Jazz singer who looked after Barry White’s pet dogs
The tireless Ali Affleck on her time in California, and how she juggles several bands at once
IF ever there was a living embodiment of get-up-and-go, it’s Alison “Ali” Affleck, the Scots-born American jazz singer and bandleader who – in less than a decade – has established herself as a popular fixture on the Scottish music scene and one of the busiest singers in the business.
While others struggle to get gigs, Affleck – whose name is synonymous with early New Orleans jazz and blues – is juggling several bands and has so many projects on the back (and front) burners that she must have a super-size Aga in her office.
At today’s Islay Jazz Festival, the ebullient thirtysomething is playing virtually back-to-back gigs with the up-and-coming Tenement Jazz Band, a six-piece outfit from Edinburgh, and with regular collaborators Colin Steele and Graeme Stephen. This comes a fortnight after she completed an Edinburgh Fringe run comprising not one but three distinct shows, as well as a handful of one-nighters.
Affleck’s capacity for cramming a great deal of activity into a short time makes the stories of her adventures before she returned to Scotland in her late twenties far less like tall tales than they would otherwise have been. After all, in the first 15 minutes of our conversation, we have covered five countries where she’s lived, two college degrees, one fiance and several encounters with one Barry White.
Wait, what, rewind – the Barry White? “Yes,” laughs Affleck. “I looked after his dogs. I used to work as a vet nurse in California. I went to community college there and one of the courses I did was vet medicine. I ended up working in a practice for a while and one of the clients was Barry White. He happened to need help with his dogs – jet-black Alsatians, a father, mother and son called Bear, Isis and Sokar.
“I got on well with them so I would groom them, take them out and then return them to his house. He was a nice guy, not the sharpest tool in the box, though. His PAs used to say: ‘We think for Barry so he doesn’t think for himself’. Sadly, we never discussed music. I was only in my early 20s – and not as ballsy as I am today.”
White’s California mansion was a far cry from Affleck’s home city of Dundee. Her talent for singing was evident from an early age, especially to her mother – who had wanted to be an opera singer. “My granny’s side of the family is musical,” says Affleck. “In fact, we are related to the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – somebody researched our family tree and it turned out that she’s my great, great, great aunt.”
Her singing talent was also obvious to her primary school teachers. “I became aware of the power in my voice when I was admonished by my teacher for not taking part in something we were doing. She said: ‘You’re not singing. If you had been singing, we would have heard you above everyone else.’”
During this period, Affleck was mostly singing Scots songs and performing for family and friends. She won the prestigious Leng Medal, awarded in Dundee schools to children performing Scots songs and keeping the tradition alive.
Through her grandmother, who had an impressive record collection, Affleck first heard such iconic jazz singers as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for the first time but it was only when she was living in San Diego in her late teens – “I went there to study photography” – that she got into jazz singing as a result of a newfound interest in swing dancing.
By the time she moved to New Orleans three years later, she was well on her way to being a jazz obsessive. “I got feverishly into researching the songs I was learning,” she says.
The music that grabbed her is that of the early jazz singers. “I have massive affection for these pioneering women, particularly Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, and I love the storytelling nature of the songs they sang.”
With her powerful, gutsy vocals and obvious skills as a storyteller herself, Affleck is well qualified to revive the songs that these strong black women introduced. But she doesn’t do it in an imitative way; she puts them in context with a bit of background information and brings out the humour, feeling and drama in them in a way that makes them feel current, fresh and timeless.
Of course, it helps that Affleck also has a gift for surrounding herself with the best musicians. Returning to Scotland after a long residency in the States, Affleck was lucky to land in Edinburgh just as new opportunities were flourishing for would-be singers. Whighams, a wine bar and restaurant in the west end, had just launched its jazz club and weekly sessions in which singers could have the chance to sing with the house rhythm section, and Affleck, who had finally decided to focus on music after dabbling in numerous academic courses and jobs, became a regular.
“It was great for me,” she recalls. “It gave me an instant way to meet people. The Jazz Bar’s Tuesday night jam session was way more intimidating.”
Also lucky was the fact Edinburgh has a relatively high concentration of terrific jazz musicians who can play in the style that Affleck loves. Through Whighams, she met regular collaborators Dick Lee (clarinets and saxes), Steele (trumpet) and Roy Percy (bass), who have been “a great support – especially whenever I’ve thought of packing it in”. Lee was in the first band