"It's where the magic happens" - jazz star Tina May opens up ahead of live-streamed London show

TIna MayTIna May
TIna May

Celebrated jazz singer Tina May’s upcoming show at Crazy Coq’s - which is being streamed live - pays tribute to the late, great musician, Duncan Lamont. She talks to STEVE CAIN about life during lockdown, the toll that Coronavirus has taken on the entertainment industry and why live gigs are so crucial.

Hailed by critics as one of the UK’s finest jazz vocalists, Tina May finally has something to be pleased about.

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Like many others in her profession and beyond, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on both her career and her mental well-being.

‘I was on a concert tour in Scotland when the lockdown was imposed,’ she recalls. ‘One by one, I saw all my future tour dates – scheduled for the United States, France and Italy – cancelled and all my recording sessions postponed.’

Tina May: "My sanity was saved by my friends, family and pet cats"

With no cancellation fees due and minimal help from the government, Tina’s financial prospects looked bleak.

‘Being self-employed or working freelance meant that many were left without help,’ explains Tina. ‘I was one of them. Luckily, I am an hourly-paid lecturer at the Guildhall School of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the London College of Music. So I quickly learned to teach via Zoom – that was a lifeline. Although teaching remotely has been great for students and teachers alike, I am looking forward to being able to teach in the same room again.’

Nonetheless, the loneliness of lockdown took its toll.

‘I’ve been a professional singer for 34 years and have never been out of work in all those years. There were times when I just felt very blue,’ she admits. ‘But my sanity was saved by my friends, family and pet cats. Time in the garden helped, too.’

With a seemingly never-ending succession of long days and nights stretching as far into the future as she could see, Tina survived lockdown the only way she knew how.

‘I sang every day and wrote a lot of lyrics,’ she reveals. ‘Music is the best therapy, especially singing and playing instruments. There’s a song, by Duncan Lamont, that’s included in my forthcoming show, called I Just Said Goodbye to the Blues – it’s so defiant, I love it!’

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Tina’s mood lifts when talk turns to the forthcoming performances of 52nd Street and Other Tales at Crazy Coq’s in London’s Piccadilly. The concert showcases the compositions of the late Duncan Lamont, not only one of the outstanding tenor saxophonists of the London bop scene but also the composer of many stunning songs, including Where Were You In April and Manhattan in the Rain.

‘The theme is largely New York,’ says Tina. ‘There are songs about the city’s places, including The Algonquin Hotel, its characters and its stars, such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Bette Davis. We celebrate them all.’

Tina will be accompanied on piano by James Pearson, the musical director of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.

‘He’s a wonderful pianist,’ she enthuses. ‘I sang with his trio on the recording of the album that these concerts are launching. It’s an opportunity to be immersed in songs with imaginative, witty and emotional lyrics and sensitive, stylish, swinging music.’

Mindful of the social distancing restrictions in place and due to the intimacy of the venue, both performances of 52nd Street and Other Tales are also being streamed live.

‘It was suggested we should live-stream the shows, as a lot of people wanted to participate but couldn’t physically be there,’ Tina says. ‘I think it’s great to be able to sing to everyone, and I’m sure Duncan would approve.’

In addition to having enjoyed a successful career on the jazz scene for more than thirty years, Tina’s vocal talents reached a more mainstream audience when she was asked to record Come Fly With Me as the theme song for the ITV docu-soap, Airline.

‘They said they were going to do a pilot and, initially, six programmes about life at Luton Airport and asked me to sing the signature tune. Well, let’s face it, I thought “that doesn’t sound particularly exciting”. Little did I know!’

So, to what does she attribute the success of the series?

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‘I suppose it’s because it’s all about human stories, whether from the point of view of the poor stewardess, the tricky customer or the passengers who find themselves in a difficult scenario. It’s all about people, isn’t it?’

And connecting with people is something that is important for Tina, too.

‘I think the public has missed not going to live gigs, concerts and theatre shows,’ she asserts. ‘Entertainment and communication are the biggest things for me and the combination of words and music is the most natural way. Singing is the most wonderful way of telling a story and songs are the most marvellous little stories, little vignettes, almost snapshots in time.’

Tina is adamant that live entertainment is crucial.

‘Gigs, concerts, theatre shows – that’s where the magic happens,’ she insists. ‘The artists and the audience sharing the experience together is just beautiful.’

Unsurprisingly, Tina was both furious and dismayed when the chancellor’s jobs protection scheme deemed her profession was not ‘viable’ for support.

‘I strongly reject the viability slur,’ she says. ‘The creative industries bring £110 billion to the UK economy, employing an estimated 3.2 million people. How is that not viable?’

Nevertheless, Tina remains determined that she and the profession she loves will bounce back somehow.

‘Artists are sensitive but strong,’ she says. ‘We keep on keeping on and we will not be crushed.’

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52nd Street and Other Tales with Tina May and James Pearson is at Crazy Coq’s, Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED on Tuesday, October 13, at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. Tickets for the venue cost £25. Live Streaming is available at £8. To book visit www.brasseriezedel.com/crazy-coqs or call 020 7734 4888.