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Lewiston: Northwest Jazz Festival headliner Veronica Swift forging her own path

by jmaloni
Sat, Aug 18th 2018 07:00 am
Veronica Swift will perform in Lewiston. (Photo provided by Northwest Jazz Festival)
Veronica Swift will perform in Lewiston. (Photo provided by Northwest Jazz Festival)
Managing Editor
Somewhere around the age of 9 is when Veronica Swift started doing her own thing.
Not content to sit in the shadow of her musician parents, it's at that time she came up with a nom de plume that perfectly suited her personality.
"My father, Hod O'Brien, was adopted. He was adopted by the O'Brien family. He's not Irish, but, for years, we didn't know his heritage. I guess we did some digging when I was a kid, and they found that his biological mother had an affair with a traveling scientist, or something. We don't know who the father was, but the mother's maiden name is Swift. And I chose to use that as my name," Swift said in a phone interview earlier this week. "In a way, it set me apart from my parents. It wasn't Veronica O'Brien. It wasn't Veronica Nakasian, which is my mom (Stephanie's) maiden name. It was my own artistry that set me independent of my parents."
That spirit of rebellion continued later in Swift's life. Already an award-winning jazz singer, she decided to do what so many others in her position wouldn't: finish school.
In the year after taking second place at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Competition, Swift completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music.
"I went to college straight from high school, and maintained my touring and recording lifestyle all throughout school. So, I never really stopped. I never stopped my education. I went right through and got my degree," Swift said.
Though her father was diagnosed with cancer, and even as she was fielding offers to perform at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and as a guest artist with Michael Feinstein at "Jazz at Lincoln Center," "I graduated in 2016, right on time," Swift said.
"It's so important to have a degree," she explained. "It doesn't matter what you do; you have to have a degree. I don't care even if you're the greatest musician. Having a degree, it's so necessary today. Of course, I had a lot of people say, 'You know, you don't have to have a degree to be a musician.' It doesn't matter. To me, it stands out as an important thing.
"And my dad wanted me to finish, and I finished for him. He didn't live to see me actually graduate, but he knew I was in my last semester and finishing up. That was important to me, to do that.
"It's not just about getting that piece of paper, it's learning how to stay committed; how to accomplish and finish something all the way through - once you've committed to it, you know, and not just doing something halfway. That's something that a lot of young people kind of lose sight of. They do something halfway and they're like, 'Oh, I don't like this anymore. I'll do something else.' That's kind of what the youth has become today. And it's important to know how to finish something - all the way.
"It was hard, but that's the whole point."
In the summer of 2016, Swift was asked to perform at the Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado. Her 10th appearance at the event would be her first as a headliner.
As a singer, Swift performs a unique combination of the Great American Songbook, bebop and vocalese, while drawing inspiration from the '20s and '30s.
It can confidently be said Swift is not like most 24-year-olds, in terms of musical taste and style. Quite unexpectedly, then, she quickly found common ground with her peers upon moving to New York City.
"I am very rooted in where I come from, which is in bebop and traditional jazz, which is an art form that really has become somewhat lost amongst young performers," Swift said. "I mean, I stick to my traditional roots, because that's home to me. And, of course, that's generated a lot of interest within the older crowd. And just recently, when I moved to New York, the young crowd, that's what they're playing. And it's such a renaissance for that music, too, and it's really exciting to be a part of this, you know, appreciation of the older craft and art form.
"Yet, when this is part of my live show, you know, while I do these songs and pay homage to this great era of music, I also try to find songs maybe that are written in that time period that lyrically - cause the lyrics are a bit dated, of course, which is why the next generation's always looking for a different identity, apart from that - but we, as a young group of musicians, try to, I guess, maybe write originals in that old style, with lyrics that speak to our generation, too. So, my live show kind of possesses like a bridge. ... Like the Great American Songbook, the elegance and sophistication of those songs, while also looking for more lyrically complex (material).
"My show kind of possesses that vibe. I'm very theatrical, too, because jazz comes from theater and storytelling."
She has toured in recent months with Chris Botti, a well-known musician who, not long ago, stumbled upon a then-lesser-known Swift.
"I just went to a jam session one night, and it wasn't my gig, but I was jamming, singing, scatting the blues, and he just happened to walk in and heard me," Swift recalled. "He said he doesn't like singers when they scat, but he really, really enjoyed my singing, and we got to know each other and hit it off. He is a big fan of mine, just as I am of his."
With handfuls of No. 1 albums, Grammy Awards and PBS specials, Botti has a lot to offer Swift.
"I mean, there's just so many things that he's taught me about - even little things ... some things about my techniques, and little tricks and stuff - you know, showbiz tricks. But, more importantly, he's taught me ... when he programs a show, the formula which he has programmed his show has become such a science. It's an exact science. Programming a show is an art form in itself, and I can really make it.
"There's a lot of great jazz musicians, talented jazz musicians, but they don't have a really good program. Their program is just like, 'Here's another tune. Here's another tune.' And there's no connection to the audience there. It's about more than the music, and making that connection with the audience, that's really what he excels at. And I've learned, watching him - hearing his stage patter - it's been exponential growth for me, being part of that show."
Swift will headline the first night of the Northwest Jazz Festival on Center Street in Lewiston. She will take the main stage at 8:30 p.m. Friday, accompanied by The Benny Green Trio.
"Lewiston is great, because it's right in our turf, in New York. I know it's upstate somewhere, but it's still like close to home, and a lot of familiar faces will be out there. I'm looking forward to the show," Swift said.
She visited Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the spring and said this area is "gorgeous."
Working with Green, Swift is recording a new album, which is set to release later this year.
For more on the artist, visit her website at www.veronicaswift.com.

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