Home / Interview: Kitty Margolis, The Heart and Soul of A Jazz Singer, Part 2

Interview: Kitty Margolis, The Heart and Soul of A Jazz Singer, Part 2

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In the late 1960s, the San Francisco rock and folk scene was moving toward its apex. Almost any night of the week, kids could go to large auditoriums to see the newest artists. In her early teens, Kitty Margolis well knew that her parents would not allow her to go to any of these places alone, and it came as a great surprise to her one day when her parents actually invited her and her brother Peter to go with them to the Fillmore West.

You have to have seen The Fillmore at that time to understand how unusual an idea this was. The room could hold a few thousand people, and virtually all of them on a given night were in the hippy uniform … Levi's, tie-dyed shirts, sandals, long hair, and beards for the men, gypsy-like, only semi-clad exoticism for the women. Marijuana and LSD abounded. To be accompanied by your parents — Dad in a tweed jacket and tie, Mom in a conservative dress more suitable to the Burlingame Club, wearing pearls and white gloves — was surely unusual.

“But they took us because they knew already that we were going to go,” Kitty says.

Kitty’s fear wasn’t so much that she’d be seen with her parents. She was as thrilled as possible to go to The Fillmore under any guise. What she most feared was that they wouldn’t let her stay there. She doesn’t remember who they saw that night, but she knows that it was a watershed moment for her.

The others in the audience actually treated her parents with a kind of deference. “Some of them tried to pass my father a joint. My father said ‘Oh, thank you. But, no, thank you.’”

The experience seemed not to be too unsettling, however, because Kitty’s parents did allow her and her brother to stay at The Fillmore that evening, although with the strong suggestion that they come home as soon as the performance was over. They went to The Fillmore many, many times after that.

When she was thirteen, Kitty had a chance to work with Arlo Guthrie, although Guthrie himself, kind as he was, was not overly moved by her audition.

“We were on vacation at Waikiki and there he was, sitting on the sand with his new bride. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I introduced myself and told him I liked to play guitar. He seemed interested, so I ran up to my hotel room, grabbed my little traveling guitar and ran back down. I plopped myself in the sand next to them and played the whole of his big hit "Alice’s Restaurant." It was 15 minutes long. They were very sweet, but they must have wanted to kill me.”

By the time she heard Flora Purim, Kitty was 16. Her interest in jazz was immediate, and she kept listening to many other artists. She kept on playing her guitar. She was singing by now, a hybridized form of music that, she says, was “The Grateful Dead meets Bob Wills meets the Appalachian Mountains meets Commander Cody. It was a country- and blues-based style of music that was popular with the hippie contingent.” Her parents wouldn’t allow her to work for money or in clubs or any of that, so her music was a private endeavor, reserved for home, school performances and parties with her friends.

And then Kitty was accepted by Harvard University, Boston.

One does not usually think of great jazz musicians in the same moment he thinks of Harvard. Jazz is born and lives in clubs. It’s a tough gig and most don’t make it. The rough and tumble of getting dates, getting paid, dealing with the drink, the drugs and, in the case of women musicians, the men, all the while searching the soul for more and more creativity … this is the absolute opposite of the library’s scholarly silence and contemplation.

It is perhaps for that reason that Kitty left Harvard after two years, although she was studying with some formidable people and realized it. William Eggleston, maybe the most important color photographer of the 20th century, was a professor of Kitty’s, as was Daniel Goleman, whose 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ was the first of several that have proven to be seminal to the study of the value of the emotions in intellectual and business thought. Kitty was studying optics with none other than Edwin Land, developer of the Polaroid Land camera, and the psychology of art with Rudolph Arnheim, the noted Gestalt art and film theorist and perceptual psychologist.

But while getting dean’s list grades by day, Kitty was also a member of a working band by night, touring the New England club circuit on weekends. She had gotten into the band after answering an ad in the Boston Phoenix just a few weeks after having moved into her freshman dorm room at Harvard.

“The band itself didn’t have any Harvard people in it,” she says. “Actually they were a bunch of guys that had graduated from Wesleyan a few years earlier. By now they were full-time musicians, and I sometimes felt pressure from them to drop out of school and go on the road more.”

As frequently happens, the conflict between one way of life and another brought about a crisis in identity for Kitty, and she decided after two years to take a break from Harvard, to figure out what her direction in life should be. Music or the visual arts?

“I got back to San Francisco, started working with a number of bands and began looking at other schools, like USC [University of Southern California] and others. And I discovered that San Francisco State University had a world-class school of broadcast communication arts and sciences. It had jazz too, which was pretty unusual in universities in those days. You couldn’t find either of those at Harvard. It was a perfect combination for me.”

Kitty was 19. She immediately got an apartment of her own and formed a band. She wasn’t quite ready for the Monterey Jazz Festival yet, and they played on the sidewalk across the street from Ghirardelli Square, very near the stairway where she had heard Flora Purim.

“There were three of us. Mustapha was an old African-American man who wore a big turban with a jewel in the middle of it. He played a washtub bass and sang. I played rhythm guitar and sang harmony … as well as a few leads. We also had a very good lead guitarist named Mathew Allen.”

Mustapha was to prove invaluable to Kitty’s musical development because he could sing the blues. “Oh, he was straight from the Mississippi delta, and he had all that stark expression, that intensity. He was like a history of the early blues. He also wouldn’t stick to the twelve-bar format all the time. Sometimes the phrase would go on for eleven bars or thirteen and a half. At first I didn’t get it, and I’d finish the chord changes way before he’d get to the end of the phrase. He told me, ‘Kitty, you just keep on the chord until I get to the end of my story.’ You hear that kind of loose structure all the time in the delta blues, and Mustapha taught me how to listen.”

By this time, Kitty knew about Keystone Korner, and she decided to go there to see what was happening. She had heard a considerable amount of jazz, from her parents and through her own listening, and in the 1970’s in San Francisco, Keystone Korner was the place for jazz music.

“I just hung out there and met some of the people working there. We talked. I was studying broadcasting, and soon I met Milton, who was the soundman at the club. I was studying sound and jazz at State, so it was paradise for me. Milton let me sit in with him, learn how to operate the mixer. He taught me a lot.”

She was also now studying jazz improvisation, with saxophone player Hal Stein.

“His class at State was for instrumentalists, he had told me, and that I couldn’t get in because I was a singer.” Kitty shakes her head. This memory too is a cherished one despite the fact that, at the time, she was being stiffed. “You know, he didn’t mean ‘no singers.’ He meant ‘no girls.’ But I auditioned and he reluctantly let me into the class. I turned out to be his favorite student.”

Did the relationship last?

“Absolutely. Eventually we toured all through Europe together. He still comes to my gigs.”

She met the extraordinary saxophonist John Handy, who was also on the faculty, and attended his class in the history of jazz. They, too, have since done many concerts together.

“So sitting with Milton, I got to meet the master musicians. I hung out with people like Jon Hendricks and Art Blakey. Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Freddie Hubbard played there, and I knew them. I also met McCoy Tyner, Sonny Stitt, Shelia Jordan and many other masters.”

And — in what I can imagine only as one of the bravest artistic gestures I’ve ever encountered — Kitty decided to sit in on one of Keystone Korner’s weekly Sunday jam sessions. In these, many of the professional musicians who had been playing the club the week before would sit in as well, and people could sign up and play with them. For someone who had studied jazz singing, who had listened to many, many records, but who had not really tested her jazz chops much in public, you would think that the notion of stepping up on a stage with these people must have been very intimidating indeed,

So what did Kitty do? “I sang ‘Billie’s Bounce’ by Charlie Parker.” One of Parker’s anthemic tunes, it is a fast, complicated and many-layered composition, and has been recorded now countless times by many musicians. “With Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics,” she adds. “I had been ‘shedding’ it for weeks.” Jefferson was one of the originators of the “vocalese” style of jazz singing, in which lyrics are added to famous recorded solos of jazz masters. Jefferson’s work is itself truly iconic. That Sunday, Kitty walked up on stage to essay the Parker/Jefferson piece . . . and did not realize that Eddie Jefferson himself was in the audience.

“After I finished, he came up to me and took my hand, and he said ‘Kitty, you nailed it.’ I thought I was going to faint. ‘Don’t ever stop,’ he said. ‘You have exactly what it takes.’ Eddie Jefferson said that to me.”

Just a few words . . . but the source of such words can mean everything.

“After that day, I ate, drank and slept jazz. All I did was sing and listen. I worked five or six nights a week. I had to graduate from San Francisco State, of course, and I was still a student at the time of that jam session, so I did both. But after I got out of State, I was a full-time professional, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

To be continued …

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About Terence Clarke