Rita Shelby is a Los Angeles-based jazz singer-songwriter known as much for her wisdom and indomitable spirit as she is for her incredible voice and brilliantly written songs. She recently released the CD A Date With a Song (soon to be recommended in The Mindful Bard), for which she wrote melodies and lyrics and for which Willie Daniels created the musical arrangements. She is also an author and an actress.
Rita recently took the time to talk with Wanda Waterman St. Louis about family support, school days, mom’s musical directive, and the new jazz standards.
Families Kicking In
[An aunt and uncle helped raise Rita while her mother pursued her music career.]
In order to understand the sacrifice that my aunt and uncle made for my mother and I you have to go back to the core of who we are as a culture. Even a hundred years ago members of our families were taken or killed or sold, so the idea of the sisters or brothers kicking in to help raise children is common. This makes the sacrifice no less special; It’s just not that uncommon in our culture.
You can’t Make It!
When I was born, out-of-wedlock births were not as morally or socially acceptable they are today. It happened, but it was not as accepted.
My grandfather was a staunch Baptist minister. I’m sure my birth didn’t go over very well. I know that my mother was more than convinced that she could not make it on her own. I can hear some of my aunties saying, ?Child, you can’t make it out there by yourself!? So there were a couple of aunts who wanted to step forward and help my mother and be supportive of her.
Music Will Not Die
My mother didn’t complete her education. She mostly played piano for local churches and did odd jobs. It was very hard for her, but her music did not die until she did and I vowed that when she died the music would not die. My musical journey began with her.
My earliest musical experiences were in our apartment. My mother would play the piano. She bought me a piano and was my first piano teacher. She played in various churches, singing in the choirs. And I remember being in one of those choirs with her or sitting on the piano bench with her when she was playing.
My mother always wanted music to be my life’s profession. She said, ?Baby, if you can play and play well you can always make some money.?
But I didn’t play well. I didn’t know if the gift was there and just lying dormant, I don’t know if it was my own impatience with the instruments?I studied classical piano and classical voice, dabbled on the flute and guitar, but I guess I had an impatience to just get to it.
I always sang. So my goal was to be an actress and singer and dancer and all of that, and radio happened to me along the way.
Jazz Love in the Capital
I went to a phenomenal school in Washington, DC, and That’s where the love for jazz began. I remember sitting in the music room when my teacher, the late Miss Cornelia Brown, taught us about Duke Ellington. I also remember her introducing us to Leonard Bernstein; she loved Bernstein and she was bent on me learning something called ?A Simple Song.? Well it wasn’t a simple song! Leonard Bernstein wrote it, right?
I did not fully grasp all that had gone on in this country before I was born until I was in college. My life was wonderful! My junior high school was all black and I say that because we went through a time in our country when we went from segregation to integration and integration almost always meant better.
Washington, DC, was a predominantly black city by the time that I moved there so there was this one big group of people who had common interests, a common love. My junior high school had an archery team, a Latin club, a French club, a Spanish club, Future Business Leaders of America, a ski club, and an orchestra. There was a main principal and an assistant principal for every grade level. We had our own four-colour newspaper! And we didn’t walk around thinking we were upper class. It was just the way that it was.
Now I live in Los Angeles, which still has lines of class and cultural division. I don’t believe that my zip code determines who I am, who I should hang with and what defines me. I thank Washington, DC, for that. I wasn’t assimilated into another culture and made to believe that that culture’s values were superior to my culture’s values.
The Dawn of the New Standard
My desire for my songs is that they will become the new standards. When I made the commitment in 2002 to take this career on I determined that if I were going to step back into my musical gift I was going to allow that gift to flow in its most natural state, unencumbered by what I thought or how I thought my music would be transmitted.