Jazz singer Lizz Wright: I would have been a preacher

(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on April 2 2016.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

American singer-songwriter Lizz Wright learned how to sing in church and when she walked into a recording studio she made music her friends and family would like.

This meant her debut album Salt followed the traditional style of gospel music she grew up with in Georgia, United States.

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PREACH: American singer-songwriter Lizz Wright is scheduled to perform at the Cape Town International Jazz festival tonight (SATURDAY). Wright recalled in Cape Town yesterday how she grew up in a Christian household without TV, which has had an impact on her music. Picture by Yazeed Kamaldien

This has not stood in Wright’s way though of recording blues, folk, gospel, jazz and pop music in subsequent albums.

Wright is scheduled to perform a selection of her recordings at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this evening (SATURDAY) when the two-day festival ends at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Wright yesterday recalled in Cape Town how her father wanted her to follow their family trajectory and join the church. She is one of three children born to a minister and musical director of a church.

“I come from a long linage of ministers and preachers. It was very tempting for me to take that path,” said Wright.

“My father said he would pay for my college tuition if I would study computer science and go to community college and get ordained.

“I just couldn’t go after it in this traditional sense. I have always had trouble marrying myself to any strict ideology.”

Wright said while she did not confine herself to one ideology she “studied a lot of them out of curiosity”.

“I’m called to the undercurrent beneath ideology and tradition that connects us,” she said.

“When it comes to my quest for truth or comfort, I look to nature and then look back at people and try to understand how nature is at play.”

Wright is now recording her sixth album and still likes the “call and response” style of gospel music that led to a “seamless transition to jazz”.

Wright said she had been surrounded by jazz musicians in church and that led to working with them regularly.

“A lot of the jazz musicians played in church on Sunday and in the week they played in clubs,” said Wright.

“I deeply appreciate that the world recognises me as a jazz artist but twentieth century gospel is really where I come from.

“My journey with making records has been interesting. I grew up in the church and music was all about communion with people. Since I was five years old to 19, all I done was sing in a way that made people sing back to me.”

“Gospel music is the root of all I do. In the south of America, intentionally, life has slowed down. And people are very invested in tradition.

“I learned these old ways of singing because that’s how I grew up.”

Wright said she has meanwhile lost the “self-centredness” that comes with being a recording artist where a life in the public eye becomes inevitable. Moving to the mountains of North Carolina state has helped.

“I live in close communion and observation of nature. I moved to the mountains,” said Wright.

“I live in my writing retreat when I’m not traveling or hanging out with friends in bigger cities. It gives me strength. It is my way of returning to the gifts of my childhood and it keeps me sustained.

“Nature reminds me that we never fall out of the cycle of life. We are never without to ability to create and learn.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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