Germaine Bazzle taught “music appreciation” by day for 50 years in Louisiana classrooms, retiring in 2008. But she’s been teaching the same subject by night for a heck of a lot longer — at clubs, concerts, and festivals in and around New Orleans. Ms. Bazzle is the city’s pre-eminent modern jazz chanteuse. City leaders said as much in early 2020, when they proclaimed March 5th “Germaine Bazzle Day.”
Bazzle scats. She mimics the sounds of instruments not on the band stand. She articulates every word of a lyric as an exercise in enunciation. She moves the way a Merce Cunningham or a Bill T. Jones might move, if they choreographed a dance to “Lush Life” or “Just in Time,” or some other melody that leaves listeners in puddles of joy and regret.
A Total Embodiment
Other musicians pause when describing her, searching for just the right words to convey their admiration: “She’s absolute royalty,” said one piano player. “When you see how she renders the lyric, she’s rendering out each syllable … I remember being on a gig with her. She was singing “My Funny Valentine” and businessmen were talking at the bar. We’re playing behind her and every syllable is being squeezed for meaning. And all of a sudden, just before the bridge, she stops singing. It’s like she’s in pain. The silence, was her saying, “Gentlemen, please!” And they f—— stopped talking, like school boys. It’s in the pregnant pause that her point is made. And then, the band began to play. It was an astounding moment.”
“Germaine brings an energy, a rhythmic energy to a song,” said another jazz singer. “She’s a stand up bassist, which may be why she swings so hard. It feels good. Her and (drummer) Simon Lott lock in and the whole band is so sensitive to her. It’s magic — especially, the way she sings ‘I Thought About You ’… When she gets finished singing the verse and the piano player is soloing, she stands in the same position for the entire piano solo. And when the solo is over she moves and starts up again. I tried to do that. I thought, ‘I’m gonna freeze.’ And, girl, it’s such a long time to be standing there! She holds it like a statue that is lingering in that last phrase she said. It’s a total embodiment. To feel the weight of what she does is phenomenal.”
“Not only that,” added yet another drummer. “When the music hits her on the bandstand, she rolls her shoulders and taps her feet. Every now and then, she’ll break out into a dance … I asked her one day, ‘Miss Germaine, how is it that off the bandstand you have this persona about you, this regalness and elegance about you that’s unmistakeable. But when you hit the bandstand you become another person? And she said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you really want to do this music and do it the right way, you have to allow yourself on the bandstand to become emotionally naked, giving of yourself, and opening yourself up, and let the music guide you to whatever it’s going to do.’”
Bazzle has mastered live performance and the best of her recordings capture her before an audience. She’s only made a handful of records over a more than 60-year career, which may be why she’s such a draw at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Her realm is the American Songbook. “I’m comfortable with them,” she says of standards, which she sings almost exclusively. That’s because, as the composer and pianist Roger Dickerson says, “standards are like great oceans. They have tremendous depths, not shallow waterways and little rivulets and streams. People can keep diving and diving and you never run out. What (Bazzle) is communicating is spiritual — where words cannot go.”
Live And In Person
As part of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s “Sync Up” series earlier this year, we met Bazzle at the George and Joyce Wein Center for Music just before the coronavirus put the whole city on lock down. Her band — Larry Sieberth on piano, Peter Harris on bass and Simon Lott on drums — accompanied her on a couple of standards and she talked about growing up in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans and her teaching and performances over the years.
And yet there’s a lot that Bazzle leaves out when telling stories about herself, maybe on purpose. Yes, she can be shy. Yes, she prefers a spiritual connection with her audience. But any consummate performer knows there’s no magic onstage without a little mystery. Emotional nakedness doesn’t reveal all, apparently, and neither does Bazzle. She’s devoted her life to the magic.
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Once More, With Feeling
Germaine Bazzle and Ellis Marsalis, Jr. performed often together over the years, so often that there are songs she remembers performing live with him that she doesn’t remember recording in a studio with other artists.
On Tuesday, March 3rd, when Marsalis made what would be his last performance at his eponymous center for music in the Ninth Ward, he sat in with a trio now known as The New Orleans Groovemasters — Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell and son Jason Marsalis — along with Peter Harris on bass and Kyle Roussel on piano. Roussel gave up his seat when Ellis sent word from the audience that he wanted to join the fun.
But Bazzle was in the audience, as well, and soon she was onstage at the microphone. “They did a ballad together,” Riley remembers, ‘Miss Otis Regrets.’ Her deliverance and belief in the ballad is so strong and she has such a commanding presence. And at a certain point in phrasing, she stopped and you could hear a pin drop on cotton … I’m so blessed to know her and have shared the bandstand.”
The live performances on this program were recorded at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center’s performance space by its Production Manager, Jason Doyle. Germaine Bazzle and her trio performed “Just In Time” and “Exactly Like You.” Here they are again: