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Pop music passed me by as a teen says jazz singer Clare Teal

By Alex Spencer

Jazz singer and BBC Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal
Jazz singer and BBC Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal

Jazz singer and Radio 2 presenter Clare Teal is happy with her level of recognition and doesn't want to become any more famous, thank you very much, writes Alex Spencer.

Jazz singer and radio presenter Clare Teal
Jazz singer and radio presenter Clare Teal

And after finishing her last recording contract she’s glad to be her own boss.

“I have worked with people who are ridiculously well known, like Van Morrison, but I wouldn’t have their life for all the money in the world,” she says.

Her determination hardened following an experience of singing with a man she calls “Belgium’s equivalent to Daniel O’Donnell”.

“I’d never heard of Helmut Lotti when we met him,” she admits. “We were talking to him in the back of the car on the way to sing our song in Belgium. When he got out, the whole world stopped and people were cramming around us taking photos. I watched thinking: ‘That’s hideous’.”

The demands major labels make of female singers also came as an unpleasant surprise.

“I was on a jazz label for three albums, then Sony and Universal, and was spat out the other end. Then we set up our label in 2009. I haven’t looked back.

“No one is telling you now what to wear or to lose weight, not that I ever took any notice, but it’s nice not having that. I can work with who I want – independent music is in an exciting place.”

Clare is bringing her Big Mini Big Band show to the Cambridge Arts Theatre next month, featuring music from the Great American Songbook, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh and Dave Brubeck.

With arrangements by world renowned trumpeter and composer Guy Barker and jazz pianist Jason Rebello, songs include Cry Me a River and How Long Has This Been Going On.

“I love coming back to Cambridge every year,” says Clare. “The audiences are brilliant and I always bring a big ensemble because the acoustics at the venue are great. You get the kick of a big band but they are also amazing soloists in their own right and lovely improvisers, so you can hear something new every night.”

She’s hoping audiences will feel brave enough to sing along, and she doesn’t mind a heckler or two either.

“I try to make it funny. The music is about escapsim and fantasy but the bits in between are the most mundane chat you can imagine., such as the fact I’ve bought a new Hoover.

“I love it when people shout out and join in. It feels like we are sharing something together. We’re just having a great time on stage with our mates so I hope that comes across.

“If you get a heckler who goes on a bit longer it gives permission to have a go. You have to handle it carefully but there will be a moment when it breaks and everyone forgets themselves and joins in. You never know when it’s going to come. I find it fascinating how you can feel the energy changing in big groups of people. It is one of the most interesting parts of the job.”

Full disclosure: Clare and I went to the same comprehensive school in North Yorkshire and she came to my teenage parties. I remember her being extremely funny, but she never mentioned her love of jazz.

“Pop music just bypassed me,” she says. “There were very few people who knew what my interests were. I would go to Keighley library and hire Judy Garland records. They also had a brilliant sheet music department at the library so you could go and get two anthologies of George Gershwin or Cole Porter.

“I would wait until everyone had gone out and then sit at the piano picking through these tunes. I tell you, that library was a massive part of my music education.”

She says teenagers now don’t have the relationship with music that she had because they can have any song the want at their fingertips, thanks to streaming services like Spotify.

“Streaming is horrible for songwriters because you make no money from it, but as a listener it’s like being a kid in a sweetshop. As a kid, I could never afford the records that I used to crave to listen to, but now you can read about the history of a piece of music and listen to it at the same time online.”

She credits this availability of music with helping younger jazz musicians to develop their own style: “With all this at their disposal, when they play early jazz it doesn’t sound cliched – it sounds brilliant.”

Clare discovered her love of jazz by listening to the 78 records she found in her nan’s attic, especially the songs of jazz greats, like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

They were, she says, preferable to the record collection her parents had at home.

“Our generation has had the discipline of listening to terrible records at home,” she laughs. “Everybody had a Harry Secombe record because it was compulsory, or the Readers Digest records; we never had the original singers it was always the knock-off ones. It was some local amateur dramatic version, but you listened to them endlessly. So, my Nan’s 78s were a godsend because they were mostly big band stuff, which is what I discovered that I loved.”

As we’re chatting on the phone, Clare’s dog, Alan – “a scruffy white dog with a really big voice” – starts barking at the doorbell. She admits he was bought to fill an ‘empty nest’ after her partner Amanda ‘Muddy’ Field’s son left home.

“Alan has just started singing,” she reveals, proudly. “He is nearly five and he recognises songs and joins in with them. He just howls but often in the right key. If it all goes wrong I might give it all up and go on the road with Alan instead.”

Clare Teal and her Big Mini Big Band play The Cambridge Arts Theatre for one night on Sunday, October 21 at 7.45pm. Tickets: from £20. Box office: 01223 503333.


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