One of my New Year’s resolutions is to immerse myself in music. It is the one true love that I had been neglecting – listening, playing, and learning. On top of my list is listening to pianist/vocalist & educator, Champian Fulton, who may be America’s youngest woman jazz bandleader. I discovered her at a recent Harlem holiday party. Called the ‘most gifted pure Jazz singer of her generation,’ by the Detroit Free Press, Champian lifted me into the holiday spirits at the Harlem Jazz and Gospel Getaway. (www.harlemjazzandgospelgetaway.com) I had been schmoozing with a wonderful continental crowd there
between hors d’oeuvres, wine and Sugar Hill beer (www.harlembrewing.com). But, I could not resist her clarion voice and those Bebop Thelonious Monk harmonics coming from the parlor where she was performing with a bassist. Her band includes her father, Stephen Fulton, a veteran jazzman and educator who plays trumpet, flugelhorn and drums, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Fukushi Tainaka.
Once you hear Champian, you will recognize Dinah Washington influences and the piano styling of Art Tatum and Bud Powell. What’s important in a song for her? “For me, the melody, the beat and its subtleties are elements that drive me. I would put lyrics on this list too,” she said. Her music is strictly old school with songs that make you want to sing: “Exactly Like You,” Tea for Two,” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.”
Songs she sang for New Year’s? “I love ‘What are you doing New Years Eve,’ especially the verse, which isn’t heard very often these days. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was followed by ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ I always play that as the first song in the New Year. My father said he always did, and so I always play it too! I love all the traditional Christmas Carols and I performed those quite a bit this season,” said Fulton.
She was right at home at that Harlem house party throwing her head back enjoying a sultry song and sounding like Billie Holiday. I had to do a double take. She seemed too young to have chops like that.
During a recent lunch interview at eatery nyc (www.eaterynyc.com), I learned that Champian, a SUNY, Purchase Music Conservatory 2006 grad, is a true jazz baby. Born into a musical family with piano lessons from her paternal grandmother and Tajeno melodies inherited from her maternal side, she headed straight to jazz. She had early exposure to improvisation and played drums & trumpet before settling on piano and vocals. She credits her father first and foremost and favorite college professor/jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis with expanding her musicality especially with regard to performance, recording and touring. “Jon made me perform ‘Carolina Shout’ a stride piano piece by James P. Johnson in concert blindfolded,” she said. She also credits her voice teacher Thomas Carey, a noted operatic baritone, for breath training.
How did she learn improvisation? “I always improvised. I learned melodies, harmonies and played riffs from tunes that I heard my father and his jazz friends play. I don’t know any ‘classical’ piano. But I do consider jazz to be ‘classical American music.” A devoted jazz teacher, she said her students’ first lessons focus on listening. Her own homegrown ear training was finely tuned by intense listening to her dad’s extensive jazz album collection. Champian led her first jazz band at 12 years old, booked gigs throughout her Oklahoma high school years all the while teaching private piano lessons and assisting her dad on his teaching assignments. She graduated valedictorian, proof that music makes you smart.
“I am a musician and entrepreneur. I learned early on about leadership, about taking charge,” she said. “I learned to say ‘yes’ to opportunities, advocate for myself, manage personnel, operations, finance. I am always learning, reading and still need to learn to drive.” Current book she’s reading? ‘RiffTides, The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones, as told to Albert Murray.’ (Count Basie’s drummer) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wadTRGuriG4&feature=colike.
“I don’t have any hard fast rules. I simply love to play music. When asked if she was up to date on Hip Hop or the latest popular music scene, she said: “Don’t get me started…” Then she diplomatically defended today’s music scene. “It’s all about exposure. I was exposed to jazz from birth. My contemporaries who visit me and hear Cleo Lane, Fats Waller or Nat King Cole…they always love it,” Fulton said.
Champian learned to play the legendary trumpeter Clark Terry’s entire repertoire by 8 years old especially during the time when her dad directed the Clark Terry Jazz Institute in Lemars, Ia. “I became serious a serious jazz musician at eight years old. I performed for Terry’s 75th birthday party. I always knew that’s what I wanted.” She said her dad would blindfold her at 6 years old and test her knowledge about recordings and musicians. Her parents quickly learned that she was not just guessing. An only child from a close-knit family, she said that they lived together with Clark Terry in Glen Cove (Long Island) for a while to be close with him when diabetes was taking away his eyesight. She said Terry’s spirit remains strong at 92. Just back from a European tour in Cologne, Germany, Champian continues to be a champion of jazz literacy teaching at Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artist Program, LEAP NYC-Learning Through an Expanded Arts Program and Litchfield Jazz Summer Camp. A veteran of numerous jazz festivals & a regular at NYC venues, Champian is set to play Thursday, 1/5, at Novita, Metuchen, NJ. She has produced three CDs and the band will hit the road again in February for concerts in New Orleans, Mississippi and Memphis. Check her out: ?www.champian.net.