Is it ever too late to become a professional jazz performer?
Apparently not. Rochelle House began her music career while studying at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, in the 1980s. Then, she raised her four children. In fact, she’s still doing that – is a mother’s work ever done?
Her youngest child was about to start kindergarten in the late 1990s when, as House puts it, “I thought I had better get a job.”
She had options, she says: “I thought about all the different things that I could be: a teacher, a therapist, a corporate ladder climber.
“I realized that although there were many things that I could do well, the one thing that I knew that I wanted to do was sing.”
Plenty of people start to think that way, when their lives seem set to take a turn. Often, strangling voices – “the culture” – tells us that thinking about becoming, say, a jazz singer is just as farfetched as setting out to become, say, a world-class high jumper. House admits she was not immune to that thinking. Of singing, she says: “That was clearly a ridiculous choice.”
“But I knew that I was coming into the game at an age when many people are changing their careers. They have grown mature enough to realize that they should be doing what they are called to do, rather than what seemed like the appropriate choice.
“So since I was starting my career about 20 years later I should make my career change now. Do what I really wanted to be doing now.
“Still ridiculous, I know.
“But someone has to do it. Right?”
She began to sing at jam sessions at Tula’s Restaurant, which was then emerging as the friendly, supportive jazz hang that it remains, today. “For a couple of years I religiously attended Kat’s Monday night vocal jam session,” House recalls. “Then Marc Seales started a Sunday night jam session intended for instrumentalists. I just started, carefully, respectfully, passionately, relentlessly, requesting a place on the list. I would go and sit and wait for hours for a chance to sing one song.”
She encountered a problem that many jazz vocalists must: In the still macho, even at times misogynist world of jazz, “chick singers” are suspected and even disparaged. House recalls: “Singers were barely to be tolerated. I would be so scared that I would be shaking and trying not to faint when I finally did get up to the stage.”
And she put up with that? Well, yes, she says, because she found that it was a great schooling. “I consider it an honor to have been allowed onto the stage with these studied musicians,” she says. “It has been a lesson in humility. I learned to let my ego be put on hold, in order to be a better musician. My inclusion into the jazz scene here came, I think, from my absolute dedication to always show respect for the music, which includes the musicians who are my guides into the music.”
House now performs regularly at jazz venues around Seattle. In 2005, she made her debut CD, Dreams of Love, with Marc Seales as co-producer. In addition to being one of the finest jazz pianists in the region, Seales is a professor of music at the University of Washington.
The disc won high praise from local critics. In these pages, Peter Monaghan praised the “knowing, emotionally engaging vocals from an under-recognized jewel of Seattle jazz,” and said that Dreams of Love “breathed life into jazz-vocal conventions. Her singing is not flashy, but it is shot through with qualities that support the tales she sings, where love may be a temporary illusion; or, as in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de beber,” where love desired is unattainable… She may express the fragility of attachment, loss, or longing. She may say much by leaving much unsaid. Her voice is drenched in knowing, disappointed hope. And much else about her singing is of a high order of emotional engagement and communication.”
The disc even earned House a vocalist-of-the-year nomination in the 2006 Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Awards, as well as a spot on the roster of the Earshot Jazz Festival.
Now, House has established herself on the local scene, in part through her own record label, House Records . House established it to release Dreams of Love, and has now begun to produce music by emerging local artists. She also has her own Orchard School of Music where she teaches singing to all types of singers.
These musical activities, she says, are part of her broader vision of progressive social action. While studying “whole systems design” at Antioch University’s Seattle campus, Rochelle came into contact with iLeap: The Center for Critical Services, one of the institution’s outreach organizations. Through a fellowship program, the center brings Asian and African grassroots organizers to Seattle for 10-week intensives on community-based social change and non-profit skill building. Among the goals of the fellowship program, says House, is “creating a global network of individuals working in service of their own communities’ wellbeing.”
It is in the spirit of programs like that that House crafts her music, she says. Jazz can be, she firmly believes, more than just beautiful art; it can also be a positive force in the world. As one of her compositions puts it: Every child born has come to save the world,Ask any little boy or any little girl. Maybe we should show them how.Maybe we should show them howto save the world.
“Music affects people, emotionally and spiritually, and at an unconscious level,” House says. “Politics is the public face. Politicians can’t really speak their minds. They are trying too hard to not ruffle any feathers. Singers can speak to the people and get a message across that might not be possible by any other means. That’s what I think anyway. Art is really what changes beliefs.