The annual Tucson Jazz Festival is always a wonderful way to celebrate a new year of live music during a month when the pickings are notoriously slim. As ever, a stellar lineup of talent across the jazz spectrum has been assembled, kicking off with Maceo Parker & his Big Band at Centennial Hall on January 10, and taking in the likes of Grace Kelly & Aubrey Logan, the Average White Band, Christian McBribe & Inside Straight, the great Mavis Staples, and Veronica Swift.
Swift is the daughter of two world-renowned jazz musicians: Stephanie Nakasian and Hod O’Brien, so it’s unsurprising to learn that she’s been involved in music for as long as she can remember. She earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz voice at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in 2016, but she was singing and learning about jazz long before that.
“I started my career at 9 years old,” Swift said. “I grew up on the road around this lifestyle with my parents. They’d bring me around on the road all the time. Before I was working professionally, I was hanging around with great jazz legends at jazz clubs. I was always around it and picked it up through osmosis, kinda. Then it just naturally happened. When I was 9, I had the opportunity to sing with a youth jazz orchestra. I started touring professionally and recorded an album with them, and that’s how it all started.”
In fact, her debut album Veronica’s House of Jazz was recorded and released when she was 9, in 2004. The follow up, It’s Great to be Alive!, came out in 2007, when she was a long-in-the-tooth 12 years old. That’s astonishing, especially when considering the fact that the two albums are decent. But it speaks to the passion she had for the music from the very beginning.
“It’s interesting—it’s kinda like when you grow up speaking in your first language, like English or whatever,” she said. “Nobody’s ‘interested’ in English—that’s just the way it is. That’s the path that’s been placed before you. So that’s what jazz music is for me. I would never change it for the world, but I never had a spark moment, like ‘This is what I want to do.’ I always knew it was what I was going to do.”
With her parents guiding her, Swift explored jazz’s rich and storied history as she set about educating herself.
“As a jazz singer specifically, I really was drawn to the June Christy repertoire,” she said. “Her singing was just so perfectly that music, that setting. Her voice had a sadness to it. Anita O’Day—just so hip. Those two, and then the early, early singers. Ethel Waters and Mildred Bailey—singers from that era too. The people that Ella Fitzgerald was listening to. I love Ella of course, but I wanted to dig deeper into the repertoire. Who were they listening to? That’s how I am with the songs. Who were my influences influenced by? With jazz, that lineage is so clear. It’s cool.”
In 2019, Swift released the Confessions album, a record she describes as her fifth as a leader (she’s recorded various collaborations) and her first on a major label; it’s been released on celebrated jazz label Mack Avenue. It’s tough to compare the work to that which she recorded as a child, but it’s fair to say that her albums always capture the chapter of her life which she’s living at that moment.
“When I did my third record, Lonely Woman, that’s when I really started honing my sound and style,” Swift said. “I think, listening to all my records, the one thing that doesn’t change is I do have my own sound. We are all influenced by the people that inspired us. Even though you’re hearing those things, you’re hearing them simultaneously so it’s my sound. How it’s changed and developed is,
Swift continued, saying she’s “definitely getting more skilled at arranging and understanding.”
“I’ve been performing 240 days a year, from really experimenting and seeing what works in front of an audience and what doesn’t,” she said. “I arrange all my songs and my arranging has really become its own style as well. I’m becoming more theatrical which I really love. I prefer to call myself a storyteller, not just a jazz singer because I do other things—I act, I write, I direct.”
Swift feels that Michigan-based label Mack Avenue is the perfect home for her.
“It’s one of the best,” she said. “It’s a great fit for me too—I feel like personality-wise we get along so well because their mission is to preserve this tradition and the heritage that is jazz. But also, they’re trying to push boundaries, push the envelope if you will. They want something a little edgy while still maintaining the sincerity of this music. That’s been my mission too.”
Preserving the integrity of jazz while pushing boundaries is definitely a philosophy we can subscribe to. We’ll get to hear Swift do just that at the Jazz Fest, and she’s promising a dramatic set.
“It goes through a wide range of emotions,” she said. “I’m a dramatic person so there’s a whole theatrical element to my performance. It’s as if you’re watching a musical or something. I pick songs very strategically based on what story I’m telling that day. It’ll be a lot of the songs on the record, as well as a lot of songs that will be on the new record which I’m doing in December. A lot of songs I did for my childhood. Telling my story, as well as just playing some good tunes. Yeah, there’s songbook but I’m not a songbook singer. A lot of people like to box me in as that because they don’t understand that actually 25 percent of my set is songbook and the rest is picking great tunes that could be considered jazz standards. It’s all about the story first.”
When she’s done in Tucson, Swift is bouncing around the country for various gigs and festivals for a couple of months, before working on her “rock opera” in Florida. Apparently, Swift is keen to keep pushing that envelope.
See Veronica Swift at the Tucson Jazz Festival, playing 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14 at the Leo Rich Theater, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $25 to $45, more information at tucsonjazzfestival.org.