by Dawn E. Robinson



I had heard about LORI WILLIAMS’ voice before I ever heard her sing. That is often a dangerous thing. But I was more than happy to hear her live up to her reputation. She is a singer, vocal instructor and recording artist. Her voice has range, warmth, precision and versatility. At the time of this interview, she was about to make an appearance at Washington DC’s historic Howard Theatre.


DR:      Where were you born?


LW:    I was born at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. I grew up in Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia.


DR:      What are your earliest memories of music; particularly vocal music?


LW:    My fondest memories are of my Mom who passed in 2003. She would sit at the piano in our living room and sing and play songs like "Blue Moon". 


DR:      That’s sweet. When did you first start singing?  When was your first solo?


LW:    I’ve been singing since I was about 4 or 5 in The Angelic Voices Children’s Choir at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Washington, DC. The first time my parents heard me really sing was when I sang "You Light Up My Life" for an event at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Washington, DC. That was my first solo. I was about 10 years old.


DR:      Did you study voice? If so, when and where? Did you have a private voice teacher? If so, what vocal technique were you taught?


LW:    I studied voice at Hampton University (Hampton VA). I also studied under Professor and Opera Singer Charlotte Holloman.  She taught me in the classical vocal technique.


DR:      I know that you teach music in high school. In this day and age where image and attitude often overshadow real vocal prowess or quality in popular music, what are your views about the importance of vocal study?


LW:    I am an advocate of perceptive listening and analyzing music. My students have to listen to music from varying genres - some they are familiar with and others they aren’t. I want them to broaden their ears and examine what they musically feed themselves on a daily basis – lyrical content, sound, artist’s image/reputation, etc. I constantly tell my vocal students that I am not Beyoncé or Mariah Carey or Nancy Wilson or Dianne Reeves. They can appreciate the vocal stylings of musicians; but they have to perfect their own sound. I work a lot on tone, pitch accuracy and breath support. It’s difficult to avoid emulating artists; but I want them to hear themselves and like their own voices.


DR:      Judging from the way your students respond, would you say that there is hope for the future of vocal jazz music?


LW:     I sure hope so. I always have hope. One of my assessments each year is for each choir member to learn a jazz standard and perform it with accompaniment. They are judged on delivery and technique. They have to listen to several jazz artists (vocalists and instrumentalists) and hear their approach to the song. They must know the melody, establish it and then give their own interpretation. 


DR:      Do you also play an instrument?


LW:    I never admit this because I know too many musicians who can play me under the rug. I play piano for my choirs at school; but I rarely play in public. I’m not a top-notch pianist. I’d rather stay in my lane and get the best to do the job.


DR:      When and where was your first professional singing performance?


LW:    I sang "Summertime" on Showtime At The Apollo/Amateur Night in 1988. This was my first singing opportunity where my peers were watching. This was a big gig for me. I was a student at Hampton University and my fraternity brothers (Omega Psi Phi/Gamma Epsilon Chapter) paid for me to go to New York and perform. It all happened so fast. I performed and didn’t get booed! My peers at Hampton held a watch party to see the performance. Who knew it would air the following week? (smiles) but they set their recorders and watched it. I was always supported for my music on campus; but this was my most special memory. By the way, New Orleans native Anthony Bailey won. I also sang in Tokyo, Japan for Eli Saitoh and The Love Tambourines in the early '90s. This was my first big paying gig as a professional.


DR:      What was it like performing in Tokyo?


LW:     I lived there for five years. I enjoyed performing there and hope to return.


DR:      Have you participated in any other major vocal competitions?


LW:    Other than "Showtime at the Apollo," I auditioned for "The Voice" last year. The first question I was asked was how old I was. It was downhill from that. [smiles]


DR:      Wow!


LW:    I also auditioned for a role on Broadway. When I went into the audition, the track they played for me to listen to first was the one I recorded (with my voice on it). I didn’t get the role, though.


DR:      Bizarre. How did they already have a recording of your voice?


LW:     I performed the character in the musical in a local theatre. The music for the show was sent to the Broadway audition.


DR:      Who are your favorite singers and why?


LW:    I adore Dianne Reeves (she knows it too)! I am a huge fan of her music since the early '80’s. She is simply amazing as a jazz artist. She makes you feel like you know her through her lyrics and vocal phrasing. Her sound is rich and touches my heart. I can put any of her songs on loop and be just fine. I also love listening to and watching Bobby McFerrin perform.  He is a musical genius – hands down. His ear is so keen. The way he facilitates musical intervals and rhythm and scat and intonation and style and…whew! I love them both!


         [View video of Lori Williams singing with Bobby McFerrin at American University at http://youtu.be/VZLh6pJvjFE ]


DR:      Wow! That was awesome! How did you connect with Bobby McFerrin?


LW:     He was absolutely amazing. I’ve only geeked out for two other performers like that, Dianne Reeves and Prince – I haven’t met Prince; but have attended many of his concerts. Bobby McFerrin was very comfortable with me on stage and after the performance. He treated me with such respect and kindness. I actually won tickets to his concert that evening and my daughter Lauren had a chance to sing with him! I was a nervous Mom while videotaping it (backstage Mom). She was just 17! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=1260797014008&set=vb.1652160148&type=3&theater He loved her! And so did the audience!


DR:      What would your ideal gig or performance opportunity be?


LW:    I would love to perform at The Blue Note, Dizzy’s, The Village Vanguard or Smalls in New York City to a sold out crowd.  And of course, I would love to be on stage with the jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling and perform for a tribute concert. I often wonder who the other artists were in the days of Ella and Sarah who didn’t get a chance to be heard on a national/international level. Having the recognition of being a respected jazz artist and having my voice heard are still goals of mine. I also dream of touring the top jazz spots in Europe. I have the great fortune of participating in the Poysdorf Jazz and Wine Summer Festival for the past couple of years in Austria. Last year was my first opportunity gigging at Jazzland, Vienna’s oldest jazz supper club. I’m scheduled to return there in July.


DR:    You are about to appear at The Howard Theatre in Washington DC. I am looking forward to being there. Is there anything you would like readers to know?


LW:    I am excited about this performance. The Howard Theatre has such great history. I am praying for a wonderful crowd and a great show. I have some of the best musicians in the Washington, DC area sharing the stage. I just want the magic to happen and people to leave feeling happy and wanting more. I hope your readers will join me – Thursday, May 15 at 8PM at The Howard Theatre. http://thehowardtheatre.com/show/2014/05/15/an-evening-with-lori-williams/


DR:      You have recorded two CDs of your own, Healing Within and Eclipse of the Soul. Talk about the recording process – how was the experience different on the first record from the second?


LW:     My first CD, Healing Within, was one I wanted to produce for 10 years. I had doubts and fears like most people – financial (could I actually afford to pay for the process – musicians, studio, engineering, mixing/mastering, licensing, layout, etc. – on my own); emotional (this was a very personal project and I invested a lot of myself into the lyrics and music); social acceptance of my music (would people enjoy what I shared). After GOD showed me that it was possible and the CD was in my hands, I was extremely grateful. I was (and am still) learning the music process (submissions to sites like Amazon and iTunes, radio airplay, etc). It’s a lot to absorb while maintaining a day job and being a single Mother. The beautiful thing is that sales from my first CD paid for my second one – Eclipse of the Soul. And I was afforded many opportunities for gigs because of my product and visibility. The recording process was very different for both projects. My emotional state was not the same for the second. I wanted to express a freer, happier, more upbeat side of who I had become since recording my first.


DR:    You sang on (keyboardist) Benjie Porecki’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas CD a few years ago. Have you “guested” on any other artists’ recordings?


LW:     Yes, I have had the great opportunity to sing on CDs by the following artists: The Blackbyrds, Allyn Johnson and Divine Order, Allyn Johnson and Soul Sanctuary, Saltman Knowles Group, William Hubbard, Collaboration, Antonio Parker, Lisa Levine, Robert E. Person, Sherry Winston and Groove Skool Band. I’ve sung background on many artists’ recordings as well, like Kim Waters, Maysa, Lloyd Price, Vertical Zar.


DR:      What advice do you have for singers (especially young singers) reading this who are interested in a professional singing career?


LW:    Study everything you can about music (preferably attend a school of higher learning and/or get a vocal coach); practice your craft daily; maintain a good reputation in your community; avoid any behaviors/activities that will affect your voice; drink lots of water; listen to other vocalists; and network.


DR:      Speaking of networking, are you a member of any local or national music organizations?


LW:    I am a member of the Washington Area Music Association (WAMADC), the DC Chapter of the GRAMMYs/The Recording Academy®, Jazz Education Network, and Washington DC Jazz Network. I was very active in the DC-IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) before it ended.


DR:      We have come through a brutal winter and now allergy season is upon us.  What tips would you give singers on how to stay healthy, especially vocally healthy?  Any particular remedies you have or things you avoid?


LW:     Drinking water is important. I also visit my ENT to stay healthy. Gargling, honey and lemon, Echinacea, Nasal flushes (netty pots) work for me. And at times, vocal rest is needed. I try to avoid smoky areas as well.


DR:      Finally, Mothers’ Day was just celebrated. I know that you have two children - your daughter is also a singer that you are very proud of. Any views you want to share on balancing career with motherhood?


LW:     Balancing career with motherhood…I don’t know if I’ve mastered it; but I try. Allow your children to find their own voice or pursue their own talent. I always try to include my daughter (and hopefully my son when he is older) in my live performances. I want them to experience the stage and become comfortable with it. I want them to feel the love that is there and recognize why it is important for me to continue doing what I do. They are both featured on my CDs. If you are an entertainer, it is important for your children to know you will always be there for them and that your career does not come before them. There may be scheduling conflicts, but quality time shared with your children is important.

DR:    Okay, to finish things up, here are a couple of random questions: What is your favorite four-letter word? and What is your least favorite four-letter word?

LW:    I never thought of this before. The first thoughts that come to mind... 'Jazz' is my most favorite. Then I thought of my name: Lori, but that's a bit narcissictic - LOL. 'Late' is my least favorite.



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