In Conversation: Patti Austin

In Conversation: Patti Austin

Jazz royalty Patti Austin on looking after yourself on the road, being a mentor and singing Ella. 

Patti Austin
New York, United States of America

In Conversation: Patti Austin

Jazz royalty Patti Austin on looking after yourself on the road, being a mentor and singing Ella. 

You're incredibly passionate about mentoring young musicians - can you tell me about what it means to be a good mentor and why having a mentor is so important as a young musician? 

I think the reason I have such a passion for mentoring is because I started out in the industry as a child, and while I wasn’t really paying particular attention to the people that were mentoring me, I was shown the way by Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones. I was surrounded by this incredible array of innovators. I was really lucky that the people that formed that Great American Songbook and built upon it were the people that showed me the way. Now, it's the only way I know to be: when I’m working with someone younger and I think they’re great I say something. It's so important to say something! If my mentors saw me doing something non-beneficial they would always tell me and I’m trying to do that for the next generation. There are certain people that have an attitude about passing on information, but I don't think that makes the world or the craft get better. It's absolutely crucial to pass on whatever you’ve learnt that works. I've watched how the people that are great at what they do make decisions all my life. I’ve seen people do lots of stupid things that you want to watch and then learn to avoid, and I've also witnessed fabulous people who I've wanted to emulate. People who are successful watch others and learn from them. As the observer, you’ll find things you can’t find on your own, and you'll also figure out ways to do things better than the people you're watching. I keep looking for the smart ones and read everything I can about them - I personally love to read biographies, and I'll think about how they got from one place to the next. 

You're on the road a huge amount performing around the world. How do you look after yourself, particularly when you don't have a lot of down-time? 

Here’s the most important thing: when the show is over, you've got to go to your room and go to sleep. You've got to learn that! Then there are all the other things like making sure your voice is rested, you're eating right, and you're getting a certain amount of exercise. It's really important to create as much comfort around you as possible when you're travelling. Doing a lot of moving around becomes arduous because you're going through security, and people will pat you down and rifle through your stuff, and you have to sit in airports and hotel rooms and there is so much drama! People say I should write a travel book, actually. Once I get to the place I'm going though, I’m a happy camper. It's the getting there that is hardest. I usually fly alone and for some reason, I always have very bad flying-partner-karma. I'm always next to someone that snores the whole way! Whenever I get on the plane I wipe down everything because it’s a germ-ridden environment, and I make sure I'm keeping my hands clean and I'm eating properly. One of the things I do now when I travel is I try to avoid hotels, or at the very least, find rooms that have a kitchen. I’ve found that preparing my own food, and taking that extra time to look after my eating has been a huge energy booster - I feel more comfortable and I sleep better. If you feel good and comfortable, you'll have a lot more energy for the stage. 

Keeping the Great American Songbook is really important to you - can you tell me about the role jazz music plays in your life, and how we can preserve it? 

My father was a jazz musician, and my entire childhood was about this music. I was absolutely immersed in it, and that is something I try and tell all young musicians - you must immerse yourself in the stuff. Listen to Sinatra, listen to Ella, listen to everyone who sang this music. Then listen to the instrumentalists who were playing it. It's all about making your voice sound like an instrument - you know that's how Ella learnt to scat? She would sing improvisations back note for note and she could dictate anything she heard. You can and should learn to improvise, and the way to do that is simply to practice practice practice. Jazz is so magnificent because it's infused with elements from every genre possible - it's all in there. I’m fighting so hard for it because it’s such a reflection of all American music, and we tend to take that for granted. I honestly think it’s one of the most wonderful things to come out of America, and I don't think I'm the only one because I’m able to perform it and play anywhere in the world and there is always an audience! I find that audiences in Europe, Asia and Australia study whatever they love, so when I started doing singing overseas I noticed how well they knew what I was singing! The first time I came to Australia I was singing background for Roberta Flack, then later I came alone to sing at festivals, and both times we'd sing the classics like A-Tisket A-Tasket, and there would be kids dancing and whole families would be there singing along. It’s such a wonderful thing to see. It’s an interesting challenge for me because I want to uphold the tradition, but I don’t have to sound exactly the same as the people who made it. 

We will be singing along to your favourite songs again next month when you perform with James Morrison and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra! What is it like to perform these amazing songs from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald? 

Honestly, the part that excites me most is working with James! His musicianship is revered all over the world - all of the musicians fall to the floor and bow a lot! He’s all that and a bag of chips, seriously. To do the music of Louis and Ella with James is so profound, and I absolutely cannot wait. He’s Louis-fied and I’m Ella-fied and we're going to put on a show that hopefully Melbourne will come and rock out to! 

Patti Austin performs with James Morrison and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in A Celebration of Ella and Louis as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Tickets are available here