Making It Up As She Goes Along
was one of those huge 'a-ha!' moments," says renowned jazz vocalist
Kitty Margolis, about the night her uncle took her to see saxophonist
Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Village Vanguard in New York City.
"I saw a wonderful older gentleman in dark glasses, a wild hat
and three saxophones in his mouth making the most amazing, otherworldly
sounds," she recalls. "It was a spiritual experience."
It was the late 1970s and Margolis, then a student at Harvard University,
had been singing with a western swing band in the evenings and excelling
in her coursework in visual and environmental studies. After her "first
real jazz concert," she says, "my life was never the same."
Margolis grew determined to become a jazz singer and to learn the art
of recording. After hearing high praise for both broadcasting and jazz
at San Francisco State's College of Creative Arts, she decided it was
the right place to meet both objectives. The sophomore left Harvard
and enrolled in classes at SFSU in 1977.
Margolis has since sung at legendary jazz clubs and festivals on four
continents and performed and recorded with such notables as Elvin Jones,
Red Holloway, David "Fathead" Newman, and Lionel Hampton,
who dubbed Margolis "the next great jazz voice."
At the heart of her work is improvisation. "My songs are never
sung the same way twice," she says, pointing out that the Latin
word "improvisus" means unforeseen.
The New York Times and Village Voice jazz critic Will
Friedwald regards Margolis as one of today's keepers of the scat tradition
-- the art of using sounds and syllables to improvise a melody. He points
to the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy,
Anita O'Day and the late Betty Carter and calls Margolis "the direct
heir to their legacy."
Sitting in the window of a North Beach café and looking out at
the neighborhood she has called home most of her adult life, the singer
says she couldn't have grown up at a better time in San Francisco: "I
was barely 12, but I would go to the Fillmore
and Winterland and see all kinds of bands on the same bill -- Miles
[Davis] played with the Dead, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters
with Buffalo Springfield. … Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt were
professional role models."
Her latest album, "Heart and Soul: Live in San Francisco,"
was recorded in a theater a few blocks away, not far from both the headquarters
of her independent record label, Mad-Kat Records, and the home she shares
with her husband, Alfonso Montuori, a professor at the California Institute
of Integral Studies and her producer.
Margolis says what she absorbed at SFSU was invaluable. She learned
recording studio microphone techniques and how to operate the mixing
board and run a good sound check. She also took advantage of classes
led by such renowned, professional jazz musicians as sax player and
composer John Handy, who taught jazz history at the time. He came to
admire Margolis's depth of musical knowledge and her approach to singing.
Though Handy doesn't often play with singers, he has since performed
on campus with Margolis as well as other former and current music faculty
known as the SFSU All-Stars.
"Kitty takes chances," Handy says, "the kind of artistic
risks most singers would not even know were there, let alone dare to
Margolis remembers one class in particular that was difficult to get
into, but well worth the trouble. She had to plead with Hal Stein for
a seat in his jazz improvisation class. At the time, the veteran sax
player had yet to admit a vocalist to the class -- or a woman. "When
he finally agreed to admit me," Margolis recalls, "he told
me, 'I'm not going to treat you any differently.'" In the end,
Stein asked his student to take over his long-standing Saturday night
gig at Peta's, a North Beach institution. The regular gig launched Margolis's
professional career and in 1978 she left SFSU to begin touring.
Her performances came to a halt, however, in the late 1980s when a back
problem left Margolis bedridden. "I had weeks to meditate. …
I vowed that if I got better I'd have a record out within a year,"
she recalls. "But I didn't want to wait around for a record deal."
So Margolis put what she had learned in the College of Creative Arts
toward her debut release, "Live at the Jazz Workshop."
"There were virtually no artist-run indie jazz labels at that time,"
she remembers. "We were working on blind faith and a burning desire
to call our own creative shots."
As CEO of Mad-Kat, Margolis continues to enjoy having complete artistic
control of her recordings. She also enjoys giving private lessons to
aspiring singers. When students ask, "How do I sing this song?"
she warns them not to study other singers' renditions. Instead, Margolis
encourages them to learn the lyrics, melody and chords just the way
they were written.
"You've got to really know the bones of a tune," she says,
before beginning the musical deconstruction and reconstruction that
Scat aside, Margolis insists that "telling the story and making
people feel something is the ultimate goal in singing."
It's a goal she achieved long ago.
"There is nothing like the circle of energy between the band and
the audience on a good night," she says. "When it's happening,
it's the best feeling in the world."