The beginning of an artist’s career sits like a long path in front of them that winds and curves into a horizon that can’t be seen clearly. Before the artist even steps onto the path, music might be a passing interest or a hobby that keeps them happy during downtime. Something about the trip to artistic self-awareness grabs the artist along the way, securing an undying level of commitment to the journey, wherever it may take them. While an artist may have a plan once they head further into their journey, it often leads them to unexpected places, both personally and artistically. Despite an artist’s steadfast determination to keep their eye on the goal, life happens, leading them towards new influences. It’s the twists and turns of the career that actually makes an artist interesting, providing them with the tools to traverse new situations and the insight to define their artistic priorities. Once they reach the other side of their struggles, a new artist arises, with distinct opinions about performance and composition, as well as defined ideas about music’s place in the world. While the artist may emerge as a more mature and experienced musician, their journey has not ended, they’ve simply reached an artistic plateau. The path never ends; each plateau signals the beginning of another journey for the artist and over the course of a lifetime, the artist continues to evolve. It’s a highly personal endeavor – there’s not one way to make the journey, everyone’s path is different, and they all reach unique destinations.
Vocalist Kat Parra’s trajectory has led her through a number of winding paths, landing her in the forefront of the San Francisco Bay Area’s lively Latin Jazz scene. Parra spent her childhood immersed in music, exposed to a wide variety of styles, ranging from the best in classical piano to the psychedelic sounds of San Francisco rock. A year living in Chile exposed Parra to South American culture in a big way and began a long line of performances as a vocalist. Parra moved between the piano, the guitar, and the flute before settling upon the voice as her main form of expression. Studies at UCLA, San Jose State, and Havana, Cuba helped shape Parra’s artistic vision, refining her performance skills. Along the way, Parra found strong mentors in different musicians, such as Cuban flautist Danilo Lozano, jazz vocalist Patti Cathcart, and trombonist Wayne Wallace. She developed a presence as a Latin Jazz vocalist, presenting her able jazz chops in the context of Caribbean and South American rhythms. An interest in Sephardic music led to research and study, eventually developing into a blend of the old and new where Parra mixed Sephardic traditions, Caribbean and South American rhythms, and jazz. The journey has left Parra with a unique artistic vision and a distinct musical personality that sets her apart among her peers.
Parra’s recent release Dos Amantes finds the vocalist delivering a mature musical statement that gives a clear picture of her current vision. The path that led Parra to her current artistic concept twisted through a number of experiences, filling her head with interesting sounds and ideas. In the first piece of our three-part interview, Parra sets the stage for her artistic development that would place her among the Bay Area’s top Latin Jazz artists and establish her as an innovator in the mixture of Sephardic music and jazz.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: I wanted to give LJC a full picture and go all the way back to the beginning – so, I read that you grew up in a musical family with your Dad playing classical piano, what were some of the early sparks that got you interested in music?
KAT PARRA: Well, actually it even goes back farther than that. I have a great uncle whose name was Aube Tzerko; he was a famous classical piano teacher. He studied with Schnabel in Germany when he was younger, so he was definitely very old school. But he had terrible stage fright. He was supposed to be the next huge classical pianist, but his stage fright kept him from achieving that goal. So he became a piano teacher and he ended up teaching many of the most famous pianists in the world today – Emanuel Ax was one of his students. Uncle Aube and his wife were both artists (she was a modern dancer), so they were the ones that really started sparking everybody. My Dad definitely had musical talent, there’s no doubt about it – he was actually a phenomenal singer. He had been scouted by some people who wanted him to audition for the Mikado – he was really into Gilbert And Sullivan – but my grandmother wouldn’t allow it. In those days, being an artist was not O.K., and she wanted him to be a doctor. She wanted him to be wealthier than they had been, because they had grown up pretty poor. But he also studied piano and he was just fun to watch because he just loved to play really, really fast. I just remember as a little girl watching him playing these amazing really fast runs, and it would just crack me up to no end! So he definitely was an inspiration for sure.
LJC: When did you start jumping into music?
KP: Well, we were all required as children to play the piano first, which honestly, was really one of the best gifts that my parents could have given to me. The foundation of the piano and keyboard is so beneficial. When I sing, especially when I’m singing difficult lines, I envision the keyboard, that’s my foundation. At five years old, that’s when I started learning how to play the piano. My brother was two and a half years older than me – he would have to go practice and he never really wanted to practice. So I would be the one practicing for him! He would show me what to do and then he could get away with playing while I practiced for him. When I was caught, then it was time for me to start piano lessons.
I played piano for about five years, and then the hippie era happened and I wanted to play guitar. I studied with a man who had roomed with Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane, an amazing finger picking blues guitarist. My guitar teacher knew that style really well, so I worked for him for a couple of years. But the guitar didn’t lay out like the piano, it’s much more confusing. I gave up the guitar for the flute – Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull was much cooler than Jorma Kaukonen! I actually became very serious about the flute; I studied classical flute in San Jose while I was growing up there. I auditioned to UCLA as a classical flute student and amazingly got in. I studied classical flute down there and it was very, very competitive. I was seventeen when I went to college, so I was very young. Going to a place like UCLA, which is huge, and moving to Southern California, which is a different type of culture, was tough. I was incredibly shy, so I practiced a lot. That way I could hide in the practice rooms – I practiced like six hours a day, but I never had any confidence in my playing.
I did have some great experiences when I was there; I met Danilo Lozano, who is a pretty well know Latin Jazz flautist who lives in Southern California. He took me under his wing. We played in the orchestra together and the symphony wind ensemble. Then a Latin American music group was started; it was really awesome. It had Danilo, a big Cuban American guy who played not only the most amazing flute, but also amazing timbales as well; there were some Puerto Ricans in the group, and you know, people from all over. It was really fun. It kind of grounded me in all the chaos.
LJC: Was that your first jump into Latin music?
KP: Well, I lived in Chile, so I would say no. When I was in high school I went to Chile as an exchange student. I was very fortunate to be matched with an incredibly musical family. I performed a lot when I was living in Chile; I performed in a lot of festivals and won some awards. I had a partner who was a guitarist and we would go around doing a lot of singing and playing together. So that was a start . . . but my Dad was really the one who exposed me to Latin music with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66. That was it at the time. That was my first exposure, and it all just kind of builds up from there. Getting into Danilo’s group was kind of establishing it for real. Living in Chile really was a huge life change for me – a 360-degree change. I really felt much more akin to the Latin culture after leaving there.
LJC: How long were you there at UCLA?
KP: I was at UCLA for two and a half years. I ended up getting married when I was eighteen; I met my husband to be when I was living in Chile. He came to the United States and we lived in Los Angeles while I was going to school for about a year and a half. I ended up getting pregnant and it was just about time to stop. I had finished all my theory classes at UCLA and that was really the goal that I had. Our theory teacher had threatened everyone on the first day of the eight-quarter class that only ten of us out of thirty would be left at the end of the year. And he was absolutely right! I was determined that I was going to be one of those people, so I finished my theory courses with him. We decided to move back up here to Northern California. So I didn’t finish my studies there, but I had enough!
LJC: Were you into jazz at all when you were there at UCLA?
KP: I didn’t even know what jazz meant. You know, to me, jazz was popular music at the time. My uncle Aube taught at UCLA, so I would go and observe his classes; that was one of the highlights of my days. He always had open classes so I could go and observe his classes. But when I moved back up to Northern California, I enrolled at San Jose State to finish my studies and discovered this thing called jazz. And I realized how little I knew about theory and harmony after studying for two and a half years at UCLA. I remember having a conversation with my uncle that every classical musician should have to study jazz, and he was ready to kill me because he was so old school. But I really truly believe that. But I also think vice versa – every jazz musician should understand the workings of classical music as well.
LJC: When you came back up here and enrolled at San Jose State, was that right away, or did you take a break for a while?
KP: I actually enrolled at San Jose City College first; I took some classes there and played in their symphony. So I was still playing flute at the time. Then I had my first son, and I think that he was a year old when I went back to San Jose State. So yea, I took a break from the four-year university.
LJC: When you were at San Jose State, you studied with Patti Cathcart, how was that?
KP: I went and saw Patti perform at the Flint Center with Tuck and was completely . . . well, I cried the first time I saw her perform. I was just so completely blown away by her honesty and the way that she just weaves a web around her audiences with love. It just feels like you’re being pulled into a giant embrace when they play. At the time Patti was adjunct faculty at San Jose State, so I started studying with her. She has just been an amazing influence on me, and she keeps me honest. She is definitely a straight shooter and she really knew what just to say to pull out the music from the soul instead of keeping it all in that superficial level. I will always be grateful to her for that.
LJC: Did you start leading groups and gigging right after that? What were you doing musically after San Jose State?
KP: I did try to lead some groups – it was all Top 40 at the time. Then I joined a group called Touch Of Class, which was an R n’ B/Top 40 group. I stayed in music, but let’s be honest – I had two kids and I was a single parent by the time I left San Jose State. Being a full time musician was not really an option for me, so I waited tables. I was a waitress for eight years after I graduated from college. It was perfect – I worked during the day and I was able to be home for the boys when they got home from school in the afternoon. Then if I had gigs at night, I had a wonderful support system that would take care of them so I could go and do my thing. It was all about Top 40 and then I slowly started moving into my own groups. We did an Acid Jazz group . . . but I always liked singing in different languages; I have a facility for different languages. And I always liked bringing world music into my music, so I always snuck it in wherever I was.
Make sure that you check out Part 2 of the LJC interview with Kat Parra where she talks about her move into the Bay Area Latin music scene and the recording of her first two albums. Check it out HERE.
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