Nice Work If You Can Get It by Fred Setterberg
The singer steps into the light. A soft, bright aureole gathers around her face—her blue eyes cool,
her blonde hair flipped at the shoulders of her very plain, black, very hip dress, which itself melts
into the darkness.
She sings “I Remember Clifford”—Benny Golson’s tribute ballad to Clifford Brown, the most lyrical
of 1950s post-bop instrumentalists. It’s like hearing the song for the first time: so exquisite is the singer’s rendition, a perfect musical moment. And when the trumpet player eases out from the shadows to join her in the spotlight and nervously fingers the valves of his horn the second before
he begins to blow, Molly Holm, jazz singer, bows her head slightly to consider each note, and a
lariat of appreciation and energy and (there is no other word)—joy—encircles the audience.
“I don’t remember that night,” Holm later admits. “I couldn’t have even told you that I’d done that performance.” Sitting on the piano bench facing an old upright in her Berkeley music studio,
the singer waits for one of her voice students to arrive and takes a minute to ransack her memory.
“That must have been at least ten years ago, right?” She wears a black sweatshirt, blue jeans,
a veteran red down vest; her hair is yanked back provisionally—music teacher-style—not in the glamorous fashion prescribed by the spotlight. “Thanks for reminding me—I’m glad to know I
Over the past ten years, Holm has sung with a sufficient number of jazz choirs and orchestras,
night club pick-up bands, theatrical productions, and experimental music ensembles to account
for any one gig drifting into gauzy forgetfulness. She was a member, and served as assistant director, of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, the most consistently intriguing a cappella group to emerge from the Bay Area—and in whose company Holm toured Japan, Brazil, the US, and made television appearances on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, and Arsenio Hall’s original late-night variety show.
As a cast member and music director of George Coates’ multimedia production, Actual Sho, Holm appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington,DC, as well as at theater festivals inYugoslavia, Germany, and Poland. She has toured Italy twice with the eclectic improvisatory group Khayal,
led by pioneering minimalist composer and keyboardist Terry Riley. And over the years, between
gigs, Holm has carved out a reputation as a superlative director of jazz choirs, leading the fourteen-memberJazz Mouth; the eight-woman ensemble De PloyJoy; and the fifty-five-voice Oakland Jazz Choir. She has twice been a California Arts Council Artist-in-Residency, founded a jazz singing program with inmates at the state prisons inSacramento and Vacaville, and conducted workshops
as a guest artist with the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Pacific Mozart Ensemble, UC Alumni Chorus, and Western Music Educators Alliance.
In short, Holm is a seasoned, accomplished musician who has made an enormous contribution
to the cultural life of the East Bay. Now, at 42, she finds herself facing that most nettlesome, but inescapable, question that lies at the heart of the professional dilemma for so many musicians—and countless painters, composers, dancers, actors, and writers of every stripe: How do you secure your future as the real thing, the authentic artist?
By now, Holm has been around long enough, succeeded and failed and compromised sufficiently,
to grasp the hard truth: the world is largely indifferent to whether she is full of song or silent. Talent means less than most of us believe; talented people surround her. Timing could be everything.
Or luck. Or persistence.
Or God knows what.
Portrait of the artist in early middle age: you want to continue your career in music, this glorious life, but is anybody listening?
The next several steps feel perilously important.
* * *
When it comes to improvising,” insists Holm, “there is no right or wrong. Improvisation is about personal expression, it’s about the joy of discovery.”
When she speaks about music, especially jazz and scat-singing, Holm can’t help sitting up a little straighter, fidgeting with just a bit of nervous ardor. (”I told this man I was going out with last year that scat-singing was my favorite thing to do. ‘Your favorite?’ he asked. ‘Yeah, get it right—it’s my favorite thing, okay?’”) But for all the sensuous anticipation involved in the hallmark pleasures of performing, rehearsing, even daydreaming about music, the singer knows that the song can easily get choked
off from the start.
“Fear is the number one barrier,” she acknowledges. “I see it with my students, both kids and adults. People are always worried about making mistakes. ‘Make a million mistakes,’ I tell them. I don’t know if it’s our society in particular, but there seems to be this pervasive notion that if you can’t do something well, right away—this minute!—then you’re not any good. I feel we’re losing the art of slowly learning how to do things.”
Holm eased slowly into jazz. As a child in Salem, Oregon, she first studied the classical piano, giving recitals every year. “In my family,” she recalls, “the rule was you had to take piano lessons
for four years, and then you could quit. I was the only one of us who kept going. I just loved it,
and I worked into a schedule where I’d get up at six to practice for an hour,and then come home
from school to practice another hour. I didn’t think twice about it.”
Throughout her childhood, the house hummed with the background strains of what Holm and her siblings always referred to as “Mom’s music”: various incarnations of the Ellington and Basic bands, Billie Holiday, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus. In high school, Holm started singing with the church choir and her ears widened some to absorb Stevie Wonder; then on to Flora Purim and Pharoah Sanders. Meanwhile, her brother was switching from piano to guitar to trap drums to African percussion. (He now runs a small recording company called Village Pulse that specializes in Senegalese drumming, Sufi trance music, and the like.) There were other proximate influences who broadened Holm’s interests: this guy in Salem who played alto saxophone and went on to record with Dave Frishberg and Robert Cray; another guy from town who wound up as musical director for the Pointer Sisters. And so naturally. Holm’s ears kept getting bigger and bigger.
By the time she hit the East Bay to attend Mills College, the most startling sounds to capture her attention were coming from pianist McCoy Tyner and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Holm listened, but she was not immediately moved to play or sing along. In their twenties, people often opt for the slower, zigzag road—life appears to be much longer than art. And so Holm dropped out of college, quit playing the piano, quit music altogether. She enrolled in pre-med courses at UC Berkeley, flunked chemistry twice, dropped out again, signed up for music writer Phil Elwood’s renowned history of jazz course, and when Elwood presented the Charles Mingus tune, “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat”—a piece her mother must have played around the house at least two hundred times before—she listened carefully as though she were now hearing it for the first time.
Holm’s father, an orthopedic surgeon, expected his daughter to become a mainstream professional. “Doctor or lawyer, that’s what we all were supposed to be,” she recalls. But by her mid-twenties, Holm had started singing once again, quickened by the music that surrounded her and the absence of palatable alternatives. Indeed, she sang with far greater intensity and passion than she applied to anything else in her life. “All I wanted to do was rehearse,” she remembers. “I am still the Queen of Rehearsals.” She joined the UC Jazz Chorus and began taking voice lessons with jazz singer Faith Winthrop. She returned to Mills for a BA in music and then an MA in composition (studying with Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, and north Indian raga singer Pandit Pran Nath). Slowly, slowly, she began to imagine a life for herself in music.
In the early 1980s, one of the most pleasing, amiable vocal groups gigging around town was Jazz Mouth, a tight, rollicking choir originally formed by Michael West and the late Dennis Kaufman and run out of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Richmond. Holm auditioned, joined the group, and soon emerged as a dependable ensemble singer and soloist, applying the cool, distinctive long tones of her strong alto voice to jazz standards such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.” In 1984, she advanced to Jazz Mouth’s directorship, working with arranger and lyricist Barry Warren over the next two years to fashion a distinctive sound for the group.
It was in those days a delicious luxury to drop by the now-defunct Erle’s Solano Club on weeknights, catch the last set, and listen to Jazz Mouth’s signature sing-off tune—the act’s seamless harmonies applied to a lush treatment of the heartbreaking ballad “What’s New?” People at the bar would stop talking; for a moment, they•would even step drinking. Everybody in the group appeared to be having so much fun on stage—the contagion of enthusiasm spread instantly down the slender corridors of the hole-in-the-wall club, filling the place up. For Holm, the desire in those days to step into the spotlight marked a distinct change from her earlier experience on stage giving piano recitals as a teenager. “Back then,” she says, “I had this notion in my head—’Eschew all vanity.’ I’d wear hiking boots, blue jeans, flannel shirts, no make-up. I didn’t like performing on stage. It just called too much attention to myself.”
At Erle’s, however, she had no trouble calling attention to herself, and to her voice: a fluid, birdsong alto, winding and lilting, with barely a hint of vibrato; a voice like the woody middle register of the clarinet. At some point during the night, Holm would step forward, really just then beginning her career as a professional musician, and scat her way madly through several choruses of the Horace Silver tune “Nica’s Dream,” and the house would fall out.
* * *
Molly’s Dream: She is riding into New York City on the back of an elephant. The rhythm of the ride
is disturbing, discontinuous. “Oh,” she thinks, “this is an example of chaotic motion.” So she gets off the elephant. And the elephant turns into a bear and runs away.
If you live in the Bay Area, you usually don’t run into bears, of course, but you can still be afraid of bears.
She goes to the theater, where she’s apparently performing. Back in the green room or somewhere offstage,she meets with Bobby McFerrin, McFerrin’s manager, and a bear trainer. The trio inform her that she has been selected to confront the bear in the arena onstage. “You don’t understand,” she tells them, “I will die of fright, I can’t do it.” But it’s got to be her, nobody else. And so she agrees,because there’s really no choice. And now the trainer announces to the audience that the bear has been recovered—but unfortunately, he’s having a little problem at this moment with rage.
He is a raging bear. And when he enters the auditorium, he looks like he’s going to tear up everything in sight. So Holm wrestles the bear. And she doesn’t know what’s happening exactly, but suddenly the bear is at her feet, like a puppy dog—you know, kind of lying on its back, cycling its huge, hairy legs—and she’s stroking its stomach.
“I don’t know what that dream is about,” says Holm. And she laughs.
* * *
"I’m an improviser.” Holm says. “It runs throughout my life. Sometimes I think about what Anthony Braxton said about improvisation in jazz. ‘If you don’t make a mistake, you’re making a mistake.’
I love that. Take when I’m teaching—I often work from the intuitive level. I ask myself: ‘What’s not working for this singer, and what’s my intuition say about what needs to be jiggled to get past wherever he’s stuck?’”
Tutorial improvisation doesn’t always work out. When pressed to perform past their perceived limits—asked to listen to “the music in their heads” and stretch towards those sounds—students have occasionally been known to storm out of the studio. Far more frequently, there are tears.
“Singing is so emotional,” she admits. “It’s not necessarily that I’m pushing so hard. But people want to do what’s being asked of them—and they want to face that fear inside themselves.”
So Holm passes along the box of Kleenex. And she keeps talking, letting the students know that it’s okay that they’re crying, nothing’s wrong with whatever they’re feeling. That’s part of the lesson, too.
“Maybe there’s a section in the song where all of a sudden, the person isn’t singing with any feeling,” she adds. “We’ll stop right there and do some breathing exercises. Inevitably, it brings up tears. The breath is so strongly connected to the emotions—and so there’s a catharsis, a little meltdown of the emotional stuff. That’s true for me, too. My breath is my lifeline—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. I was thinking just the other day: “What’s the difference between air and breath?’ You breathe air, but when does it become breath?” You know what I’m saying? When does the external become internal?”
The pressure of the external upon the internal is also a factor in forging the singer into the artist—transforming the avocation into a passionate career. A few years ago. Holm woke up to find that everything steady, fine, and reassuring in her life had changed. She and her husband of many years divorced; she left the familiar, comfortable home where for the previous two decades she had taught, rehearsed, and practiced. She stopped directing the Oakland Jazz Choir. Voicestra disbanded. Several of its members, including Holm, formed a new vocal ensemble, SoVoSo;
but Holm eventually quit that group, too. Leaving felt like a second divorce.
“I was having this identity crisis,” she says. “I wasn’t putting my energy into either my performing career or my teaching. Then when my money got funny, I went to work part-time in an electric supply warehouse. Actually, I loved working there—the hard physical labor, the fact that I could sing on the job and not bother anybody. I didn’t want to go back to waitressing because I figured it was too public. In the warehouse, I wasanonymous—who would see me there? But I swear to God, in the first two weeks, five people came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Molly Holm, the jazz singer?’ I’d be standing there in my work gloves, emptying the garbage. It was a total lesson in humility.”
In the end, the lesson led to a new direction. At times in life—another example of chaotic motion?—the artist must take two steps forward, two steps back; then maybe there’s this little
dance off somewhere to the side. Holm kept singing with choirs and small bands; she made some money and paid her bills. Most of all, she sang for herself, and the flicker of enthusiasm that had always animated her walk, her voice, and the graceful fluttering of her hands as she speaks, now mounted to the point of insatiable need. She had to sing. And she began to think about what exactly she had to do now to wrestle that big bad bear to the ground and turn him into her own sweet pet.
* * *
It’s not the competition that feels so daunting. Every artist contends with talented competitors,
and in every field, there are so many eager souls equipped with the requisite dedication and
guts—at least, when they’re first starting out. In any case, in the beginning, the stronger voices
that surround you register more as influences than competition. The real competition, as anyone
will be happy to tell you, is always with yourself.
By the mid-’80s, Holm had spent two decades listening hard to Ella Fitzgerald, Flora Purim, Astrud Gilberto. She had learned “Lullaby of Birdland” note-for-note from an old Sarah Vaughan album. Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, both seeped into her singing (their signature tune, “Centerpiece,” has been a part of Holm’s repertoire for years).
Then, more confusingly, one of her influences became a mentor; and on stage, apparently, a peer.
“I think Bobby McFerrin’s a genius,” she says,recalling the six years she spent in McFerrin’s a cappella group, Voicestra. “There were times on stage when I had never before felt so happy in my life. Times we’d start improvising, one voice coming in on top or around another voice, and something would get connected between us.” Voicestra was. Holm admits, an “unwieldy” group. “Bobby picked ten people to work with him who were strong-willed, ornery, independent—vocal! On stage,we had unique personalities and musical gifts, but we were able to come together under his direction—you know, under his music—and flourish.”
Holm met McFerrin when he first moved to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. “Every once in a while,” she remembers, “he’d come to one of my gigs. So he knew me as a jazz choir director.” At the time, Holm was grappling with the practical problem of combining voices in a manner that retained the unique character of each person’s timbre—their vocal identity—while simultaneously creating a pleasing group blend. McFerrin was thinking along similar lines: one voice, infinitely various,
from many voices. In time, he asked Holm to help him assemble a group of vocalists to rehearse, experiment, and then casually perform around town.
“This was before Voicestra,” says Holm. “We did these gigs at the Noe Valley Ministry. I can’t remember if it was sixteen or twenty singers. We didn’t have a name yet.” But the shows hinted at a method Voicestra would soon put to exemplary use. “Bobby would improvise a line and then give it to the bass singers to repeat over and over. Then he’d give the tenors an interlocking part, followed by something complementary for the altos and the sopranos. Then he’d solo over the top. Or he’d ask different singers to step out and solo. We’d stand in a circle and sing for an hour and a half, maybe two hours. That would be the gig. Bobby would pay us fifty dollars apiece and we’d go home.”
In time, McFerrin grew more sanguine about the prospect of forming a permanent choir and decided
to formally audition singers. “He didn’t advertise,” says Holm. “It was all word of mouth. But the auditions—I swear toGod, they lasted at least a year and a half. Together we would audition eight
to ten singers at a time. They’d sing solos, and then we’d do some group singing, and Bobby would lead everybody in musical improvisation games or even theatrical improvisation. He’d take the time
to get a full sense of each singer: How quickly could she pickup a part? What was his musicianship like in terms of pitch and rhythm? The other thing that felt really important to him was their spirit.
He was looking for creative, playful spirits—people with something very positive to give.”
At least a hundred singers auditioned for Holm and McFerrin.Only later did Holm realize that at every session, she was auditioning herself. “Bobby had me sing at each audition, even though I was running them,” she recalls. “That must have been ten or fifteen times. I really didn’t know at the start if I would be in the group, though I wanted that to happen more than anything. Some nights, after the improvisational part, I’d think, “Yes, I did great tonight! I know he’ll pick me.’ Other nights, it’d be—’That’s it, I screwed myself, I’m not going to be in the group, that’s the end of my career.”’
Finally, after prolonged anguishing over all the possible combinations of voices, McFerrin called Holm with his choices. “He listed the basses and the tenors, and then the sopranos. ‘Well,’ he asked me, “don’t you want to know about the altos?’ I said: “Well,yeah, I am a little curious.’ I’d been trying to prepare myself: ‘Molly, if he doesn’t pick you, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good singer, it just means you’re not right for what he wanted. It’s not the end of your career.’” At last, McFerrin informed Holm that he had selected her to be part of the group; indeed, every possible combination of voices he heard in his head included hers. “He said: ‘I couldn’t imagine doing this without you.’ And that made me feel really good.”
But joining the group—singing alongside some of the strongest, most appealing voices in the Bay Area, including Linda Tillery, Rhiannon, Joey Blake, and Raz Kennedy, as well as the indisputably brilliant McFerrin—also provided unprecedented opportunities for distress. “Voicestra was a constant challenge to me,” Holm admits. “In terms of the ensemble singing, eighty percent of the time I felt comfortable and strong. My weakness comes rhythmically, sometimes with syncopation, and that’s where I’d have trouble. And I wanted so much to solo. I hate to admit it, but I would get jealous over the amount of soloing some of the other singers did. Then when Bobby did give me solo spots, I wouldn’t always do as well as I thought I could. I know that on improvised solos, I often did very well, but I remember more of the times when I didn’t. Sometimes, I fell flat on my face, which isn’t fun to do in front of a big audience. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who would occasionally flounder. But the point is: What I wanted and what I was able to do weren’t at the same place.
“I’m a perfectionist, I’m very hard on myself, any little mistake gets exaggerated. But even knowing that, the experience of that disparity could be an enormous source of pain, angst, and anxiety. I mean, many times I’d find myself crying backstage—you know, privately, but literally crying. Sometimes, I’d cry on stage if I could get away with it and nobody would see. It all had to do with the gap between where I wanted to be in terms of the level of my artistry, and where I actually was at the time. Why wasn’t I there yet? I had to look at that. What’s holding me back? What are the obstacles inside me?”
* * *
After practicing her morning t’ai chi, Holm executes the standing meditation. At times, when she has been practicing each day, she can work up to fifteen minutes of remaining perfectly still, feet set apart at a sixty-degree angle, arms extended in a wide, off-kilter hoop. Then the course of her breath runs up and down her body, from the top of her elevated skull to the soles of her feet, and she feels herself in space and time, she feels only herself in space and time—slowing down, slowing down precipitously, until there is very little else in the world besides this body of hers standing motionless and that powerful locomotive of breath that is her lifeline; not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
And she must wonder: When does the internal become external?
“I was talking with my teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, one time about performing,” she says. “He told me, “There are three kinds of performances. There’s the kind where you just try to please the audience. There’s the kind where you try to please yourself. And then there’s the kind where you try to please God, and that’s the highest kind of effort.’ I’m trying to incorporate that vision in my performing these days. I know that I’ve got to get happy in the music; I’ve got to be moved. And I’ve got to feel connected. I’m completely uninterested in somebody who can run up and down the scales, master all the arpeggios, do fifty million licks. The technical aspect. If I’m not moved, what’s the point?”
Holm is thinking today about club gigs, the challenge of supporting a performance on the strength of her own shoulders—the task of fending off that big ursine fear that remains constantly lurking. “My worst nightmare,” she says, “is being so self-conscious during the middle of some club gig that everything drops to a dead silence. It’s not that the silence in itself is bad, as long as you’re carrying your presence—you know, if you have an intent. A performer has a responsibility to carry the energy, to keep it up and moving forward. You focus on the music. You focus on the job to be done.”
She muses about the demands of nightclub patter—the staggered, seemingly spontaneous rap that singers must deliver between numbers. Drop the energy—and the silence can be as intrusive as a wild animal unleashed on stage. Suddenly, the performance is breathless.
There is so much to think about these days.
For the next step in her career—the solo career that she has been working towards all these years, the necessary advance that she must make to secure the creative achievements and public recognition that she has long desired—Holm is planning to record a demo CD. Across the country, there are no doubt countless other jazz singers, accomplished artists with talent, dedication, histories, admirers—artists like Molly Holm—who are planning their own demo CDs intended to
land bookings, club dates, perhaps even, eventually, a recording contract.
So this demo CD better be good. “I’m not interested in doing a little tape for $1,500,” Holm insists, relaxing outside on the lawn that surrounds her Berkeley music studio, contemplating on this particularly bright and beautiful winter afternoon what’s required to make the CD real; where the
money will come from. “I want to do four tunes, CD-ready. That’ll run about $5,000. I’m writing a business plan, talking to investors. Frank Martin is going to help me produce it. We’ve had one rehearsal, and the hard part for me so far is narrowing it down to just four tunes.”
Holm is almost certain about one song: “Good-bye, Pork Pie Hat,” by Charles Mingus—”Mom’s music”—with lyrics by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, rather than the more frequently heard Joni Mitchell version. She’s also considering Chick Corea’s “Sea Journey” or “74 Miles Away” written by Joe Zawinul, formerly of Weather Report, and Dinah Washington’s accompanist in the late 1950s. In rehearsal, Holm has fiddled with “Sea Journey” in both 4/4 and 6/8 time, while the Zawinul tune is written in 7/4—both good examples of what would feel to many people like chaotic motion.
The third number will be a ballad, maybe a standard, like “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
There’s one other tune Holm very much desires to include on the CD. It’s her own composition,
written in 10/4 time. The tune is titled “The Bear.”
“Oh,” she muses, ticking off the remaining tasks on her opened hand, “I’ve still got to select the musicians to record with me, and then arrange for studio time—it’ll probably take three days. Well, four days. Anyway, enough time to give myself room to make mistakes.” Once the CD is pressed,
200 copies minimum, Holm will pass them out to friends she has made in the music business over the past decade, such as McFerrin and Don Moye, percussionist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as all the necessary business contacts in the booking and recording worlds. Holm has already stepped up her performances in the BayArea, singing in recent months with small vocal ensembles and solo gigs with piano-bass-drums accompaniment.
“Here’s my CD, here’s my photo, here’s my bio and reviews,” she says, rehearsing the future. It all sounds like an enormous undertaking, really another job on top of the endless job of being a singer and the ordinary job of making a living, but Holm insists she’s up for the struggle. “I’m driven,”
she says. “I can never do enough.”
What would success ultimately look like?
She doesn’t miss a beat: “I would like to have a regular band. I’d have the money to pay the musicians for rehearsals as well as gigs. And I’d like to tour—hit several cities over two or three weeks. And I want to get into the studio regularly, write, and record. I want to collaborate with other singers, maybe produce them, collaborate with other musicians.” Indeed, there seems to be no end to plans and possibilities. Holm is the real thing: what success really means to her is the opportunity to keep working. Rehearse and perform, and then rehearse and perform some more, do it again and again: finally, that is what this life is all about.
And if her efforts do not produce immediate results?
She shrugs. “I don’t know how to lose the desire to perform.” Holm is speaking to herself, but also speaking for all those other singers and musicians, the innumerable artists of every variety, whose struggle to prevail most of us will never really appreciate or even recognize, though they persist for years upon years.
“Sometimes,” says Holm, “actually, right now, I’d like to lose it, but I don’t know how to imagine not wanting to be a singer. That’s such a bleak, empty place—there’s no way you could make me go there. I want to be playing with other musicians, I want to be pushing the edges. Always, I want to be in the middle of the music.”