Singer | Songwriter | composer
From the time she sang in her high school chorus, Carolyn Fitzhugh dreamed of a career in music. During her many years as an accountant and analyst for the federal government, all the while nurturing her family, that dream sometimes faded from the picture. But the Chicago native never gave up on becoming a jazz singer.
Those who listen to her delightful new album, Living in Peace, will be glad she didn’t. Teaming with producer Mark Ruffin, a singer’s best friend who produced Rene Marie’s Grammy-nominated I Wanna Be Evil, and innovative pianist/associate producer/arranger Amina Figarova, Fitzhugh announces herself as an artist of substance and charm.
It doesn’t hurt that her backing musicians on the album include such heavyweights as tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffrey, drummer Rudy Royston, and guitarist Rez Abbasi and other members of Figarova’s working band—or that, to her astonishment, she gets to duet with the great Freddy Cole.
“I can’t tell you what a thrill that was for me,” she says. “I mean, when Mark asked me would I like to sing with Freddy Cole, I couldn’t believe it.”
Fitzhugh not only proves herself to be a winning duet partner and lively interpreter of “new standards”—pop-generation favorites reinvented as jazz songs—she also contributes four strong originals, three of them written for this album. They include the playful “Once Upon a Lover,” inspired by fairy tales, and the lovely ballad “In the Autumn,” a worthy addition to fall-themed classics such as “Autumn in New York” and “Autumn Leaves.”
“Mark said he was impressed with my writing and wanted to showcase it,” says the singer, who had contributed five songs to her self-released 2016 debut, Simply Amazing.
Living in Peace grabs the listener’s ears from the get-go, opening with a combustible version of the Average White Band's ’70s samba-tinged hit “Queen of My Soul” on which Figarova makes a smallish ensemble sound like a hard-hitting big band.
“It’s just remarkable what Amina can do with four horns,” says Fitzhugh. “I was amazed at how big the sound was.”
A swinging, up-tempo reading of “Secret O’ Life,” James Taylor’s spiritual number about living in the moment, is no less surprising. “I love the story of ‘Secret O’ Life,’” says Fitzhugh. “It’s something different. When Amina played me her ‘up’ arrangement, I thought it was something I could bring a feel-good kind of vibe to.” (The song previously was recorded by two singers she greatly admires, Shirley Horn and Gloria Lynne.)
Another song to which Fitzhugh brings personal meaning is Gil Scott-Heron’s “Combinations,” a love song about attractions “created in the stars.” Figarova arranged the song for electric piano, guitar, and flute (the flutist being her husband, Bart Platteau; the cast also includes trumpeter Alex Norris, trombonist David Gibson, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura). “I listened to it many times,” says Fitzhugh. “It’s very passionate in a cosmic type of way, not the activist type of song that Scott-Heron was known for.”
The other classy covers on Living in Peace include Prince’s jazzy George Benson homage, “Strollin’” (from Diamonds and Pearls); the lovely Patti Austin gem, “Alone in the World,” from the soundtrack of The Russia House; and the early Shirley Horn recording, “Yes, I Know When I’ve Had It”—which, Fitzhugh says with a laugh, “reminded me of a bikini beach movie, a kind of a sung rom-com.”
And then there is the Ivan Lins classic, “I’m Not Alone,” which occasioned her meeting with Freddy Cole. Nat’s younger brother, who had recorded the song for the multi-artist Lins tribute album A Love Affair: The Music of Ivan Lins (2000), proved difficult to pin down for the sessions—a situation complicated by an affirmative email message from his management that got lost.
The recording session began as scheduled at the landmark Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Shortly following that date, the studio suddenly closed after a more than 40-year history of recording a host of legendary albums. Living in Peace was one of the last sessions recorded there. Fortunately, the production was still in progress and was completed at the Varis Leichtman Studio at Lincoln Center, where the duet with Cole was recorded. Mission accomplished. Fitzhugh also duets entertainingly with Brazilian artist Nanny Assis on his and Matt Gurren’s composition, “Intimate Acquaintances,” from the musical Rio Uphill.
Carolyn Fitzhugh was born on May 16, 1961 in Chicago. She started taking piano lessons at five. Lifted by songs she heard on the radio, she became hooked on all kinds of music. When she was about nine, she discovered sheet music and began playing songs she had heard on the radio.
The first popular song she ever played was the Roberta Flack hit, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” It made a deep and lasting impression on young Carolyn in featuring a great female singer accompanying herself on piano.
In high school, Fitzhugh sang with the chorus, played piano in a combo, and began writing songs—“little stories,” as she called them. She badly wanted to continue her music education in college, but her family insisted that she major in something more practical. As a result, Carolyn studied accounting at Roosevelt University in the Windy City.
But even as she prepared for a future in that field, she maintained her involvement in music. After attending classes in the morning at Roosevelt and working as a collection rep for an export company in the afternoon, she took jazz vocals and piano improvisation courses at the highly regarded Bloom School of Jazz, typically not getting home until midnight.
Her early attraction to jazz vocals happened at age six, when she discovered the lovely voice of Morgana King, whom her uncle played over and over on reel-to-reel tapes. “Her tone was so pretty,” says Fitzhugh. She herself “didn’t realize that I had a voice that appealed to people” until Ann Ward, vocal instructor at Bloom School of Jazz, told her that there was something distinctive about her “mid-sound.” “She helped me develop my sound. I experimented with a lot of different things. I learned so much about my capabilities as a singer. I was like a sponge, absorbing everything. The late Ann Ward, a beloved educator and artist in her own right, made a lasting impression on me in my college days.
“I always thought I was an alto,” Fitzhugh continues, “but a more recent vocal coach, Jonita Latimore, discovered that I am a mezzo-soprano, and was very instrumental in helping me climb to new heights.”
She listened to and sang along with instrumental jazz recordings and began sitting in at various clubs and restaurants including the New Apartment Lounge, where she sang for two years straight as part of the legendary Von Freeman's weekly jazz session. "I learned so much from Von," she says.
Eventually, she made a big decision. “In 2011, my daughter was graduating high school and my youngest son was graduating elementary school,” she says. “I decided it was a good time to begin my six-year transition plan to make a clean break and concentrate on what I loved. So after 30 years, I retired from my government career and devoted myself full-time to singing and songwriting.”
In 2014, she recorded her self-released debut, Simply Amazing, which came out two years later. Most of the songs on it are her own. But working with young guitarist Larry Brown Jr. as her producer and co-writer (and current Kurt Elling accompanist Stu Mindeman at the keys), she covered songs including Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and her own arrangement of “A Night in Tunisia.”
Though one reviewer called her “an artist of the first order,” Ruffin initially “wasn’t impressed by her voice and that's what I told her.” (She says she was dealing with an upper respiratory condition when she recorded Simply Amazing.) But after sitting down with her, he found her so agreeable, charming, and serious about her craft, to the point of working with a vocal coach. “She had all her shit together,” he says.
When she sent a couple of more recent demos to him, he says, “I heard a little piece of Shirley Horn in her. A friend heard some Abbey Lincoln. Even though I wasn’t yet completely sure of her voice, I committed to working with her. With so many mediocre vocal albums out there, I wanted to prove what a good one was like.”
Fitzhugh agreed to continue working with vocal coaches, made trips to New York to meet with Ruffin and Figarova, and did whatever else it took to raise the bar for herself. She also was game about recording the new standards Ruffin suggested. Everything came together. “It was a perfect storm,” he says.
Just as she embraced her bright future, though, she was laid low in her personal life by a sudden revelation of a secret her family had kept from her about her identity. As she sings on the deeply affecting title track, she had long suspected that she was different than the others: “I remember the little things/That just didn’t fit, so many little things/Now no longer a mystery/But when will the healing begin?”
The healing may well have begun with her writing and recording “Living in Peace,” on which she sings, “Some choose to hide from shame/Shame isn’t a game/It only lives within when truth is denied/And all bets aside.”
With great excitement, Fitzhugh describes her reaction to the news that Lenny White was interested in Living in Peace being released on his label IYOUWE. “I was introduced to Lenny by Mark Ruffin during one of my visits to New York,” Fitzhugh recalls. “I was beyond thrilled to see how much he loved the recording. This is icing on the cake and it keeps getting better.
“I really feel that writing and recording Living in Peace helped me get past these painful truths,” she says. “I’m feeling freed from the past, full of possibilities I never felt before. I feel like I’m living life to the fullest. I can’t wait to see what comes next.”