Journalist Lynne Wallis tells us how her dad inspired her to make a late career change — and become a jazz singer

It was October 2012 and I was about to do the first set at the Spice of Life in London’s Soho. My theme was songs with little-known verses (in jazz this means intro), and I’d been researching and practising the arrangements for weeks. I was opening with “Lady Be Good” and I was nervous and excited. I knew the keyboard player and the guitarist, but I’d never worked with the drummer, who was from New York.

It was my most prestigious gig yet, the club was packed (with friends and colleagues in the audience) and there was a huge knot in my stomach. The club’s manager came on and did two numbers to warm up the audience, then my name was called. This was it! Feeling good in my new figure-hugging low-cut blue dress, I stepped onto the stage, grabbed the mic, counted in the band and we were off.

It went well—so well, in fact, that I didn’t want to stop. The only thing more that I could have wished for was that my darling old dad had been there. 

 

The soundtrack to my childhood

Lynne and her dad
Lynne with her dad: "Jazz was associated with good times"
 

It’s 1969 and we’re getting ready for sunday lunch. I’m ten. My mum Madge is laughing, gin and tonic in one hand, carving knife in the other. The smell of roast beef comes wafting through from the kitchen, and my dad John rests his pipe between his teeth as he puts an LP on our record player—usually Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong, sometimes Sarah Vaughan.

My white-haired gran Ada is sipping a Guinness, raising her glass to no one in particular, toasting, “May these be the worst of our times.” It’s one of my favourite childhood memories of the five of us in our cosy little house in Eltham, south-east London. 

Jazz was the soundtrack to my childhood, associated with good times, family parties and lazy Sundays. My dad loved Ella and Louis in particular, especially when they sang together on glorious tracks such as “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”. While my older brother Stephen raved about The Stones and Jimmy Hendrix, I was begging dad to play Ella’s “With a Song In My Heart” just one more time.

I remember getting severely told off at my strict all-girls grammar school for writing the capital of France as Paree, which is how it was spelled on the music charts for one of Ella’s songs. I adored Frank Sinatra singing swing, which was deeply uncool in 1970. I must have been the only girl in my class whose toes tapped to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” instead of the Bay City Rollers.

 

finding...and losing jazz

Lynne with the Hammond as a child
"I had some sort of talent" - Lynne with the Hammond before discovering make-up, boys and Bowie 

Dad had bought a Hammond organ as a hobby for himself when I was 12 and I learned to play, having already been taught how to read music at school. I seemed to have a natural instinct for jazz, and as a tall kid with long legs I could just about reach the pedals.

Looking back, I don’t think I was ever going to be Diana Krall or Norah Jones, but I had some sort of talent—what musicians would call a good jazz feel. I remember learning “Lover Come Back To Me” in about an hour—the chords were easy—and being thrilled by the melody and the lyrics of Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”. To me it was a beautiful sound, and this big-band hit had far more meaning for me than the pop songs of the day.

My dad, who had a TV shop, wasn’t a natural keyboard player and was somewhat in awe of my skills, while I took it in my stride like a typical 12-year-old. I gave recitals at our local keyboard store and gathered quite a crowd as my dad beamed with pride. I remember getting a kick out of playing “How High the Moon” at breakneck speed. I also occasionally sang in concerts at the holiday camp we went to, and while my voice was in tune and in rhythm, I never thought it sounded particularly good. 

As I discovered make-up, boys and discos around the age of 15, my love of jazz and swing from the 1930s and 1940s didn’t withstand competition in the form of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, and my passion for jazz dwindled.

 

Getting back into it in my 30s

I listened to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone during my 20s, but it was just a late-night thing, not my main musical interest. Then, in my mid-30s, a guy I was dating put a Chet Baker
album on one evening. It was the start of my jazz rebirth.

I bought all of Chet’s albums, along with those of Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day and June Christy. I occasionally sang along, but not in any serious way. I’d rediscovered the music of my youth and my dad was very happy about it. We had something in common again. 

Then, in 2002, I went on an arts holiday to Skyros in Greece that changed my life. I signed up for singing classes with Tom Robinson, of “War Baby” and “2-4-6-8 Motorway” fame. We sang mostly in a group, harmonies to classic songs, and on the last day we sang individually.

It was blisteringly hot and I sang, appropriately, “Summertime”. I don’t know how it happened, but I felt very relaxed as soon as I started singing and I strayed from the melody and improvised quite a lot of it. To my surprise, it sounded OK—I must have learned more from listening to my jazz albums than I’d realised. Tom said that I should have singing lessons when I returned to the UK; “Summertime” was just the start of what I could achieve. He invited me to sing backing vocals in his concert that evening.

 

Finding my voice as a singer

Lynne on stage
"Over time I learned to control the sound that came out of my mouth" - Lynne developing her skills on stage

I booked into classes at the Blackheath Conservatoire in south London when I got home, run by the awesome jazz singer Jenny Howe, who held the only jazz residency in London, at the Ritz, for many years. I was nervous during our first class—my hands shook as I held the music and my voice warbled and sounded dreadful. Over time, I learned how to control the sound that came out of my mouth and how to give it power through breathing properly. Jenny taught us how to sing jazz standards competently, then we worked on making the songs our own. From 2002 until my last class in 2008, I learned how to put a song across, to improvise, while Jenny ironed out my faults and got rid of all traces of “pub singer”.

In autumn 2002 the students put on a concert, and my dad beamed with pride as I sang “When Sunny Gets Blue” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”. He said afterwards that he could hear the Ella influence in the way I vibrated my voice at the end of a phrase.

“I’ve got you to thank for that, Dad,” I told him. “I’d never have known about Ella if you hadn’t played her when I was growing up.”

 

It drew me and dad together

Lynne's dad
Lynne's dad was delighted that she'd redsicovered jazz and loved to hear her singing the classics

Dad never got over me giving up keyboards as he’d been convinced I had a special talent. But he was delighted that I’d rediscovered the genre, that I could sing jazz and, most of all, that I adored it. Dad had always had hobbies—he appreciated the importance of having something absorbing to do outside your mainstream work that gave pleasure. He got a huge kick out of hearing me belting out all the old standards we’d enjoyed during my childhood, and it drew us together in his final years.

It’s as well that my dad came to hear me when he did, because he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2003. He died in May the following year, at home with his beloved Louis Armstrong playing in the background and mum and I holding a hand each. Jenny Howe had become a friend and she sang some of dad’s favourites at the funeral, including Armstrong’s “The Home Fire”, with our class pianist on keyboards and the esteemed Dick Pearce on trumpet. It sounded utterly gorgeous and heartbreaking, and I knew dad would have loved it.

Mum and I were united in our grief, hardly able to believe he’d gone. She came to quite a few of my gigs and some of Jenny’s until she became wheelchair-bound five years ago, and she sang along with every single tune. After all, it was the music of mum’s youth too.

 

I've even made an album

I took an eight-week jazz-vocals masterclass, made an album, sang at open-mic nights and scrounged guest spots at other people’s gigs. Then I finally got my own gig at a pub in Greenwich after a friend’s husband, a publican, heard me singing on the way back from a party in the back of a taxi one night. I was thrilled. I began singing at various other venues in south-east London, and I got a regular gig on cruise ships that sailed up and down the Thames. It was terrific fun, and I couldn’t believe how far I’d come. 

I occasionally wonder what would have happened if I’d kept up with the keyboards, whether I’d have been able to accompany myself, but I don’t think I was ever that good. I just feel extremely fortunate to have shared an appreciation of jazz with my late dad, without whom I don’t think I’d be enjoying a second career as a semi-professional jazz singer that kicked off when I was 47. Jazz music is in my bones because I grew up with it and to it.

I never say it, but I often think when I sing one of his favourites, “The Lady Is a Tramp” or “Lullaby of Birdland”, Dad, this one’s for you.

 

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Illustration by Robert Nippoldt

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