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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 30, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Vocal Virtuoso Who’s There for the Kids
Bobby McFerrin, that vocal virtuoso of the unexpected,
begins our telephone interview promptly at 3:30, and ends it less
than 10 minutes later. The staccato interchange is one of the most
efficient episodes I have ever encountered. One at a time, I hurl
at him my list of questions, and he fields each of them with Olympic
terseness. The minutes bulge with content. They also bulge with attitude.
A master of improvisation, McFerrin presents himself as a casual person
who floats into his successes with a minimum of striving. He seems
to create no stress for himself, and to be immune to external pressures.
To this master of mouth-noises, anxiety seems a stranger.
McFerrin solos at a benefit for the Trenton Children’s Chorus Thursday,
May 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Patriots Theater of the Trenton War Memorial.
The enterprising Sue Ellen Page, artistic director of the Trenton
chorus and director of the Choirs for Children and Youth at Princeton’s
Nassau Presbyterian Church, arranged the concert. She last surfaced
in U.S. 1’s pages just before the premiere of "Hold Fast to Dreams,"
a piece she persuaded jazz great Dave Brubeck to write for the combined
choirs (October 7, 1998).
"There are two reasons for doing the concert with McFerrin,"
Page says. "I want to widen support for the Trenton Children’s
Chorus from the Trenton community. And I want to make Princeton folks
learn that there’s a wonderful venue in Trenton at the War Memorial.
Some of them don’t even know how to get there."
Soloist McFerrin provides no information about the Trenton program.
He can’t; that’s not the way he operates. Having given no thought
to details of an appearance three weeks into the future at the time
we speak, he murmurs, "It’s a solo performance?" He’ll work
out the substance of the concert as it unfolds. "I don’t know
what I’m going to do till I’m on stage," he says. "I know
the audience is going to get involved, but I couldn’t tell you specifically
how because I don’t know myself."
An admirer of McFerrin, Page, however, follows a style different from
his. She has prepared 92 of her choristers to appear on stage with
McFerrin, ready to perform three songs. But she has also warned them
that any plan might as readily be abandoned as followed. "There
is a rehearsal set for 4 p.m. the day of concert," Page says.
"We’ll have the kids there and see how it goes. We may be practicing
our music and then not using any of it."
"I chose three songs that seem to leave the door open for improvisation,"
she continues. "McFerrin knows that we’re working on them. But
I told the singers, `Be prepared for anything.’" She giggles
at the prospect of the unknown, willingly adapting to McFerrin.
Page’s selections include "This Old Man;" "Clear the Line,"
an American folk song, and "Come to Me, O Weary Traveler,"
a composed piece that Page says sounds like an early American melody.
"We’ll see whether we do all of the above or part of the above
or none of the above," she says. "Maybe we’ll be making music
together. Perhaps I’ll be conducting." She giggles again. "I’m
very comfortable with it. I’m aware that we’re working with a particular
kind of genius. We’ll just turn it over to the muse. I hope the singers
will be comfortable, too."
Page’s singers are 80 young people ranging from fifth graders to high
school students, and 12 older singers. "The lion’s share are members
of the Trenton Children’s Chorus," she says. "There is a matched
batch from the church. The older singers are staff members of the
Children’s Chorus or alumni of the church choirs; they’re the next
generation of music educators. McFerrin’s very interested in music
McFerrin was born to opera singer parents in New York
in 1950, where his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was the first African-American
male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. The family moved to Hollywood
in 1958 where McFerrin Sr. supplied Sidney Poitier’s singing voice
for the movie "Porgy and Bess," and his wife became a
professor of music at California’s Fullerton College.
The younger McFerrin now lives in Philadelphia with Debbie, his wife
of 25 years. "We’re building a house," McFerrin says. "She’s
the captain of that ship. Her gift is renovation. She loves working
with space, color, pattern, and design. She’s the eye of the family;
I’m the ear." The couple has three children: two boys — Taylor,
21, and Jevon, 18; and a girl, Madison, 11. "They’re all very
talented in music and drama," their father says.
McFerrin started out on clarinet, but had to abandon the instrument
when the orthodontist prescribed braces. After public appearances
as a pianist, McFerrin boldly set about creating a solo career as
an improvisational singer. In 1983 he made his first tour of Europe
as an unaccompanied vocalist, performing without any prepared material.
The range of McFerrin’s voice is four octaves. The bottom of that
span falls near the lower notes of a cello; the top touches the limits
of the flute. McFerrin made no special effort to expand the range
of his voice. "Over the years, it just developed," he says.
"It must have been pretty close, three and a half octaves already,
before I decided to become a singer. The other half octave was
there. I just had to find it."
McFerrin follows no particular regime to keep his voice in condition.
"It’s just what God gave me," he says. "I don’t do
anything special to maintain it. I sing a lot. I sing softly. The
softer I sing the more I can do, the more flexibility I have."
In performance McFerrin adds to his range of singing sounds by including
a variety of other mouth noises — hisses, chirps, clucks, and
buzzes — sounds he makes by slapping or tapping parts of his body,
and effects that he pulls out of his on-stage props.
McFerrin by himself is a master of the unpredictable. At a Carnegie
Hall performance some years ago he allowed the audience to pass him
overhead by hand, from the stage to the back of the auditorium. He
hasn’t done it since. "I had done it a few nights before at Wolf
Trap," he says, referring to the outdoor performance space in
the suburbs of Washington, D.C. "It was unplanned. Then I wanted
to see how it worked inside. I trust my audience."
Yet McFerrin does not restrict himself to solo appearances. He appears
in concert and on recordings with performers ranging from Manhattan
Transfer to Yo-Yo Ma. The first of his 10 Grammy awards came in 1985
for "Another Night in Tunisia" with Manhattan Transfer. His
12th album, "Beyond Words," was released in March, 2002. Incorporating
music to invoke the various traditions that influence him, McFerrin
composed the bulk of the CD, which interweaves layers of vocal sound
with layers of keyboard sound. His son Taylor teams with him on mouth
percussion for the track "Taylor Made."
Brazenly, I ask him why he bothers with collaborators,
and he raises his voice. "I love sharing ideas and sharing music
stories," he says. "That’s what I love about music. I don’t
do solo shows. I use the audience. That’s a collaboration."
In addition to his vocal performances McFerrin sometimes appears on
stage as a conductor. Indeed, our conversation takes place just after
his return from Baltimore where he conducted Bach and Bernstein. I
ask him about the pluses and minuses of leading an orchestra. "It’s
the joy of making music with musicians," he says. About the need
to prepare a concert in advance, rather than improvising, he says,
"You rehearse so the orchestra can get used to your technique
and learn how to follow you. It’s not really a problem."
McFerrin studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Meier,
and Seiji Ozawa during a sabbatical in the late 1980s, just after
the release of the song that brought him to the top spot in pop record
sales in almost every country in the world. McFerrin created that
song, "Don’t Worry, Be Happy," on the spur of the moment in
a recording studio. Its title perfectly captures the essential Bobby
— Elaine Strauss
Theater at the War Memorial, West Lafayette Street, Trenton, 609-466-7997.
Benefit performance for the Trenton Children’s Chorus by the 10-time
Grammy winner. For 6 p.m. pre-concert patron reception in the George
Washington Ballroom and premiere concert seating ($150) or $90 preferred
seating tickets, call the chorus office at 609-466-7997. Tickets for
concert only $25, $32, & $47.50. Thursday, May 1, 7:30 p.m.
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