Salvant’s approach to her music is clever, thoughtful, winsome and unexpected. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Her first real explosion onto the jazz scene was in 2010 when she won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Still living in France, she competed in Washington, D.C. After her win, she said, “I’d like to go learn with some Americans, and speak English, and do that whole thing and be in the States for a while.”

She moved to New York in early 2012, and the next year was nominated for her first Grammy Award, for her album “Woman Child.” The album’s title song is the first original Salvant wrote.

“You hear stories about people writing their first song when they’re 12 years old. I was 21.”

When Artemis played together at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, critics and fans were awestruck by the range of songs from the collective, who performed everything from the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” to Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic,” to Billie Holiday’s “Lover, Come Back To Me.”

So, what will the Jazz Roots’ audience, and Salvant’s mother and father, who the singer says won’t miss their daughter’s hometown performance, hear?

“I have no idea,” she says. “When we do a gig together, we decide on the set that day.”

Like Salvant herself, her character, and her song stylings, no doubt, she and Artemis will be perfectly spontaneous, and completely captivating.

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If you go

  • What: Artemis: Great Women in Jazz, part of the Jazz Roots series

  • When: 8 p.m. Friday

  • Where: John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.

  • Tickets: $45 to $125. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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