“[Betty] created a whole lineage of study of jazz music,” says singer-flutist Melanie Charles. “I think that her doing ‘Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul’ was important to add her perspective to the table. That very lyric is at the core of what I’m about — jazz is ‘taters and grits.’ Forget about respectability politics! Even though Betty is the highest evolution of jazz, she was still a full Black woman.”
With “Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women,” Charles pays tribute to those that preceded her as she reimagines the work of luminaries such as Carter, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln and Sarah Vaughan. She also drew inspiration from several of the female figures in her own life and career, but there was one young woman in particular who helped guide the ultimate direction for this project.
“[When] it was time to start making decisions about the pieces, it was around the time of Breonna Taylor,” Charles says. “It was clear to me that if I’m going to do a remix project right now, it needs to be songs sung by women who have always [tried] to communicate our experience in this country.
“As Black women, it is complicated for us to manifest love and being loved and being in relationships,” Charles continues. “And I think a lot of it sends out how we sometimes don’t know how to ask for care and consideration because culturally, we’re the backbone — ‘I got this’ or ‘I can do this.’ I’m tired of that. The way that no justice has been done for Breonna — like George Floyd took over everything. I’m not saying that one death is more important than the other. It’s just that what is resounding for me is that this Black woman’s life is gone and we are really chill about it.”
Charles was born and raised in Brooklyn, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the projects before her family of 10 moved to Bushwick.
“I grew up there in the hood, hearing gunshots at night, but my mom was a jazz lover and a lover of art and performance,” Charles says. Charles took piano lessons as a child before joining the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in her teens, but credits her Brooklyn upbringing as her biggest early influence.
“Hearing salsa music at the grocery store or my grandma having prayer meetings in the house, then singing like old Haitian church songs — that being in my ear — or gospel and spirituals from church,” Charles says. “I feel really blessed that right in my home, I was surrounded by so many different sounds and cultures and different generations of music.”
Her path to jazz was an unorthodox one. She specialized in playing the flute in high school and also sang and dance in her school’s musicals. But Charles initially set out to become an opera singer but was steered away during an early audition.
“At that time, you would do an evaluation before the audition to talk about your goals,” Charles says. “I sang for the lady, and I told her also how I was into the flute but also a classical church girl. She was like, ‘You have a beautiful voice, but I think that if you like jazz and all of that other stuff, then do that.’ ”
She joins a long list of Black musicians who were discouraged from a career in classical and opera. “At the time, it felt really discouraging and negative, but to be honest, I’m so grateful that I didn’t do that,” Charles says. “The skills that I received shaped my instrument in a way where I have the technique, but I still have the freedom vocally that I probably wouldn’t have had if I went straight opera.”
Charles attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, focusing on jazz vocal studies. Despite her training and lifelong exposure to music, she felt somewhat behind her fellow students. Studying with educator Janet Lawson, once she felt that she had the technique, Charles explored how jazz could reach younger audiences. “I guess that I was always interested in how we can bring jazz back to young people,” Charles says.
Earlier this year, she received a call from Wynton Marsalis to sing with him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and for Charles, it marked a revelation. “I realized that the way I interpreted jazz, what Lincoln Center and Juilliard represented when I was a student at the New School, was so far away from actually what the reality is,” Charles says. “It is actually rooted in soul.”
“I feel like I’m walking in the path of my ancestors and the people that paved the way for me,” Charles says of the new album, which is her debut for Verve Records. “Like Sarah Vaughan, being able to put out music on the same label as her — reinterpreting the music that she has done — is a really important thing for me.”
“It’s not a secret that right now, people are waking up to the importance of the value of Black women across industries,” continues Charles. “Not to sound arrogant, but it’s about time. We’ve been putting in the work, and I appreciate that the label knows that it’s time for that shift, and, hopefully, audiences will support and nurture that to pave the way for other Black and Brown female musicians.”
That idea is at the center of “Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women,” where Charles not only attempts to position these women as forebears of this music but also explores the totality of who they were as artists. While she eagerly awaits the chance to develop original music, she welcomed this opportunity to explore the works of artists who were influential for her.
One of those that paved the way for Charles was Marlena Shaw, an artist she was especially excited to cover for the album. Shaw was the first female artist to sign with Blue Note Records in 1972, recording five albums in all for the legendary label while being one of the few women on its roster.
“I think that’s the way that [Shaw] speaks is so elegant and sexy and soulful, and her skill for telling a story is so incredible,” Charles says. “Marlena Shaw is someone that I consider a jazz vocalist, but I think that people tend to think of her as an R&B singer.”
The version of “Woman of the Ghetto” is one of the highlights of the “Black Women,” showcasing the soulfulness of the original and Charles’s own strengths as a vocalist. It’s also something of a thematic centerpiece of the project. “I really wanted to highlight . . . like we may be women from the ghetto, but we come in different shapes, sizes and styles,” Charles says. “We are not a monolith.”