Camille Thurman Is A Rare Jazz Double Threat

Aug 24, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 5:26 pm

In the world of jazz, most musicians choose one single thing and get as good as humanly possible at it, but not Camille Thurman. She's known as a double threat: The rare jazz musician who has mastered both a highly technical instrument — in her case, the saxophone — and sings. Thurman's vocals have been compared to Ella Fitzgerald. Her latest album, Waiting for the Sunrise, is out now.

Thurman was 15 years old when she was gifted her first saxophone by her aunt's mother-in-law. Thurman recalls the manner by which she received the sax as a "story you would dream of."

"I call it The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the jazz version," she says. "The house is all dark, the stairs are rickety, you open the door and see all these papers on the floor. It looked like the room hadn't been touched in 30 years. And in the closet was a 1967 Selmer Mark VI Tenor Saxophone untouched."

As for singing? Thurman says she's been singing for fun since 4 years old, but never thought to take it seriously until she picked up her instrument. She would learn the saxophone solos by singing and scatting them, although she never realized that's what she was doing until one day at Jazz in July camp, an instructor pointed it out to her. "Is it possible to instrumentalists to sing and scat? Because we think we have one among us," Thurman recalls the instructor saying.

Camille Thurman performs at the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala in New York City.
Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images

As she's gotten older, Thurman has realized the pressure for women in music to be vocalists first and instrumentalists second. She says she often "throws people off guard" when they find out she's an instrumentalist as well as a singer.

"I remember when I first found out Sarah Vaughan was a pianist and it blew my mind away." she says (Though she was an accomplished pianist and composer, Vaughan was more prominently promoted as a singer.) "I was like, 'How can you just put one part of a person or an artist's gift out there when there's a whole person?'"

Thurman hopes that her music will expand people's ideas or expectations of what a jazz musician can be. "I think it's giving that awareness to people to see and to hear that this exists and that there's a high level to it, too."

Thurman spoke with NPR's Ailsa Chang about the recording process of Waiting for the Sunrise and showed off her scatting skills live in-studio. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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In the world of jazz, most musicians try and get as good as humanly possible at one single thing - not our next guest.


CAMILLE THURMAN: (Singing) I just found out about love, and I like it. Yes, I like it.

CHANG: Camille Thurman is the rare double-threat. She sings with vocal chops that have been compared to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. But she's also mastered a highly technical instrument, the tenor saxophone as both an improviser and a composer.


CHANG: Both of her talents are on full display in her new album "Waiting For The Sunrise." It's a collection of songs by other artists reimagined in Thurman's own way. There are songs from a bunch of different genres and styles, from pop to Brazilian to soul and jazz. She assembled a band of seasoned musicians, people who had played with everyone from Ray Charles to Miles Davis. And she told me that they recorded the album in a unique way.

THURMAN: You have this object that's shaped like a human dummy (laughter). It's like the torso of a mannequin, and it has a head like a human. And there's one single microphone, and there's a receiver going through the ears.

CHANG: There was no mixing, no dubbing extra tracks later, just Thurman and the band gathered around that one human-shaped microphone which captured the sound in 360 degrees.

THURMAN: If you were there, you would have been laughing because I'm positioned directly in front of the microphone. And to sing, I have to be right in front of it. To play, I literally have to run to the other side (laughter).


THURMAN: There are some tracks where you can actually hear me walking to the other side of the band to play the horn and picking it up and then putting it back down and walking back in time to sing again (laughter).


CHANG: So that's you playing the sax.

THURMAN: And that's me running and walking.


THURMAN: (Singing) The leaves are brown, came tumbling down. Oh, remember that September, yeah, in the rain.

And you have to make sure you get back in the perfect spot to sing, too.


THURMAN: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: I want to understand how someone takes on two different realms of jazz simultaneously, like, sax and singing because with either of those, it's incredibly hard to set yourself apart. How old were you when you picked up your first saxophone?


THURMAN: Well, I was about 15 years old when I picked up my first saxophone, and actually, the horn that I ended up getting - it was kind of fate and God because my aunt's mother-in-law who I call my aunt - she saw me one day, and I was kind of really down. And I was like, you know, I got this scholarship, but I have to play tenor, and tenor is a big instrument.

CHANG: Yeah.

THURMAN: And it's ugly, and it's low. And I'm a girl, and they're going to make fun of me.

CHANG: (Laughter).

THURMAN: And she was like, oh, I got one upstairs.

CHANG: Really?

THURMAN: Yeah. I mean, it was, like, a story you would dream of. Like, I call it "The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe," the jazz version 'cause, like, she literally said, let's go just upstairs. And I went upstairs. The house is all dark. The stairs are rickety. You open the door, and it's like (imitating squeak). And you, like, see all these papers on the floor. It looked like the room hadn't been touched in 30 years. And in the closet was a 1967 Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone untouched.

CHANG: Behind all these heavy coats. Now I'm sort of imagining the book in my head now (laughter).



THURMAN: Yeah, it was like that (laughter).

CHANG: So when did you begin to sing?

THURMAN: Well, I had been singing since I was 4 years old, but once I started picking up the saxophone, I would learn the solos by singing it.


THURMAN: (Singing) I'm on your side (scatting).

And I didn't realize that I was scatting. And I remember one day I went to a Jazz in July camp. And I was in the shower, and I thought everybody was gone, so I started practicing my scatting (laughter). And one of the ladies later on in the class asked Sheila Jordan, like, hey, is it possible for instrumentalists to sing and scat - because we think we have one amongst us.


CHANG: This rare specimen.

THURMAN: Yeah (laughter).


THURMAN: But then as I started getting deeper and deeper into it, I also started realizing the realities of, you know, society. Like, I would go to school every day, and people would ask me all the time, can you really play that? Show me. I want to know right now. Do you really play that thing? And as a young girl, I was like, OK, society's making me feel like there's something wrong with me playing an instrument that maybe...

CHANG: Is big.

THURMAN: ...Is big, or it maybe isn't normally seen with a woman. But then you're like, well, but I want to prove that I could be the best that I can be.


CHANG: Is there pressure in jazz specifically for women to be vocalists first and instrumentalists second?

THURMAN: You know what? I think it's even outside jazz. I think as society in general - because it's what's - how can I say it? Like, I remember when I first found out that Sarah Vaughan was a pianist. And it blew my mind away because...

CHANG: You had no idea.

THURMAN: I had no idea when I was younger. And then it dawned on me. I was like, wow. So wait a minute. The majority of her career was promoted being a singer. And then I found out she was a composer, too. But, like, most of the stuff you hear was the "American Songbook." And I was like, wait a minute. How can you just put one part of a person or an artist's gift out there when there's a whole person?

But then even today, like, I've had many people talk to me. Like, we'll talk, and automatically they'll assume you're a vocalist. Like, well, yeah, but I also play an instrument, too. And sometimes it kind of I guess throws people off guard. Like, oh, women actually play instruments, too. It's like, well, yeah, if you read - crack open a history book, you'll see. So I think it's getting that awareness to people to see and to hear that this exists and that there's a high level of it, too, that's really, really good and that you should consider opening your - or expanding your mind to include that into what you think of a musician to be.


THURMAN: (Singing) You'd be oh so easy to love, so easy to idolize all others above.

CHANG: I love the story of how you got into scat singing...

THURMAN: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...Because you were just imitating the sounds of instruments in your head. And...


CHANG: You know, scat singing - it's this dying art. And when I listen to you do it, it blows my mind away.

THURMAN: (Laughter).

CHANG: And I hate to sound like such a fan girl right now, but I'm just going to do it. Can you do a little bit for us? Can you give us a little demonstration of some scat?


CHANG: Yes, yes.


THURMAN: (Scatting).

CHANG: Saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman - her new album is called "Waiting For The Sunrise."

THURMAN: (Scatting). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.