SAMPLE: Brenda Earle Stokes

FULL VERSION

Jazz pianist and singer Brenda Earle Stokes’ career is a testament to Emerson’s idea that life is a journey, not a destination. Stokes has fused a passion for the piano and a love of singing into a vibrant career that spans genres easily. With her new album, Right About Now, she’s found a balance between her two instruments and very personal place from which to tell stories.

“This album is a set of 12 songs that create a snapshot of different stories in my life,” Stokes said. “It’s six original tunes, two existing instrumental songs that I wrote lyrics to, and four covers that spoke to me. All this music is extremely personal to me, but it also touches on issues that relate to a wider audience. Issues like love, loss and exploring the concept of watching someone with mental illness. It’s all coming from a place in me that’s as personal as I’ve ever gotten before.”

For Stokes, music has always been an intensely personal and individual experience, going back as far as she can remember, to when she was listening to her father’s unlikely record collection. “My dad had a box of 45 records. It was the most random stuff around. Little Richard, Blondie, Twisted Sister, the Foundations. Somehow in the midst of all of that, I considered that to be one set of music. So I feel like I’ve always listened to music this way. I’ve been influenced by diverse things and my brain considers them to be all the same thing.”

This willingness to ignore genre boundaries has served Stokes well throughout her career. She has one goal in mind — to create music that speaks honestly to the audience, whether from her own experience or the songs of other writers.

Stokes grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, a small industrial town on the northern shore of Lake Huron, in the heart of the Canadian plastics and oil industries. Her early life was shaped by the death of her mother from breast cancer when Stokes was eight years old. She and her brother, jazz bassist Greg Earle, were raised by her father.

“I think an undercurrent of my entire life and music is needing to have a deeper expression for a lot of the conflicting feelings that I was having at that time of my life,” Stokes said. “For me, music was really the ultimate expression of that. Being in jazz rather than a being a solo classical pianist made more sense to me because I really liked the camaraderie, the hang, making music with others and really having a connection with other people.”

Stokes did all the usual musical things — she took piano lessons starting around age 4, then added clarinet in school. She also sang in the choir. She made an early shift in the direction of jazz piano when her school band director made a traumatic announcement: no more clarinets in the jazz band. “I remember when he told me that I felt so devastated. I felt like my life was going to end. So I begged to be the pianist in the group instead. The girl who was playing piano was doing it for fun. She came up to me and said, ‘I can see that this clearly means more to you than it means to me.’ So she stepped down, which was really great of her. I ended up playing in all of the jazz bands. I conducted the choir in high school, too. I was really into all of that. From the first time I heard Oscar Peterson, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

As high school was drawing to a close, Stokes already knew that she wanted to study music at a higher level. She auditioned to many different schools and ended up at Toronto’s York University, where the open-minded attitude toward music making turned out to be a perfect fit.

“York didn’t have a really structured curriculum and they didn’t, at that time, offer private lessons. So I ended up having to do a lot of things myself. I was given a lot of room to explore ethnomusicology and contemporary improvisation. We were doing prepared piano stuff in my first year. We were given a lot of free time and free space so we could explore music together.”

While at York, Stokes transcribed Bud Powell solos and immersed herself in the bebop piano masters. She kept her singing secret because she wanted to be known, and taken seriously, as a jazz pianist. It wasn’t until she attended the Banff Center for Fine Arts in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, where a couple friends heard her me sing and encouraged her to do it publicly, that she started singing again. When she returned to Toronto she had a mission: to be a pianist who sings.

Stokes started a concert series at York, hiring professional musicians from the Toronto scene to play with student bands. She also led a jazz jam. When she graduated, she knew she had to work in music, no matter what. She ended up playing 30 hours a week for ballet schools in Toronto, and playing on the jazz scene at night.

In 1999, wanting to leave Toronto, Stokes took a job on a cruise ship as a pianist and singer. The job involved playing anything and everything. “The gig is that you’re supposed to be able to play any song anybody requested. And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I know hundreds and thousands of tunes, no problem.’ But that wasn’t the case. I figured I’d just learn as I went. That first three-month contract I learned something like 500 songs. That’s been a huge theme in my development as a musician, to say yes to the gig and figure it out later.”

Stokes used the money from her time on the ship to move to New York for six months, where she immersed herself in the city’s jazz scene, going to hear every pianist and singer she’d always dreamed of hearing. She took piano and voice lessons and practiced constantly. Both her piano and voice teachers encouraged her to apply to the Manhattan School of Music. She did and was accepted.

“My experience at Manhattan School of Music was really exciting and really intense. I met people from all over. It was cool to hear everybody and get a sense of what different people were doing. I was a bit unusual because I’d just come off this cruise ship gig and went from playing all this top 40 music to being immersed in odd time signatures and extended compositions, but it was really good for me. One of the most significant things I did was study with Luciana Souza. She was the combo coach on my second year for the vocal ensemble. It was me and a couple singers and a rhythm section. I had always played for myself but she she said nope, we’re getting a pianist and you’re going to learn to be a singer. It was my first time not being a singer-slash-pianist. It was so challenging for me, not just singing the notes right but also just standing there. What do I do with my hands? What do I do with my face? How do I engage with the audience without my vehicle in front of me? It was a really phenomenal experience. I was encouraged to do a lot of composing when I was there, too.”

Stokes moved from MSM into New York’s piano bar scene, playing regularly at Sam’s Restaurant. She started getting calls to accompany Broadway and off-Broadway musicals, and even began working as a music director or assistant music director for musicals. Around this time she recorded her first “New York album,” Happening, using a lot of the music she’d developed at MSM.

In recent years, her life has shifted again. Stokes got married and had a son. She says being a mother has caused her to appreciate her time more and to use the time she has more skilfully. Even more than that, being a mother makes her realize the kind of example she wants to set for her son.

“I really want him to be able to find his passion and his bliss, so I feel like that’s part of this, too. I want to be my authentic self and take risks. So this is really me jumping wholeheartedly into something. For the next several years, I plan to continue doing a lot of teaching. I’m on faculty at Fordham University. And now that he’s two, I’m putting it out there that I’m available as a sideman. I really want to establish myself again as someone who can play piano and sing and be a bandleader.”

Stokes will be touring the US, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia in support of Right About Now. She continues to write music, to refine her craft, and to learn how to balance the various sides of her musical personality. And most importantly, she continues to prove that life is about the journey.

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4-PARAGRAPH VERSION

Jazz pianist and singer Brenda Earle Stokes’ career is a testament to Emerson’s idea that life is a journey, not a destination. Stokes has fused a passion for the piano and a love of singing into a vibrant career that spans genres easily. With her new album, Right About Now, she’s found a balance between her two instruments and very personal place from which to tell stories.

“This album is a set of 12 songs that create a snapshot of different stories in my life,” Stokes said. “All this music is extremely personal to me, but it also touches on issues that relate to a wider audience. Issues like love, loss and exploring the concept of watching someone with mental illness. It’s all coming from a place in me that’s as personal as I’ve ever gotten before.”

Stokes grew up in an industrial town in southwestern Ontario. She attended York University in Toronto, where she kept her singing a secret while she concentrated on being a jazz pianist. Eventually her secret was discovered, and Stokes became a double threat as a pianist and singer. She parlayed these talents into work on a cruise ship, then into a graduate degree at Manhattan School of Music in New York, following which she released her first full album, Happening. Since moving to New York, Stokes has been active in the jazz scene as a leader and sideman, while also working on Broadway and teaching at Fordham University.

In recent years, her life has shifted again. Stokes got married and had a son. She says being a mother has caused her to appreciate her time more and to use the time she has more skilfully. Even more than that, being a mother makes her realize the kind of example she wants to set for her son. “I really want him to be able to find his passion and his bliss, so I feel like that’s part of this, too. I want to be my authentic self and take risks.” Stokes will be touring the US, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia in support of Right About Now. She continues to write music, to refine her craft, and to learn how to balance the various sides of her musical personality. And most importantly, she continues to prove that life is about the journey.

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150-WORD VERSION

Jazz pianist and singer Brenda Earle Stokes’ career is a testament to Emerson’s idea that life is a journey, not a destination. From her childhood in southwestern Ontario to her time at Toronto’s York University to her current home in New York, Stokes has fused a passion for the piano and a love of singing into a vibrant career that spans genres easily. Her new album, Right About Now, is a set of 12 very personal songs that touch on love, loss, watching someone with mental illness, and other intimate topics. Her career has taken her from cruise ships to Broadway to the jazz scene as both a leader and a sideman. Stokes now has a husband and a young son, and she’s more focused than ever on being authentic and taking artistic risks. She’ll be touring the US, Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia in support of Right About Now.