Jazz critic Nat Hentoff once wrote, “Every listener to jazz has had a few experiences so startling that they are literally unforgettable.” Mine came in January of 2018 when I first heard Veronica Swift as a guest vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. What I heard was a voice of pure tone that better connects the past and future of jazz than I could have ever imagined.
At age 27, Veronica Swift has established herself as an elite jazz vocalist. She can swing and scat like nobody else. She has already graced the cover of Downbeat Magazine and has performed and recorded with jazz luminaries Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Benny Green.
Although Swift hails from the rich tradition established by Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day, she’s developed a unique voice with a fresh approach. Veronica credits her mother and father, both professional musicians, with setting her firmly on course for her present trajectory.
VS: That's where I come from with my family and my upbringing. I grew uphearing not just records. I mean, I was on the road with my parents and my father being one of the great bebop piano players. We are all the culmination of all our inspiration, you know, and when you dive into what it is that will make your sound, you dive into a phase. And my Anita phase was like, I don't know. I was about 21 years old when I really started listening to every recording of hers and trying to capture her sound, her phrasing. And then you put it in your arsenal and then you go back to be in touch with who you are as an artist, which is the mixture of all the different artists and all the different phases you've had.
Touring as a guest vocalist with trumpeter Chris Botti has given Veronica exposure beyond her pure jazz base.
VS: Usually with Chris's show, it's pretty much like just the jazz numbers that I do. And that's nice for me to introduce the authentic traditional swing and bebop to his audience, because that's something that he really wanted to do for a while but didn't have the right singer to do it with. And now, he gets to get loose with bebop and me a little.
How did the pandemic affect her art?
VS: I tell you, the wonderful thing that's happened with this time off is that it has given me a chance to completely restructure everything that I was doing in my career and my artistry that was serving or not serving the mission and my mission in life has always been to, you know, I wanted the audience to see the whole Veronica, not just a little part me. You know, not just the jazz singer, but the writer and composer, the opera singer, the rocker and the funk and soul singer.
Serving the integrity of the song was instilled in Veronica by her father, pianist Hod O’Brien and her mother, jazz vocalist Stephanie Nakasian.
VS: She was a banker on Wall Street before she ever started singing, and when she met my father at Gregory's the club he was playing at, she left her job on Wall Street and became a jazz singer. And that's what they did. They gave it up and then slummed it together. To me, that's like the world's greatest love story. And my parents. And then they sacrificed a lot of what was going on their careers to have me. Part of why I perform jazz music is to preserve my parents’ legacy, to show my appreciation for their sacrifices.
And what else does the future hold for Veronica Swift?
VS: Well, my plans are to just break out of this jazz box that I've been put in. You know, this is just one aspect, one facet of what I do and my goals lie in the ways of screenwriting and acting on film. And I want to produce and perform a couple of my musicals that I've written that I've been sitting on for eight years. One of the musicals that I've written that I plan to actually record in the coming years is about a female bandleader in the 1920s just trying to figure out how to have a career as a female bandleader. You know, she's experiencing adversity and sexism from every corner.
Veronica Swift will perform in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center on Sunday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Editor’s Note: The Mondavi Center is a financial supporter of CapRadio. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.