When Candice Hoyes sings, she's channeling a legacy of black women like Eartha Kitt, Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne, all of whom helped shape the modern musician-cum-activist role. Hoyes knows that tradition well; for her, becoming an artist meant working to understand the fraught, complex history of jazz in the United States, and how it relates to race, identity and womanhood.
Her debut album, On a Turquoise Cloud, showcases Hoyes' operatic voice and soulful style. It also celebrates the genre's roots.
On a Turquoise Cloud is a compilation of relatively unknown Duke Ellington songs that took intense research, arranging and collaboration to produce. Hoyes, who grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., and now lives in New York, trolled the Smithsonian's archives for months looking for the perfect songs, many of which hadn't been recorded since the early 20th century, when Ellington himself performed them. Each song Hoyes chose presented unique challenges — "Single Petal of a Rose," for example, had never been recorded as a vocal track before, so Hoyes had to write her own lyrics.
Those lyrics take on the unique challenges, particularly for black women, of being a working mom.
I asked Hoyes how she makes music that's almost a century old feel relevant to audiences today. It's something she thinks about a lot, she says, and as a black female artist, she's intentional about making music that reflects the world she lives in as well as "sounding great and grooving."
One way she does that is by peeking out at the crowd before all of her shows. It's a technique that both calms her nerves and reminds her that audience members are real people, with their own hopes and worries. When the occasion calls for it, Hoyes can then customize her performance a little. She sings "Come Sunday" pretty regularly — it's a song Duke Ellington wrote in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Hoyes sometimes adds a verse of her own to make the song even more immediate: "Children being gunned down the same place they used to play..."
Improvisation is part of what drew Hoyes to jazz in the first place. She says jazz is compelling because it's "completely about individual expression and freedom. So depending on the moment, no rendition of any song is the same." Hoyes says she's able to create a space within jazz to fit whatever emotion she's feeling:
"If I don't think a song exists or I haven't encountered it, then I have to write it. And sometimes the reason is because I'm a black woman. And sometimes the reason is I think that something has been explored but not pushed far enough into a critical point where people might change their minds. And so I need to write that song. Or I need to write those lyrics and put that on the music. And that's one of the huge and humbling gifts of jazz as an art form, is that that's welcome. That's what it was made for. Jazz was created by people, Americans, black Americans, who needed a channel of expression. So that's one of the fundamentals of the expression to begin with."
Embracing jazz's cultural heritage is very important to Hoyes. She says other musical genres — particularly classical — are sometimes portrayed as being culturally or ethnically neutral (Hoyes began her career singing opera). But those genres "come out of a culture," too, which has implications for how both producers and consumers interact with the music:
"I think that there are a lot of general presumptions about who has ownership of the tradition in certain genres...There's a pretty well-documented history of, you know, at the times when our country was not progressive, are the times when that was reflected in who had the privilege to make a statement as an artist in the classical genre. It was exclusionary of black artists in many ways.
So that's always been something that I understand and something that I struggled with. I think for me it's really important and most authentic to draw from my various influences and to find music that communicates what I have to say, rather than ever feeling like I need to try to assimilate into something else.
And that doesn't mean by any stretch that I'm not delving into really any composer or written work that I want to, it just means that it's a consciousness. It's a consciousness I have about belonging and about where I need to mark my own claim. Whether it means creating my own work or kind of understanding the terrain that I'm entering. But I think that's one of the things that for me makes jazz quite liberating."
Hoyes embraces jazz as a primary style, but a real mix of influences affects the way she performs, from the piano lessons that started at 6, her mezzo soprano church cantor growing up, or "Sister Trio," a group that Hoyes performed in with her sister and cousin in the family living room. And there's more:
"Then of course, you live life, and music kind of permeates all aspects of your life. So whatever was in the car was a part of it too, just like anyone else. And then, I think as a performing artist, as someone who's always challenging myself as far as what can I say as an individual, and so those things have to come together. There's some point where a Tribe Called Quest will come in and Donny Hathaway will come in, and Nat King Cole will come in, because those are things that I carry with me. I carry in my ear, and I carry in my spirit, so I think that it kind of comes to bear in a blend."
This summer, Hoyes will continue to perform songs from On a Turquoise Cloud in jazz clubs and concert halls across the United States. But the venue she's most excited about? Colleges and conservatories. For Hoyes, an essential part of being a jazz musician is participating in the culture of using black music as a means of activism and community building. She wants to engage with students by sharing her music and talking about the politics, culture and history of jazz.
Later on, she'll be performing a run of concerts at North Carolina Opera during its 2017 season. Her performances will feature Chris Pattishall, a pianist and North Carolina native, as well as alumni from the jazz department of North Carolina Central University, a public, historically black college.