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Tone Glow 111: Patty Waters
An interview with the pioneering American jazz vocalist about her childhood memories of singing, performing in a strip club, and the gratitude she has for her music-filled life.
Patty Waters (b. 1946) is a pioneering American jazz vocalist who released two vital records on ESP-Disk in 1966, Sings and College Tour. The former’s A-side features seven hushed piano ballads that are spare in their arrangements, with Waters singing as if in a moment of vulnerable direct address. With her lucid and contemplative vocalizing, she provides a window into raw emotion: sadness found in the contours of every syllable, gratitude resonating in the smallest of utterances. But if these tracks feature straight-forward melody as a conduit for a wide spectrum of feeling, then the album’s B-side—completely filled by a 14-minute rendition of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”—is a more audacious avenue for diaristic bellowing. She adopts a free approach to singing here, with shrieks and sustained notes culminating in what is a crowning achievement in the entire history of vocal jazz.
In 1965, Albert Ayler introduced Waters to ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman, and Sings was recorded in December of that year. In the following spring, Waters embarked on a tour across New York State colleges, and these performances were documented on College Tour. Accompanied by bassist Perry Lind, drummer Scoby Stroman, flautist Giuseppi Logan, and pianist Dave Burrell, Waters opts for a deeper exploration of extended vocal techniques while staying rooted in the jazz tradition. Waters would also take part in the Marzette Watts Ensemble, but after her son was born in 1969, she moved from New York to Mill Valley, California. She would stay out of the musical spotlight until the 1990s. In the past 20 years, she’s played various shows and festivals, which can be heard across a number of recordings: 6.12.17 (2017), Live (2019), and An Evening in Houston (2020).
More recently, a compilation titled You Loved Me (2022) was released by Cortizona and features tracks recorded between 1970 and 1974. It, like many of her other releases, reveals Waters to be the rare singer where one can sense the actual joy she has in the act of singing itself; that overflow, always perceptible due to the stripped-down nature of her production, is in line with her humble nature. On July 18th, 2022, Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Waters via phone to discuss her childhood, memories of New York in the 1960s, and her decision to step away from music to raise her son.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, Patty, how are you?
Patty Waters: We finally get to talk!
Yes, I’m so happy. How has your day been so far?
It’s been good. I woke up early. Everything is fine.
Lovely to hear. I wanted to start off by asking you about your childhood. What’s the earliest memory you have?
I think flower gardens. My earliest memories are flowers and sidewalks and green lawns. My mother left my birth father when I was two and a half. We took this long train ride from Washington, D.C. to Iowa and that’s where I grew up. That’s where her parents lived. For a while, when she took me back and divorced her husband, I lived with my grandparents until I was four and a half. She was around, but she was working in another town. I think she was working in Council Bluffs or Omaha. I lived with my grandparents and they had a beautiful house. It was a lovely time—peaceful and beautiful. My grandfather was a judge in Harrison County. We ate well and lived well. It was very pleasant.
What did your grandmother do?
She was just a housewife. I have old scrapbook pictures. She passed away early from colon cancer—I think I was about five when she passed away. In that kind of town, they had a funeral for her in their home. That was a pretty intense memory. Lots of flowers everywhere.
Are the flowers that you mentioned earlier primarily related to the funeral?
I think before that I think. In fact, their home had lots of flowers. I can remember a lot of flowers on the sidewalk. My grandmother would take me for walks around the neighborhood between two and a half and four and a half. My grandfather would take me in his car. It was fun, riding with my grandfather.
I’d love to know more about your grandparents. What kind of people were they? Does anything about them in particular stick with you to this day?
I think their security and calmness. There were no dramatic arguments—it was just peaceful, quiet. I remember lots of little toys on the carpet and up the stairway. I had things like Raggedy Ann dolls and books. My grandfather, especially, would read in that big living room. The living room had a big piano at one end of the room and it had a big screened-in back porch. It was a big house. It was lovely. Bird feeders outside.
Did they play piano for you?
No. I didn’t hear anyone ever play that piano. And actually, this piano was given to us when he passed away. My grandfather paid for piano lessons for me.
Did you hear much music from them? Did they sing very much?
After that, I lived with my mother and my stepfather and they played a lot of music. That was important. There was an old radio that my stepfather brought home from the war. He was in the army. I remember my mother taking me with her when he was going off to war. She was upset. I remember saying, “Don’t cry mommy.” But he had to walk down this long hallway and she said goodbye. He actually worked as a radio repair guy, so he didn’t have any combat. I thought that was terrific; I was relieved that he didn’t have to fight. But my mother used to miss him. He sent tapes, little tapes, to us. I remember once he said, “Patty take your medicine.” I don’t know what kind of medicine it was. He was a nice stepfather. When I was a child, he sang. He had a beautiful singing voice, a bass. He was six foot four. My parents loved to sing—in car rides, they would sing a lot. They danced together beautifully. They enjoyed music.
Do you remember any songs that they would sing together?
No. I think they were probably kids’ songs. By then I had a stepsister. I was four and a half when she was born. That’s when I went to live with them, just after they got married. I remember my mother singing a little bedtime lullaby.
I did want to ask about your mother.
She was a housewife. She did push me to perform and do well. She was a bit of a stage mother. She made clothes for me and costumes. They were very supportive. But I think they actually pushed me a little too hard.
Do you feel like there are qualities of your mother’s that have rubbed off on you?
Yes, I think so. She was a loyal housewife. She did all the right things. They went to church. They became very religious. When I was nine, they became Catholic. In my childhood, I often went to Catholic Mass. Not just on Sundays, but other days.
Were you religious as well?
Yeah, I would say I was between 9 and 17.
Do you feel like any of your experiences at Mass or within that Catholic environment shaped your understanding of singing and the arts?
I was a church organist. I sang in the church choir. Because of my piano lessons they asked me to be the organist at my church.
How were your experiences being the organist?
It was okay. I felt pressure. I didn’t think I was good enough. I was a perfectionist, in a way. I was a straight-A student and things like that. So I tried to do my best all the time.
Were you always confident in your singing? Did you always feel comfortable?
No, I was very insecure. I needed to be pushed. I don’t think I would have done it if they hadn’t pushed me.
Do you feel like there was an important moment in your life that you recognized that you were a capable singer and that you could do this?
People would invite me to perform. In my childhood, I won awards. In school, I won awards. I was popular in school. I was voted for popular things. I remember, when I was 14, I won a county fair. The prize was a calf (laughter). I think when I was about 16, I started singing with the Omaha Offutt Air Force Base musicians. But that entailed driving. I had to drive there and it was a pretty long drive while I was still in high school. It was a little too much to maintain good grades and sing, but I was doing it.
That’s a lot on your plate at such a young age. So you were winning these competitions when you were a teenager. Were you still feeling insecure?
I always felt inadequate, yes.
Do you think there’s a particular reason for that?
No, I don’t think so. One thing I think about is how the Catholic religion didn’t want you to feel very confident. At least in my family, we were supposed to be very humble. In contrast to nowadays, they try to tell women, “Be confident, be brave, be a rebel if you want to be a rebel.” But they weren’t like that. Everything has to be very humble. No bragging. And they didn’t either.
Despite all this, it seems like you were still very bold.
I agree with that. I had expected to go on to college but they told me they couldn’t afford it. It was sort of a shock because I hadn’t thought of anything for my future. But then they said, “You’re 18 now, and it’s time to leave home.” It was really hard. I would be homesick. I remember I wrote letters, and tears would wet the pages as I was writing. They would write back “Don’t be lazy!” It was a situation where I really couldn’t do it well enough to really make them happy. I felt like a failure. I traveled around the Northwest with bands from Los Angeles. We’d sing at little clubs where people danced. Some were big bands. I remember singing “When Sunny Gets Blue” at Apple Valley Inn in California—places like that would hire singers.
What was your most memorable performance in the Northwest?
Rapid City, South Dakota was fun. My parents surprised me. They drove from Iowa. I didn’t expect them. They came to visit while I was singing. They didn’t make it to California, but they did make it to Rapid City, South Dakota.
How was it when you saw them in the crowd?
I think I saw them in the middle of the show. I don’t remember. I didn’t know they were coming but I knew they had arrived. And then we took pictures after. I was happy they came.
Do you remember what they thought of the performance?
They liked it. And of course I was wearing all the clothes my mother had made for me. I think they liked it. They thought I looked pretty, I sounded good. In that kind of quiet way, they were supportive. Next I had to leave home. I didn’t expect that. They drove me to Portland, Oregon, and I lived there in a rooming house.
Were there any people in your life who helped you through this time?
No, not really. I was lonely. But then I went to Los Angeles, and I auditioned for the Studio Club for Girls and I lived there for a while. I actually watched a documentary recently that showed that Marilyn Monroe stayed there. She said she didn’t like it because it reminded her of her orphanages—she thought it was too much like that. But I thought it was special. I liked being considered an artist. You had to audition to be there, and it felt a little bit glamorous (laughter).
Do you remember the first person you met there who really left an impression on you?
Actually, I knocked on some doors in Los Angeles. I met Quincy Jones. It was when he was young. He sat behind a desk and he wasn’t very tall. It was before he looked older—he looked very young and handsome. And he was very nice. I don’t know what I said and I don’t remember what he said, but I thought it was very nice of him to see me. I don’t know if he did that for a lot of people. He could tell I was sort of star-struck. Actually, I was hired at a place called the Royal Lion in Ventura and I sang there. They provided an apartment with a piano for me and I had a swimming pool. I was living the California life with my swimming pool and piano in my apartment. And they paid for it!
You weren’t trained to be a singer, right?
I took piano lessons, but I didn’t take voice lessons.
What sort of things did you do to improve as a singer?
Oh, gosh, I just listened to music constantly—anytime I was just sitting around. It was fun to be with other musicians and just listen to everything, to soak it all in. In Los Angeles, I’d go to the Musicians Union and people would rehearse there. I’d listen to them practice, people like Marty Paich and Gerald Wilson and Terry Gibbs. I just went to hear people play music in clubs all the time, like at the Lighthouse. Chet Baker used to play out there a lot on the beach. I went there so often, I’m sure he was one of the people I heard there. But at the other places in Los Angeles, the Sanbah, Red Garland played there a lot. I’d go there to see any music. And at Shelly's Manne-Hole. I’d just listen to everything I could. After I moved from home I just soaked up all the music I possibly could all the time.
Was there a favorite venue that you loved going to?
Well, I went to San Francisco after L.A., and I used to go to The Black Hawk. I met Miles Davis there and he took me home one night. He encouraged me not to be afraid and to accent my strengths. That was very nice of him. I showed him music I had written and he made a couple time corrections for me.
What do you feel like your strengths are?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t know. I remember I would see singers perform. I remember I wrote a fan letter to Peggy Lee.
Did she respond?
Yes, she sent an 8x10 glossy. Probably someone who works for her. Mostly I would just listen to musicians. When I went to New York, I saw Judy Garland in person, and Peggy Lee in person a couple of times.
I love both of them. I’m curious to know what drew you to Peggy Lee’s music?
I listened to her on the farm in Iowa. I grew up listening to her. I don’t know. I liked her choices of music. I still have some old CDs of her. I don’t play them but I have them (laughter). I have a kind of collection. Like, I have 25 Billie Holiday LPs. Through the years, I was collecting.
You mentioned Judy Garland. Are there any of her films that you’re particularly fond of?
A Star is Born (1954) was awesome. I lived in New York at that moment and I went to see that movie with Judy Garland and James Mason. It was fantastic. And seeing her in person at the Palace—I loved that. I loved hearing the orchestra under the stage. It was kind of like movie music. They would play a few before she came out and her songs would be introduced. It was just very glamorous.
Having seen so many shows and performances in your life, what did you want to make sure audiences got out of your shows?
One of my favorites was singing with Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard. I liked being respected. I recorded at Savoy Records. I had written lyrics for “Lonely Woman.” I can’t say. I did know a lot of music. I would go to libraries and look through music lyrics and memorize a lot of lyrics.
What sort of things did you learn about the act of performance from the people you had seen perform?
I really just kind of stood in front of a band. I moved very little. I have a funny story. I remember one time in New York, I went somewhere—out to Long Island or something. There was this woman and she sat smoking in the back room. She looked like Lucille Ball with bright red hair. It was actually a strip place (laughter). I asked if I could sing. The reason I wanted to was that I thought I could get some stage experience. That was one of those big stages where I was able to walk a little. I went out to sing and I had this sparkly black sequin gown on. And the guys in the audience—it was almost like an afternoon show. “Take it off! Take it off!” (laughter). After one song I left the stage. But you could almost make a movie out of this woman in a back room playing cards with the bright red Lucille Ball hair. And the audience of not very many people, it was like an empty room. But the musicians were under the stage and playing, and that was what I loved. The band played my arrangement. It was fun (laughter).
That’s an incredible story.
I know, it’s funny! (laughter). For other places I sang in, there was Minton’s, up in Harlem. I sang at Herbie Hancock’s house. He was really nice once I first got to New York. I had known him in San Francisco. He said, “You can use my piano until you get your own.” I bought a beautiful Steinway piano but I had to make payments, and I didn’t keep the piano because I fell behind. But it was a beautiful Steinway. All I had in my apartment was the bed and the Steinway (laughter). And it was okay. I worked as a waitress during lunch hour on Wall Street so I could go out every night and hear music. I’d go to the Five Spot and to Slugs’ Saloon in the Lower East Side. Mostly those two.
Do you have any memories of Herbie Hancock?
He was terrific. He was so nice. He was a nice friendly guy in San Francisco. I lived at the Swiss American Hotel and it was directly across the street from the Jazz Workshop. So I went there all the time. He was just a nice guy. Always. I met his sister and his girlfriend. Nice guy.
You said you worked as a waitress. Did people ever recognize you while you were working?
No, not really. I remember I worked at the Denver Hilton Hotel. A lot of my jobs then were as a cocktail waitress. Others were at steakhouses. After your shift you have a steak and a baked potato (laughter). I used to think the better the quality of a restaurant, the better the food for the staff. We had the best food at the best restaurants. Which is still probably true.
What year did you go to New York?
It was right at the time Kennedy was assassinated. But I was for sure in San Francisco in ’63, because I was still going to the Black Hawk. But it was probably the end of ’63 or early ’64 when I arrived in New York. There were some musicians I used to be friends with in San Francisco, and almost all of them moved to New York in late ’63 or early ’64. It was sort of like a migration. Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, Joe Lee Wilson, Monty Waters, Jimmy Lovelace, Art Lewis, and others. It was interesting. They were all friends and musicians in San Francisco, playing in little clubs. That year was the year everybody moved. It was interesting. Flip Nuñez stayed behind in San Francisco. He used to play in North Beach. He would play piano for himself and sing all the standards. He was a nice guy. Beautiful voice. He sang all kinds of stuff.
What was New York like at the time when you arrived?
I first moved to West 57th Street. I’d walk up and down the streets there and hear classical musicians rehearsing. That was the area. On West 57th, there was a place called The Cellar. I first heard the Sun Ra band and some other musicians playing free music there, and it was something new. I went there a lot, and I met my son’s father—Clifford Jarvis was playing in the Sun Ra band. He’d walk me home at night because I lived right there. That was nice. And we sort of fell in love. That was really nice. That was when I first moved to New York. I moved to other places like the Greenwich Village area. I can’t remember the street but it was very busy. I’d see Bob Dylan going into record stores because his curly hair was so noticeable in Greenwich Village. But there were places where they had some jazz like the Village Gate and of course the Village Vanguard. But there's an area right there, where I had an apartment for a while. And then I moved to the Lower East Side, to East 5th Street, and that was when the free music was sort of starting. I was meeting more musicians who were into that.
The Lower East Side musicians and the area was friendlier than the Upper West Side. In the Lower East Side, people were running in and out of each others’ apartments. That was the first time I remember hearing The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. And free music was happening then. Ornette Coleman. I met people there, but I didn’t meet Ornette. Albert Ayler would come to my apartment with his brother. Charlie Moffett would come by. He played bass. He’s the father of Charnett Moffett now. I remember it was snowing in the Lower East Side. It was pretty. Central Park was pretty. It looked nice in the snow (laughs).
You would then go on to record your first two albums.
Albert Ayler introduced me to [ESP-Disk founder] Bernard Stollman. He took me to Bernard’s office and to his home, and Bernard lived at that time in a big place on Riverside Drive. I met his parents, two brothers and a sister when I visited him at his home—I think they all shared that huge apartment.
We’ve talked about how you were insecure when you were younger. By the time you were about to make these albums, did things change?
I’m always insecure, that’s never gone away (laughter). But I liked the adventure, I like having experiences. And after the first album, we were invited by Bernard to tour the New York State colleges in May ‘66. Giuseppi Logan invited me and that’s how the second LP was made.
Were you happy with the two albums?
Yes. I didn’t expect them to be popular or anything; I just wanted to, maybe, be respected. That’s what mattered. Any of the critics or poets who saw something in those albums—that’s what I liked best.
Are you the sort of person who looks towards validation from others more than yourself?
Maybe in those cases, when I put something out. I’m always interested in what they say. I’m very delighted because it’s been positive. I didn’t expect such a positive response.
How did you decide on the different songs for the first LP?
I had a piano and was just fooling around, writing a little.
When performing, is there a specific aspect of the music you find yourself having to concentrate on most?
Singing is number one, lyrics are number two, and piano playing is number three.
Why is that?
Well, I’m not the best… I’m not the best at all of them (laughs). Like what Miles Davis said, I had to accent the best of what I could do. I’ve always just been a singer. I like expressing lyrics. I’m happy with producing something and putting things together like a puzzle. I want the piano accompaniment to match the lyric and the singing; I try to make them match each other.
Do you recall an early moment when you felt the power of being a singer?
I think the Sings recording session went very well. The musicians and the people in the control room were excited after that, and it made me happy that it was a successful session. I wasn’t sure that it would be (laughs). I felt like my singing was an act of composition. I was writing—I was orchestrating—as I was singing. That’s a big idea, but that’s what I was trying for.
Are you the sort of person who could say the words you sing in songs in general conversation? I’m thinking of a song like “Please Make Love to Me.”
That’s an easy answer (laughter). I prefer to sing them in a song, I much prefer that. I’m too shy to say those words, and it’s easier to sing. One of my favorite songs is “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” and it still rings true, things like that. And “Lonely Woman,” I really meant those lyrics that I wrote.
I really respect your decision to step out of the music world to take care of your son. I’m thinking about what you shared about your parents earlier, and how your life was one that was really committed to taking care of your child. Were you scared to make that decision at the time?
I don’t have any regrets. However, I had a lot of yearning and longing for unresolved, unfulfilled wishes and desires. I still deal with those things. But even leaving New York after my son was born, I just knew it was the right thing to do, to bring him to California and raise him. I missed New York very much, though. Still, I feel grateful for all the music I heard. I heard some of the best jazz players in the world—I’m so lucky. It is one of the joys in my life. And while I was raising my son, I went to Marin Community College and after those two years I went to Sonoma State University and earned a double major in fine art and humanities. I loved all of that. I appreciated art and architecture.
I’ve had lots of good luck traveling. I’ve been so fortunate to travel like I have, and there’s never been a time I neglected my son. Opportunities would present themselves. I went to Morocco and to Europe for a few months before my son was born, before I was pregnant. And then when I was in California, I went to Europe—quick trips, like two or three weeks. And then in 2003, when I sang at the Vision Festival in New York, I went to Stirling, Scotland the same week for [Le Weekend Jazz Festival] too. I traveled and sang a lot between 2003 and 2019. After Scotland I sang in Sweden and Denmark and the Netherlands and Paris and London and Belgium. It’s a beautiful list of the places where I had always daydreamed of performing. And I was invited to sing, it was incredible! They were just fantastic experiences. So, I’ve had more than my basic wishes fulfilled.
I’m happy that you had all those experiences.
I’m very grateful. And I didn’t leave my son for very long but when he graduated from high school he moved immediately to Hawaii because he loves to surf.
Did you ever learn to surf?
No, never. I’m just lucky to be able to swim (laughter).
How do you think about your legacy in terms of extended vocal techniques and avant-garde jazz vocalizing?
I’ve been credited and I’m just very grateful for it.
I was talking with a friend recently and she was telling me about how much of a delight it is to hear your recordings because of how intimate they sound, like they’re bedroom recordings.
I’ve heard similar things. People have told me that it sounds like I’m home alone, late at night and writing songs. And that’s a pretty accurate picture, I was doing that a lot (laughter).
More information about Patty Waters can be found at her website. Waters’ two albums on ESP-Disk, Sings (1966) and College Tour (1966), are available at the label’s Bandcamp page. Her other albums are also available: 6.12.17 (2017), Live (2019), An Evening in Houston (2020), and a collection of songs record between 1970 and 1974 titled You Loved Me (2022).
Thank you for reading the 111th issue of Tone Glow. The very thought of you makes my heart sing.
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