Una Stade: «I’m not chaotic, I’m multilayered!»
Be first at something, define the «jazz attitude» and become the queen of «Smalls»
I’ve known of Una Stade for about ten years now, four of them I’ve been staring at her picture over Inga (Bērziņa) piano in her vocal class in Riga Dome Choir School, where it was proudly exhibited as a part of a grand collection of this particular vocal class’ graduates. Nonetheless, only this year I had a chance to officially meet her in person. I knew she was off to Graz to get her Bachelor degree, which is an achievement in itself, considering the competition during entry exams. After that I’ve caught glimpses of her in the social media, as a photographer to author portraits of people who were studying in… New York. I realised she’d gone to New York herself. Then after some more time had passed, she’s back in Riga, naturally I had to grab this opportunity by the horns, so to say, and lured her out for a chat. What I didn’t anticipate was sitting with my mouth hanging open during the most part of the said conversation and afterwards cutting out all the «WOW!’s» out of my own responses. That only demonstrates that while away, Una’s life was full of adventures. I have to say that it all sounds like something out of a movie, because how else would one be able to become the queen of one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world? That’s right, no one. Scratch that, I know this person, it’s Una.
Let’s start from the very beginning. Tell me about yourself, who are you?
I am 100% product of the Dome School, from preschool to graduation..
The very first jazz department graduation year?
The very same.
Wow… It’s a historical moment!
It is indeed! (laughs)
Who else was among the pioneers?
My course mates were Reinis Ozoliņš, Pauls Pokratnieks, Rūdolfs Macats, Linards Šveklis, Baiba Jurkeviča, the blues guys — Artis Ločmelis and Nauris Strežs. These were the first to graduate from the newly established jazz department of the Riga Dome Choir School. Apart from that there was only the evening department.
Seriously? I was under the impression that the evening department was established after this one?…
No, before. Yeah, we were the first. A brand new department, no clarity about anything, teachers were unsure of what to do, we were unsure of what was expected. When I enrolled, I had no idea what jazz was whatsoever. I don’t really remember how it all happened, something along the lines of me thinking that after the 9th grade I’d be better off in an ordinary school. I don’t know why. Before the jazz department was established, there were only the conductors, and my father is a conductor himself, working in the opera house, with choirs and all, and at that moment I thought that it’s enough having one conductor in the family, no need for more. And I can’t really say that I was good at it, now it’s all coming back to me, like a revenge of sorts, not when I have to work with a gospel choir. I also studied drums, but with a private teacher, I don’t remember why I thought I needed it. And then I found out that they were opening a jazz department and that there’s an opportunity to study jazz vocals. I didn’t know how many people were willing to enroll, who I was going against… So I tried enrolling into the 45th school? To study chemistry? Don’t ask me, I don’t remember. And then the entry exams at both schools were on the same day, or was it the French lyceum? So, that morning I went out of the house, stood in the middle of the street thinking: «Well, where should I go?» And decided that ok, I’m going to Dome Choir school. I don’t know why. Also I don’t know why they accepted me.
You know, nowadays it’s different, the kids know what they’ll have to do, they have all the information already, what the exam will be like, what the questions would be, they can attend consultations, and the teachers also know what to ask of the kids. I went there not knowing a single thing. Maybe I did meet Inga at some point, maybe not. I was fine with solfege, of course, but concerning the stylistics… So I went to try my luck and that’s how my jazz life began, by accident. It was crazy, just as I said, everything was unclear to both the teachers and us, students.
Didn’t you have Nic Gotham and Inga Bērziņa?
We did and it was fantastic, but understand this — none of the high schools in the country had such a program and they all had the experience of the highest education, so that was what they did with us as well.
Well, ok, they did teach at RPIVA, but there wasn’t a single school to learn jazz at, true.
Yes, and RPIVA isn’t high school or college, so they had no previous experience in teaching school age kids. But during the years it all came together somehow. We were also regularly expelled, and that was bad because we were a combo and if you’re suddenly missing drums or a piano, what will you do then? Also apart from me and Baiba, others were slightly older than the school age. I think we were the ones that created this reputation that jazz people are different from classics because of this aloof attitude. The «Jazz attitude» — this comes from us.
So it’s your fault!
I am the product of the Dome school and I was always awfully diligent, I had this perfectionist syndrome. Now that I myself am a teacher, I even reproach kids for that, when they work too hard.
Well… not exactly. Working hard isn’t the problem, but I think that the kids should learn the artistic way of thinking, to sing so that the listeners would enjoy, not the teacher. And they have a hard time accepting that, they can’t understand how a teacher can ask them to consider a different end goal?
Anyway, there was a jazz department and when I graduated I was set on going to Rotterdam. Until this day I am convinced that I wasn’t accepted, although I have a letter that states otherwise! I found it when I moved back here from New York and was sorting through the books I have in the apartment where I live now…
So you didn’t go to Rotterdam because you THOUGHT you weren’t accepted?
I don’t really remember whether I thought I wasn’t accepted or if it was something I convinced myself to be true. The interview I had with the teachers there was a bit odd. You see here in Dome Choir school education was on university level, completely by accident (if compared to other music schools, the level of education in Dome Choir School is so high that you learn the same things when enroll into the university), and when I did the entry exams I passed the theoretical ones with a 100% score, which was perceived as something unbelievable. And then they asked me if there was even a point for me to go to that school if the only classes I’d have would be piano and singing. Thank God Indriķis (Veitners) and Inga (Bērziņa) talked me into going to Graz and trying my luck there. There they told me: «You can pass all the theoretical classes during your first year and then concentrate on what you really need.» And believe me, there’s no lack in what to do, because it’s a huge school and a lot of different departments. It was amazing there in Graz! The things the teachers were uncertain of in Rotterdam, it all worked out in Graz.
Why did you want to go away in the first place?
Then why did you go?
I don’t know. Probably because I allowed myself to be pressured into it. My family said it’d be good for me to go and study abroad. I even remember sitting on a hot summer day on a rock in a field in the middle of nowhere, under a beautiful tree, and suddenly Inga calls me and starts retelling me what she knows about the entry exams in Graz. And I said I didn’t have any money left after the trip to Rotterdam and that I wouldn’t go anywhere! And then in Graz they asked me why I wanted to study there, and I said I didn’t! They said: «Tough luck, we accept you!» There’s serious competition there, the education is free and they had approximately 45 people trying to win one of the 3 spots. It seems awesome, but I was a bad girl, I didn’t want to study. It sounds awful when a head of the jazz department asks you these questions, but… it’s better to teach those who will be able to learn something, instead of those who already know everything. I think that the teachers there evaluated not what you knew but what they could teach you and that’s why I was accepted.
Yes, I didn’t want to go away, but I did. I just upped and moved. And then it all began, and if here I was a workaholic, responsible, did everything they told me, then in Graz — I’m 18, I live in another country, earn my own money, alcohol, cigarettes, parties, and so it went. Kind of stepped onto the other side. Freedom, you know?
It took me 4 years to craze it all out, somehow I finished my studies half a year later then I was supposed to, because you can’t do anything decently after a night of partying. Then I decided to pull myself together and finish the school somehow, it wouldn’t get any easier in time. And throughout all these years I’ve been with my now husband Tuomo. My first boyfriend with whom I moved in together. We moved in together because we understood that we get along very well, and it was cheaper to rent. We lived in a 15m2 apartment — yes, an apartment, not a room.
Yes. Tuomo is 3 years older, but was only a year ahead of me. When he graduated he enrolled into Queens College, NY. He’s a pianist, a very-very talented one. We thought about our relationship rationally — long distance didn’t seem like a viable option, so he went to New York, I stayed in Graz. I partied in Graz more than studied, the time of my final recital came and went, of course I didn’t finish school then. I told Tuomo about it and he said to take a look in my email, that he bought me tickets to New York, that I should come and visit, just as a friend, check out the jazz scene there and maybe get some inspiration. So I went and four days later we got engaged. We haven’t seen each other for a year and it took only four days to get engaged! That became an inspiration to graduate. I thought — the end of the Graz era and the beginning of New York on! The first semester of his studies in New York we skyped a lot — he from there, me still from Graz — we planned a simple wedding, then he came for three or four days, we got married and he went back to the States, haven’t seen him for four more months.
Mhm. And then as soon as it became clear that I’m moving to the States, I finally graduated. I didn’t have the best final recital, the teachers also weren’t overjoyed, but what do you want from me, I’m not really going to become a singer after all! My teacher Dena deRose asked me why I even bothered to study, if I had no plans for my future in that sphere, and I said that I had to study somewhere, right? And it did seem like the easiest option, because Dome school prepared me so well, that I just didn’t need to work hard. I wasn’t an exemplary student anymore, that person disappeared.
Then I moved to the States and told my husband that I’m not going to work as a waitress, because in my mind it’s the kind of a job where people usually get stuck. I held on to that idea but was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job I liked, but to my luck my husband got bored with his job at the «Smalls» club (he was responsible for cutting video into sent after each night of concerts), a very necessary but a very boring monkey job.
Why do they do that?
Because they have the biggest jazz archives in the world. Just imagine — the club is 20 years old and 15 of those each night was recorded.
With the names of each musician?
There’s everything! After all they do announce the names of the musicians on stage, so… We don’t write the titles of each tune played, it’s a complicated topic. I’m not an expert, but I know that legally it’s all in the gray area — jazz music and royalties… The ASCAP («American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers» — author rights agency, largest in the US) always wanted to catch on something, but… Where does improvisation turn into a composition? There’re 25 thousand concerts in the archive, each concert had at least 10 tunes, so do the math. And to register it all legally and correctly… well…
It sounds like a lot of work.
And it was. We did a lot of good to the world, but all the time under the pressure, this fear that someone might sue. If that happens all this life work would just be lost… They’d lose all copyright at once!
Sounds like a bummer.
That’s why it all was in the grey zone. The point for ASCAP to get involved is only when they can be sure they’ll be able to prove something. But, let’s say I sing «But Not For Me», you sing «But Not For Me», two different versions, which one is more authentic? And how close to the original it is to start paying the royalties?
But, oh well. So I started editing those videos and soon noticed that the club is a very prospective venture, but there were no people in the office who’d want to get involved in the kind of organizational work it needed. So me and Spike (Spike Wilner — «Smalls» and «Mezzrow» owner) simply talked it out and started doing things. We started with the web page, I renamed all the videos so that we could upload it to the «Amazon» server, it was a huge amount of work. Then I started managing «Smalls» calendar and book artists… I left the States at my highest point — I knew all about the club, did everything there, but I’d never have the kind of money to make the club mine, so that means that I’d reached my highest point there. And that huge work I did there, the most important thing with the archive, I had a light heart leaving it, because I knew I did what I could. We were an amazing team and that’s what made it hard to leave. Spike is also the godfather to my kid, we are a family.
Did you ever try singing in the States?
No, almost never.
New York is different when you hustle there. People think it’s something glamorous, but in reality… The first time I came to visit Tuomo we went to «Smalls», it was awesome and all, but who’s that crazy guy outside that sings in full voice and doesn’t wear socks? And Tuomo said — oh, you mean the co-owner of Smalls?… The guy looked like… Here he’d be mistaken for a hobo. In New York it’s… The city is so huge and so anonymous, that you can do whatever whenever. The city is full of crazy people, due to the expensive med care, so alongside those crazies you are as normal as you can possibly be. You can be as crazy as you want to be. And it’s so cool that I went there after Graz, because it’s so opposite to Dome Choir school, where I was such a good girl. In Graz I got crazy and in New York I was nothing and no one and could be whatever I wanted to be. The most important question there is — WHO do you want to be?
So what did you choose? I know you’re fond of photography.
At some point I came to a conclusion that I can’t do only one thing. There’s something in me that protests against that and Tuomo is a total opposite of me, he only wants to play the piano, to just do music and nothing else. And I need to take pictures, to sing, to teach, to organize, to produce, I need this, that and everything. I taught privately a bit, sang a bit, also in «Smalls» and it sounds legendary, but… when you’re the one doing the booking in the club, you can book yourself at any time. When my kid was born I stopped partying at nights, naturally, and one night I went to «Smalls» and you know, everyone knows me, comes up to me, asks if I need anything, all the musicians greet me and it was so nice… and then some person sitting in front of me turns my way and says: «I’m sorry to bother you, but who are you?» I looked at him confused and he continued: «Because everybody treats you like you’re a freaking queen of Smalls». So it stuck, that was my new job title — «Queen of Smalls».
Then I just left the States, and that was that.
Why did you come back?
For a lot of different reasons. First — my visa expired. I could renew it, but then I’d have to be tied to «Smalls», because my visa had to be based on a job. And as I already said, I felt there was no growth opportunity anymore. Then my husband got a gig with «Postmodern Jukebox», which meant three months of rehearsals and concerts away from New York, and I didn’t want to be left alone with a kid there. It just wasn’t feasible for me to be there alone and work while raising a child. Also I lived in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is black. Once we went to the kindergarten and a kid ran up to us, took my son’s face in his hands and asked in wonder — why are you so white? Well, because he was the only white kid in the neighborhood. I realized it’d be hard for him to be the only white kid there, at some point there would undoubtedly be questions — why this, why that, why is everyone black and I’m white? There weren’t ever any problems at the playground but… Something didn’t click in me. It was a huge factor, I was bored with my job, my husband was away for three months and I realised I wouldn’t make it without family. And after all, I was away for 10 years… I’m also not saying we’ll stay forever.
What are your plans?
I don’t have any. I like it here a lot. Just as in New York I do a lot of things — I work in «Austrumparka studija», I do advertising, I can satisfy my creative cravings for production there, I like it a lot. Then I also teach at Dome Choir School. Musically that’s the biggest thing to happen to me since I’m back. That feeds my soul a lot. I don’t know whether I’m a good teacher, since I don’t have this kind of experience, but all my students are grown up kids, 17-18 years is quite an age already, you can talk to them on grown up topics, like — where’s your voice today? Well, I don’t know, maybe I need to go to the doctor?… Ok, how much did you smoke and drink yesterday? You see? You don’t need a doctor after all! You just need to rest, eat something and take care of yourself properly. They think it’s odd that a teacher talks of those things as if it was nothing, but… Been there, done that.
But it is true that grown ups tend to forget what it is to be a teenager.
Well, yes. I still feel like a teenager when I’m in school. 13 years is a long time to spend there as a student. Maybe after 13 years as a teacher there I’ll feel differently.
Ok, back to singing. You are a singer after all, but if not — who are you?
I don’t label myself. I can’t answer that question. When I’m at work in the studio I’m a production assistant. When I’m in «Smalls»… I party!
Then you’re a queen!
Well… That’s just in «Smalls»… Ok, let’s suppose I am a singer. I take care of the listener, I make sure they’re not bored, that the show is interesting to them. When I take pictures I’m a photographer, and when I organize something I’m an organizer.
How did the photography happen?
Oh… I don’t even remember. I participated in some competition, remember a magazine called «Spice»? They held some competition and the grand prize was a «Minolta» camera, I think it was a film camera, that’s how long ago it was. So I won, got my «Minolta», photographed a couple of rolls but never processed the negatives. I think that was the beginning. Then, since my mom is in advertising, we had Photoshop on our computer, so I think that I liked that even before I started liking photography, since I needed to take pictures in order to start photoshopping. Then my mother bought a simple digital camera and I started taking pictures of my classmates and spent hours at the computer. That’s how I started my photography in school, there was a drummer Aivars Krastiņš, who still works there and now is my colleague, he taught me a lot of basic things and what I can do with my camera. Then my mother bought me a better camera, which Aivars chose, because I knew nothing about it at the time. Something like that. I liked it, started doing it and I still do.
What is your most favorite genre in photography?
Ah, that’s why our magazine has so many pictures authored by you?
I like being pushy sometimes — I persuade people to let me take pictures of them. Especially when I had more time, while in school, all my classmates had beautiful pictures. Even now I sometimes find my shots as a Facebook profile picture for someone. I’m telling you — I’m a 100% Dome School product, even my hobbies come from there.
What else comes from there?
Well, organizing study, probably. I monopolised all the events we had back then, was a member of the student council, easier to say what I didn’t do. Whatever I managed to snag, I organized. And they let me, which is so cool!
How can you describe your relationship with jazz music?
If we speak about singing, I’d say I’m a jam session musician. I don’t arrange tunes, don’t compose, I just sing the standards. I like the old school stuff, the kind that «Postmodern Jukebox» made popular again, the sound of the old jazz. I’m an improviser, I’m more instrumental than vocal in my singing, although I do pay attention to lyrics, but maybe I’ll present the tune in a more theatrical way. But improvisation is very important to me, I try improvising in almost every tune. And since I usually sing in jam sessions, there’s no point in rehearsing and I really enjoy the surprise — how will it all sound with certain people. Jam sessions in «Trompete» give the opportunity to get acquainted with the people. I also manage the session I participate in, I try regulating the direction the band takes, not getting lost in the improvisational rush, I once even stopped the band in the middle of the concert, because… it’s important to me that the listener enjoys what he hears, if I see that people start leaving, it means that something isn’t to their liking, because maybe some musician has been stuck on one chord for ten minutes already. It doesn’t seem like a popular practice in Latvia, but in America it’s totally normal when someone conducts the jam session.
And you know what? I don’t listen to music in my free time and that’s horrible.
I don’t know. I think that I should be listening to something, but in reality I just don’t. Surely I love music, I never lost sight of it. No one ever took it away from me to suddenly start being worried about it, to suddenly start labeling something. I have a close relationship with music, but it’s not only jazz, I’m not just a jazz singer. You know how they say — some classics have jazz in their souls, but I’m a jazz girl with classics inside of me. I did study classical music for 10 whole years while at Dome Choir School, and even when I started studying jazz, I continued singing in a classical mixed choir. And in Graz they taught classics alongside jazz. I sang in a choir there as well and I had my own a capella band, which was amazing, but we all moved approximately at the same time, so it ended. It’s funny, last September someone contacted me from Graz, asking if I could participate in a concert and I easily agreed but then took a look at the pieces and actually realised what exactly I was supposed to sing… Kurt Weill, who is considered jazz, but the singing is in fact classical. So that’s what I did — sang in a puffy dress in a classical voice with an orchestra.
But it’s amazing that you can do that!
I was actually surprised they asked me, but they said that literally every singer they contacted politely declined, because they considered the task impossible, because there were 3 different songs in three completely opposite styles. Four even, because one song required actual shouting and then classical singing. You see, I don’t even consider myself a jazz singer, how awful… But music is music and I’m not really interested in stylistics. Maybe people see me as a jazz singer, but I teach in the department of musicals, sing classical concerts, conduct a gospel choir, so… I don’t know. My mother says I’m chaotic. I don’t think I am, I’m just multilayered. I just enjoy doing a lot of different things, that’s all.
But that’s not a bad thing.
But that’s also something that doesn’t make me excel at one thing, although I’m good at various things.
Does that bother you?
No, I’m just stating a fact.
So it’s all fine!
To each their own.
Some people think that you can learn and play jazz only in New York, because that’s where it’s authentic. What do you think?
Can I be frank?
To sum it up in one word — bullshit. Yes, jazz in New York is very potent, there’s a lot of jazz there which makes it even more popular, the best musicians are there, but then what jazz is really? And that’s when the «Jazz police” begins — is everything after bebop jazz? Or the things people play in Scandinavia, is that jazz? And so on. I’m not that picky. Music is played everywhere and if you want to listen only to jazz all the time… But what «living somewhere» means nowadays? You can be everywhere digitally. You can attend «Smalls» every night through the internet, and even do that for free! You just have to share your email, that’s all. Ok, they charge you for the archive, but everything live is absolutely free. The world is full of opportunities, it doesn’t matter where you live.