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Bansko Jazz 2010 – Lila Ammons

May 25, 2011 by · No comments

Interview by Dessislava Berndt with the singer Lila Ammons

Jazz Festival Bansko

The International Jazz Festival in Bansko is one of the biggest summer musical events in Bulgaria and one of the foremost international cultural happenings on the Balkans.

Since its foundation in 1998 the festival has been held every year from August 8th to 13th in the small town of Bansko. The concerts are free for the public.

Traditionally, the programme features styles and groups representing almost all jazz trends. During the festival week jazz is also played on various smaller stages in the large resort complexes and restaurants.

Today we would like to present you the singer Lila Ammons who participated 2010 in the XIII International Jazz Festival in Bansko.

Lila, what does music mean to you?

This is a big question. For me music is everything and I am related to music more than anything – from very young age. We had a lot of music in our family. All of my siblings played an instrument at one time or another, and my parents loved music. So there was always music in our home, all kind of music. I was listening to classical music, music of the 50s, jazz from my parents, rock and roll, British rock, American folk, R&B…

Lila Ammons, Photo: Alex Dobias

We were all born in Chicago, and we lived in a neighboring city all of our lives, so of course we were exposed a lot to the music there. I was always involved in music. It has always been a source of comfort for me, because it is something I can do well; I think it is my strength and one of the strongest talents and abilities I have. It is pretty much my life since the day I was three and started teaching myself how to play the piano. It has always been a part of my life.

When did you decide to start singing and not just play the piano?

I was always singing: in the kindergarten, in the church, at school and at high school… I was always participating in something musical. When I got to college I tried some other things first, then I decided I want to do music. For a moment I thought about the piano but then I realized that my real talent is singing.

You are the granddaughter of boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons and the niece of tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. How did this environment affect your personality and your music?

I was a teenager when I learned about my grandfather and uncle. It was my parent’s way of protecting us from a very risky lifestyle, at the time. But music was obviously in our genes. We all studied classical. My eldest sister was a child prodigy on the piano – she was my earliest influence. She was 10 years older than me and she was playing very well and attending a lot of competitions. I had a very early introduction to classical music and lessons. But we all love music. It is really a big part of my whole DNA and my environment. I had no choice 🙂

You spent twelve years singing in opera, recitals and oratorios in the US and Europe, as well as doing commercial and film work. Why did you decide to perform boogie woogie?

I discovered that opera was not fulfilling for me. My original choice was to move to California rather than New York, to do commercials and to be a studio musician. I have the ability to read music by first sight, and that’s a necessary skill in the commercial/studio business. I can read almost anything immediately. I wanted to do movies, background singing.

I did do some of this in New York, but I was focused on the opera. Several years later, I made my decision to leave New York and take some time to decide what to do next.

One of my brothers convinced me to move to Minnesota, where I am now. I played around with classical performances for nearly 2 years and finally said, “No more”. I wanted to make sure that opera was over for me.

Lila Ammons
Lila Ammons, Photo: Alex Dobias

I took a couple of years off and then I started singing again and that singing was leading more into jazz. I have made a very slow deliberate transition into jazz music. I had to learn proper microphone technique. But, I had so much exposure to jazz and pop music early in my life, it wasn’t as bad for me as it might be for someone else making that transition.

Lila Ammons, Photo: Peter Brunner

At first I sang far too loud, but it didn’t take me long to find out how to use and readjust my voice. When I met Axel at the Chris Page’s (Christopher Page, author of Boogie Woogie Stomp – Albert Ammons and His Music) house and we started a conversation about Albert Ammons.

As I was singing opera I had started to become more curious about my heritage and met people like John Hammond (the great supporter of black musicians in the 30’s and 40’s). I was convinced that someday I would return to my roots. I realized that Albert was an incredible musician, a legendary boogie woogie pianist and that I would love to do something more so that people could learn about him.

In 2006 Axel and I exchanged emails after 9 years and he said “by the way in 2007 will be the 100th anniversary of Albert’s birthday”. And I thought:”This is perfect. This is what I can do.” So for a year I put together a celebration in different states and festivals, and people also offered to do festivals.

Lila Ammons, Photo: Peter Brunner

I produced the concert on September 22, 2007, one day before Albert’s birthday, in the historic First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. We had five pianists, including Axel Zwingenberger of Hamburg, Germany; Erwin Helfer of Chicago; Carl “Sonny” Leyland of Los Angeles; Bob Seeley of Detroit; Butch Thompson of St. Paul, some Chicago players, and also other non-professional American boogie woogie pianists, who knew Albert and Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, when they were young. We had almost 500 people attending the concert.

Franz Jackson was also there: the 94 years old tenor saxophonist played his first professional gig with Albert Ammons at the age of 16 in 1929. And, of course, my father, one of Albert’s sons, Bishop Edsel Albert Ammons, was there. (He passed away in December 2010.) All of my brothers and sisters were there, too.

2010 was your first time at the International Jazz Festival Bansko. How was it?

The Jazz Festival in Bansko was an amazing experience for me. I felt that the people loved this kind of MUSIC. This music has penetrated them as well, because it is music loved everywhere, all around the world. I really enjoyed the time in Bansko. We were welcomed and treated so well! It was a wonderful experience and a beautiful place.

We were also in Sofia, where we played at the new residence of the German Ambassador. We had the opportunity to see some beautiful churches and the icon museum. We had only few days, but I would love to come back.

You were performing with boogie woogie and blues pianist Axel Zwingenberger. In 2008 the first CD “Lady Sings the Boogie Woogie” was released. For you, what was the most surprising experience working with Mr. Zwingenberger? And with other musicians?

First, I have a lot of fun with Axel performing everywhere, and I have been able to do something that I’ve always loved – to travel. We have performed as a duo in about 10 countries, so far. Through our travels, I am constantly surprised by the level of interest and the degree of knowledge that people in other parts of the world have about the roots of American music.

England and the British musicians, especially The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie with Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones-Drummer), have been an unexpected pleasure because everyone can understand English and the innuendo of the songs. Of course, performing with Charlie Watts is a once in a lifetime opportunity, as well.

What are you dreaming about?

With regard to boogie woogie, it would be my dream to expose it to more people here, in the US; to remind people about it. We’ve had revivals of Rock&Roll and ragtime, and we are still in a swing revival of sorts.

I want to see it with a boogie woogie and classical blues. It is a different kind of music and people have to listen a bit differently to it. It is not the like electric Chicago blues. It is a bit more sophisticated, not as familiar. But these are truly the roots of what we are listening today.

It has enhanced my other singing and gives me other opportunities because not many people are singing it. Every time people hear the music they are excited.

I dream of pursuing a project with well-known musicians in the area of heritage music and preservation, and would like Axel to be involved in this project.

On the other side, I am continuing with a standard jazz CD that is in the middle of production. It is my debut recording. I also recently founded here a jazz quintet and we play classic blues to bebop locally.

We have very good young pianists here and I hope that they will look into boogie woogie and get the blues roots. Yes, to inspire some young people is my dream.

What is the most important thing that people should know about you?

During the tour with Axel I also discovered new things about myself. But, I am just like everybody else, really. I am following my passion. I am lucky to be with people, allowing me to do that. And I am really learning to be more generous.

When I was very young I wanted to be a cultural ambassador, to go around the world and spread a good feeling through music, help people to communicate. I still feel everyone understands the language of music. Trying to reach people, this is me.

Lila Ammons is the granddaughter of the legendary boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons and the niece of tenor saxophonist Gene (Jug) Ammons.

She studied classical voice in New York and then spent twelve years singing in opera, recitals and oratorios in the US and Europe, as well as doing commercial and film work.

She relocated to Minneapolis where she has appeared at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, the Artists’ Quarter, Bellanotte, Rossi’s Blue Star Room, the Dakota County Jazz Cafe, the Minneapolis Hot Summer and Winter Jazz Festivals and others. There, she is teaching private voice lessons and working on her debut album.

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