Swinging it & winning it

My Sunday Times feature [£] on how Curtis Stigers, pop pin-up of yesteryear, has confounded the cynics and reinvented himself as one of the best jazzers around:

Over the past half-century, jazz has slowly turned itself into art music, which is no bad thing, except that the average gig too often has all the warmth of a semiotics lecture. Stigers is proof that an artist can engage the heart as well as the head, without dumbing down. As time passes — he turns 50 next year — he has come to understand the ­importance of not trying to ­dazzle his listeners.

“The older I get, the more I appreciate the jazz singers who pay attention to the songs,” he says. “That’s why I’m drawn to Tony Bennett, Sinatra, Chet Baker. I can still put on a Sarah Vaughan record and appreciate it, but I think to myself, ‘I wish you’d stayed on that note instead of singing those 10 other notes.’”

That urge to overelaborate, the bane of contemporary jazz, is often, he argues, a by-product of youth. “You have to find yourself. When I put out my first pop record, I was trying to be Ray Charles, trying to prove to people that I was a great soul singer, instead of just singing the song. When I listen to that kid now, I just want to talk to him and say, ‘Settle down, sing softer every now and then.’”

He has reached the stage, too, where he does not worry overmuch whether or not he wins over sceptical critics. I tell him how, a few months earlier, I had tried to persuade a leading pop reviewer who had not heard him in 20 years to go along to one of his gigs at Ronnie Scott’s. The critic resolutely refused, simply on the basis that Stigers had been “that long-haired pop singer”.

Stigers laughs. “The ones who haven’t been convinced by now, they’re never going to change their minds. If nine or 10 records don’t convince them, I don’t know what I can do. The important thing is that I have a career, I do what I want to do. I make enough to pay the bills and hopefully to put my daughter through college some day.”

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Chief theatre critic for The Times. Twitter: CliveDavisUK Facebook: www.facebook.com/clive.davis.10 Instagram: clivephotos
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