In Tribute: Amy Winehouse

I've played jazz music since I was nine years old. My first private piano teacher thought I might have a knack for it because I picked up on theory and chord changes so quickly. He pushed me to play jazz, blues, ragtime--anything in that nebulous American jazz wheelhouse. I just loved it. It's almost seventeen years later and I'm still obsessed with jazz. I write jazz. I play jazz. I seek out shows where I can music direct or perform jazz. It's a lifestyle.

Amy Winehouse is a big part of why jazz, blues, and soul influences have made it back into contemporary hit radio/mainstream media. She ushered in this minor wave of retro artists from England. Without her, it's unlikely artists like Duffy and Adele would have been given a fair shake in America.

But this isn't about who she did or didn't pave the way for. This is about my relationship with her music.

There's a good reason I avoid blogging about myself and I'm sure it will rear its ugly head again after this post goes out. I've almost gotten used to it. Almost. Every so often, something happens that I can best examine in this blog format. Something that might actually help, entertain, or move someone else. Despite my best intentions, it upsets a certain group of people who make it quite known that they hate everything about me. I am sorry for them at this point.

I've seen first hand the influence of this British soul/jazz wave in America. Ten years ago, schools in the area I music direct for were not doing shows with jazzy or bluesy scores. They were thought to be too hard and too out of touch with what the students would actually know. Since Amy Winehouse's American breakthrough with "Rehab," more schools have taken a chance on jazz shows. It's a great opportunity for the students to learn something beyond the easy to produce standards that will only help them later in life if they choose to pursue performance.

My own students had the opportunity to do a big jazz musical recently. I listened to them at their auditions and realized they were using artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele as a modern frame of reference. They weren't picking up that understanding of rubato, dark vowel sounds, and instrument imitation from the cast recording and they weren't getting it from most of the other stuff on the radio. I could hear just about the same riffs or inflections on various tracks in Winehouse's two albums.

I'd walk around backstage and hear the students talking about Winehouse's album Back to Black over four years after it came out. I remember when some of those students weren't sure what to make of this new-to-them sound when it came out. Now they were pushing it on their friends. I heard them cover the songs with guitars and keyboards and even string ensembles for fun. Something in this throwback music was appealing to the students. If they asked me about it, I'd steer them towards other older artists who did the same kind of music. Suddenly, I was hearing standards coming from the choir room door as students waited for rehearsals to begin.

I know that some people will just dismiss Amy Winehouse's death. She was a drug addict. There are people who view anyone struggling with addiction as sub-human or other. They don't deserve sympathy because they aren't really human anymore. While I don't agree with that viewpoint, I won't begrudge those who hold it.

I am saddened by Amy Winehouse's death because she had the opportunity to revolutionize the modern pop machine. One more album could have been all it took to start shifting away from the recent surge into electronic instruments and vocal modulation. If people are buying acoustic music with unaltered vocals, record industries will sign similar artists.

More than that, artists like her who can command a stage with just the power of their voice are a good example for young musicians. Too often, more is equated with better. Sing louder, sing faster, sing more notes and you are the better musician. This attitude breeds young musicians who are uncomfortable just holding a note or following a simple melody. Artists like Amy Winehouse show that does not need to be the case.

I'll miss seeing that level of control in a genre so often marked by unpredictability. There is power in it that few of her contemporaries have even tried to achieve. That's the saddest part of all. She set the bar so high for other young artists and very few are even trying to reach it, let alone surpass it. We need more singers like Winehouse who want everything done just right with their music.

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