Singer Veronica Swift
heck out the film clip of Anita O’Day singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and you’ll see the epitome of stylish singing. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and all the other greats had their distinctive ways with words, but for Veronica Swift, O’Day is the one. “She’s such a big part of my sound and my phrasing,” said the singer, who plays the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Friday, Nov. 9. She had just performed at a Los Angeles event sponsored by Ken Poston’s Los Angeles Jazz Institute in October. “They had a lot of the original charts, and I got to sing all of Anita’s old scores, and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ was one of them.”
Swift is in her early twenties, but her taste also embraces King Pleasure, Annie Ross, and Eddie Jefferson, the early-1950s pioneers of vocalese (in which the voice emulates an instrumental part), as well as June Christy, whose career was jump-started I when she joined Stan Kenton’s jazz orchestra in 1945 — filling the singer spot recently vacated by O’Day.
Swift grew up in a jazz family. Her mother is the vocalist Stephanie Nakasian, and her father, Hod O’Brien, was a pianist. “When my dad was my age and younger, he started out playing in New York with [trumpeter] Art Farmer and [bassist] Oscar Pettiford’s band in 1958 and with Chet Baker. He was one of the cats! And mom, touring with Jon Hendricks in the ’80s, I’m just so lucky to have had the childhood I had, growing up touring with them and being exposed to the music at a very early age.”
At the age of nine, Swift worked on her first album, singing with her mother, her father’s rhythm section, and saxophonist Richie Cole. She performed at the “Women in Jazz” series at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola when she was eleven, then two years later, she teamed up with saxman Harry Allen for another recording. Swift went on to study at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. In 2015, she won second place in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz vocal competition, and in 2016 she performed at the Telluride Jazz Festival and earned her degree in jazz voice at Frost. She moved to New York City and was soon playing Saturday nights at the renowned Birdland Jazz Club.
Swift possesses a dynamic voice with a controlled vibrato and often breaks into scat singing. Her repertoire includes jazz from the 1920s and ’30s, bebop and vocalese standards, and selections from the Great American Songbook. She is dedicated to jazz, but rock is also part of her sphere. “I’m not stuck in the older times,” she said. “I’m still very much an evolving artist today, and I’m a writer. I write musicals and screenplays and I like to live through my characters that I write about. As musicians, even, we’re all actors, you know? It’s theater — and I really love rock and opera. A lot of these types of music are very dramatic, so that’s where I get to explore my dramatic side. Jazz is, for me, the more subtle art form.”
At the end of October, she was in Miami recording songs for a musical. “It’s about a female bandleader in the 1920s and it’s inspired by Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway’s older sister and the reason that he was a musician. It’s a story I’ve written, including about the complications that come with being a female. It’s very much in with the times today.
“I’ll just say that when I was in college, I really didn’t want to do jazz, because when you do something for so many years you kind of just need to take a break,” she continued. “Right before the Monk competition, I spent a few years writing a rock opera, very Marilyn Manson-esque. And then when I came back to jazz, I had the edge that I was missing before. In a sense, that’s maturity, too, having that experience, because I wasn’t growing up with any hardships. Rock music got me that edgy spirit that was missing before.”
A few gigs after Santa Fe, Swift is back in New York, where she plays 10 sets at Birdland, Nov. 20 through Nov. 24. “I used to play every Saturday, but then my career has me on the road so much. Now I can only appear at Birdland two weeks of the year, in July and Thanksgiving week.”
After four days’ rest, Swift begins a two-week gig called Big Band Holidays at Lincoln Center. She said she doesn’t know much about it yet. She has only done one concert with a big band, which was a re-creation of a famous Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall. The tribute concert featured the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. “He liked the way I sang, and they asked me back, with Vuyolwethu Sotashe, who was also a finalist in the Monk competition. Vuyo and I are both going to be singing for the Big Band Holidays. I have no idea about a songlist yet. I’m just looking forward to singing with one of the great orchestras around today.”